The following is an excerpt from Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.
Krista Tippett is the host of On Being, a weekly radio program distributed by American Public Media.
In my life of conversation, I hear about beauty all the time, beauty as embodied in so many forms, and as reality based as politics could ever be. It comes up vividly in my conversations with scientists. Physicists, mathematicians – those who work with mathematics – have robust vocabularies of beauty. If an equation is not elegant and beautiful, they will tell you with great solemnity, it is likely not true. Meanwhile, astronomers and astrophysicists with telescopes and holographic imagery of radio waves from the beginning of time are planting beauty in the fabric of the cosmos in all of our imaginations.
My Muslim conversation partners across the years have drawn a passionate link between beauty and spiritual virtue: beauty as a core moral value. I received this as a gift, first, in the immediate post-9/11 years, from the UCLA law professor Khaled Abou el Fadl, whom I met in a public dialogue in Los Angles together with the wonderful Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Khaled has put his life on the line, as the title of one of his books puts it, “wrestling Islam from the extremists.” He was raised in Egypt and Kuwait and barely escaped a fundamentalist path as a very young man. He insists that the key to the future of Islam lies in recovering its core moral value of beauty. God delights in beauty, Islam teaches at its core, and is beauty. Beauty is in creation, not destruction, and in balance. It is in the human intellect and the human heart and in their powers to apply sacred text towards creation and knowledge that edifies and enlivens.
That night in Los Angeles, Rabbi Schulweis responded in kind, recalling the evocative Jewish biblical counterpart: “the beauty of Holiness.” This is a beauty of wholeness, he said – not just of forms and shapes but of relationships. It contradicts the fractionalizing force of religion – which after all was invented by human beings, not by God. We talked that evening about some of the bitterest issues in modern life: why religion paradoxically is at the heart of so much violence and war. Our conversation drove to high places but by a surprising, disarming route – to a different kind of critique these religious men, a Jew and a Muslim, could make of actions done in the name of religion. Is it beautiful, or is it ugly? This question was proposed as a theological measuring stick, a credible litmus test. Does this action reveal a delight in this creation and in the image of a creative, merciful God who could have made it? Is it reverent with the mystery of that?
Culturally, beauty is one of those muddied words. Our minds have been trained to go to perfect bodies and flawless faces on the covers of magazines. But that, as the late great Irish poet and philosopher of beauty John O’Donohue helpfully distinguished, is glamour. I’ve taken his definition as my own, for naming beauty in all its nuance in the moment-to-moment reality of our days: beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.