Evangelizing for beauty

Stained glass window at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by the author. All rights reserved.

“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.

Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.

Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.

Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.

When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.

For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”

Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.

When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.

I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.

As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.

All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”

Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.

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4 thoughts on “Evangelizing for beauty

  1. Logan

    I appreciate your article father! I think it would be an interesting article for you to write on what you think makes a Catholic Christian Catholic.

  2. Jamieson

    Hi Jonathan,
    I wonder if your article speaks more of the holiness of beauty rather than the beauty of holiness. In Psalm 29 David is calling on people to recognise and acknowledge how glorious and great God is, revealed in his works of mercy and justice towards his people. Holiness is standing out as different, distinct and set apart for God. God’s people are called to be holy and shine like stars in the night sky. Our holiness which is beautiful is the holiness given to us as a free gift in Jesus – it’s the holiness of righteousness and we worship him with transformed lives in Christ.
    Jesus came so we could worship him in spirit and truth, not with religious spectacle and external ritual. I’m afraid the very thing which is beautiful has been missed in your article as it focusses on beauty itself.

    1. Hi Jamieson,

      Jesus is the source of all beauty and all goodness and all holiness, etc. Beauty is not a purely subjective concept. God calls us to worship Him in very specific ways, by and through our participation in His holiness via the Sacraments of the Church and by hearing and receiving His Holy Word. These things are not substitutes for Jesus or substitutes for holiness of life. They are Jesus, given to us so that we may be transformed and lead holy lives. Our righteousness and holiness comes from Him, but we cannot receive that righteousness or that holiness if we turn away from the means by which He gives Himself to us. This is not about some kind of mere ritualism. It is about doing what God has called us to do and receiving the gift that He deeply and lovingly wishes to give us. Beauty is not a mere garnish on that. Because God is the source of true beauty, we come closer to Him when we experience that which is truly beautiful. That doesn’t mean being ostentatious. However, when we worship in a way that is not fitting to the full and true nature of what it is we are receiving – Jesus Himself – we miss the entire point.

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