Theology and Beauty

Fire and light at heart of the universe.

Fire and light at heart of the universe. That, said Hans Urs von Balthasar, is the point of studying theology; to behold the glory that burns – sweet beauty, given Love – at core of existence. To know, as fully as we in our frailty and hunger can, the God who imagined and made this world. To study the one whose image we bear, whose mind is the source of our language and imagination. And from that knowing, to form the practices and doctrines of our faith.

I had no idea how much I would love the study of theology. With my literary background, my love of story, the bent toward the imaginative rather than the (necessarily) the academic, I looked at this stint in theology as something to inform my writing. A year in which to ask the hard questions I’ve been hoarding about church, get a bit more doctrinally centered, get my church fathers straight. But certainly not as a long-term or vocational investment.

I find that to study theology is a homecoming for my mind. I think I’ve been circling these concepts in my writing and thought for years, but somehow thought that the academic pursuit of them would leave me parched in heart. I’ve encountered systematic theology before in a way that left no open doors for questions, for paradox, for the tension that has to attend the human knowledge of the divine. It was presented as something apart, the scientific observation of a faith I only knew how to affirm and live from the interior and sometimes inarticulate depths of my heart.

Perhaps, in coming here to study, I was a little afraid that official theology might dim a little of my love, dull my wonder, heighten my doubt.

I was wrong. In the past two months, I’ve immersed myself in the servant songs of Isaiah 40-55 and come up against a love both mighty, and willing to suffer that astounds me in its splendor. I’ve wrestled with different concepts of atonement in a class on doctrine (a class that began with a lecture on the metaphoric nature of language), and in them seen the different aspects of my own desire, my own need for justice or love fleshed out, and I’ve fought to perceive the right way in which to understand the God who gave his life even unto death. I’ve begun to study what it means to view the world in a sacramental way, and how that might influence the embodiment of my faith as I give it form and order, something that more fully engages my self and life than simple intellectual or moral assent.

Every line of what I have read in the study of theology, every idea encountered has directly influenced the faith I live in the now. I talk with new friends, scan the faces (each with a story and culture, a language their own) at my table and I ponder what it means to love someone outside of myself. Ponder what it means to love as the Trinity does in its eternal, given and received affection. I hear the cries of prophets when I glance at headlines. I confront my own frustrations with what seems harsh or oblique in Scripture and realize the half heresies I’ve half believed.

And I walk in the fields, oh, my lovely old meadows at back of the Parks, and the words of Isaiah thrum through my mind. I see this ever-changing earth and put out my hand to receive the sacramental beauty it offers, the glimpse of something that gestures to the great imagination behind its being. I receive, in a way I never have before, each goodness as tethered to the heart of God.

As the months pass here, I hope to write more about the different things I’m learning in some depth. I want to delve here into the language of redemption in Isaiah, or discuss the finer points of Christology, or sketch the way that string theory interacts with a religious view of the origin of life. For now though, I have to share a moment from this morning.

I was out for my usual walk and found a sunrise that seemed made to picture the “fire and light at heart of the universe.” Perhaps it came to me like that because my mind has been so shaped by what I’ve studied. Perhaps I perceived the beauty more keenly because I have thought so deeply about its source in the past days. Regardless, those fifteen minutes of golden light were pure gift, a space of eternity expanding within the air of time so that I found an exultation that seemed not to fit within mere minutes. I felt I witnessed a glimpse of what I study to find and I think it will keep me studying for years to come.

As I walked, I remembered the words I had read just the day before in Isaiah . With them, and a glimpse of the splendor, I leave you.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

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For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth

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And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;

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So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty,

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Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

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For you will go out with joy, And be led forth with peace;

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The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

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Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up,

IMG_2884And it will be a memorial to the Lord, For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.

Sarah Clarkson
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.

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