Fifteen hundred years ago, Augustine of Hippo, age 26, was writing a book (“Beauty and Harmony,” which is now lost) when he made a most interesting discovery which he later recorded in his famous Confessions. As he described it, “I saw that there was a distinction between the beauty of a thing in itself, and the beauty that is found in a harmonious relationship between differing things.”
As one who is neither an artist nor a philosopher, I find the distinction Augustine described a fascinating one. Take a lampshade which is attractive in itself and which gives off a marvelous glow. Then move another lampshade to the same area and see how they relate to each other. Both are beautiful shades, but now their relation to each other may create a different kind of beauty altogether, a beauty which enhances the original beauty of each.
Let’s think about people and churches instead of lampshades. God, as the King James Bible has it, made of one blood all nations to dwell on the face of the earth. But the skin color of some nationals differs from the skin color of other nationals. If on a Sunday you were to enter a church in Iceland, for example, you might find the entire congregation made up of white-skinned people. Not a shade of any other color. Seen from the pulpit, they are a beautiful group of people in their Sunday best.
Then if you were to enter a church in Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa, you would find the entire congregation made up of black-skinned people. No brown or light colors to be seen, just shining black faces; again, a beautiful group of people. By contrast, if you were to enter a church in Inchon, Korea, you would find the entire congregation made up of olive-skinned Asian people. No red cheeks, no black faces. Each person’s skin color would be exactly the same.
So each congregation is beautiful to the eye in its own way, as is a bouquet of roses or carnations or daffodils. But suppose you were to mix the bouquets. Suppose you were to put floral golds and scarlets together; would they not harmonize with each other and thus create beauty of a different kind?
People talk about racial purity, and claim it is beautiful. But there is another kind of racial beauty which is also attractive, one which represents a harmony of different racial colors. Here is a curious fact. We in the 90s think we have discussed the race question from every conceivable point of view, but have we? Never have I seen or heard it discussed from the standpoint of beauty itself.
If I walk into an American church on Sunday, look around at the congregation and discover it is all white, I feel slightly uncomfortable. In the same way when I walk into a black church and see all blacks, or a Japanese church and see all Japanese, it bothers me. This is not the America I know. But when I see a harmonious blending of colors, then I feel relaxed and know I will enjoy the worship. I sense that people are treating each other the way Christians have been taught by their Lord for two thousand years.
The apostle Paul wrote about this beautiful blending in his Letter to the Christians of Galatia. He said there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” for those who are “in Christ Jesus.” In his letter to the Christians of Colosse he further discounted the differences of “circumcision and uncircumcision” and “Barbarian and Scythian.” Paul was speaking metaphorically of course, but at the same time he was speaking harmoniously. As he wrote to the Romans, “There is no distinction…for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.” (Romans 10:12.)
We tell people they ought to love each other regardless of racial differences because it is “right” and “just.” Perhaps we ought to think also about beauty. We ought to try mixing some other flowers in with the roses in our congregations. That would certainly enhance the beauty, and aren’t beauty and joy what life is all about? As Augustine seemed to suggest, a beautiful person is even more attractive when harmoniously related to beauties of other climes and colors.
Sherwood Wirt of Poway is editor emeritus of Decision magazine and the author of numerous books. The Poway resident is founder of the Christian Writers’ Guild.