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.

We are not our brains

right_brainThe soul cannot be scientifically proven. That should not cause alarm for Christians. There are lots of things that cannot be scientifically proven, either because science has not gotten there yet or because science is not the right tool with which to explore that particular question. Science can tell me who my biological mother is but it cannot prove that she loves me. It can determine whether or not a person’s DNA was left at a crime scene, but it cannot determine whether or not he should be held accountable for committing a crime.

Nonetheless, for many people who have been heavily influenced by materialism–the philosophical conviction that matter and physical processes are all that there is–the lack of a testable hypothesis about the soul means that the soul must be an illusion. As neuroscience continues to advance, more and more research has shown that, physically speaking, we are our brains. All our memories are stored in the brain. All our feelings are generated by the brain. When we feel pain in our hands or feet, there is no actual pain there. Rather, our brain is interpreting reactions in our nerve endings as pain. Many scientists now believe that all that we call consciousness takes place in the brain and that it will not be long before we figure out just how the whole trick of it works.

The NPR program Intelligence Squared hosted a debate in 2014 on the question of whether or not there is life after death. Debaters on both sides were scientists, but those on the pro side argued largely from personal and anecdotal evidence of near death experiences. Those on the con side focused instead on the question of consciousness. They likened death to a candle being blown out. The matter and energy still exist, but the process is done. The flame was never really its own thing, but an illusion of perception. Likewise, what we think of as us is merely a set of complex chemical processes taking place in our brains. Everything about us from our sense of humor to our experiences of love is reducible to the firing of neurons. Once that firing stops, there is nothing left of us to live on. The soul was never more than chemistry and therefore has nowhere to go when the chemistry is done. This argument handily won the debate.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that it assumes its own philosophical premise. The soul has to be a physical reality in order to be scientifically disproven in this way. If the soul is something different, something other than the stuff that makes up this world, then the tools of physics and biology might be able to catch glimpses of it but they would never be able to reduce it to a formula. The proponents of near death experiences sometimes do try to subject those experiences to scientific rigor, as they should, but the kind of scientific questions that can be asked about such experiences will not yield the kind of answers that strict materialists are ever likely to accept.

The Bible speaks of the soul in multiple ways. Sometimes the soul is simply a synonym for life itself, as when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The soul is also sometimes spoken of as inclusive of our whole being, including our bodies, such as when Jesus says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Elsewhere, however, the soul is clearly a separate faculty altogether, as when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26).

If all this seems confusing, it should. When we speak of the soul, we are delving into a mystery. It is hard to speak of spiritual reality when we spend all our time in a world that has been scrubbed clean of it. To a materialist, appealing to spiritual reality will always sound like special pleading because it requires us to look at the world through a different lens than that of a microscope. It requires the same knowing that allows me to accept that my mother’s love for me is not merely a chemical reaction in her brain or that the “me” I am in my mid thirties is the same “me” that I was when I was only four or five years old, despite the fact that everything about me has changed during the time in between including the entire set of atoms and molecules that make up my physical body.

Yet it would be incorrect to say that we have no evidence at all of the soul besides the purely subjective experiences of religious people. Throughout the Intelligence Squared  debate, I kept asking myself how I would have argued the question if I had been on the pro side. What I would have said would have been something like this: The first, last, and best piece of solid evidence for the existence of the human soul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course, that probably would have made further conversation impossible, at least from the materialist point of view. It is unfair, they might say, to try to buttress one religious idea by means of another. We have to stick to facts after all, not faith. But the resurrection of Jesus is knowable, not through scientific testing, but certainly through the social sciences and the study of history. We can test the veracity of the resurrection the same way we test the veracity of the reign of Julius Caesar or the existence of Socrates or any of hundreds of other important historical events that happened in the ancient past. We look at the best evidence we have and draw likely conclusions based on that evidence, just like we do in a court of law. When we look at the evidence that way, the case for the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming. Do not take my word for it. There are plenty of good studies that have been done on the subject, the best in modern times probably being N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whatever the outcome, though, it has to be clear that the resurrection has a strong bearing on the questions of life after death and the true nature of the soul. If the resurrection is a fraud, then the materialist view may happily stand. But if it is true, then the reality of life beyond death for at least one of us has to be admitted and the rest of what Jesus claimed about Himself and about us, including what He had to say about the soul, becomes admissible as evidence. Near death experiences can be quite powerful and should not blithely be dismissed, but an actual death and return experience really ought to be decisive.

Naturally, I do not expect that argument to convince the staunch materialist. We simply live in different worlds. The world of the materialist is rational to a fault but dead even before it begins. It is a world where human beings lack not only a soul but also true freedom, the ability to love, the wonder of great art and music, the transcendence that comes from awe at creation, the intimacy of prayer. Not that a materialist cannot have some of these experiences, but they are reduced and diminished by not having access to their spiritual foundation.

We are not our brains. We are our souls. Neither the soul nor the body are in competition with each other. The theory of the soul does not require an incomprehensible brain for it to work. Each new discovery of neuroscience, far from being a challenge to the supernatural, is a wonderful and even awe inspiring glimpse into the way that God has put us together. The world is enchanted. The brain makes the body dance, but the soul makes the brain know that its natural end is the eternal dance of life with God.

Image by Allan Ajifo and made available through Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the Sacraments?

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It has long been a fascination to me that Jesus tells us that “in the resurrection they are neither married nor given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34-35). Marriage is fundamental to the building of a healthy society, which is one of the reasons that it is worth fighting for. It is a gift that God establishes in creation, most notably in Genesis 2:24, prior to the fall. So why would it be something absent from heaven? Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that marriage is an icon of the love between Christ and His Church. We are saved through our marriages — the one and only thing that the New Testament directly calls a Sacrament, musterion (Ephesians 5:32). If marriage imparts that kind of grace, why would it cease in the life to come where grace is to abound?

This question struck me anew this week in reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. The fourth book is entirely taken up with devotion to Christ in the Holy Eucharist, yet early in Chapter 11 Thomas says that for all its gloriousness, the Eucharist is but a temporary gift:

In truth, I possess and adore Him Whom the angels adore in heaven — I as yet by faith, they face to face unveiled. I must be content with the light of the true faith and walk in it until the day of eternal brightness dawns and the shadow of figures passes away. When, moreover, that which is perfect shall have come, the need of sacraments shall cease, for the blessed in heavenly glory need no healing sacrament. Rejoicing endlessly in the presence of God, beholding His glory face to face, transformed from their own brightness to the brightness of the ineffable Deity, they taste the Word of God made flesh, as He was in the beginning and will remain in eternity.

Thomas is saying that there will be no Mass in heaven because what the Mass gives us is only a foretaste of what heaven offers all the time. We need the Mass here and now because of our separation from God and our need for the merits of His Son to be applied to us. Once we are in heaven, there will no longer be any separation between us and God because we will have been washed clean and made holy. We will not need the Mass because every moment will be like the Mass, filled with the presence and gift of God.

To a certain extent, I see the point that Thomas is making. It applies equally well to all the Sacraments, including marriage. If the reason for marriage in this world is to draw us into the intimate life of family and reveal to us the love between Christ and His Church, than heaven need not have marriage because everyone will exist as one family and everyone will know the true intimacy of being one with Christ as His Bride. It is like asking whether or not there will be art in heaven.  What all great art points to abstractly will be there concretely. There will not need to be art because everything will be what art exists to point out to us.

Yet I cannot help but feel like this is an incomplete picture for reasons both personal and theological. The personal reasons are admittedly more pressing. The Mass is the most beautiful and holy thing there is. How can there truly be a heaven without it? Marriage, for all its hard work and its ups and downs, is an amazing adventure. I dare not imagine a heaven in which I will not know my wife as my wife, in which she will just be one more of an endless line of holy sisters and brothers.

The personal reasons are the ones that keep me awake at night, but the theological reasons are the ones that keep me from thinking my objections are merely sentimental. The Scriptures do not tell us as much as many people would think about what heaven will be like, but what they do tell us paints a picture that is hard to describe as anything other than sacramental.

Scott Hahn wrote a wonderful little book some years back called The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. In that book, he argues fairly persuasively that the complex picture of heaven and the life-to-come presented by the Book of Revelation is best understood in liturgical terms. There is a constant Eucharistic feast going on in heaven that will one day be translated back to earth when the two come together at the end. The Mass that we participate in now is more than just a foretaste; it is an actual participation in this never-ending heavenly liturgy.

The same argument, it seems to me, can be made for what marriage will be like in the age to come. There will be no new marriages contracted, but that does not have to mean that marriage itself will be swept away like a glass of water being poured into the ocean. Rather, the marriages of the faithful will be redeemed and perfected and thereby shown the part they have always played in the overwhelming reality of the married life of heaven in which Christ is constantly being made one with His Bride.

We can extend this out to the other Sacraments as well. I need not act as a priest in heaven since the great High Priest who is Our Lord will have it covered, yet the truth is that my priesthood here and now is a participation in His and I do not expect that to disappear once I am with Him. Baptism will not be needed in heaven, yet the mark of the Baptized will remain the sign of our citizenship in the Kingdom. Even Anointing of the Sick and Confirmation will have some place of crossover, though our faith will not need strengthening there nor will there be any more sickness to heal.

Heaven may be the end of the Sacraments, but in the here-and-now the Sacraments are the beginning of heaven. The Sacraments are not merely tools for the conditioning of our faith but real and true places of entry into the life of God. There may not be set Mass times on Sunday mornings in heaven, but that is only because all of heaven is singing the Mass all the time. There may not be weddings in heaven, but that is only because every marriage finds its perfect place in the marriage feast that is forever celebrated at God’s table.

Photo from Southern Orders here.

The joy of creating

croppedRecently, my old college buddy Tom spent the weekend helping me to build an outdoor playset for my children. At least, that’s how he would describe it. It would be more accurate to say that I helped him. Tom is much more mechanically inclined than I am. I find it challenging to get the lids off of bottles. But Tom was able to look at a picture and description of the playset we wanted and take measurements and execute a plan. On Saturday morning, there was nothing in my backyard. By Sunday afternoon, there was a full size swing set, fort, slide, and rock wall with two very happy little boys climbing all over it.

It is joyous to create something like that. It is hard work, to be sure, yet there is an experience of the divine in it. God is the Creator. He is the maker of heaven and earth. We are made in His image. We share that same creative spark, that same yearning to make things.

I have never been good at making things with my hands, but I have always been good at making things out of words: Poems, songs, essays, stories, and sermons. I feel the same deep sense of satisfaction in that exercise that many people feel in making things out of stone, steel, and wood. You begin with nothing but a blank page and the spark of an idea. You connect one word to another, forming patterns of sound, rhyme, and thought. And when you are finished, if you are lucky, you have created something beautiful and unique that fills the space that was once empty. If that is the case, you can look at your work with satisfaction and without the least sense of arrogance or conceit say, “It is finished and it is good.”

Of course, I don’t always say that. Sometimes I look at what I’ve written and say, “It is crap.” Then I start over. Creation is a much more fraught process for human beings than it is for God. But in those rare moments when I get it right, I feel deeply gratified because something of God’s own creative life has worked through me to bring something new and wonderful into being.

When I write something, it feels as if it is flowing directly out of my soul, but that is not entirely true. In fact what I am doing is rearranging what was there before. I did not invent the words that I use. They are the raw materials that I build with, much like the large pile of lumber that we acquired in order to put together that playset. Even in the creative act that most resembles God’s own work, the act of begetting and bearing children, the action is not purely ours. The raw material of sperm and egg and chromosomes is developed into something gloriously, wonderfully new, yet it is only possible because those things were gifted to us.

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God creates out of nothing. When I think about that – I mean really think about it – I have to catch my breath. It is inconceivable to me, as someone who creates, not to have to use any building blocks. It was inconceivable to many in the ancient world as well, such as Plato and Aristotle. Yet that is the audacious claim that is revealed in Holy Scripture. God created out of nothing. There was nothing at all, no building blocks, no starting point. And then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was.

All of our raw supplies are God given. The wood for the playset came from trees, which came from other trees, which came from earlier plant life, which came from cells, which if you follow the chain back far enough came directly from the creative act of the Lord speaking a word. The words for writing evolve from languages that find their way back inexorably to that same first word. The biological building blocks of reproduction are handed down to us – traditioned to us – by the One who made all biology, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. What a grand and unexpected joy! When we create, we partner with God. And when our creative work is done and something beautiful appears where before there was nothing, God says, “It is finished and it is good.”

God’s Self Portrait

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The French painter Marie-Denise Villers painted her most famous work, Young Woman Drawing, in 1801. It is a masterpiece and it is now widely believed that the painting is a self portrait. Every detail is powerfully communicative, from the way the light touches the folds of her dress and the strands of her hair to the posture with which she sits to draw her subject, presumably looking into a mirror. Though I was born more than two centuries after Villers and I know virtually nothing about her, just looking at this image makes me feel like I am in relationship with her.

Of course, this is part of the idea behind iconography. It is one of the reasons why so many icons portray Christ or the saints staring out at us. Icons are meant to be windows into the figures they depict. By seeing a saint’s image on an icon, we have a focus for calling out to that saint and offering our devotion. But neither Jesus nor the saints painted their own icons. What makes a self portrait so compelling to me is the idea that this is the artist’s own best expression of herself or himself. By painting herself, Villers has left behind a small piece of herself by which we can come to know her far more intimately than if the painting had been done by anyone else.

Over the past year, I have been reading and studying Saint Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Based on 129 Wednesday audience talks that the pope gave between 1979 and 1984, it is breath taking in its scope. The Church has not yet really begun to plumb its depths, and I have personally only scratched the surface of the surface, but if I were to try and sum up the central animating principle of this work, I would say that the human body is designed to speak to us the Gospel. This is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. From Genesis through Revelation, the Scripture reveals to us over and over again that our bodies are God’s self portrait.

Central to this observation is the notion of sexual complementarity. This can be confusing, particularly since what John Paul means by sexual complementarity is different from how most Evangelicals use that term. What John Paul means is that our maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary. In the very ordering of our bodies as men and women, we see the attributes of God displayed. As men and women relate to each other, particularly in the Sacrament of marriage and in the bond of sexual union, there is expressed there a mystical unveiling of God’s own self. The love, fidelity, and fruitfulness of marriage, expressed through our bodies, is an icon of the love, fidelity, and generativity of God.

I find this to be such a beautiful idea, not just because it gives me an insight into the nature of God, but because of how blessedly affirming it is of bodies. To think of my body and the bodies of other people as holy icons is to re-imagine what the body is all about. Despite my imperfections, my extra pounds, my creeping gray, my body is a self portrait of God. And that is also true for other people, regardless of their size and shape, age, or the color of their skin.

Moreover, it means that I have something to learn from the bodies of women that is far greater than what the culture tells me women’s bodies are all about. The prevalent wisdom of western culture, written large on just about any blank surface, is that our bodies exist only for personal pleasure, and that women’s bodies in particular are made solely for the use and enjoyment of men. The Theology of the Body turns that deeply sinful notion upside down. It says that our bodies are holy and meant to point far beyond themselves to the very source of holiness. As I learn what it means to be a man, understanding the masculine nature of my body, I gain some insight into God. But just as importantly, as I learn to see femininity for what it really is, realizing the true blessedness of what God has expressed in the bodies of women that is different from what He has expressed in the bodies of men, I come to a fuller, richer picture of who God is and how He is at work in the world.

Of course, there is always the danger that the sign gets confused for the thing it signifies. As much as I love Marie-Denise Villers’ self portrait, I realize that it is not actually her. It is only a sign of the truth of who she is. If she were in the room with me, it would be ludicrous for me to ignore her in favor of the portrait. Likewise, the body is a sign of the reality of God, but God is in Himself much more than what He has expressed through His creation. The right way to appreciate the body is to see it the same way we see an icon, not as the thing that it depicts but as a doorway that can lead us into greater relationship.

All of this makes me wish I could paint. Alas, I cannot. But I am grateful for the gift of art in this world that points to the existence of God’s great majesty, just as I am grateful for God’s own artistry that draws each of us into the mystery of His love.