Baby Steps Toward the Masterpiece
by Marc Hays
Thanks to a blue-light special at the Kindle store, I recently acquired an e-copy of N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. The first section addresses humanity’s struggle with justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty. His questions are honest and piercing. His logic is so seamless, that I find it hard to decide on a pull quote without doing a great injustice to the surrounding material as well as the quote itself, but, having said all that, here’s a portion that is exceptionally tasty. It is from chapter 4, For the Beauty of the Earth,
What we must notice at this stage is that both in the Old Testament and the New, the present suffering of the world–about which the biblical writers knew every bit as much as we do–never makes them falter in their claim that the created world really is the good creation of a good God. They live with the tension. And they don’t do it by imagining that the present created order is a shabby, second-rate kind of thing, perhaps (as in some kinds of Platonism) made by a shabby second-rate sort of god. They do it by telling a story of what the one creator God has been doing to rescue his beautiful world and put it to rights. And the story they tell, which we shall explore further in due course, indicates that the present world really is a signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth. It really is the authentic manuscript of one part of a masterpiece. The question is, What is the whole masterpiece like, and how can we begin to hear the music in that way it was intended?
The point of the story is that the masterpiece already exists–in the mind of the composer. At the moment, neither the instruments nor the players are ready to perform it. But when they are, the manuscript we already have–the present world with all its beauty and all its puzzlement–will turn out to be truly part of it. The deficiencies in the one part we possess will be made good. The things that don’t make sense at the moment will display a harmony and perfection we hadn’t dreamed of. The points at which today the music seems almost perfect, lacking just one small thing, will be completed. That is the promise held out in the story. Just as in one of the New Testament’s greatest claims, the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdom of God, so the beauty of this world will be enfolded into the beauty of God–and not just the beauty of God himself, but the beauty which, because God is the creator par excellence, he will create when the present world is rescued, healed, restored, and completed.
Over the course of the past four or five years, I’ve begun taking baby steps towards God’s masterpiece, for I have been introduced to the study of the 7 liberal arts. They are called “liberal” because they set people free. Inwardly, they free a person from the inability to reason well, which in turn outwardly frees a person from the results of someone else doing all your thinking for you. But the ability to reason is not the endgame; rather, it is the foundation upon which an image-bearer of God can build. From literary, musical, philosophical, and theological buildings to buildings made from oils and acrylics, pen and ink, pottery and spoken words; to buildings made of concrete, rock, and steel, whether they contain arches, pillars, flying buttresses or vaulted ceilings, the 7 liberal arts are the educational foundation upon which culture thrives. The beauty is already there, underneath, hidden, and gradually surfacing. Surfacing, not merely through the recognition of the beauty around us or the creation of beautiful artifacts, but by the use of these works to bring glory to God through gratefulness, rejoicing, worship, and service to one’s neighbor.
For the sake of review, the seven liberal arts, are as follows: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy. The first three focus on the study of word and are commonly known as the trivium; the last four focus on the study of number and are known as the quadrivium–the three ways and the four ways respectively. The quadrivium can be further unpacked thusly:
Arithmetic – the study of number, Geometry – the study of number in space, Harmonics – the study of number in time, and Astronomy – the study of number in time and space.
All four being intimately tied to number means that if we are to understand God’s creation, in any more than a cursory way, we have to get out of our hermetically sealed English departments and get some math under our fingernails, and vice versa for all you science buffs. God rejoices to place some things in plain sight, as well as hide some things under the surface for us to discover. He says some things with words, and He says some things with numbers. Do we speak and understand both languages?
I have to admit that I don’t. To quote George Grant, “I’m just dumb. I’m as dumb as a swamp stump.” I don’t speak my native language very well, and I’m just discovering the beauty of numbers, patterns, sequences, and sets. Over the course of the next few posts, I want to introduce some of the mathematical morsels upon which I’ve been feasting of late. To whet your appetite for the beauty of math in creation, check out the YouTube link below. It visually introduces the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Mean, which is where I’ll start next time. Until then, take a few baby steps toward His masterpiece…