Beauty and the Truth

…there in truth something like a liberation occurs:  the stepping out into the open under an endless sky, not only for the creative artist himself but for the beholder as well, even the most humble.  Such liberation, such foreshadowing of the ultimate and perfect fulfillment, is necessary for man, almost more necessary than his daily bread, which is indeed indispensable and yet insufficient.

 ~Josef Pieper~

After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, St. Matthew tells us that: “he was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1).   Fine, not something most of us would choose, but I suppose Jesus wasn’t seeking the things that most of us seek.  Jesus fasts for 40 day and nights, and it is then when the tempter comes, as he comes in our lives, in the moment of weakness.  Satan tempts Jesus to turn a stone into bread, and Jesus (quoting Deuteronomy 8), powerfully dismisses the evil one: “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).  In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a statement which belongs to the same neighborhood of thought.  The apostles approach the Lord and attempt to get him to eat, but Jesus responds: “I have food to eat of which you do not know…My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:31-34). 

Jesus, in these two statements, is asserting something rather at odds with our normal way of thinking.  What does man need for life?  How is he nourished?  We could of course answer in a literalistic way:  man needs food, shelter, water and sleep.  Today’s men and women might add smartphones, wi-fi, and contraception to the list.  In the end however, Jesus’ fixation on God presses the question… “Is this all?” “Isn’t there something more we need to live a truly human life?”

Pieper’s quote which crowns this blog points us towards an answer.  Our German friend tells us that if we do not encounter something of art, something of beauty, we may survive physically, but we are not for that fact humans.  Deep inside each of us lies a possibility, a sort of itch that no one ever quite fully satisfies in this life.  This “itch” tells us that to be human means more than biology or the daily “world” which lies before us.  To be human means to search and to seek for meaning, for truth, for the foundations of existence.  A man’s food might be rich and his entertainment lively, but he may also resemble a fattened swine more than a man.  God beckons to each soul, but the soul that ignores and numbs this calling within himself, one who lives “on bread alone”, will never find the true meaning of his being.  It really is true that man does not live on bread alone, he comes alive only with something deeper, something that speaks to him of goodness, of truth, and of beauty.

The tricky part of all of this is that beauty, truth and goodness aren’t as easy as we think they are.  People of our time only accept truth if one can “lay it before them” on the table, demonstrating it without any possibility of doubt or objection. How often do people demand that all things must be proven, with the disclaimer written into their smirk: I hereby reserve the right to determine all truth for myself.   

Facts might work that way, but truth does not. Truth demands something more from us, it beckons  us to leave behind our comfortable worlds where no one can demand that we change or become more than what we are.  Our contemporary society seems to believe that truth is something each of us already possesses rather than being something transcendent to which we must attain.  Ratzinger warns us that the cost is much greater than we generally imagine: “Truth, if it is consistently maintained, is always perilous. But only in the measure in which man risks the passion of truth does he become a man. And in the measure in which he holds fast to himself, in which he withdraws into the safety of a lie, he loses himself.” 

Authentic truth is not found merely by having a brain, but by a person who surrenders himself, following wherever it may lead.  Someone who fails to surrender will ultimately bend the facts of reality to confirm a truth of his own making, and this is so much easier.  Beauty is no different; it is not approached in its splendor by couch potatoes and pragmatists; and it is not appreciated merely by taking an art history class.  In a haunting line which helps introduce his project, Balthasar calls upon Catholics to be men and women in the world who know what beauty is, and who love her.

Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past -- whether he admits it or not -- can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love."

A soul who loves truth cannot be one who discounts beauty; and part of the reason modern man struggles to find God is simply because the Church has neglected to radiate His beauty.  We have all too eagerly jumped onto the enlightenment’s playing field where the only admitted players are cold hard facts.  Christians search for the scientific, air-tight arguments which will leave atheists on their knees begging us to relent from our intellectual beat-down.  There is, however, no such argument; and all the while the world eats its bread incessantly, never looking to the heavens (which have been blotted out by artificial light), and only those who have courage and love ever notice that they’re hungry deep down for something more.

All of this is my not-so-subtle argument for why beauty is not simply “nice”, or an add-on, but essential.  The occasion for my writing this is the renovation of our church.  I have heard over and over again from too many people that beautification is selfish or unnecessary or that we could use our money better elsewhere; this is my attempt to respond.  Rowan Williams, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, commenting on the way Jesus portrays himself in the Gospel of Mark says this:

Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others.  What will be said of him is bound to be untrue – that he is the master of all circumstances; that he can heal where he wills; that he is the expected triumphant deliverer, the Anointed… There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, become untrue.

Jesus’ identity is so beautiful, so true and mysterious, that merely to say “he’s God” or “he’s the truth” can cheapen Him by the very words.   It’s akin to telling someone that the sunrise hitting the diamond on Long’s peak is “neat”, or that listening to Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew is an important cultural experience.   Someone who says such things has missed the point – and has failed to be touched by the radiance of beauty.  Most often, the one who has been touched by real beauty is reduced to silence, because words are simply too impoverished communicate the reality.

I am convinced that what we need is a harmony in our churches – a harmony between the preaching of the Gospel, music and silence which elevate the heart, and the beauty of a church building which speaks to us more eloquently than any spoken word is able.

I feel my own poverty in trying to communicate something of the mystery; to quote Balthasar again: “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.”  Truth and goodness are beautiful – or they are neither true nor good; and Christianity’s truth and goodness are obscured when we fail to make our churches our most beautiful and noble spaces.   Conversely, when the truth is beautiful, we desire to become good.

Let us leave our time together with N.T. Wright:

shoulder-shrugging functionalism of postwar architecture, coupled with the passivity born of decades of television, has meant that for many people the world appears to offer little but bleak urban landscapes, on the one hand, and tawdry entertainment, on the other.  And when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope.

My brothers and sisters, may our insistence on beauty bring a hope to a sometimes bleak landscape.

 

World Views, Stories and the Christian of the 21st Century [i]

You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story how you like. When somebody discovered the differential calculus there was only one differential calculus he could discover. But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him to Juliet’s old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom has excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted on the theological free will.
— G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 144

A good preacher is (along with other things) a good story teller.  Statistics can be interesting, and all of us want to somehow verify the truth with various facts, but what really speaks to people is a good story.  There’s a reason for this – it’s because of the sort of being you are.  All of God’s creatures are good in their own way; a mountain manifests God’s strength and majesty by its rugged contours, animals in their complexity and uniqueness have something of adventure and the creativity of God’s unique genius.  Men and women however are unique in that wonderful, complex and mysterious gift we have of choice and free will.  Each of us knows that somehow the choices we make are what make us who we are.  There is nothing quite like that in creation, and our freedom is both our greatest gift, and the source of responsibility.  

Preachers are however not the only ones who tell stories.  J.K. Rowling and Clint Eastwood along with Taylor Swift, Stephen Hawking and your disgruntled co-workers are all story tellers.  This summer I was hooked on the Netflix series Stranger Things.   The series did a wonderful job of capturing something of the world of suburban boys in the 1980’s; that world provided the backdrop the whole drama however surrounds choices – will the boys and “11” choose to trust each other?  Will Hopper face his own inner darkness?  Will Steve change his insane hair style; and does anyone even care about Barb?  I have to admit that Hopper provided one of my now favorite lines: “Flo, I told you, mornings are for coffee and contemplation.”  Amen Hopper – I knew you understood me.

Stories are the chief product of worldviews.  A worldview is something everyone has, it is a set of assumptions about the world, about God, about human beings and indeed reality that form the foundation of our thinking.   World views are the framework by which we make sense of our day to day lives. Stories are the key vehicle of worldviews – they help us to interpret reality and the experiences we go through each day.  If we have told ourselves a story about being the misunderstood middle child who is always the victim (hypothetically of course), then we interpret reality accordingly; every unfortunate incident becomes a reinforcement to the story we have told ourselves.  My car broke down because I am a victim who no one understands, and perhaps the world is fundamentally a place of injustice and suffering.  A Christian martyr understands his or her suffering according to a rather different narrative; perhaps as an opportunity to love, and perhaps because Christ loved them so much that he invited him to suffer with him for the redemption of others.  N.T. Wright comments: 

"The reason why stories come into conflict with each other is that worldviews, and the stories which characterize them, are in principle normative: that is, they claim to make sense of the whole of reality.  Even the relativist, who believes that everybody’s point of view on everything is equally valid even though apparently incompatible, is obedient to an underlying story about reality which comes into explicit conflict with most other stories…" [ii]

The reason why all of this is important is that worldviews and stories not only help us understand our lives, they shape the way we live them.   If you have a brilliant, gifted young woman whose worldview is postmodern, she might end up becoming a professor at CU, teaching 20 year olds that Polynesian culture is every bit as important (probably more) as western European, and garnering the satisfaction that she has done the right thing.  If however her worldview is predominately modern or enlightenment based, she is more likely to become an engineer or doctor, believing that one can both save the world though rational and scientific advancement, and enjoying the pleasure and security of a contemporary society who has embraced a scientific worldview.  What so many of us are unaware of is that the world we were born into has far more influence over us than we would care to acknowledge.  All of us encounter the world God has created, but the way we understand our experiences is mostly sorted and understood by the worldview we operate out of.   

Worldviews operate most strongly when they go unnoticed.  Debate and thought about society, politics, religion etc. are all well and good, my simple point is that those discussions are already colored by whatever shade of blue or green or pink the participants have in their frames, and all too frequently no one stops to look at their glasses.

As I preached about a couple weeks ago, there are two dominant worldviews which shape our culture today, Modernism and Postmodernism.  Modernism is the philosophical and cultural movement which gave birth to the United States in its political ideals; it is also the movement which created the French revolution which was one of the bloodiest and ugly revolutions in history.  As with most things, modernism (a.k.a. The Enlightenment) is complex and has both great good and tremendous flaws within it.   The enlightenment was all about rationality, it told stories and it continues to today.  Enlightenment thinkers were always trying to kick God out of earth and back into heaven, it believed that modern men could only believe in purely rational religion; the famous example being Thomas Jefferson, who took his scissors to the Bible and cut out everything he considered irrational. The problem with the world was irrationality and those things associated with it like superstition.  The moderns’ key catchword was always “progress”.  As long as we let scientists and smart people run things, we are on the inevitable path forward.   This has been a powerful story indeed.  Modernism also believed that human beings could be purely “objective” and to this day modernism drives us to be objective about everything from math to art.  Subjectivity tends to be seen as negative, as a blurring of facts, and the modern man is only concerned with facts.

Postmodernism, as its name implies, is parasitic on modernism.  Modernism had brought about tremendous technological and scientific advancements, but it had lied about humanity.  A man with a car might get somewhere faster than a man with a horse, but he was no more likely to be a good man.  After the two world-wars people began to realize that technology might be a nice thing, but that progress doesn’t seem to apply to humans that simply.   Postmodernism is skeptical of just about anything that claims to be true or good.  History for the postmodern is not about progress, but about power and oppression.  It’s much like the last hunger games movie (spoiler alert).  After the capture of the capital, the rebels have promised that everything will be different, but really there’s always a new tyrant ready to step in and oppress someone.   When post-moderns encounter words like truth or right, what they hear is “agenda”.   For the postmodern world, there is no truth, there is only perspective, and the solution to the world’s problems is for us to stop pretending that we know any better than anyone else.  I remember in college I took a cultural geography class taught by a postmodern professor (which I didn’t know at the time).  The entire class was his painstaking attempt to prove to us that western culture was no better than any other, and that western achievements essentially boiled down to Europe having the right livestock at the right time.   Just about the only thing I learned that semester was that everything we took pride in as Americans was all a lie.   Post-moderns don’t really believe in objectivity, anyone pretending to be objective is really trying to impose their subjectivity upon yours.

Of course, things are much more complex than this, but it is important for Christians to understand the basics of these worldviews, and to realize that no one sees all angles, even our secularist friends.  Our lives are inevitably influenced by modernism and post-modernism, we cannot help but be products of the world we were born into, and much of that is very good.  If, however, we are real Christians, we will examine our glasses and dive deeper than the usual categories of liberal – conservative, etc.  We will seek to see the world the way Christ does.   To that end, I want to use my remaining space to talk about a few key aspects of a Catholic worldview.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it makes you slow down and think a bit about God, the world and the glasses you’re looking through.

Aspects of a Catholic Worldview

1)     We don’t create reality, we encounter it, and its laws are binding.

This is probably about the most basic, yet important principle I can give you.   Moderns are a lot like the Jurassic park scientists who were so fascinated by whether they could create dinosaurs, they “never stopped to think about whether or not they should.”  Post-moderns tend to simply deny that there is “reality” – for a postmodern, each of us has our own reality and all of them are equally valid.  The common phrase this comes across in is: “that may be true for you but that’s not my truth”.  

Catholics embrace that each of us is unique, but that God has made the world, and those who try to change it do so to their own peril. In other words, having subjectivity matters, but that doesn’t mean that there are not objective realities out there.   Man is of course called to work in the world – to produce and artfully use creation, but only in accord with the nature God has written into reality.  Part of that nature is the moral law, and Catholics simply believe that in its general outlines, God has written morality into every human heart – everyone knows that they are called to do good and to avoid evil. 

If you really understand this principle you will understand why the church is opposed to homosexual activity, contraception and almost every other morally controversial issue you can think of.

2)    The world is good, but has been tainted by sin.  

Christians don’t view the world as “neutral”, rather we affirm what God says over and over again in Genesis 1: “it is good”.   We affirm that the world has a basic goodness which can never be fully destroyed, even if it is twisted.  

The problem with the world is not primarily bad laws, poor economics, lack of birth control or even disease (although these can have their effect) the problem with the world is sin.  Physical evils, like tsunamis and cancer certainly cause tremendous suffering, and are not good, but the real problem is one of the heart, one of human character and not of circumstance.

3)    The Answer to the problem belongs to God

Christians care about politics because the world is good, and God cares about it and the people in it.  Politics and governments are good things because God is a God of order and not chaos, and He allows humans to have authority in creation (Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:4-8, Daniel 7:27, Romans 5:17 etc.) because they are created in His image. 

Different people in history have thought they had the answer to humanity’s problems.  Marx thought it was about class revolution and the worker state; Nietzsche’s solution involved uber-mensch alpha-humans creating meaning out of a meaningless world; Rousseau thought the key was in understanding man’s primal origins.   Christians believe that the solution to the world came through the love of a tortured and humiliated man as he died on a cross. 

You and I understand that the real solution always involves human beings becoming what they should be – faithful, hopeful and loving creatures who live in imitation of Jesus.  The solution to the world is not great presidents or policymakers, it is saints like Mother Teresa and John Paul II. 

4)    “We’ll make heaven a place on earth” is a lie

The marriage of heaven and earth is a larger topic not meant for these pages.  Men of every age have attempted to make earth perfect, and while the Christian cares for the earth and the time he inhabits, he knows that the heavenly Jerusalem enters our world not through human efforts, but comes from God (Revelation 21:10).  Thus a Christian works for the good of the world, but knows that only God can fully redeem it.

There is of course much more to say, but my fingers grow weary for today, and the kingdom comes only from God.   We have a new president, but the Lord of heaven and earth remains.

 

NTPG

[ii] Much of this essay comes from an array of my own studies over the past 15 years, but predominantly the insights are stolen from N.T. Wright and Joseph Ratzinger – always good to learn from people way smarter than you.

[i] N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992 pg. 4

Annulments

She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.

~Evelyn Waugh~

Last week the news media erupted with the announcement from the Vatican that Pope Francis had taken steps to simplify and cheapen the process for annulments to happen within the church.  

The streamlining of the process for annulments is something which makes sense to me, although admittedly I am not much of an expert in canon law; either way, the Pope’s decision gives opportunity to address the thorny issue of annulments, and why the church is so up-tight about divorced and re-married Catholics.

The first thing to recognize is that marriage is something which not only the Catholic Church, but the overwhelming majority of human history have found to be sacred.   That word sounds odd to a lot of people today, sort of like the smell from your grandparent’s house - it seems to belong to a different time.   The family is the cradle of civilization, it is the place where we learn what it means to be human.  A broken family does not condemn a soul to a life of futility or sterility, but if you had to stack the odds in a child’s favor, you’d give them a set of parents who were wildly in love with each other and committed to the ultimate happiness of their little pack of progeny.  And apart from the cathedrals and holy sites of mankind, the simple yet profound goodness in marriage and family life should remind all of us that we are indeed more than mere animals.

The quote at the top is from the novel Brideshead Revisited, an absolute classic piece of literature, which tells a tale of adultery, of human brokenness, and of redemption.  I may be a huge nerd (no comments thank you), but that particular quotation always makes me laugh out loud.  The context comes at the beginning of the novel when Charles realizes that his love for his wife has died.   The reality is of course tragic, but Waugh’s mastery of the language cannot help but bring at least a smirk to one’s face.

Later on in the novel Julia says this about her husband:  “you know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took a year of marriage for me to see.  He simply wasn’t all there.  He wasn’t a complete human being at all…a tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.” 

These are things that happen in real life, people marry when they shouldn’t, they are often infatuated with someone (frequently because of an overly-physical relationship) and have blinded themselves to gaping holes in the character of their beloved.    All of us can sympathize with the terror of the thought that they should “punished” the rest of their lives all because of one mistake, even if it was a big one.   We all feel bad for people who have either entered into or come out of marriages they never should have been in.  Every one of us has the fear of ultimate loneliness, of making a big mistake and ending up on our own, and so we come to the church’s teaching – how could the church oppose divorce and remarriage?  Shouldn’t we admit that all of us make mistakes?  That no one wants to get divorced, but that the modern world is a tough one, and that people deserve a second or third chance.

I have to admit that on a human level these things pull at the heart strings, and much inside of me desires to just say “it’s okay – just move on”; but two things keep me from doing that.

The first and most important is the teaching of Jesus Christ: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18, c.f. Matthew 19:9)  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say divorce is wrong (although God certainly isn’t happy with divorce – see Malachi 2:16), he says divorce and remarriage is to be understood as adultery.    The teaching of the Church isn’t so much that divorce is wrong as that divorce is impossible.  If a valid marriage happens, nothing in heaven or on earth can undo a marriage.  What an annulment says is that a real marriage never occurred.

The reason why this effects a person being able to receive communion has to do with repentance.  It’s not that their sin is worse than other people’s, but if someone has contracted a second marriage without an annulment, they can’t really go to confession and say in all honesty that they will do their best to repent.   God forgives all sin, but forgiveness implies the good will effort to overcome our sin, to turn to God, divorce and remarriage creates a complex circumstance where repentance becomes very difficult, and if there are children in the second marriage, could create a new set of serious and complex problems.

If you’re in this situation, the first and most important thing I want to say to you is that God loves you, he died for your sins, and this doesn’t mean that you’re going to hell or that you’re a bad person.  The Church also loves you, and she loves you enough to tell you the truth about what Jesus teaches.  You also belong to the church, and you should be coming every Sunday to mass; you may not be able to receive communion, but we go to mass because we love God, and we owe him our worship.  In all likelihood, there are a huge number of Catholics who receive the Eucharist on Sundays who shouldn’t be – and what a witness you will be to them of humble, loving obedience, which is precisely what saved the world (Romans 5:19). 

Why did Jesus teach this?  Couldn’t he have made things easier?  Had a little more mercy?  I think at the heart of the problem is the age old assumption that what brings happiness is doing what I want.   I have had many, many people tell me over time that they simply could never live a celibate life, and as a celibate I certainly know that celibacy has its challenges.   Above any other faith tradition on earth, Catholics should know that although suffering is not something we pursue, if it is embraced in the love of God it is redemptive.   Jesus tells us over and over again throughout the Gospels: “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” (Luke 9:24 c.f. Mt. 10:38, Lk 14:27, 17:33, Jn. 12:25 etc.)   If we pursue ourselves, that’s normal and human but there’s nothing Christian about it; and while this is a hard truth, God isn’t interested as much in your comfort as in your sanctification.  A celibate life can also be a profoundly joyful one, too many of us buy the cultural assumption that romantic relationships are the only ones worth pursuing.

Perhaps the wittiest commentator on marriage, divorce and the storm of issues associated with the two, is the ever-relevant G.K. Chesterton.   Chesterton is quick to remind us that if we dispatch consequences, we also lose merit, and even worse, adventure.  “it would not be worthwhile to bet if a bet were not binding.  The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport…and the perils, rewards, punishments and fulfillments of an adventure must be real or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare.” 

Consequences are the flip side of freedom, and those who would destroy them should be careful they don’t offer a counterfeit freedom in the process.  Even on a natural level, apart from faith, there are some of us who believe that certain big promises should be binding.   With no fault divorce laws in the United States, Americans can get out of marriages easier than they can get out of cell phone contracts.  Perhaps its no wonder that fewer and fewer people desire to get married – marriage seems to have lost all its seriousness, its daring, its distinctive nature that made it something more than two people living together with an added tax break.

The Church takes a person at their word when they say “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life”, it seems today that she is about the only one.   The seriousness which she ascribes to marriage vows is not meant to be harsh towards those with broken marriages, really it is meant only to say that these vows have been, and remain something sacred.