Beauty and Function

I am reading through the Open University course material for their World Religions course – the section I read most recently discussed definitions of religion – meditating on the differences between functional and substantive definitions. Put briefly, a functional definition tends to be vague as almost anything could provided meaning to life [the principle functional definition], while substantive definitions list very specific characteristics and are too limiting.

But, then I re-read the following thoughts from John Ruskin on beauty and function ….. For me, religion is more about beauty than purpose…. while I think for most people religion is a combination of purpose and habit. Whenever one discusses religion, people discuss/argue/debate/fight over lists of doctrines/historical events/rituals etc. When I think of religion I feel it….. I feel the beauty or ugliness of art work in a church…. I feel the beauty or ugliness or plainness of the external architectural style….I feel the beauty or ugliness or plainness of ritual….

Anyway, here is what John Ruskin said:

you have been so created as to enjoy what is fitting for you, and a willingness to be pleased, as it was intended you should be. It is the child’s spirit, which we are then most happy when we most recover; only wiser than children in that we are ready to think it subject of thankfulness that we can still be pleased with a fair color or a dancing light. And, above all, do not try to make all these pleasures reasonable, nor to connect the delight which you take in ornament with that which you take in construction or usefulness. They have no connection; and every effort that you make to reason from one to the other will blunt your sense of beauty, or confuse it with sensations altogether inferior to it. You were made for enjoyment, and the world was filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased by them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight. Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance; at least I suppose this quill I hold in my hand writes better than a peacock’s would, and the peasants of Vevay, whose fields in spring time are as white with lilies as the Dent du Midi is with its snow, told me the hay was none the better for them.


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