Why Beauty?

In a talk that is destined to be a historic turning-point in discussions on the New Evangelization, Bishop Conley’s recent address (is a video forthcoming?) pointed a laser-beam at the most indisputable of the transcendentals: beauty.

Unlike the other transcendentals–being, truth, goodness, and unity–beauty is almost inarguable. Everyone believes in beauty.

That is to say, everyone except the 20th century art world believes in beauty, as Roger Scruton argues below in a piercing 2011 documentary. As a warning, there are examples of obscene modern art in this video, and they may–and frankly should be–offensive.

One of the reasons Bishop Conley’s address is so refreshing is the near-absence of beauty in most discussions on the New Evangelization. The working document for the Synod on the New Evangelization, for example, spoke of beauty in one very limited and quite underdeveloped paragraph, which neglected the vast heritage of Western liturgical art and pointed towards the East. It spoke of music not at all.

Some responses refer to the subjects of art and beauty as places for the transmission of the faith and, therefore, are to be addressed in this chapter dedicated to the relationship between faith and knowledge. Many possible reasons are given to support this request, especially those coming from the Eastern Catholic Churches who have a strong tradition in this area. They have been able to maintain a very close relation between faith and beauty. In these traditions, the relation between faith and beauty is not simply a matter of aesthetics, but is rather seen as a fundamental resource in bearing witness to the faith and developing a knowledge which is truly a “holistic” service to a person’s every human need. 

The knowledge coming from beauty, as in the liturgy, is able to take on a visible reality in its originally-intended role as a manifestation of the universal communion to which humanity and every person is called by God. Therefore, human knowledge needs again to be wedded to divine knowledge, in other words, human knowledge is to adopt the same outlook which God the Father has towards creation and, through the Holy Spirit and the Son, to see God the Father in creation. 
This fundamental role of beauty urgently needs to be restored in Christianity. In this regard, the new evangelization has an important role to play. The Church recognizes that human beings cannot exist without beauty. For Christians, beauty is found within the Paschal Mystery, in the transparency of the reality of Christ. (para. 157)

 Since the goal of Christian life is gazing on the face of God, beauty is of the utmost urgency. The beautiful is an icon of God. It is above us, elevating us. It cannot be subsumed to our whims of the moment. And as Bishop Conley penetratingly explains, beauty can be accepted even by those who have been made immune to God under any other aspect, including truth.

11 Replies to “Why Beauty?”

  1. Continuing the theme of beauty, below is the end of Gerard Manley Hopkins' masterful twin poem, The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo. The poem as a whole, read with strange effectiveness by Richard Burton here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhQwFf6Qb9U has a structure like one of the lament Psalms, in which a problem is proposed, in a subjective and emotional manner, and then resolved by remembering God. In Hopkins' poem, near-despair of lasting beauty is resolved by remembering that God, who does not change, is the One who holds beauty in store.

  2. Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver. 35
    See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
    Is, hair of the head, numbered.
    Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
    Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
    This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold 40
    What while we, while we slumbered.
    O then, weary then why
    When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
    Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
    Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder 45
    A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
    Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

  3. Excellent points, Kathy. I certainly hope that Bishop Conley's address is a game changer. Keep up the good work!

  4. Well, this gives a lot of food for thought, though I have not quite digested the entire post. A great deal of 20th century art and art music was based on the idea of totally rejecting what came before. It occurs to me that to look at Church art and music through that 60+ year old prism is really a Herculean task. To focus on the music for a moment, no wonder sacropop is placed (by some) in the same category of appropriatness as Renaissance polyphony. One has to get past the "it's all good" mentality. Maybe more thoughts on this later…

  5. "In a talk that is destined to be a historic turning-point in discussions on the New Evangelization…"

    Why this constant need to exaggerate? Speeches like this on the importance of beauty to evangelization have not been unknown in the last 50 years, even from bishops and cardinals, not to speak of the Popes, especially John Paul II and (even more) Benedict XVI.

  6. I tend to agree with Plato that beauty is a form, not a particular. Therefore, beauty can be found in everything, but not in everything by everyone.

  7. I'm unable to readily find any speech by any Pope, Cardinal or Bishop that promotes beauty as one of the transcendentals. Obviously I cannot do an exhaustive search.

    Pope Benedict often spoke of "transcendent beauty," which is probably not an identical concept, though I could be wrong. The Australian Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland believes that beauty is Pope Benedict's favorite transcendental. I'm not sure. I'm guessing his favorite transcendental is unity, but I could be mistaken.

    In any case, in this Year of Faith, when practically every professional Catholic catechist has given a dozen talks on the New Evangelization, it is really refreshing to see one such talk breaking this particular ground. In our age we ordinarily cannot preach the truth to most people, because people have become immune to truth. But, we have truth's twin beauty, endless stores of beauty, that are just lying idle, waiting to be mobilized as soon as bishops name the employment of beauty as a priority.

    A bishop has just done so. So yes, this is history.

  8. Kathy, as always, flies so far over my head. When I think of transcendentals, I think of Liszt. However, I shall try to elevate my thinking.

  9. I think that's a 20th century concept put forward by those who would wish to destroy all that came before…Where is the beauty in an icon of the Blessed Mother submerged in urine and surrounded by elephant dung? An extreme example, but it was featured at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC several years ago.

  10. I'm not sure if it's exactly true that the Synod did not mention music. It didn't specify what was included in the use of the term "art'" (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, etc.). "Art" does not refer only to visual arts.

  11. there is such a thing as beauty; Monet, Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Georgia O'Keefe. A sunset, sunrise, etc. And then there is Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, Chartres, Chateau St. Michel,

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