The great Russian writer Dostoyevsky once said that the beauty of Christ will save the world. This amazing statement meant that, to him, the majestic glory of Christ and His Gospel will persuade the world to abandon its despair and to put their hopes in the salvific work of Christ which is so magnificent.
Bishop Barron, the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and creator of the ‘Word on Fire’ media evangelization enterprise, mentioned three ways to reach out to the ‘Nones’, those who are disenfranchised from faith and claim no religion at all: the social justice teaching of the Church, the intellectual tradition of the Church, and what he terms the ‘Way of Beauty’.
The Way of Beauty was theologically investigated by the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthazar in his magisterial 7-volume theological masterpiece “The Glory of the Lord”. This work is actually part of an even bigger work that details the other transcendentals that can lead one to faith in God. While ‘Beauty’ is perhaps the least understood of these transcendentals, once you understand its place in the hierarchy of values, you begin to see how it all hangs together. Von Balthazar does a marvelous analysis of Goodness in “The Theo-drama—Theological Dramatic Theory” (5 volumes) and finally the “The Theo-logic” (3 volumes) where he looks deeply at Truth.
Goodness, Truth and Beauty are the transcendentals that, if followed without inherent prejudices, will lead to God. Put simply, whenever you do an act of goodness you serve God and enter His Kingdom, even if you do not acknowledge it or know it. The same is true for both Truth and Beauty. Thus, the artist who serves the beauty of creation and the philosopher who is open to the transcendent truth of his or her philosophy is also serving God in an anonymous sort of way. These three pathways can and often do lead someone to faith in God.
Given this transcendental context, we can now return to Beauty as a path to faith, not only for those in the Church, but also for the atheist and the agnostic, provided he or she is not committed to their own prejudices about faith and God.
When Saint John Henry Newman tried to convince his atheist brother that there is a God, he realized how futile it was. There was no ‘antecedent possibility’ for belief since his brother was completely decided and closed to any new discoveries or argumentation.
The Transcendentals like Beauty work only when a person is open to the possibility that there is a God and that there is a whole realm of faith that he is not aware of. Without that true openness, nothing can break things down except an act of God.
I have often experienced the awe that beauty produced in me that led me to prayer. It could be a religious source of beauty: I remember the deep awe I felt when I stepped into Chartres Cathedral. I was in tears and I wanted to do nothing but pray.
But it can also happen before natural beauty. One of my peak experiences of beauty was when I visited Ireland. I climbed Skellig Michael, the site of a Medieval monastery built on a cliff formation in the Atlantic Ocean. It was so powerful, frightening in its grandeur and its danger (you climb 70 stories into the sky without bannisters or protection). It was so beautiful that I almost could not get hold of myself. I prayed so deeply that night as if I had seen God!
It can even happen to you watching something in the theater. I remember enjoying a performance of the Balanchine Ballet called Serenade which was set to the music of Tchaikovsky. As the dancers moved in and out of complex formations, the beauty of it gave me an insight into the Trinity. Dance is the closest one can get to appreciate the unity, diversity and movement of the Triune God. In one blinding instant, I saw what it was all about, more so than my course on the Trinity in the seminary. Not even now in this essay can I come close to explaining what I saw!
The way of beauty that leads to faith is open to everyone. It helps me to understand what Dostoyevsky meant when he said that the beauty of Christ will save the world.
This gives me great hope since I know that Beauty, Truth and Goodness are all around us. All that is necessary is a radical openness to reality. May more and more people find God this way, since there is nothing greater in life.
“And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
– Wisdom 13:4-5