The following essay is adapted from remarks given at NYU’s Catholic Center as part of the Thomistic Institute’s “The Art of the Beautiful” Lecture Series. The remarks in their entirety can be read here.
In Technopoly, Neil Postman says that overly technological cultures, “driven by the impulse to invent, have as their aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique.”
The “grand reductionism” is becoming increasingly apparent. We focus too often on becoming good processors and producers, manipulators of data, rather on than on becoming good human beings—critical minds, and noble hearts, capable of appreciation, engagement, and thought—and hungry for adventure and romance.
Christian Smith is a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. He’s conducted extensive research on the religious beliefs of young Americans from every major faith group. And he’s concluded that regardless of their religious affiliation, young Americans tend to subscribe to a faith he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
The dogma of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is this: God exists, and desires that people are good, nice, and fair to one another. God can be called upon to assure happiness and to resolve crises. Being good, nice, and fair assures eternal salvation in heaven.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the “grand reduction” of religious thought and practice to a set of sentimental and affirming principles, absent the presence of a transcendent, personal, and transformative God. It is a religious faith of mediocrity, of insularity, and of loneliness. It requires no greatness of soul. And it engenders no virtue, no charity, and no heroism.
Christianity is not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Christianity is the faith of unmerited greatness—the faith of heroic virtue, unsurpassed hope, and unbounded charity. The Christian life elevates humanity in the great sanctifying process of theosis. By our very baptism, in fact, we are given the capacity to love precisely as God loves. And at the core of the Christian life is a transformative religious relationship with a living person—Jesus Christ.
The mission of the New Evangelization is to proclaim the living person of Jesus Christ to those for whom God is a benevolent, impersonal, and mostly impotent figure.
We have a tendency to respond to reduction with more reduction. Religious minimalism fits well with our iconoclastic, puritan American heritage. And too often, we approach the New Evangelization from a technocratic perspective. We are in danger of reducing even our evangelical and catechetical efforts to the mere transmission of information, to technical processes honed by data analysis to produce a particular outcome.
Forming personal relationships cannot be reduced to metrics and algorithms. Instead, forming personal relationships depends on love. And love begins with an appreciation of the beloved’s beauty. Nine hundred years ago, Richard of St. Victor wrote “ubi amor, ibi oculos”—where there is love, there the eye is also.
John Senior, in The Restoration of Christian Culture, explains the phrase this way—“the lover is the only one who really sees the truth about a person . . . we can only love what we know because we have first touched, tasted, smelled, heard and seen.” Knowing and loving Christ begins with seeing glimmers of divinity in the beautiful things of this world.
I’d like to suggest three ways in which beauty can bring souls into communion with Jesus Christ. The first is the restoration of the beautiful to the world of art, architecture, and culture. We now suffer from a cult of ugliness and utility. And this is manifestly apparent in much of contemporary architecture. The architectural maxim that “form follows function” is a way of saying that design only exists to facilitate production. Architecture is overwhelmed by technocracy. Oscar Wilde recognized the danger of this kind of thinking. “Put usefulness first, and you lose it,” he said. “Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.”
My second suggestion is the rekindling of the Christian imagination through literature. I had dinner recently with a very good friend of mine—a former roommate in fact. He converted to the faith shortly before I did. He was from Kansas City, and his father was the foreman of a bag factory. While we were in college, his father lost his job. My friend, Alan, went home for the summer, and saw that his father was struggling with his recent job loss. His father had never attended college, or had any liberal arts education. Alan gave his father the dialogues of Plato. During that long summer, his father read them carefully—often rereading chapters three or four times. Alan told me during that summer, he and his father had the most extraordinary conversations—about truth, and hope, and justice, and love. A new sense of wonder was awakened in my friend’s father.
Literature opens our imaginations to wonder. Reading good books exposes the contemplative part of our humanity. Good books can spur in us a sense of justice, and charity, and generosity. They can expand our souls and inspire our hearts to strive for greatness. We ought to begin forming book clubs and literary circles, comprised of ordinary believers, reading and reflecting on important ideas and beautiful stories.
My final point is about recovering a sense of wonder in the liturgy. Common worship—liturgy—is a place for formation in Christian wonder. In Modern Culture, probably his best book, Roger Scruton remarks that “enlightened people often mock the controversies surrounding the liturgy, and profess not to understand the desire for the old words, save for ‘aesthetic reasons'. They are right to see a resemblance between aesthetic interest and the act of worship. But they are wrong in thinking this resemblance to be merely accidental. The quasi-aesthetic absorption in the holy words and gestures is a component in the redemptive process. In participating, the believer is effecting a change in his spiritual standing. The ceremony is not so much a means to this end, as a prefiguration of it. In the ritual the believer confronts God, and is purified by standing in God's gaze.”
The absorption of holy words and gestures is a component of the redemptive process. Without our even knowing it, holy liturgy effects change in our hearts. Because good and holy liturgy lifts up our hearts—sursum corda, as the Roman Canon reads—to an experience of transcendent and ineffable mysteries.
Today, Pope Francis says that the pathway to Christ is the “via pulchritudinis.” Beauty responds to the flat-souled, reductive culture in which we live. Pope Benedict wrote often that beauty is an arrow that wounds—by that, he meant that it penetrates hearts which might never be turned by reason or virtue.
If we are serious about transforming culture for Jesus Christ, beauty has a role to play. Of course, after this lecture, we might all look at our phones for a moment, and when we go home, we might turn on the television. But we need to create space for beauty. We need to foster its cultivation. Beauty will move us to contemplation, and contemplation to Jesus Christ. Beauty will move us to the incarnate Love of God.
Dostoevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world.” It might. But only if we foster beauty, and then invite others to the experience, in order that they might experience the harrowing and transcendent beauty of the Most Blessed Trinity.
James Conley is the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Lincoln.