In his iconic role in Dead Poet's Society, Robin Williams utters an equally iconic line,
"medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love... these are what we stay alive for."
I've been turning that sentence over in my mind a good bit lately, and it has the ring of truth. When we reflect on the world God has made, it is alarming how much of creation is unnecessary for the continuation of human life, how much of it is excessive, unnecessary, and extravagant. We live in a world of poetry more than one of engineering. In the creation account, Genesis tells us that within Eden the Lord, "made to spring up every tree that was pleasant to the sight and good for food." Out from Eden flowed a river, into the land of Havilah, and Genesis is careful to tell us, "There is gold there, and the gold of that land is good." (Genesis 2:9-11)
"We live in a world of poetry more than one of engineering"
It wasn't just trees with fruit, but trees that were beautiful, not only gold but the finest gold. The world that God creates is one that is not merely functional, but instead, possesses beauty in excess. Beauty, which exists for no practical purpose beyond being enjoyed.
Five hundred years ago, this reality was discerned by the prominent theologian, John Calvin. In his "Little Book on the Christian Life," he notes,
"Isn't it obvious that He has given us many praiseworthy things, even though they're not necessary? Let us, then, dismiss the inhuman philosophy that only permits us to use created things out of necessity–a philosophy that spitefully deprives us of the lawful enjoyment of divine kindness and by its very nature, reduces man to a block of wood, robbed of all his senses."
Maybe it comes as a shock to you to hear these words coming from someone like Calvin. Whatever you make of the theology that bears his name, he's certainly gotten a reputation for being glum, obsessed with the wrath of God, and haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, might actually be having fun. While some of those caricatures of him have a foot in reality, what strikes me most as I read his work is how concerned he was with Christians learning to enjoy the world that God had made. This practice of enjoyment is a neglected spiritual discipline in our age. We rightly emphasize prayer, and repentance, and maybe even fasting, but we often do so to the detriment of feasting.
This practice of enjoyment is a neglected spiritual discipline in our age.
In the early church, one of the first heresies that arose was one called "Gnosticism." While there's not any single definitive form, the overarching idea was that the matter was evil, and it was best to avoid it as much as possible. This philosophy meant steering clear of anything that might cause you to appreciate the physical world, like good food, marriage, or art. Right as it may be to emphasize seriousness, fasting, and grieving over sin, we can, and sometimes do, go too far.
Right as it may be to emphasize seriousness, fasting, and grieving over sin, we can, and sometimes do, go too far.
When we do, it becomes a fundamentally unchristian way of interacting with creation. It has more in common with Gnosticism than the gospel of Jesus Christ, who took on matter and flesh in his incarnation. As with most things, what we need is a balance, we desperately need to recover the ability to enjoy the world, to celebrate that God has given us, "Wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his faith shine, and bread to strengthen a man's heart." (Psalm 104:15). But we do not celebrate the world for its own sake; we look to the excessive beauty of what is seen so that we might be drawn into deeper communion with the One who is unseen. Calvin points this out too, "We acknowledge that all things given to us are given in order that we might know their author." Things like a beautiful mountain range, a great meal, or the warm embrace of a friend are never meant to terminate on themselves. Instead, they are intended to fill our hearts with such joy that they draw our gaze upward. To point our focus at the zenith of the cosmos, to experience the mercy of an infinite God who has produced a world full of such beauty and sweetness.
None of it is necessary, but all of it is very good.