On Beauty – A Message to Its Religious Despisers

Deal W. Hudson

What did Fyodor Dostoevsky mean in The Idiot when one of his characters asserts, “Beauty will save the world”? Taken at face value, it’s a claim that beauty plays a role in the salvation of us all.

There are quite a few Christians, of all denominations, who would respond to that claim with suspicion, if not outright denial. Beauty, they would say, is more like the road to ruin than the path to God.

I think these “religious despisers” of beauty are mistaken. They are not only missing the deepest significance of our desire for beauty, but they are also putting unnecessary limits on their witness to faith in Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin the argument by acknowledging that beauty is part of everything we do, not just our enjoyment of the arts. Each of us has known moments of overwhelming beauty that caused a reorientation of our lives; it elicits such a sense of aspiration in us that we resolve to live in a better way.

Such moments come to many of us from works of art as well: a film, a novel, a poem, a play, a painting or sculpture, a ballet or musical, a building, or – as it did for me – an architecturally arranged place like the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, where it is said the Mother of God laid down her cloak to mark its boundaries.

Remember that aspiration you feel as you are lifted up and out of yourself, when you experience the ecstasy of beauty. You aspire to live in accord with something you glimpse at that moment – something you sense is real and within your grasp.

Certain great works of art, of course, have been transforming people for centuries. Another of the great Russian novelists, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, argues that works of art have an advantage over unadorned concepts (as in philosophy and theology) in changing lives.

Concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one.

He contrasts bare concepts to works of art that, “steeped in truth and presenting it [the truth] to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power – and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them.”

The force behind the power of art, Solzhenitsyn claims, is “that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty.” Indeed, it is precisely the unity of these transcendental properties of being – truth, beauty, and goodness – that makes possible the notion that beauty can be an agent of salvation.

The ancient and medieval philosophers considered this oneness a demonstrable fact of metaphysics, unaided by faith. Theology, however, provided the ultimate cause for the unity: the doctrine of creation. When God creates, He shares His being, His existence – an existence that is perfectly true, good, and beautiful. It’s their status as properties across all beings that make them “controvertible,” meaning wherever you meet one you encounter the other.

Those “religious despisers” of beauty would welcome someone they meet who is searching for the good or the true. So why not also welcome those who search for the beautiful? The despisers do not understand that underlying the hunger for beauty is the search for God.

It is God’s beauty that will be seen in the Beatific Vision, the state of eternal happiness where our infinite desire meets the only infinite object: God. As Dante says, at the end of the Paradiso, it is impossible to turn away:

And as I gaz’d, I kindled at the sight;
No Mortal from the glorious view could turn,
Paradiso. (Canto XXXIII)

Our unending delight is found in the beauty of God, in His presence to our souls. Yet beauty is also part of the journey, not just the destination. Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted his life’s work to showing how God’s revelation to us has an aesthetic character that cannot be ignored. Through revelation, God made Himself known to us in His Son and in His Church.

Von Balthasar writes,

If God wishes to reveal the love that he harbors for the world, this love has to be something that the world can recognize, in spite of, or in fact in, its being wholly other.

In other words, God had to make His beauty visible to the material eye in order to draw that eye back to the spiritual. God literally lured us back to Himself with the beauty of Christ – a beauty unlike any of the ancient world; a beauty whose chief symbol is the cross. Von Balthasar wrote volume after volume tracing this “Christ-form” of beauty through history, culture, Scripture, and the spiritual life.

Solzhenitsyn claimed there were times when beauty did the work of its transcendental counterparts:

If the crests of these three trees [the true, good, and beautiful] join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

Perhaps beauty will “perform the work of all three.” That’s a line that might make many Christians choke, but if they understood the desire for beauty, they would also understand these things: If someone comes asking about beauty, don’t turn him away. If you meet someone looking for beauty, don’t tell him you only know where to find Christ.

If a friend weeps at what is beautiful, don’t tell them they are wasting their tears. If you deny a person beauty, in the name of God, he may reject Him, He who is beauty itself. If you say beauty belongs to the Evil One, you are aiding in Satan’s most devious ploy.

Instead, Christians should tell these pilgrims that their desire for beauty is as natural to the creature as the hunger for goodness and truth. Tell them that beauty can be the way, and then tell them about the beauty of Christ and His cross.

Even better, Christians should show them the art that Christians have produced to glorify Him – art so great and lasting that it is gazed upon every day by millions who don’t even share the faith that inspired it.

Show them that before there was Hollywood, there were poets, composers, painters, architects, novelists, and sculptors that dwarf all but a few who have created films over the past one hundred years.

This is not meant as a dispensable addendum to faith or to the evangelical witness; the fullness of our Christian witness demands it.

As von Balthasar wrote at the beginning of his incomparable To the Glory of the Lord:

Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s