In Defense of Beauty

It’s said that the three marks of the divine–that which is transcendent–is beauty, goodness, and truth. That which is beautiful, good, or truthful points towards God. This is why Catholic churches have traditionally been built with rich artwork and soaring architecture.

Modern society is at battle with these marks of transcendence. Not only is popular culture seeking to make goodness and truth relative, it also seeks to destroy beauty in favor of efficiency. We see examples of this with the literal destruction of beauty in Catholic churches across the country: high altars ripped down, intricate altar rails thrown away, detailed stained glass imagery replaced by abstract colors, beautiful vestments replaced by schlocky polyester sheets, and many more examples. Secular life has many examples too; most modern buildings favor high-efficiency materials to produce cookie-cutter strip malls dotting our roads, deep and meaningful music, artwork, and literature exists but seems to be harder and harder to find. Gone are the days when someone who cherished authentic beauty in society is to be regarded civilized.

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The soul’s longing for beauty may be hard to easily satisfy in today’s world but those who seek to live a counter-cultural, authentic, better and joyful life need to try. One must ask of everything surrounding their life, “does this reflect goodness, truth, or beauty”? It’s not the most efficient way of living, but it does produce better results. This point is reflected over and over by Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Cons, “beauty is more important than efficiency”:

Appreciation of aesthetic quality–that is, beauty–is not a luxury, but key to the good life

In my now-heightened awareness of the lack of beauty plaguing both our churches and culture, I found the recent article by Paul Krause particularly edifying. He more eloquently states the same point while citing ancient thinkers such as Cicero and Platinus and their impact on classic Christian philosophy. These notions were once obvious to Christians. This unfortunately is no longer.

What’s hopeful, however, is the recent “re-renovations” of previously destroyed churches, the formation of architectural firms specializing in traditional beauty, and priests interested in offering reverent Masses (especially the TLM).

Quoting only parts from A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition (emphases mine):

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

More…

[Plotinus stated] “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”… As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values.

The quote above is great. Relativism of beauty, truth, and goodness has an end result of not just the simple absence of each mark but a destruction of each. What did we see bishops and priests do in the 70’s? They didn’t just simply start making ugly new churches, they quite literally destroyed the beauty of old churches. The “art” that replaced traditional sacred art in many suburban parishes are kitschy felt banners and horrendously cheesy guitar music. Gross.

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person.

…in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

We all should start discerning what is beautiful in our homes and lives. Then we should slowly start surrounding our minds, bodies, and souls not only with what is truthful and good but also is beautiful. ☩

An Unfortunate Graph

A recent Gallup poll highlights Americans’ current opinions on the moral acceptability of various practices. I’ll let the graph speak for itself after adding only two points

  1. 22% of Americans are registered Catholics and 71% of Americans are considered Christian…
  2. The order below is no coincidence. Widespread acceptance of artificial birth control paved the way for the two runners-up (as predicted by Bl. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae). In turn, widespread divorce and promiscuity promotes instability within society which leads to more risky or unfortunate practices.

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CS Lewis: Holiness isn’t Dull, it’s Irresistible

If Christianity feels like a chore to you, dig deeper. Once it clicks, it’s like the Wizard of Oz; life goes from black & white to color. Every person, art, and (upright) activity you love…you love more deeply. Beauty is found in places you never expected. As Saint John Paul II stated: “life with Christ is a wonderful adventure”.

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If you don’t believe seeking holiness is joyful, exciting, and irresistible, keep digging, keep reading, keep praying, and seek out beautiful liturgies to surround your reception of the Eucharist.

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls’ but they are the walls of a playground.

-GK Chesterton

Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart Debates Catholicism on 1984’s ‘Crossfire’

Earlier this week I flipped on the TV without caring the station and flopped onto the bed. Up popped four gentlemen passionately discussing a religious topic. I didn’t give it much thought since there’s often protestant programs popping up on obscure channels–especially for those who don’t care to have cable like myself. Too lazy to move and caring too little to change it, I watched the men discuss how faith alone attains salvation (sola fide) and good works are worthless. It wasn’t a surprising topic to expect from four southern televangelists.

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SBN is Swaggart’s TV Network

I watched a few minutes more until the discussion took a break for an infomercial-like advertisement featuring one of the men on the discussion panel, “Buy Jimmy Swaggart’s Commentary on the Book of Romans before supplies run out!” The televangelist and salesman went on, “and if you buy now, I’ll throw in the Q&A book Ask Jimmy for the low price of $30!”.

Who was this guy and who cares about his commentary on Romans, lets hear his thoughts on James I thought. Knowing the name Swaggart sounded familiar to me, I did some quick research (Google) and learned a lot in mere minutes. I realized how well-known and popular he was through the 80’s and 90’s as a protestant preacher, singer, and TV personality. The best takeaway was a clip I came across of him on a 1984 episode of CNN’s Crossfire debating Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden about Catholicism. It’s interesting because both Pat and Tom defend Catholicism despite representing politically conservative and liberal positions (a cable news liberal defending the Church, what?!). Mr. Swaggart, though, correctly jabs the liberal Tom Braden when he tells him he has no clue about what he is talking about when it comes to Christianity.

As a millennial born in the same year as this broadcast, the early form of this show is new to me. Also new to me is the fact that Pat Buchanan is a Catholic (perhaps I knew that he was at least culturally when he ran for president, those are different). Mr. Buchanan does a pretty good job defending the Faith and employs the classic argument against the protestant belief of sola scriptura by asking Jim what determines his interpretation of scripture is accurate but not someone else’s, specifically the pope’s along with a magisterium of bishops in agreement. Braden came off as a sentimentalist and shot himself in the foot a few times, which set Swaggart up for some (mostly accurate) body shots. ☩

Forget the election chaos, focus on the Kingdom

It seems that this election is speeding up the continuation of our spiral into chaos, anger, and fear in this country. It’s a scandal that conservative-minded people, especially those who seek stability for religious freedom, must vote for a man who is known to express remarkably vulgar sentiments and often seems insincere with his recently acquired conservative positions.

Even worse is that the other option is a person who goes beyond simply speaking of these sentiments by actually seeking to ruin women (and one child) who have come out as sexual assault victims in order to gain political power and wealth. This along with the desire not only for abortion on-demand  up until the moment of birth but also to have tax payers foot the bill. A vote for this option would also be voting in favor of what is essentially a referendum if one is okay with even less transparency in the executive branch and what would likely be a level of corruption that no past presidential administration comes close to matching.

It’s true that voting for the “lesser of two evils” is something that genuinely does need to be considered every election cycle. This is something we do every day in small and big ways. Similar to the situation Aron Ralston found himself in when got his arm trapped under a boulder while hiking alone (and depicted in the movie 127 Hours), it sometimes makes sense to go through pain if you know it increases the odds of a better outcome. Aron cut his arm off with a pocket knife and successfully avoided death.

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But there is a point where the “lesser of two evils” argument breaks down. While I’m not suggesting we are at this point with our two options (as it can be argued), I’m suggesting that political conservatives be careful not to ignore how close it is approaching. At a certain point it’s like arguing if we should vote for the person who murdered 20 people or the one who murdered 18 people. Eventually there will be a line crossed where it makes sense to simply not accept the choices before us.

Alas there is (and always will be) hope despite these dark times. The good news it that we are “resident aliens” in this representative democracy. Our true home is with our Father who art in heaven. And we answer to our sovereign king Jesus Christ whose monarchy spans the universe. Ultimately we have hope for an outcome that rests beyond what happens after this election. The Adversary wants us to submit to anxiety and fear so we lash out, make bad decisions, and are overcome by the world and the political systems that reside within it. Don’t.

Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. -Mt 8:24-26

What to make of what’s going on? Well, our country is divided more than ever, people care more about politics than principles, we are a post-Christian nation, and the only institution we have that can match the corruption of our politics is our mainstream news media. All we can do as individual Christians is evangelize, pray, and fast.

No one knows what will happen on November 8 or what will happen after that. What we do know is that we are not made for this world. We are made for heaven. This world is simply the ship that takes us there and as long as we stay aboard through daily conversion, faith in Christ, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Confession and Communion we will one day reach the outcome that no political election can satisfy.☩