I was hanging out at a bar once in college and some guy I didn’t know made a comment about how foolish the idea of God was. He was some smug engineering student, and I remember feeling angry, resentful, and — to be honest—a bit fearful. I mean, who was I — a lowly humanities major — to have a worthwhile opinion on the existence (or lack thereof) of a divine being? Now, let me be clear. At this time in my life, though I believed in God, I wasn’t a faithful Christian. Sure, I would try to get to Mass on Sundays if it wasn’t too much trouble, and I committed myself to prayer — the petition sort mostly — when finals neared or I wanted a girl I liked to work out.
But still, I felt angry and fearful when this guy scoffed at the idea of God, as if he was implying, “Haven’t you heard? Everyone knows God is an illusion of humanity’s collective existential neuroses and fears, dude!” At the time, I wasn’t exactly equipped to engage in a vigorous debate with the fellow. Somehow, contending that God exists because I feel his presence and just know there is something beyond what we see wouldn’t be supremely convincing for a self-proclaimed man of reason. Instead, the conversation veered thanks to the arrival of another round of hearty stouts. And that was that.
As I became more serious about my faith a couple years later, I began to dig into the philosophical and theological wisdom of the Catholic Church. I had always sensed that God existed, but I had to affirm such a hunch with hard, chewable morsels of rational arguments. I studied the great thinkers of the Church, the revelatory insights of theist scientists, the fascinating history of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and the seemingly improbable development of the Catholic Church, which has outpaced any other human organization by a substantial margin. I was fortunately confronted with more reasons for God’s existence than I knew what to do with. And yet, all the while, I was thinking: I knew it.
And how did I know it?
Because of my experience of the beautiful and the good.
G.K. Chesterton acknowledged that the sciences, as necessary and marvelous as they are, are limited in expressing the complexity of human life. That’s why the artist will always have a seat at the table in any thriving society. When the ability to offer glimpses into what makes humanity different than animals is lost, the window into the truth of who we are is as well.
“There will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art.” – G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Beauty, in the arts or otherwise, reveals a divine intelligence behind the curtain of the cosmos. For me personally, good art always spoke to me. I couldn’t deny that it elevated my soul, pointing to something beyond the material, ordinary and mundane.
“If art is good art, if it is true art, if it is beautiful art, then it is bearing witness to the Author of the good, the true, and the beautiful.” – R.C. Sproul
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, thought there were three stages that led to spiritual maturity: the aesthetic (beautiful), the ethical and the religious. The first one, the aesthetic, is the initial and easiest stretch on the journey toward God. Very few doubt the power and sway that a beautiful song, painting, film or book has over our imagination. Bishop Barron unpacks this great philosopher’s insight in his book, Seeds of the Word. In one essay, he looks at the Woody Allen movie Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. I have to admit, I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen some of Allen’s other films like Annie Hall,Manhattan and Midnight in Paris, which all toy loosely with similar themes. Bishop Barron says this about the characters in Vicky, Christina, Barcelona:
“What they all do — to varying degrees — is to reduce sexual relationship to the level of good food and music and art; something that satisfies at the aesthetic level.”
Isn’t that what we do? We only want all of the good that the world affords us: art, beauty, pleasure, sex, good food and drink, entertainment. That’s why a lukewarm, unserious “spirituality” can garner our allegiance with ease. And to be honest, this is exactly the type of vanilla Christianity that I took solace in when I was younger. It only demands an appreciation of the beautiful. The not-so-pleasant news, though, is that the journey toward truth — and the real Christian faith — demands much more than an appreciation of the beautiful. These small pleasures that we find as a comforting distraction require nothing of us except “oooohs” and “awwws,” which make them easy to swallow a la carte. However, the jump from the “aesthetic” to the “ethical,” and then finally the “religious” is difficult.
But I don’t want to focus on the need to jump to those next stages, as important as it is. Instead, I want to focus on how beauty — through music, books, movies, nature, etc. — is an undeniable vehicle of grace that can draw us into his presence. Of course, beauty extends beyond the arts and natural world, bringing into its fold all of the good and virtuous acts we experience in this life. Goodness is beautiful. It’s beautiful that a mother sacrifices her time, comfort and youth so her child may live a more abundant and rich life. It’s beautiful that a man gives up married love to become a priest and serve his parish. It’s beautiful that God came down to earth to give his life for the salvation of all his children.
Peter Kreeft talks about how beauty and goodness are one: they are not necessarily separate and hierarchically ordered goods, so to speak, but rather, supreme beauty points to supreme goodness, and vice versa.
“I think beauty is one of the most important forms of goodness. Beauty is very good. And goodness is the highest form of beauty. The single most beautiful thing in this world is a saint…Beauty, as well as goodness, is an attribute of God, and therefore eternal and necessary. And since God is one, beauty and goodness must be ultimately one. So beauty is good.”
That’s why I have always believed in God. Because even before I understood the rich metaphysical arguments of the Christian faith and established a deep and abiding relationship with Christ through prayer, I always knew God had something to do with the beauty and goodness I witnessed in my life. At least for me, it was never the theological or philosophical arguments that had final sway. Don’t get me wrong, they are important, and if you’re willing to look you’ll find more than enough evidence across several domains of thought — history, philosophy and science — to justify a very reasonable belief in God. But for me, as for Chesterton, such things will always be limited in fully expressing the beauty and mystery of the human condition.
I have always believed in God because Christianity sheds the most light on the mystery of human life. Some argue that all experiences of beauty are seemingly meaningless consequences of evolution. But for me, this is just not good enough. It doesn’t satiate my heart or mind. I’m not here to trash atheists or any atheistic worldviews; it just doesn’t make enough sense to me. The very explanation lacks beauty. I have yet to find a more beautiful way of life aside from Christianity that affirms the dignity and value of every person — regardless of their state, mental capacity, race, sinfulness, etc. — without fail while still adamantly opposing anything that stands against human flourishing (i.e. sin). Such a stance toward human life is, for lack of a better word, beautiful.
I have always believed in God because I witnessed those who had faith in my life — my parents and grandparents, certain teachers and friends — demonstrate lives of heroic beauty and virtue. You can argue with a theist, agnostic, or atheist, but you can’t argue with Blessed Mother Theresa or St. Francis. Any arguments hurled at the virtuous and noble become trivial, petty and ultimately, the complete opposite of beauty. Goodness and beauty, in their raw and unadulterated forms, are always the best arguments for God.
Of course, beauty and art can’t prove God’s existence definitively. Yet with beauty, the beauty is that it can’t ever be measured, organized, codified. We know it simply is. It exists. We cannot put it into words, but whatever it is — this thing called beauty — I thank God for it.
For additional articles related to this one, read, “When We Don’t See God Clearly” and “Arian Foster, Atheism and the Lack of Desire for God.”
This post was first published at Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog.
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