Google “most beautiful places of worship” and you’ll get some stunning examples of architecture, from churches to temples to mosques. But what makes a place of worship “beautiful”? And what is the functional nature of that beauty, however we describe it?
In a 2016 TED talk, author, entrepreneur, and consultant Tim Leberecht gave what might be considered a rather unconventional formula for creating beauty in the world of business: do the unnecessary, create intimacy, be ugly, be incomplete.
Aside from creating intimacy, these principles are not those typically associated with beauty. But as Leberecht explained, a beautiful business is created not through stunning architecture or return on investment, but by virtue of its humanity.
“To do the unnecessary, to create intimacy, to be ugly, to remain incomplete—these are not only the qualities of beautiful organizations, these are inherently human characteristics. And these are also the qualities of what we call home. . . . The least we can do is to ensure that we still feel at home in our organizations, and that we use our organizations to create that feeling for others.”
There’s a parallel to be drawn to religious bodies and the places we gather to worship.
Leberecht illustrates this point through two examples, one positive and one negative. The positive: a major corporation grants stock share to all its 2,000 employees, out of the blue and with “no market or stakeholder pressure. Employees were so surprised they burst into tears.” The negative: a decision to nix a purchase of 10,000 orange balloons to distribute to staff to celebrate the merger of a large IT outsourcing firm with a small design firm, because the balloons were deemed unnecessary.
Regarding the latter: “The kill-the-orange-balloons mentality permeated everything else” in the newly formed company, said Leberecht. “When you cut the unnecessary, you cut everything. Leading with beauty means rising above what is merely necessary. So do not kill your orange balloons.”
Places of worship might ask themselves: what are our orange balloons? Is ours a place where we do the unnecessary, simply because it’s a humanly good thing to do?
This would seem a no-brainer, and it is.
“Studies show that how we feel about our workplace very much depends on the relationships with our coworkers. And what are relationships other than a string of microinteractions? There are hundreds of these every day in our organizations that have the potential to distinguish a good life from a beautiful one.” Quoting the writer Richard Bach, Leberecht said: “Intimacy is the opposite of loneliness.”
Do we practice intimacy in our places of worship, and not mere “connectedness”? If we examine some of the alternatives to traditional religious gathering places favored by a growing number of young people today, we find a decided emphasis on intimacy. Examples include The Dinner Party gatherings for those who have undergone deep loss, and St. Lydia’s Church in Brooklyn, which self-describes as “a progressive, LGBTQ-affirming congregation in the Gowanus neighborhood, . . . working together to dispel isolation, reconnect neighbors, and subvert the status quo. You are welcome here.”
Businesses benefit when executives and employees alike are allowed to be honest about their imperfections, inadequacies, and failures. The same might be said for religious institutions and the places where believers gather to worship.
Said Leberecht: “The relationship with our organizations is often like that of a married couple that has grown apart, suffered betrayals and disappointments, and is now desperate to be beautiful for one another once again. And for either of us the first step towards beauty involves a huge risk. The risk to be ugly. To be authentic is to be ugly . . . that you speak the actual ugly truth.”
One of the big turn-offs for many young people with regard to institutional religion, and specifically to congregational worship, as discussed in the Going, Going, Gone report on the religious disaffiliation of young Catholics, is the perceived hypocrisy of members. What is the source of this perception, and how might it be lessened? What might it mean to be more authentically ugly?
“Beautiful organizations keep asking questions. They remain incomplete. . . . Like great cities, the most beautiful organizations are ideas worth fighting for—even and especially when their outcome is uncertain. They are movements; they are always imperfect, never fully organized, so they avoid ever becoming banal. They have something but we don’t know what it is. They remain mysterious; we can’t take our eyes off them. We find them beautiful,” said Leberecht.
Do the places where we worship, and our religious institutions generally, acknowledge incompleteness and the shared journey? Saint Anselm defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” A beautiful place of worship comprises people of faith seeking understanding. No one person, no one faith, has all the answers. This mystery is part of the beauty.
Erin Dufault-Hunter, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, reflected on the nature of beauty as it relates to ethics in a 2019 Last Lecture series at Fuller. In an essay titled “Being Right Can Be Wrong: Why Christian Ethics Is More About Enacting The Beautiful Than About Taking A Stand,” Dufault-Hunter wrote:
“Beauty is dangerous. . . . I mean that beauty––the ways we are moved and drawn by loveliness, by wonder, by that which escapes words yet nonetheless causes us to press syllables into poetry or compose notes into song––such beauty is a power unlike any other. By its nature, beauty draws us out of fretfulness about ourselves, and we become so fixated by it that we forget to be anxious or self-conscious. We stand agape or fall in delightful worship, lost in the invitation to enjoy the ache deep draughts of beauty entails. . . . It is a sort of self-forgetfulness, dangerous because beauty disarms us, catches us up into something or someone else.”
Do our places and habits of worship offer this sort of “power unlike any other,” this power of beauty? And if not, what might we do to better shape them so that they do?
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research