In 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, gave a speech about beauty and God. Excerpts:
Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”
The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.
In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight.” Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
I’ve mentioned in this space recently that the next book I plan to write — the proposal is completed, and is going through the usual processes — will focus on this in large part. It came to mind this past weekend during a breakout session at the Bruderhof retreat. I was part of a small group there that talked among ourselves about art, storytelling, and faith.
At one point, a participant who teaches composition said that kids today need less to know how to write than how to read. She meant that they cannot comprehend what they’re given to read. I asked her to explain that, and she began by saying that they don’t have much grasp on what a story is. Another teacher jumped in and said that students today tend to approach stories with the intention of diagnosing the authors. The first teacher said yes, that’s exactly right.
What emerged from the exchange was a shared recognition among these Christian teachers that young people today lack the ability to see stories (as well as art) as being revelatory of transcendence. If I understood these teachers correctly, their students think of art and literature as merely expressive of the creator’s feelings. Existence is a closed loop. There is no inherent meaning in anything. Murdering to dissect is their fundamental approach to all things; their hearts do not watch or receive. This is what Philip Rieff meant when he said that we have created a culture that is in truth an “anti-culture,” because its relentless self-criticism makes it impossible to cultivate anything.
I wish I had taken notes so I could better recall what these teachers said, because it struck me as profound. I understood them as saying that their students don’t approach texts with the expectation that the texts contain anything that could, to borrow Cardinal Ratzinger’s arresting phrase, be the arrow that pierces our hearts and in so doing opens our eyes to Truth. If so, that testifies to a profound conceptual blindness. As distressing as this was to hear, the conversation gave me hope for the book I’m proposing to write. It has to do with the importance of learning how to perceive meaning in the world — specifically, in Beauty (art, literature, culture, the natural world) and in Goodness (self-sacrificing love made incarnate). It’s about reading the world as signs pointing the way to the God who is truly there. From the introductory chapter I’ve already written:
My argument here depends on two fundamental claims, one theological and the other metaphysical. Everything else follows from them. They are:
The material world is not inert matter upon which humans project meaning, but rather is charged with meaning that humans discover. This is not a specifically Christian claim. It predates Christianity, though Christianity internalized it.
God – the God of the Bible – is the eternal creator whose existence is bound, in a particular way, to the created order. The world doesn’t have meaning because God willed it to have meaning. It has meaning because it is an inextricable part of God’s Being. [UPDATE: This should read “because it participates in God’s Being.” — RD]
Both these claims require unpacking. We’ll get to that later. At this point, it’s important for readers to understand that these claims were universally shared by all Christians until around the 14th century. What happened? This leads us to a third claim upon which this book is based:
We postmoderns are as endarkened as we are enlightened. The idea that we progress through time towards a more complete knowledge of the truth, is a modern ideological paradigm that ought to be contested. In fact, though we have gained greatly in many ways of knowledge, we have forgotten other truths that our ancestors used to know.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant,” said Albert Einstein. “We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
This book explores the nature of the gift and shows how Christians today can rediscover its presence and power in their lives. I am convinced that the future of Christianity depends on it.
In a different conversation at the retreat, I spoke with a young man who is working on his PhD at a prestigious university, and talked about how he’s taught classes to both graduate students at the university, and to high school kids at a local Christian school. The comparative experience is affecting the way he thinks about his vocational future.
“By the time students get to graduate school, their mental architecture is mostly in place,” he said. “We’re only able to provide them with ornamentation, for the most part. But high schoolers are still building that foundation. You can have a much bigger impact on a life when you teach at that level.”
He added, “We may be sending a lot more high school students off to study STEM fields in college, but at least I can try to send the students I have off to study STEM with some Plato in their heads.”
We are going to have to start teaching our children how to see with new eyes … which is to say, with very old ones.