5. The Witness of Beauty in Practice
How individual churches can most readily manifest beauty to their communities will vary depending on their circumstances. For this reason, I will not try to be overly specific about what people should do to achieve this end, nor will I suggest any innovative practices. I will instead limit myself to some broad remarks about how people should understand the things they are already doing, addressed first to artists in particular, then to Christians in general. In reflecting on the true power and significance of already-customary pursuits, I hope readers will be inspired to conceive further means of consciously blessing the world around them with beauty.
5.1 The Beauty of Imaginative Works
Christian scholars have had much to say about Christianity and the arts in the last couple of decades. Concurrently, there has been a noticeable eagerness to affirm the role Christian artists can play in witnessing to people, and a great deal has been written on how Christian artists ought to understand and practice their vocation. As so much has already been said, I hope I will be forgiven for adding my own thoughts to the pile.
The first point I wish to make has been frequently made by others, but it remains important: art made by Christians does not need to incorporate explicitly Christian content. Paintings and other visual media do not have to feature religious subjects, songs do not have to name-drop God or Jesus, and literature of all kinds does not require someone to experience a dramatic conversion by the end. As Maritain rightly says, “If you were to make of your devotion a rule of artistic activity, or if you were to turn desire to edify into a method of your art, you would spoil your art.”
But if creative works are not to bear witness via explicit gospel presentation, then what is the nature of their witness? Several contemporary Christian scholars have suggested that the power of creative works lies in their appeal to the imagination. Holly Ordway argues that “imaginative literature is a particularly valuable means of creating meaning for ideas, as well as for conveying these ideas to people who would be resistant to them if presented as arguments.” Gene Veith says of C. S. Lewis’s novels, “These works of the creative imagination, written to send their readers’ imagination soaring, also were works of Christian apologetics, playing a role, just like his rational arguments, in bringing countless readers to faith.” James W. Sire holds that artistic works can “fire the imagination” and thereby “transmit truth.” Paul M. Gould writes, “Our imagination moves us in a way that nothing else does. And Justin Ariel Bailey claims that “works of imagination have the power to grant vicarious vision.”
However, while these authors uphold the importance of imaginative works and emphasize that reason alone has little purchase, they still maintain that, ultimately, it is through reason that people discern what is true and what is false. On this account, imaginative works function merely as a springboard that gives reason “meaningful things to reason about.”
Ordway, for example, writes that “imagination is related to reason, and necessarily so: not related in the way that the two sides of a coin are related to each other, but related in the way that a building’s foundation is related to the structure that is built upon it. Reason is dependent on imagination.” Yet imaginative works, beautiful though they may be, do not in themselves convey assured truth—in the final event, truth must be confirmed by reason: “Through the God-given faculty of imagination, we can enter into other perspectives, and through the faculty of reason, we can assess the truth or falsity of what we discover.”
Imaginative works thus serve as vessels in which an artist can “embody abstract truth,” or as vehicles for “ideas, doctrines, and philosophical claims” about which we can “use our reason to judge whether [they are] true, or false.” Imaginative works and the beauty they possess are themselves “purely emotional in [their] attraction,” a stepping-stone on the way to reason:
One of the greatest strengths of the imaginative approach is the use of narrative and imagery, to draw people into an experience, which offers something different from a propositional statement. Literature and the arts, for instance, can provide a glimpse of the world as Christians see it, so that a skeptic can for a moment see the world in the light of Christ. The imaginative approach can help draw in someone who would otherwise never seriously consider doctrine or philosophy, and it can (as we have seen) “incarnate” abstract ideas so that a person can more deeply and fully engage with them.
In sum, on this perspective beautiful imaginative works do not constitute an independent source of knowledge about reality: “The imaginative approach must be paired with argument; it cannot stand alone,” for “by itself, an experience is simply an experience.”
C. S. Lewis characterizes the relationship between imagination and reason in much the same way (tellingly, Ordway cites him in articulating her own argument): “It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth.” We could call this approach soft rationalism, in that those who adhere to it speak glowingly of imagination and beauty as necessary conditions or supplements for reason, but it is still rationalism insofar as reason is the final arbiter of truth and falsehood.
It should be apparent by now that this understanding of imaginative works is deeply at odds with the account of beauty I have presented in this essay. Although reasoned reflection on imaginative works can help us better appreciate the precise nature of the beauty, goodness, and truth of a given work, beauty does not require reason to validate its testament to God—beauty is itself a kind of natural knowledge of God, as the catholic tradition testifies. To quote Clarke once more, beauty is known “not by abstract concepts or reasoning but by direct intuitive perception of the thing in its unique existential singularity.” Hence, as Wilson puts it, “The conception of the fine arts as imaginative, as holding a suspension of disbelief and an opening onto possibility, is one important, though finally unsatisfactory, account of the role beauty should play in human life.”
Instead of taking themselves to be artificers of experiences that are merely an emotional prerequisite to the real work of reason, artists would do better to understand themselves as sub-creators, to use a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. God, the Creator of all that is, made man. In turn, “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” As a sub-creator, the artist “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.”
Crucially, although the secondary world of an artist will not necessarily be identical to our world in “all the details,” it will nevertheless “in some way partake of reality.” Tolkien scholar Lisa Coutras suggests that beauty, “as a transcendental property,” will thus “[find] expression in the creations of humanity.” To be clear, in creating a beautiful imaginative work the artist is not “bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely [is] trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”
In short, all the artist must do to bear witness to God is create something beautiful. Tolkien had fairy-stories in mind when he spoke of being a sub-creator, but the principle remains the same for all types of artists—to the extent that a painting, musical composition, or any other kind of imaginative creation is beautiful, says Maritain, it will reveal God:
If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to “make Christian.” Do not make the absurd attempt to dissociate in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are one, if you are truly Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some system of aesthetics. But apply only the artist to the work; precisely because the artist and the Christian are one, the work will derive wholly from each of them.
Flannery O’Connor similarly writes, “What we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”
In seeking to craft reflective beauty, the artist is not bound to contrive a work that eschews the ugliness of our fallen world —indeed, such a work would not be true to our experience—for just as grace much more abounds where sin has abounded, so too does beauty shine all the more brightly in contrast with ugliness. On this Maurer writes, “Though ugliness, like evil, is a defect in being, it can, by contrast to beauty, enhance it. Thus both ugliness and evil can contribute to the beauty and goodness of a work of art or of the universe itself.” How much more is this true for Christian artists who can reflect the great ugliness of our world in their work, yet juxtapose it with an even greater beauty rooted in the hope they profess.
Thus the vocation of artists is to contemplate the world around them in all its beauty and ugliness, then take the ideas they acquire and combine or rearrange them in a new form, gracing the world with a novel vision of beauty which is itself “the external manifestation…of something the intellect has grasped within itself in creative intuition.” Such “purposive rearranging of images and ideas” is precisely what creative imagination consists in, nothing more (and nothing less). Moreover, the fruits of these purposive rearrangements are far from purely affective. Indeed, because imaginative works are re-castings of beauty one can rightly say, as Douglas Hedley suggests, that “the imagination is capable of providing knowledge,” even of God himself.
5.2 The Beauty of Ordinary Faithfulness
Though artists are important to the church’s witness of beauty, we should not ascribe such witness to them alone, for this would relegate beauty to the realm of art. As we have seen, however, beauty can be found in all things. In particular I have already touched on the beauty of a virtuous life, but to sharpen the point further, such beauty is “the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial.” The beauty of ordinary faithfulness, then, is at least as important as the beauty of artistic works—perhaps more so, given that most people are not artists—and this beauty can manifest on the collective or the individual level.
On the collective level, the beauty of ordinary faithfulness is the beauty of the church as church, the gathering of believers to worship God. The components of worship—e.g., corporate prayer, congregational reading of psalms and singing of hymns, certain elements of ceremony and ritual, the preaching of God’s word, the Eucharist—all, in seeking to honor God with appropriate reverence, are occasions of beauty. Individual churches should thus seek to order their worship so that a fitting reverence for God, and the beauty such reverence evokes, is apparent to all.
On the individual level, the beauty of a life well lived can reveal itself in myriad ways, all of which are encompassed in the commandments to love God completely and our neighbor as ourselves. I will not attempt to lay out what obedience to these commandments should look like, as there are already many helpful resources that provide a substantive, Christian account of the good life. One particular facet of a beautiful life I do want to talk about, though, is freedom from fear.
At the beginning of this essay I mentioned Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, in which he argues that throughout the West a time of societal hostility toward traditional Christianity is either imminent or already here. I myself suggested we should be open to the possibility that traditional Christians will soon be able to accomplish very little in conventional electoral politics.
It is easy to conclude that fear is an inescapable effect of such pronouncements, and that those who make them are therefore counseling people to be afraid. However, one should not confuse a foreseen effect with an intended one. Moreover, even if one cannot avoid feeling at least some fear in the face of such prospects, it certainly does not follow that this fear should be allowed to persist.
Dreher himself acknowledges the risk of permitting fear to dominate at the end of The Benedict Option, relating a man’s “concern that American Christians will be drawn to [the Benedict Option] out of fear.” Dreher further accentuates this point in Live Not by Lies, where he writes about an underground press that operated in 20th-century communist Slovakia. The people who started the press were naturally afraid when they contemplated what might happen if the communist authorities discovered them: [Ján] Šimulčik tells me that he and his cell of several other young Catholic men were all afraid. You would have been crazy not to have fear.”
But Dreher then reports Šimulčik as asking, “Which is going to win: fear or courage?” The same question confronts us, and we must answer with courage. If we don’t, our very witness is at stake, as Balthasar well understood: “Only a Christian who does not allow himself to be infected by modern humanity’s neurotic anxiety…has any hope of exercising a Christian influence on this age.” Fear is ugly in its own way, and if we allow ourselves to be ruled by it, how can we expect anyone to be entranced by the beautiful hope we profess?
Rather, says Balthasar, “Insofar as he possesses the life of faith, the Christian can no longer fear.” Indeed, impossible as it may sound, we are obligated not to fear:
If the Christian’s fearlessness before God, before the world, and before every power other than that of Christ is strictly commanded in the New Covenant, it follows that all the “facts” set forth by modern philosophy and psychology concerning the dominance of anxiety are struck down by this command. At first this sounds grotesque, and modern man will say that this prohibition by no means eliminates the fact of anxiety from the world. The Christian can only counter by insisting that “facts” do not eliminate the command forbidding its presence [Da-sein].
In the face of disheartening circumstances fear may arise unbidden, but it must not be allowed to remain, for “only the example of the healthy man can offer help to the sick man.” This is why prayers for courage are part of the Book of Common Prayer’s most basic and regular rites of Morning and Evening Prayer in the form of “A Collect for Peace.” From Morning Prayer:
O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From Evening Prayer:
O GOD, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Praying for the absence of fear is so important that even if the busyness and obligations of family prevent one from praying Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, the shorter forms for Family Prayer also include a prayer “For Trustfulness”:
O MOST loving Father, who willest us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us; Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which thou hast manifested unto us in thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My purpose in dwelling on the topic of fear is to emphasize that, while I have made grave claims—reason will avail us little in our witness today, conventional politics might soon yield precious little fruit—a crucial element of the witness of beauty is that we not be daunted by these prospects, or even prospects that are worse still. If we remain serene, though the earth give way and the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, and if we endure to the end even as the love of many grows cold, the world cannot but take notice and wonder whence comes our uncanny yet captivating peace.
In pinning so much hope on beauty, have I made the mistake of looking to the creature for salvation rather than Christ? Did not Dostoevsky make the same mistake when he said beauty will save the world?
Unknown to many is that Dostoevsky was not referring to beauty merely as some abstract concept: “Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often quoted sentence: ‘The Beautiful will save us’? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ.”
It may be disappointing to some that I have offered so little in the way of concrete application. Even if the account of beauty I have given is true, how should we live out these truths? Again, my reticence on this score stems from the desire to avoid overly specific universal prescriptions—the unique situation of each congregation calls for the members of a given church, who know their circumstances better than anyone, to make such practical applications as seem good and fitting to them.
Figuring out all the particular ways we can conscientiously manifest beauty in our lives is beyond the scope of this essay. I make only this simple appeal: do not assume the only legitimate means of witness—apart from Bible quotation and gospel presentation—is rational argumentation, and do not relegate beauty exclusively to the domain of feeling and emotion. This cannot but lead to despair of ever reaching those who are estranged from God, given how little currency reason has in our time. Take heart, rather, from the truth that the works of our hands, the stories we tell, and our very lives are a shining, beautiful witness to the God in whom they all participate, a revelation that “bears within itself its own verification.”
- See also Wooddell, Beauty of the Faith, 87–110. ↑
- See Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God Through Music, Art, and Rhetoric (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000); Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2006); W. David O. Taylor, ed., For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010); Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001, repr. 2016); Cameron J. Anderson, The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016); Jeremy Begbie, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018); and David A. Covington, A Redemptive Theology of Art: Restoring Godly Aesthetics to Doctrine and Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2018). ↑
- See Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 72, 115. ↑
- Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 66. See also James Clark, “Reason for Being: A Christian Vision for the Arts,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, 7 March 2016, https://tifwe.org/a-christian-vision-for-the-arts/. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 39. ↑
- Veith and Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, 146. ↑
- Sire, Apologetics Beyond Reason, 62. ↑
- Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 74. ↑
- Bailey, Reimagining Apologetics, 82. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 87, emphasis original. See also Ordway, Apologetics, 31, 150. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 17, emphasis original. See also Ordway, Apologetics, 10–11, 15–18, 150, 167; Veith and Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, 14; Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 108; and Bailey, Reimagining Apologetics, 101. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 85. See also Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 29, 74, 108, and Bailey, Reimagining Apologetics, 10, 230, 243. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 29, 104, 160. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 168. See also Ordway, Apologetics, 102, 167; Sire, Apologetics Beyond Reason, 59; and Bailey, Reimagining Apologetics, 13–14, 57–59, 73, 114. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 151–52. See also Ordway, Apologetics, 52, 57; Sire, Apologetics Beyond Reason, 53–72, 98; Veith and Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, 148–49; and Bailey, Reimagining Apologetics, 4, 82–83, 149–50, 155, 172, 188, 215–16, 221, 232. Compare Wilson’s description of Irving Babbitt and the New Humanists in Vision of the Soul, 144. ↑
- Ordway, Apologetics, 149, 160. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 265. ↑
- See Wilson, Vision of the Soul, 227–28, and Johnson, Father of Lights, 19. ↑
- Clarke, The One and the Many, 298. ↑
- Wilson, Vision of the Soul, 336. See also Wilson, Vision of the Soul, 31, 138–50, 154, 189, 273. ↑
- J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 351. ↑
- Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 371. ↑
- Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 351. ↑
- Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 386–87. ↑
- Coutras, Tolkien’s Theology, 21. See also Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 315. Compare Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. VI, Theology: The Old Covenant, Joseph Fessio and John Riches, eds., trans. Brian McNeil and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 20–21. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in C. S. Lewis Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 416. This essay can also be found in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1967, repr. 2014), 1–13. ↑
- Maurer, About Beauty, 76. ↑
- Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 66, emphasis original. See also Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 63–69. Sire makes the same point when he says regarding the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The art, the beauty of the poem itself, points to the existence of the transcendent” (Sire, Apologetics Beyond Reason, 77). But despite this acknowledgment, Sire, in the manner of soft rationalism, seems to place greater emphasis on the power of imaginative works to “[create] in the reader not only an intellectual understanding of [a] worldview but a sense of how it feels to hold that view” (Sire, Apologetics Beyond Reason, 60). ↑
- Flannery O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, eds. (New York: Noonday, 1961, repr. 1995), 173. ↑
- Maurer, About Beauty, 21n21. See also John Paul II, “Letter to Artists,” http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists.html; Carnes, Beauty, 162; Wilson, Vision of the Soul, 207–208; Clark, “Reason for Being,” https://tifwe.org/a-christian-vision-for-the-arts/; and Myers, Poetics of Orthodoxy, 38–60. ↑
- Maurer, About Beauty, 90. ↑
- Barrett, Faculty of Imagination, v, 9. ↑
- Hedley, Living Forms, 179. ↑
- The characterization of a beautiful life in terms of virtue—both here and earlier in the essay—should not be understood to mean that I conceive of the Christian life solely in terms of virtue ethics, over and against an ethics of divine command or natural law. These three approaches to Christian ethics are often thought to compete with one another, but they are better understood as complementary. See Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, 3rd ed., trans. Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 21–22; Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Colleen McCluskey, and Christina Van Dyke, Aquinas’s Ethics: Metaphysical Foundations, Moral Theory, and Theological Context (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 159–65; C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 53–87; and Joel D. Biermann, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 9n12. ↑
- Ratzinger, “Contemplation of Beauty,” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020824_ratzinger-cl-rimini_en.html. See also Wooddell, Beauty of the Faith, xvi, 60–73, and Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 105. ↑
- See Wooddell, Beauty of the Faith, 91. The beauty of more deliberately liturgical forms of worship, as can be found in traditions such as Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, has been acknowledged to exercise a powerful hold on people. See Charles S. Johnston, The Beauty of the Mass: Exploring The Central Act of Catholic Worship (2018), and Winfield Bevins, Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019). On the importance of beauty in preaching, see J. Brandon Meeks, The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition (Omaha: North American Anglican Press, 2020), 111–25. ↑
- Some recent accounts of the substance of Christian ethics include DeYoung, McCluskey, and Van Dyke, Aquinas’s Ethics; Steven J. Jensen, Living the Good Life: A Beginner’s Thomistic Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013); David W. Jones, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013); and Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020). ↑
- Dreher is hardly alone in foreseeing dark times for Christians in the West. See also Charles J. Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017). ↑
- Dreher, Benedict Option, 237. ↑
- Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Sentinel, 2020), 168. ↑
- Dreher, Live Not by Lies, 168. ↑
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian and Anxiety, trans. Dennis D. Martin and Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 88. ↑
- Balthasar, Anxiety, 83, emphasis original. ↑
- Balthasar, Anxiety, 85–86. ↑
- Balthasar, Anxiety, 87. ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 17, emphasis original. ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 31, emphasis original. ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 596, emphasis original. ↑
- Ratzinger, “Contemplation of Beauty,” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020824_ratzinger-cl-rimini_en.html. See also Sammon, Called to Attraction, 129–32; Miravalle, Beauty, 74–75; and Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 118. ↑
- Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Lecture,” https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1970/solzhenitsyn/lecture/. ↑