In the Name of the Good, the True and the Beautiful
It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whether or not this is so, it can be said with a greater degree of certainty that the path to paradise is paved with paradox. The way to heaven is a path on which only those who die can live and a path on which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The same sort of paradox is present in the relationship between Christ and His Church. The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ and also the Bride of Christ. Far from being a contradiction, this mystical and nuptial paradox is at the very heart of Christianity. The Bride and the Bridegroom become one flesh in the marriage between Christ and the Church. They are inseparable. Their union is indissoluble. In similar fashion, the Church represents the mystical marriage of faith and reason because Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the theology of the Jews and also, and as importantly, the fulfillment of the philosophy of the Greeks. In the union of Christ and His Church is to be discovered the indissoluble union of fides et ratio, faith and reason becoming one flesh in Christ's Mystical Body.
The synthesis between faith and reason can also be seen in the synthesis between the Trinity and the Transcendentals, between Father, Son and Holy Ghost and the Good, the True and the Beautiful. As the Holy Trinity is ontologically one, so are the Transcendentals. Goodness, truth and beauty form a unified whole, inseparable and indivisible. Ultimately the Trinity and the Transcendentals are synonyms. God is the Good; God is the True; God is the Beautiful.
If the Good, the True and the Beautiful, as a reflection of the Trinity, are the end to which we strive they are also, through their manifestation in love, reason and creativity, the means by which the end is achieved. Love is the path to goodness; reason is the path to truth; and creativity is the path to beauty.
In a concrete or incarnate sense, love, reason and creativity find their unifying principle in the Person of Christ, who is not only the end to which we strive but the very means by which (or whom) the end is achieved. He is, as He says, not merely the truth and the life but the Way. Christ is, therefore, the path of love, reason and creativity which leads to the Trinity of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
The path of love or caritas is paved by Christ in His two great commandments that we love the Lord our God and that we love our neighbour. Love is, therefore, not what the world thinks it is. It is not a feeling or an emotion but a commandment to act. It is the laying down of our lives for our friends, the giving of ourselves self-sacrificially to others. It is of its very essence selfless. It is the way of the Cross and the path of the saints which all of us are called to follow. It involves taking up our cross and following Christ on the via dolorosa. Love is to die as Christ died so that we may live as Christ lives. It is the willingness to sacrifice all lesser goods for the attainment of the Good.
The path of reason is the path of science in the fuller and better sense of the word. Science (scientia) means knowledge in all of its manifestations and not merely knowledge within the narrower and narrowing constraints of the purely physical sciences. In healthier times theology was seen as the queen of the sciences, the knowledge of God and His Revelation being essential to the attainment of truth. Similarly the love of wisdom inherent in genuine philosophy is a necessary prerequisite to the attainment of truth. The study of metaphysics is the study of spiritual reality, whereas natural philosophy (what we now call "science") is the study of physical reality. Both are important because both lead us to the truth.
History is also a science in the older and better meaning of the word. It is a path of knowledge leading us towards the true. Whereas theology and philosophy establish the precepts by which the truth can be known, history provides the examples from the collective experience of humanity, enabling us to learn from humanity’s mistakes and to be inspired by its edifying achievements. It is to learn from the experience of our elders.
The learning of languages is another science, enabling us to bridge the linguistic abyss that separates the disparate cultures of humanity.
Last but indubitably not least are the poetic sciences, such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and dance, those fruits of man’s creative genius that enable us to come to a deeper knowledge of the truth. In the great works of art, literature and music we see the truths of theology, philosophy and history woven together into a beautiful and seamless tapestry. It is in these poetic sciences, those which require poiesis, the making of things through the use of the imagination, that the synthesis between the true and the beautiful is manifested most sublimely.
The poetic sciences form a beautiful bridge between the path of reason and the path of creativity. Whereas the way of love or caritas leads us to the Good of God and the way of reason leads us to His Truth, the way of creativity leads us into the ineffable presence of His Beauty. This is achieved by the use of the creative gifts, or talents, which God bestows upon the artist.
The artist does not create ex nihilo, a power which belongs to God alone, but from other things that already exist. The landscape artist, for instance, takes brushes, canvas and an easel, water colours or oils, his hands and eyes, and the hills, buildings, animals, people and clouds which the vista presents to him, and makes something new by melding them all in his imagination and bringing a work of art into being. In this act of creation the artist is doing as his Maker does, the creative act being itself an image of God’s creative image in him.
It is important to differentiate between God’s power of Creation (ex nihilo) and man’s power to bring forth new things from other preexisting things, a power which J. R. R. Tolkien called sub-creation. God creates; man sub-creates. There is, therefore, a hierarchy of creative value. At the top of the hierarchy is God Himself, the Creator; next is Creation, those things made directly by God, such as man, beasts, plants and planets. Below the Creator and Creation in the hierarchy is sub-creation, the things that man makes from the gifts that the Creator bestows. Sub-creation can itself be divided into two separate types. The first and higher form is sub-creation for the Glory of God, which is an offering up or a giving back of the gift of creativity and the gifts of Creation to the Giver of the gift. The second and lower form is sub-creativity for the use of man, or what might loosely be called technology. There is, however, a way in which man’s sub-creation can even improve upon God’s Creation. Take, for instance, that piece of God’s Creation buried deep in the ground, which we call marble. When this hidden gem is quarried and used by a great artist, such as Michelangelo, to produce an image of the crucified Christ being cradled by His sorrowful Mother, we see how God’s own handiwork is transfigured and aesthetically baptized by the hand of man. Such is the glory of great art in which man is glorified in his act of glorifying God!
At this juncture an objection might be made that such a view of sub-creativity does not explain the existence of immoral art. If sub-creation is an expression of God’s creative image in the personhood and talent of the artist, why is there so much non-Christian or anti-Christian art? The answer lies in the inseparability of the gift of creativity from the gift of freedom. Since God has created the human being with free will, the latter is free to use or abuse the gifts that God has given. God does not remove a gift as soon as its recipient abuses it. If we take the gift of life as being analogous to the gift of creativity, we can see that God does not remove the gift of life as soon as each of us sins. If He did so, none of us would be here! What is true of the gift of life is equally true of the gift of creativity. We are free to use or abuse our artistic gifts while the gift of life is ours. There is, however, a price to pay if we choose to cast our creative pearls before swine, and, indeed, for the stubbornly recalcitrant artist, there may literally be hell to pay! No more needs to be said about bad art. It is a distraction and detraction from all that is good, true and beautiful.
What, however, is the role of good art? What function does it play in an age of rational illiteracy, of relativism, which denies the existence of objective truth? What good is it in a headless age in which man’s ability to reason has been removed? What, furthermore, is its role in an age that has narcissistically inverted love into an act of self-worship, in which “love” is all about “me” and not the other, about feeling good and not about laying down one’s life for the beloved? What, in a nutshell, is the purpose of beauty in an age in which the rational head and the self-sacrificial heart have been removed? The answer is to be found in the power of beauty to touch heads that have forgotten how to think and hearts that have forgotten how to love. Imagine an atheist, an agnostic and a Christian sitting in a field a few moments before sunrise. They all see the same sun rising and they are all touched by its beauty. All feel the inescapable sense of gratitude that a living soul experiences in the presence of beauty. Such gratitude leads logically to a desire to give thanks. But who do we thank? The prompting of such a question is a moving of the head and the heart in the right direction.
It should perhaps be conceded that some souls have become so blinded and gollumized by sin that they prefer the darkness to the light. Such prideful souls are no doubt as beyond the reach of beauty as they are beyond the reach of goodness or truth. They are, however, a minority of humankind. The mass of humanity can still be touched by beauty, which is the light that can penetrate the chinks in the most hardheaded and hardhearted of armour.
In the same way that God’s primal creative light, as seen in the sunrise, moves all healthy souls towards Him, so the sub-creative light that can be seen in great art also moves the soul in the direction of the goodness, truth and beauty of God. Those who visit the Vatican, whether they are Christians, atheists or agnostics, are edified by the architectural edifice of St. Peter’s basilica, a work of human art raised to the glory of God so that the hearts and heads of those who see it can also be raised to the glory of God. Similarly those who cross the threshold of St. Peter’s basilica, whether they are Christians, atheists or agnostics, are moved to mourn with the sorrowful Mother in the uplifting presence of Michelangelo’s Pietá, nestled magnificently within the basilica’s hallowed walls.
Reminding ourselves that Beauty is one in being with the Good and the True, we should remember that the beautiful always leads us back to love and reason. The lifting up of the heart in the presence of beauty enables us to give our hearts in love and to raise our heads in contemplation. This is the evangelizing power of beauty. It can save souls. It can save the world. Let us go forth and preach the Gospel in the name of the Good, the True and the Beautiful!