In my last article, I described our personal existence as something that is not self-contained but found only in relation. Who-I-am is seen in the face of the one beholding me. There is an element of this in the perception of beauty that is worth noting.
Some years ago, my wife and I visited the Grand Canyon. Its beauty is impossible to describe. I consistently felt frustrated with my camera – it simply could not take a picture that was sufficiently large. And the largeness of the Grand Canyon is a major aspect of its beauty. No picture can capture the feeling in which the bottom of your feet hurt (vertigo) as you peer at this mile-deep chasm. But the vertigo is also part of the beauty. Indeed, every picture you will see of the Grand Canyon will fail because it is inevitably smaller than you are (except for something in a movie theater). Its beauty is carried by its size, by its color, by the sky, by where you stand. Beauty, like personhood, is a relation of many things.
When architects design something that we experience as beautiful, they have paid attention to proportion and any number of things that are relational in character. It is how we actually see. Significantly, words for knowledge often carry the root meaning of “to see” (cf. Greek “oidein”). Among the limits of language is its requirement that one thing be spoken at a time forcing it into a linear pattern. We must start the sentence and wait for its end. Very often, thinking follows this same pattern.
There is no way to do with language what a single look accomplishes. Even a thousand words cannot equal a picture. Language is not without its uses. It can point and suggest. Theology often resorts to paradox and contradiction in order to point beyond words to a larger reality. This is the true meaning of “Apophatic Theology.” Words cannot sufficiently express what we might otherwise know. In the Church’s teaching, we speak about what we know, while acknowledging that our speaking can only point. We cannot always say what we see.
This is also a function of icons. The Fathers of the 7th Council wrote: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” But, in point of fact, they do more. We can always see more than we can say. Icons are an eloquent exposition of the faith for those who know how to see them. It is fitting that the 7th Council is described as the summary of everything that went before. It defended the making and veneration of icons, in what is the most enduring expression of Apophatic teaching. The Orthodox rightly say, “Come and see!”
The modern world is awash in images. Strangely, the images do not expand our understanding but tend to diminish it. We have become accustomed to seeing carefully selected clips as representations of reality, often as finely honed and skewed as the rhetoric which passes for modern speech. Icons, in the Byzantine style, often use reverse perspective. The effect is to look into a world that is expanding (instead of shrinking in the distance). It is a presentation that always says that there is more than is being seen. It honestly admits the limited nature of its representation. Debates rage today about “fake” media, as though there were a “real” media. We are increasingly living into Kafka’s aphorism: “Lies have been turned into the order of the world.” 1
It is not surprising that in a world order built on lies that the manipulation and regulation of language should become important. Many public institutions are abandoning the language of gender (for example), refusing to label an infant as a boy or a girl. Ideology (gender fluidity is a concept, not a thing) is made to triumph over reality. That which we can obviously see, may not be obviously named.
Modernity is inherently violent as are its many philosophies. The “making of a better world” is a project of violence. When what is asserted is not patently true, then its assertion can only succeed through force. When language is regulated by law, it is only in order to enforce lies. The devil is named both as the “father of lies” and as a “murderer from the beginning.” Murder is an effort to make a lie into the truth. The true existence of someone is made to appear as though it did not exist. But its destruction is a lie. By the same token, every lie is an act of murder, an effort to establish what has no existence in the place of that which does. In a world where the pressure to regulate language is growing, violence is inevitable, whether overt or covert.
The believer thus lives in a violent world, surrounded by false images and false language. It is important in such a context to actually see the world and to speak the truth. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote towards the end of the Soviet Union. Living under a regime that was corrupt to the core, he bravely urged others to follow his example. It was simple:
It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.
This is from his essay, “Live Not By Lies.” It is worth reading in its entirety. The wonders of the market economy mask the spiritual sickness that undergirds the whole of it. A paragraph from his essay sounds strangely familiar:
At one time we dared not even to whisper. Now we write and read underground writings [samizdat], and sometimes when we gather in the smoking room at the Science Institute we complain frankly to one another: What kind of tricks are they playing on us, and where are they dragging us? Gratuitous boasting of cosmic achievements while there is poverty and destruction at home. Propping up remote, uncivilized regimes. Fanning up civil war. And we recklessly fostered Mao Tse-tung at our expense—and it will be we who are sent to war against him, and will have to go.
The Soviet system collapsed because it was built on lies. That which does not exist (the lie) is a poor foundation for serious construction.
Human beings are created for true personal existence. That existence is a relationship with everything around us. But we begin to move towards non-existence when we nurture relationships with lies. Christ alone is the true image of the Father. The world is only seen rightly as it reveals the truth of its created existence.
See the truth. Speak the truth. Be the truth.
This is beauty in the world.