With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Beauty As The Source of True Religious Experience

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. -- Nostra Aetate, 2.
Vatican II promoted a long held belief among many Christians: non-Christian faiths contain elements of truth, goodness, and spiritual beauty and these elements not only should be preserved, but promoted by Christians engaging inter-religious dialogues with non-Christians. St Paul understood this on Mars Hill:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For I as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Acts 17:22-23.

Even without looking into the apophatic overtones of the statue, we can quickly observe that Paul was able to use the religious devotions of the Athenians as a means of promoting the Christian faith. He was not critical of the Athenians, rather he found what he could affirm in their faith, and synthesized it with his own message. He found, to put it plainly, religious truth in a non-Christian religion.

Christian theological history is a history containing many such affirmations. Inculturation is one place where this has taken place, and perhaps it is the most important. Yet there comes a time in theological reflection that many ask about other religious traditions: what truths do they hold, and what can I learn from them to enrich my own faith? In asking this question, there is also a second question which must be asked, and that is, what in these other religious traditions are incompatible with my Christian faith? If we do not ask this second question, it is very easy to lose our grip on our faith and end up promoting an incoherent syncretism.

There is nothing wrong in looking for religious truth in other religious traditions, but when we do that many questions can be asked, such as: Are we just looking for statements which reiterate what we already believe? Are we open to truly learning from them and coming out of the encounter with something new, something we might not have learned in our own religious tradition? Suggesting we can learn something new from other religious traditions sounds heretical to many. Is not the fullness of truth in the Catholic faith? Perhaps, but the human grasp of that truth is limited. If the argument were valid, it would be valid not only against those looking for truth in the religious realm, but in any enterprise looking for truth, such as the sciences. In saying the Catholic faith contains the fullness of truth, one should look at it as saying all truth should find itself at home in the Church, since the Church is the pillar and ground of truth (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15).

How can we, as Christians, go about looking for truth in other religious traditions, so that we not only promote it among the non-Christians, but use it to enrich our own faith? This is not an easy question. Early Christians seemed to think truth would be discernable in itself, and often looked for statements from non-Christians which sounded like they were in accord with the Christian faith. There are two problems here: one, we cannot assume that what one religious tradition means by those words is exactly the same thing we mean by them (the problem of eisigesis). The second is that we are not looking to learn from these religious traditions. We are just using them to proselytize their practitioners based upon our own pre-conceived notions of truth. Yet, St Justin Martyr, following Paul, established with this principle a good foundation by which Christians were able to find truth in pre-Christian societies:

We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word [Logos, Reason] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably [following the principle of the Logos] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. --St Justin Martyr, First Apology in Ante-Nicene Fathers (1), eds. Roberts and Donaldson. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), p.178 [XLVI]. Brackets are my own commentary.

One can easily believe that the Logos (Jesus, God the Son) has been at work in all civilizations, in many subtle and diverse ways, and that the Logos has inspired people within them to discover truth. One can easily believe these truths took root in the cultural and religious milieu they were discovered and became a part of the religious traditions of the culture in which that truth was found. It is not difficult to believe that this truth then developed, as all religious truths do, and in its developed form, took on a form which is a mixture of wisdom and error. If we can see this has happened in Christian history (and who can deny it?), then it is not difficult to acknowledge this is the case in other religious traditions. When we confront non-Christians traditions today, we must then see them as bearers of a religious experience with truth that contains much which is good and much which needs reform. This is not only true with non-Christians, but with ourselves, as we know our faith is a faith which is ever reforming itself, purifying and improving itself through the centuries. But what is good should be preserved, and through dialogue, what is good in other religious traditions should be able to find its home and acceptance in the Church. This was the principle St Thomas Aquinas held not only with Aristotle, but with all religious faiths he encountered and debated.

There should not be a problem for Christians looking for truth in other religious traditions, nor should their be a problem with Christians acknowledging that these other traditions might have discovered truths or insights on truth that we have as Christians neglected. If this is a problem, we can hardly admit that scientists are discovering new truths. Who, using a computer, could ever deny this fact? Perhaps one way to look at religion is to see religion as a scientific search for truth in the fullest sense, that is, in a sense which does not limit itself to the material world. It is a dangerous search, to be sure, but dare we ignore it?

This brings us back to the question, what way do we have to determine if a religious idea has its foundation in truth? One possible way, and one way recommended by many, is the way of morality. If the truth is the good, then when we discover that which is good, we discover that which is true. C. S. Lewis follows this view in many of his writings. In Mere Christianity, he looks to fairness as a category by which we can discern a belief in universal right and wrong, and from that universal law of right and wrong, we can establish an order of truth. His greatest, most sustained use of this methodology is in The Abolition of Man where tries to discern a common ethical heritage accepted by us, not by logical proof but by intuition, which he calls “the Tao.” This idea is useful, because it helps promote common humanitarian work among members of world religions. It does not, however, provide what we want, which is a way to discover where and when the divine has been encountered in other religious traditions.

This brings us to the third transcendental, that of beauty. If beauty is truth, then perhaps we can say, when we find beauty, we have found truth. Beauty is the transcendental which brings us joy; it is the one which draws us in and brings out the bounty of life’s experiences. It is by no mistake that of the three transcendentals, beauty is most associated with the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. It is also not a mistake that sanctification, holiness, is called beatification and finds its end in the Beatific Vision. If the Logos is one of the revealing arms of the Father, then the Spirit is the other. The Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Beauty, is working with, complementing, and enlivening the work of the Logos, turning truth alive, making it quick and free, instead of cold and bound. “The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3.8.The Spirit is everywhere present and fills all things, bringing joy and happiness to those who are attuned to its presence, revealing the way to the Father, the way of truth. To discover where truth is, look for beauty. To discover truth, you must discover beauty. Error is the “tuneless voice” that J.R.R. Tolkien equates with evil in his poem, Mythopoeia. Thus, a search for truth in other religious traditions means for us to search for what is holy, what is beautiful within them. Terrifying brutality, such as we find in the human sacrifices practiced by the Aztecs, proclaims its error by the ugly monstrosity it is.

Beauty unites. It creates the bond of love needed to sustain the pillar and ground of the truth. St Paul said love, not truth, is the greatest of all. Beauty, and not cold rigorous logic, provides the field necessary to relate religious experience with religious experience. It provides not only the foundation of truth but of goodness, for all that is good is beautiful, all that is holy is beautiful, all that is holy draws us in through beauty to love. This is because the beautiful is the good, and they are united in showing us love as the way of truth as The Fifth Century of Various Texts attributed to St Maximus the Confessor in the Philokalia (the love of beauty!) states,

The beautiful is identical with the good, for all things seek the beautiful and good at every opportunity, and there is no being which does not participate in them. They extend to all that is, being what is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved. Observe how the divine force of love – the erotic power pre-existing in the good – has given birth to the same blessed force within us, through which we long for the beautiful and good in accordance with the words, ‘I became a lover of her beauty’ (Wisdom 8:2), and ‘Love her and she will sustain you; fortify her and she will exalt you’ (Prov. 4:6, 8). St Maximus the Confessor, Fifth Century of Various Texts in The Philokalia Volume II. Ed. and trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p.280.

If beauty becomes the category by which we engage in inter-religious dialogue, then it must be said there is a danger we must be concerned about. Beauty indeed does lead to the divine and represents, when it is found, an experience of the sacred. However, beauty enshrined and encased in religious tradition can be transformed from a vehicle to the divine into a siren, an idol, which becomes an end to itself. This is not the fault of beauty, nor the fault of the religious experience – just as it is not the fault of Christ that the Apostles wanted to inappropriately hold onto the experience of the Transfiguration. The idol needs to be destroyed, certainly, but not the religious experience, the true sense of beauty and the Spirit hinted at within its foundation. To destroy the idol does not mean to destroy the beauty, but to cut off the fetters we have put onto the idol itself, holding it back from its true mission to lead us to the divine.

Labels: ,


  • At 9/12/2006 5:20 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    What a fantastic post, Henry!
    And, if I may be permitted to say, very very metaxologically thought out - truly beyond any kind of Modern dialectic: you affirm that somehow, without ever eschewing our reliance on the Word, we can and indeed must look to its seeming 'others' even in our own understanding of the very constitution of the Word (Christ).

    The notion of the 'fullness of truth' is certainly tricky, as you do well to address. It seems that too often, this very phrase, the very notion of 'fullness,' is interpreted in a supersessionist sense, or in the sense that it is synonymous with 'exclusively exhuastive'. This kind of (mis)interpretation would make it unnecessary to seek anywhere else but our own tradition. Of course, the Word is in itself the infinite truth. But such a misreading is myopic relative to our human mode of knowing.

    As you imply, however, fullness can be read as an overflow of plenitude, that then requires us to find even the excess of this overflow of truth in our others.

    Here's a question, though, I pose to you with full sincerity:
    what are the non-negotiables? By this I mean, are there, in your opinion, doctrines which - as worded - cannot be reconstituted through our encounters? It seems, as JPII insisted, true dialogue cannot require total and complete openness on the part of the participants, but instead requires that they bring to the table their own unique truth claims (and I do not intend to imply here that you think differently).

    I ask this simply because it seems to me that this is the question that might separate your position from, say, a Knitterian perspective that (at least at one time) would say even Christ's own divinity is not necessarily "etched in stone" as it were.

  • At 9/12/2006 6:31 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Well, this was what I was working towards the last few days. I had to sit down and write it out this morning while the thoughts were still clear.

    Yes, there are non-negotiables. Following Vatican II and the Catholic tradition, I affirm that the greatest revelation is in the incarnation and all other revelation and religious experience has to be read in that light. It is an inclusive, not exclusive light.

    Yet, in an encounter with that light, all religious tradition, even our own, is shown for what it truly is. The faith is ever reforming not only for other religious traditions as it encounters Christ, but for us as well. It is all too easy to become satisfied where we are at and remain, and close ourselves off.

    On the other hand, I am not saying it is bad, at times, to take a rest, and remain where one is. In fact, in any journey, it is necessary. We need to rest, and prepare ourselves for the next stage of the journey.

    The dogmas of the faith, correctly understood, are the true non-negotiables, and of them, I would say the most improtant are our faith in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the role of the Church, and the Sacraments. Indeed, one can say this is true because they are the ultimate expressions of beauty as we find in our faith.

    Of course, the point remains that they must be correctly understood -- and as we continue in our journey, I think we all find our understanding develops throughout our life. The mystery remains mystery, even if our learned ignorance becomes more learned.

    Certainly, I also think what is true for us is true for members of any religious tradition. In a dialogue among religions, its participants should be faithful memebrs of each tradition, to express the most authentic representation of the traditions, so that the different faithful can see the spirit and identity of each religious tradition at its fullest. It is only then that we can encounter the sacred experiences enshrined in other religious traditions and in return, can they see the experience of the Incarnation in ours and the light it shines upon all religious experience. Without such honesty, the dialogue no longer is a dialogue of religions, but of people trying to please each other by simplistic sophistry.


Post a Comment

<< Home