From Plato’s time, goodness, truth, and beauty — the three “transcendentals” — have provided benchmarks for Christian believers. They’re our reference points for good decisions: We want friends because friends are good. We believe that 2+2=4 because it’s true. We’re drawn to sunrises because they’re beautiful.
When Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and believers and non-believers grapple over what’s good and true, it may be time to deploy beauty.
Most of us, logically, hold our religious convictions because we’re persuaded they’re true. Christians believe that God created the world, that mankind fell into sin, that Christ came to redeem His people and to make all things new, and that He’ll one day return to realign all creation with His perfect plan and purpose.
Informed by faith, the narrative is sound. It appeals to our reason. It explains the world’s past, present, and hoped-for future. It is rationally true and brims with goodness. But maybe, with all the angst and anger in the world, we should reacquaint our culture with beauty.
There’s a legend that in 988 Prince Vladimir the Great was looking for a religion to unite Russia. He sent advisers to investigate the world’s great faiths. They discovered religions that were overly severe, that burdened believers with oppressive rules. Others were too theoretical and deemed irrelevant for day-to-day living. But those who investigated Orthodox Christianity were jarred by sights they had never seen. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.”
For these men, beauty was the entry point to Christianity. It was the magnet that drew them into something deeper. It was their first taste of what life is like when and where “God dwells among men.”
Beauty, Too, Is Integral to Christian Faith
Today — in politics, on college campuses, and in the media — we’re discouraged by the spectacle of so many who desperately need something to soothe their outraged souls. Perhaps the beauty of Christianity — so visible to Vladimir in the 10th century — could provide a glimpse of what they long for.
Christian apologetics, of course, requires us to defend the faith in terms of objective truth, but we shouldn’t forget — especially now — that beauty, too, is integral to our faith. Nor should we ignore beauty’s peculiar power. Cervantes wrote in “Don Quixote,” “It is the prerogative and charm of beauty to win hearts.”
Beauty was the entry point to Christianity. It was the magnet that drew them into something deeper. It was their first taste of what life is like when and where “God dwells among men.”
And in this era, when Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, believers and non-believers, grapple over what’s good and true, it may be time to deploy beauty.
You can see what this looks like here. The Niagara Chorus performs the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the food court at the Seaway Mall. Shoppers were caught off guard, but everyone — regardless of how tired they were, or how frustrated, or how deep in the throes of holiday shopping — everyone was quickly enthralled.
Passing into Beauty
Within weeks of being posted online, the performance had been enjoyed by millions. What could have taken hold of so many people? It was the eruption of beauty in a surprising place and at an unexpected time. Beauty charmed these people and then, for a time, carried them away from the vulgar and into splendor.
Watch the faces in the crowd: the girl in the pink scarf, the kid in the Gap sweatshirt, the man in a black coat with a scruffy beard. Then recall the line from C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory”: “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
Beauty exerts a power that anger doesn’t.
Within the past few weeks a pollster, after reviewing the results of a recent study, said, “There were lots of folks who expressed the view that one side was right and that the other was the enemy.” Another writer noticed that “grievances are building a spirit of fury and rage.”
For now, then, instead of joining the angry fray, perhaps we can renovate the secular with the sacred. Or, in the words of author Brian Zahnd, “transform malls and food courts into cathedrals by our beautiful song.” In this moment, maybe our task isn’t to beat the culture into submission, but to become a beautiful presence within it.