The Beauty of Orthodoxy

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

In our relativistic age, when it is difficult to convince people of truth claims and hard to persuade people committed to a libertarian, individualistic worldview that there exists such a thing as the Good (especially when it becomes apparent that this is something to which they are obligated to conform their lives to by adapting their behaviour), another type of evangelisation has often been suggested – namely the use of Beauty, in that it lowers people’s defences and draws them in to the Faith by purely attractive means, without any of the claims that Truth and Goodness make on the individual will.

The case has been made (and made well), by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Hans Urs von Balthasar in particular, that by using the Beautiful to alter people’s horizons and soften their hearts, they will then become much more receptive to ideas about morality and truth. This seems to me an eminently sensible approach: the relativism of our age is not just endemic, but is often hostile to any alternative views (a hostility that is almost a necessity in maintaining the relativist position, as to allow the veracity of any other viewpoint would undermine its whole case, veracity being the very thing it denies), and a good deal of the time people just do not want to listen. Beauty however makes no claims and asks no overt questions – it simply presents itself before us; it just is.

More specifically, beauty is thought best to be presented through either the lives of the saints or the many works of art that the Catholic Faith has inspired and patronised over the centuries. However, I think that paradoxically, a case could also be made for the beauty of doctrinal orthodoxy to be used in the same way. This seems at first slightly counterintuitive, as doctrinal orthodoxy is the pre-eminent case of those objective truth-claims that the relativist is so keen to avoid. However, if we direct people to the elegance of the whole doctrinal system – how the ideas fit together, how they balance one another and create a complex but harmonious whole – and ask the relativist to consider that elegance without concern as to whether it is actually true or not, this may have just as much attractive power as the saint, the sculpture, or the motet.

As we are naturally attracted to beautiful things and beautiful lives, we are also inclined to beautiful ideas, and despite the foundational position that the relativist holds – namely that there is no such thing as objective truth – this is not necessarily inconsistent with the natural capacity we all have to admire the way ideas are constructed and how they relate to one another in a system; the relativist may not believe that any of it is true, but he or she can still admire the splendour of the thing, and Christian orthodoxy is indeed a most resplendent thing – romantic, precipitous and painstakingly well-proportioned:

The idea of a birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious…

…A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

This is the romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

Orthodoxy (1999), pp.145-146, Hodder & Stoughton.

            The need to stipulate precisely what is and what is not the case regarding (e.g.) the two natures of the Person of Christ, the way the sacraments mediate His grace, the way in which our Redemption has been achieved; the meticulous balancing act that has to take place to avoid any one of a number of easy compromises that would lead to a substandard and detrimental vision of God and mankind, has created a staggering achievement of elegance and art, what Chesterton describes as ‘having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic’ (ibid). Orthodoxy is beautiful, and thus has an intrinsic attraction regardless of whether one believes in the truths that it enshrines.

As Chesterton goes on to explain though, recognition of the real depth of romance and beauty that orthodoxy presents can ultimately only arrive via a change of perspective within the subject, and this can itself only come about by the humble recognition that the Church has been endowed with an authority that we must defer to – that it ‘has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing’ (ibid, p.234); that the Church is a trustworthy source that consistently teaches what, even though it sometimes may not be popular, resonates with what we know from honest appraisal of our experience and the deepest intuitions of our inner being, and so warrants our fidelity to it:

I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven…

…With all this human experience, allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.

ibid, pp.230, 233-234.

            Though someone may, as it were, admire Christian orthodoxy from a distance and find it to be a beautiful thing, inevitably the admirer will have to ask why it is that it could hold such attractive power if truth not be true – that its patterns of interlocking ideas and fine distinctions can have a hold on the imagination will give many (though not all) pause for thought as to why, if there be no such thing as truth, balance and distinction in a system of thought should be of any conceivable interest, let alone be beautiful. Also, as Chesterton makes clear, part of the reason orthodoxy is beautiful is because it is a living system – it does not just have the elegance of a mathematical formula, but also the glow and verve of vitality about it.

Recognition of this will also then lead the relativist to ask (if they have come this far along the road) what the source of this vitality is, and what foundation roots the diversity of life that these doctrines allow to thrive. The answer to this is not just truth of course, but truth that binds, that has an objective authority and makes objective claims on the individual: ‘accept me, or reject me, but do not pretend that I do not exist,’ it says. Just as the lives of the saints lead one to ask what it is that motivates them to live their lives thus, and as sacred art begs the question as to what could have inspired such rapturous visions, the beauty of orthodoxy compels one to engage with what it has to say, and by what authority it says these things.

As Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians, it is good for us to ‘think about these things’ – and if we present orthodoxy as one amongst the many things in life that can be admired purely for its loveliness, it may well make it easier for some to admire it for the truths that it preserves as well, when they would otherwise not be open to them.

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One thought on “The Beauty of Orthodoxy

  1. Pingback: Impoliteness and the Loss of Beauty | Journey Towards Easter

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