The Standard values beauty as an intrinsic good capable of fostering community. To the culture’s claims that beauty is relative, that its greatest value lies in being instrumentalized for political purposes, or that it is irrelevant to education and impotent within society, we respond that the nature and role of beauty must be reconsidered.
The Scala Foundation, a small institution within the Princeton Theological Seminary that is just beginning to spread its wings, is seeking to do just that—and several Baylor professors are eager to participate.
The organization hosted its first conference, “Art, the Sacred, and the Common Good,” on Saturday, April 30 and it centered on “restoring beauty to our schools, places of worship, the arts, and our common life.” Scala Foundation founder and director Margarita Mooney Suarez emphasized that amidst the plethora of personal and societal crises that fill a culture “devoid of reverence and joy,” she envisioned the conference as an exploration of the often-disregarded or misunderstood intersections between the liberal arts, beauty, and human flourishing.
One of the recurring themes that emerged during conference panels was the importance of safeguarding intrinsic goods like beauty because they create meaning in human experience that politics tries to usurp. In an age of seemingly endless activism in areas such as race, gender, and class, the purpose of life can start to look like defeating the next oppressor.
But as Professor Mooney Suarez put it, “What are the revolting masses going to do when the revolt is over?” Baylor professor David Corey addressed this in a panel titled “Culture and the Common Good,” noting that while contemporary culture is consumed with ideological and political warfare, human beings can actually find much deeper fulfillment in communal practices centered on intrinsic goods like friendship, worship, intellectual inquiry, and aesthetic experience.
Both Corey and fellow panelist Gordon Mikoski (Princeton Theological Seminary) emphasized the importance of contemplation—described by Mikoski as “the free ability to simply muse at the way things are without trying to fix something or change something”—as something that can help build community, for it provides a space in which to encounter people with whom we differ without an agenda. Churches, schools, and natural spaces such as parks are just a few loci where people might experience shared encounters of transcendent beauty, which can be powerfully transformative by ushering people beyond what philosopher Josef Pieper called the “workaday world” of simply surviving.
The Princeton campus, aglow with the glories of spring, proved an apt setting for such an event. If this had been a conference on political science, business, or economics, there might have been little reason to note the crisp April air, the early morning sun casting shafts of light over majestic stone buildings, the trees covered with tiny new buds of purple, burnished orange, hazel and green. But for the Scala conference, it was only fitting that academic abstractions be matched by external realities. Beauty was not only discussed—it was experienced.
Encountering beauty was part of the event’s design as well. Rather than inviting only members of academia, the conference also featured artists of various types. Poet James Matthew Wilson read some of his poetry and described human making as “a kind of ontological discovery” in which the act of making brings one into conformity with laws of nature not previously known.
Screenwriter Caleb Brown and novelist Christopher Beha emphasized that art can speak to the truth or form of the created reality we live in, while taking shape within the world’s embodied complexities and nuanced colors. Composer Paul Jernberg of the Magnificat Institute of Sacred Music led both choir members and conference attendees through his musical arrangement of Lauds, a prayer service that united rhythm, melody, harmony, and antiphony with contemplation of the Divine.
The Scala Foundation’s conference has relevance for Baylor. In a panel focused on beauty in the curriculum, Baylor professor Elizabeth Corey dialogued with Jonathan Pidluzny (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) and Tim O’Malley (Notre Dame) about how the “cult of achievement” in schools that elevate human functionality above all else is “corrupting to the ideal of liberal learning.” Pressures to publish, earn the grade, hurry through the syllabus, build the resume, or land the lucrative job can crowd out leisurely spaces for students and professors to cultivate child-like receptivity and curiosity towards learning.
Corey emphasized that students and professors must resist the extremes of these pressures, noting that especially for Christians who enter the profession, one of their greatest privileges is to shape the souls they encounter, investing their time to develop in students the ideals of moral and intellectual beauty.
Contemporary society has in recent years been marked by bitter political contestation and tribalism, the devastating destruction of COVID-19, unprecedentedly high levels of depression and anxiety even before the pandemic, and the widespread capitulation to a nihilistic view of life as meaningless, devoid of any purpose. In such a cultural climate, it is more important than ever to make space to turn our eyes and ears from the cacophony and anger towards beauty. Our shared love for the beautiful cultivates gratitude, wonder, friendship, and delight.
Caelan Elliott is a junior University Scholar studying literature, political science, and music. She also works as a research assistant to the Dean of the Honors College and competes in Model United Nations. If she goes missing, check the best local bookshops, the nearest campgrounds and hiking trails, or the most aesthetic piano practice room.