According to the Primary Chronicle of Kiev it was this Beauty that inspired the conversion of Russia. Around 987 Vladimir of Kiev, a formidable warrior and politician, was shopping for a monotheistic religion. His emissaries visited a mosque, a synagogue, a Latin church in Germany, and the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. The Byzantine choir sang like angels, the saints in the mosaics and icons gleamed with gold and the emissaries gave their prince this message: “We know not whether we were in heaven or on earth. But God is in that place. Never have we seen such beauty.” A year later the Grand Prince Vladimir commanded that all his subjects become Orthodox Christians.
According to Dostoyevsky – a very Orthodox Christian – Beauty is a spiritual necessity. In his novel The Possessed, he writes, “Are you aware that mankind can do without the English, it can also do without Germany, that nothing is easier for
mankind than to do without the Russians, that it can live without science, or even bread? Only beauty is absolutely indispensable, for without beauty there is nothing left in the world worth doing.”
Dostoyevsky may be writing in this way because a story of Beauty determined the identity of his Russian culture. This determining Beauty is incarnational, not divorced from physical reality. Why then, doesn’t the experience of divine beauty fill the social and political world with wisdom, peace, and love? Why has there been so much injustice and suffering in Russia, in Turkey, in Syria – and throughout the world?
Are beauty and love ineffective – absurd?
Beauty can lead to heaven; it can lead to hell.
Being in Beauty, like being in Love or in God, can bring out the worst, as well as the best in people. “The awful
thing,” writes Dostoyevsky in Brothers Karamazov, “Is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
So Beauty, being related to the Love of God, can, like Love and God, be terrible. Dostoyevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov thinks of beauty as a place, a conflict zone where God, Love, and the devil all dwell.Love, both divine and human, can and does wreak a great deal of havoc. Nearly thirty percent of Northern Europe’s population was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century when Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists were hacking each other to pieces in the Name of God; many contemporary terrorists are motivated by their love of God. Human love can be equally terrible; Othello would not strangle Desdemona had he not loved her. Most murder victims know and many have loved their murderers: