What do you do if you’re an ardent fan of a particular sport and you want someone else to enjoy it as well? Where do you start – by explaining the rules? Do you give them a history of the sport and a rundown of its great players? Or perhaps you take them to a match and just let them watch, so that they can see the beauty of the game for themselves.
Bishop Robert Barron, the American evangelist, uses this question to illustrate his approach to talking about the faith. His apologetics often focus on the “transcendental” values of beauty, truth and goodness – by this he means that all these three things in some sense truly exist in the world as ideals and can be embodied in our lives, in our actions, in art, and in liturgy.
For most people, he suggests, beauty is the most immediately accessible and understandable of the transcendentals. If we try to talk about goodness, i.e. the Church’s moral teaching, or truth, that is to say the theological and historical claims made by Catholics, we are likely to find ourselves in an argument almost straight away, or meeting instinctive resistance. But what if we show someone the majestic stained glass of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, or Michelangelo’s Pietà, or the paintings of Caravaggio? What if we introduce them to TS Eliot’s poetry or Bach’s Mass in B Minor?
We might then draw them into the grandeur and splendour of Catholic truth from a different direction.
This beauty, of course, is not only found in art, but in our own lives. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that one of the great tools for evangelisation is the way in which Christians conduct themselves. St Irenaeus, an early Bishop of Lyons and a key figure in the early Church, wrote in his Against Heresies, that “the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God”. Almost all of us can probably bring to mind great Christians whom we have known, individuals who impressed us with their strong faith, their works of charity, their perseverance and hospitality. Such figures are a commonplace in the testimonies of people who have converted to Christianity from atheism or other religions.
They act as a kind of light in the darkness of the world, drawing others to them by their grace-filled lives.
Over Christmas I watched The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner as the incorruptible lawman Eliot Ness fighting gangsterism and corruption in 1930s Chicago. I was very struck by how the character of Ness is a beacon of integrity and virtue in a world of cruelty and lawlessness. It seems strange to call it beauty, because Ness is a man who uses deadly force against evildoers, but insofar as he represents resistance and opposition to the powers of evil and weakness, there is something highly compelling about him.
I am personally very persuaded by Barron’s argument that we should talk about beauty. People may not always agree on what exactly beauty means or what things are beautiful, but almost everyone, if pressed, accepts that there are beautiful things in the world and that – contra the old proverb – beauty is not purely in the eye of the beholder. From this recognition we can begin to ask further questions, about where this awareness of beauty comes from and why some things are beautiful and others are not. Once we get into these issues, we are very close to encouraging people to think about the underlying order and harmony of the universe, and the loving God whose nature is thereby reflected.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also writes for UnHerd.