Beautiful Lectures

Beautiful Lectures

Our fathers (and theirs before them) generally had two criteria to judge theological lecturing -“is it true?” and “Is it useful?” But that this is not enough. Your lecturing may well be true and useful, but is it beautiful? (Happily, I ask the question about our lecturing not ourselves.)

Beauty, in fact, is a hard concept to get hold of. David Hume said that beauty is a power in things to afford us pleasure. So you sink into a hot bath and say “Ahhhh that’s beautiful!” Unfortunately our present evil world has taught us that people can, and often do, derive pleasure from some very unbeautiful ideas and acts. In any case, pleasure is often confined to our moods. For a student in love even the worst lecture is beautiful. For a student who has a bad cold, the best lecture is pretty ugly. Yet lectures should be so delivered that they are a pleasure to take.

Emmanuel Kant tried to take beauty out of the subjective sphere. He said that beauty is a recognition of form and design which is in some way universal, and dis-interested – not linked to your special interest in, or possession of, a beautiful thing. If that is true, there is something wrong with you as a student if you do not find my lecture beautiful. It all sounds a little presumptuous for the lecturer to take such an attitude but the form and structure of our lectures should be right and good.

But beauty is not just subjective and objective, it is also local or cultural. Fattening houses used to be popular in Nigeria, where I worked for some years. Before they married, young women would go there to eat and lie around so that they would become beautifully fat for their wedding. Slimming clinics perform the opposite function for women preparing for marriage in England. So what would be a beautiful lecture in Africa may be an ugly one in New York and visa versa. And a lecture that fits our generation’s culture may well be un-necessarily ugly to today’s youth culture which our students inhabit.

Can lectures be beautiful? I think they must be but mostly in the deepest meaning of beauty. There is a strong Franciscan tradition of seeing beauty and encountering God at the same time. God is the source of all beauty because beauty is a part of his image stamped on what he has made. Beauty that God has made in nature or beauty that man has made because God has made man that way – such as in art or music – is an encounter with God and His beauty.

So what is a beautiful lecture? At its lowest level there could be a pleasing of the student, a beauty in its architecture can also be attractive. It can be culturally appropriate. A deeper beauty can be seen in the coherence of ideas. A lecture can be beautifully Christian when it expresses the concerns of God and brings pleasure to his heart and any Christian heart. The deepest beauty, however, like all beauty, is when it brings us into the presence of God. We lecture about God, not just with him listening in (a difficult enough thought in itself) but also with attention to God and with focussing the attention of the students on God’s presence. That will always be a beautiful lecture.

David Livingstone made three missionary journeys in Africa. On his first and happiest he wrote in his diary, “missionaries ought to cultivate a taste for the beautiful”. So should lecturers.

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