Torch Article: Reverendly Yours - Rev. Tom Goldsmith

04 October 2019

It’s an old aphorism, that beauty is seen through the eye of the beholder. Indeed, there are many shades of beauty; no one holds the definitive view. But can the same maxim be applied to the sacred: What is sacred for some isn’t sacred for all. This may apply to certain rituals in a house of worship or beliefs and practices that hold meaning only to some and not others. 

Reciting a Buddhist chant at a sangha may not appear sacred for many. We can’t all agree that a certain painting or sculpture holds beauty. When I hear responses to my sermons it feels like we can’t agree on anything because of such vastly varying perspectives. And this is a good thing. It keeps conversation crisp, the artist humble, and keeps religious rituals from becoming too universal.

My question, however, is this: Are we widely varied in our appreciation of beauty when it comes to nature? A recent headline in the Salt Lake Tribune prompted this question: In Policy Change, Feds to Open Utah National Parks to ATVs. The accompanying photo captured mountain bikers on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands. Even the newspaper photo of the red rock took your breath away. It was both beautiful and touched a nerve within which even a skeptic wouldn’t hesitate to call “sacred.”

At a recent worship service led at Harvard Divinity School by Ali Asam, a professor of Islamic studies, he quoted the prophet Muhammad. In the Qur’an, a sacred text like all scriptures, it is written: God is beauty and loves beauty…all of creation, as a manifestation of the Divine, is beautiful.”

It seems that beauty and nature and sacred are all of one thread. One need not ascribe to a particular religious faith to feel the awe and splendor inherent in nature, ostensibly to be preserved in our National Parks. It was a given that whatever developers do to this earth in their persistent pursuit of endless monetary gains, the public would always find beauty and experience the sacred within the confines of a National Park.

The trust has been broken. The roar of an ATV will soon pierce the hushed silence beckoned by natural splendor. Machines destined to destroy the environment will soon tear up trails meant for gentle admirers. So much for the idea that God is beauty manifest in all of creation.

I have to wonder if white nationalism, in the guise of individual behavior or as a governmental power, has zero feeling or connection to beauty. I have tried to understand how decimating the aesthetics of red rock country can result in anything positive. Sure, the rationale is that the land belongs to us to destroy as we see fit. And destroying ecological habitats and sacred Indian artifacts are of no significance while pursuing personal pleasure on an ATV. In the hierarchy of man over beast and landscape, there is no such thing as beauty. 

I have to wonder if beauty sits at the core of our huge national divide. We’re not divided so much by left wing or right; by red state or blue. It’s about beauty. We see it so differently. Some see it as sacred to be respected; others see it as mundane to be abused for personal use. So perhaps the old aphorism still holds sway: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It makes me wonder if the divide will ever be healed. TRG