“Once we awaken to the Beauty which is God, there is a great sense of homecoming.” —John O’Donohue
My religion is Beauty. This may sound iconoclastic, but I don’t mean it that way. As an ordained minister and former pastor of two lovely, progressive congregations, I do believe in organized religion! But not all expressions of my own faith, Christianity, can be called beautiful. In fact, those which lean toward fundamentalism, or which seek political power and control, are, I believe, injurious to the soul and to the world at large—and even to the planet. The Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and yet what is his religion? He famously says, “My religion is kindness.” Maybe it is time to think of religion in terms of these deeper human values such as kindness or compassion or love or appreciation of diversity or the planting of trees; maybe we should measure our particular faith communities by these points of light—like stars guiding us through the darkness as we seek our spiritual home.
In this essay, I suggest that such luminaries as kindness, love, compassion, appreciation of diversity, and the planting of trees are all shining participants of a larger celestial constellation named Beauty, and that this guiding constellation can, in the dark confusion that sometimes accompanies religious or spiritual identity, help us find our way home.
But first, let’s look at the term “religion.” According to Professor William A. Young, author of The World’s Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues, “Religion is human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy.”  That is, the term religion describes not only those who believe in God or those who profess one of the major world religions; it is about transformation in response to something we perceive as ultimate. This ultimacy may be God or it may be kindness; it may be an ideology like Marxism.
Theologian Paul Tillich referred to faith as “ultimate concern.” For those for whom money or consumerism is of ultimate concern, life is organized around “religious” myths and rituals, e.g., the Horatio Alger myth of the “self-made man” or the rituals of Black Friday shopping. Being an avid sports fan can be religious, too, as it transforms people into ecstatic, loyal adherents with attending rituals.
But for some of us, Beauty (with a capital B) is our ultimate concern, that which transforms like no other encounter and sets us squarely in the realm of the sacred. We have our own rituals such as nature walks, mindful attention to art and music and poetry, creativity, and for many, participating in religious ritual with a faith community. Some of us even imagine God as Beauty. I am one of those. The late Celtic poet, and philosopher John O’Donohue says, “to participate in Beauty is to come into the presence of the Holy.”
Many do not name this sense of the sacred “God,” but they nevertheless perceive something of the sacred when they have an encounter with Beauty. As Harvard professor Elaine Scarry says, “Beautiful things . . . always carry greetings from other worlds within them.”
Religiosity of Beauty
For those of us who see eternity in a grain of sand, we understand the power of Beauty to transport our deepest longings into a luminous realm which has no words. In the presence of the beautiful, it is almost as if we become pure music, feeling the unfolding vibrations in ways too deep for words. When we encounter Beauty in all its variegated colors and sounds and whispers and dreams, we recognize our own beauty, too; we see ourselves as part of something greater—an intricately woven, bejeweled universe—and it feels like a homecoming. We have traveled far and wide, and now we are home.
Beauty transforms. While ensconced in a book of poetry, or encountering a rare moment of social harmony in the midst of chaos, or witnessing an elegant act of courage in the face of evil, or studying a flock of pelicans gliding in through a red and gold twilight, we feel differently. We act differently, too, with kindness and attention to the suffering of others; we tread lightly upon the earth; we seek a sense of fairness and symmetry and harmony in our social relations.
Wherever we happen to encounter Beauty—a landscape, a song, a poem, a flower, a mathematical proof, a symphony, a frayed relationship restored to harmony—we feel caught up in an eternal embrace. Our very souls seem to spread out lavishly as we let go of the narrow constraints of the ego. We become lovers of the earth and practitioners of gentleness with one another.
But what is this Beauty which transforms the soul? I’m obviously not talking about beauty in a banal sense. Beauty is not glamour. All the “beauty” products I can cram into one bag can never make me beautiful. Only the soul can do that. Beautiful people come in all shapes and sizes and colors and ages and styles. To see human beauty only in terms of the physical and youthful, or in cultural trends set by glamorous movie stars and skinny models causes great harm.
As with religion, when it comes to “beauty,” we need to think in radically different terms than we are used to. We need to stretch our imaginations beyond the banal until we reach the sacred. We need Beauty with a capital B.
The Lure of Beauty
So what, then, is Beauty in this larger, metaphysical sense? And what is it about Beauty that touches the soul in the sense of religious experience? In my first book (2003), Embracing a Beautiful God, I said “Beauty is that which glistens on the edges of our yearnings and lures us into the depth of things.” That is how I feel when I experience Beauty, but it is also how I came to know Beauty through the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. In his philosophy, we catch a glimpse of God in terms of Beauty.
Beauty evokes; it is like Eros. We are attracted to its radiance like a young green leaf reaching longingly toward the sun. This is Whitehead’s way of thinking about God. God evokes and attracts; God yearns for us as we yearn for God; God is relational; God does not coerce but rather lures us in the way of Beauty. Beauty is at the core of Whiteheadian philosophy as stated in Adventure of Ideas: “The teleology of the Universe is directed toward Beauty.”
For Whitehead, Beauty enlarges; it embraces the plurality of contrasts we encounter by harmonization. But this is no shallow harmony, but rather a harmony with “intensity of feeling.” Think of a Mozart symphony unfolding in time: intricate harmony, yet with some dissonance and stimulating creative tension which adds interest. Or think of a community built on the idea that diversity of religion, color, cultural dress, and sexual identity should be embraced rather than negated, and that these very differences add zest and vividness to an otherwise bland homogeneity. As John O’Donohue reminds us, “Beauty does not belong exclusively to the regions of light and loveliness, cut off from the heart of difference. The vigour and vitality of beauty derives precisely from the heart of difference.”
In Whiteheadian thought, Beauty—an intense harmony of contrasts—is the highest achievement of the creative process of becoming. God’s Beauty calls us—or luresus—toward the good and true, but does not force. Rather than an almighty ruler in the sky, God is the “poet of the world.” The poet of the world speaks to me, and to many who have been wounded by the ugly aspects of fundamentalism. Here at last—after being assaulted over and over by images of a Bully in the Sky—we find a beautiful God.
So in this way, Beauty is a profoundly religious concept on its own, but it can also guide us in our formal religious life. Our faith communities can be stultifying, mean, and exclusionary or they can become communal expressions of Beauty, increasing the amount of kindness in the world—a beautiful thought.
The Wideness of Beauty
Beauty enlarges, transforms, and embraces the whole complexity that is life. Beauty prefers to feel all and feel deeply, thereby participating in the divine act of creative transformation.
Beauty harmonizes and creates and plays and improvises and redeems; it leads us to acts of compassion and harmony even while allowing for the dissonance inherent in such a wide, complex, and pluralistic embrace. And if our impoverished souls cannot handle that much openness and creative tension, then we need to widen our souls to make room. This is Beauty’s special work in the world. Beauty stretches our souls beyond the boundaries of the banal imagination so that we begin to live out of what we at JJB like to call a “fat soul” philosophy of life.
When Beauty becomes our ultimate concern, we dip our thirsty souls into the river of religiosity. By keeping our eyes on this guiding constellation named Beauty, we begin to feel rooted in the world, rooted in the earth, rooted in our best selves, rooted in God. We know that, after all our searching and wandering, we have finally arrived at the shore of our spiritual home.
 William A. Young, The World’s Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues, 3rd ed. (Prentice Hall, 2010), 3.  John O’Donohue, Beauty (Harper, 2003) 225.  Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 1999) 57  Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God (Chalice Press, 2003, Create Space, 2016).  A.N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (Macmillian, 1933) 365. Note: For an excellent discussion on why process thought should “re-center” itself around this concept of Beauty, especially in relation to ethics, see Brian Henning, “Re-Centering Process Thought: Recovering Beauty in A. N. Whitehead’s Late Work.”  O’Donohue 40.