Posted by: Thomas Richard | May 25, 2011

Truth, Goodness, Beauty

I’ve been talking with atheists and agnostics recently. It is so clear that faith is a gift! Unbelievers challenge me with the demand, “Prove that there is a God!” – Or that there is an afterlife, or absolute moral right and wrong, or that truth itself exists. They cannot even see, since they believe we accidentally evolved slithering out of slime and chaos, that “the beautiful” could be anything more than that which is pleasing for them to look at. Perhaps we can help them to look again, and more closely.

There is beauty, and goodness, and truth. And love exists. And when a person is able to see that there is more than futility, accident and death, he can begin to see past his own eyes to things that exist apart from him, that existed before him and that will endure beyond him. These transcendental realities invite us all to transcend ourselves. And if a person can hear the invitation of truth, and of beauty, and of goodness, perhaps he will pause for a moment and to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the surfaces of things to things interior, at the foundations, within and under the dimensions of the material and the temporal. Perhaps first he looks toward God, and later to Him.

Some, even among atheists and agnostics, if they do possess a love for truth, will never stop looking until they see. We might be more helpful to atheists and agnostics if we stop pointing them to things that they cannot see, but instead to things that they can see. Maybe we should stop quoting Scripture to them that they are deaf to, and stop urging them to try to see what only eyes of faith can see, and instead point them to values God set into place for all men: transcendent values of truth, goodness, beauty, love – signs that point to Him. Then maybe later, they will see the more beyond the signs.

Beauty is a common word, but it has suffered shrinkage in our aesthetically challenged world. Some who live on the surfaces of life (even while feeling imprisoned in doing so) lead us to wonder to ourselves, “Do you not see the beauty there?” We wonder further, “How can you see the beauty there and just keep walking!” Some do see such beauty “there” (somewhere – anywhere) that it affects them, moves them, changes them irreversibly. Others, deadened within, say “Sure, oh yeah, of course. Very nice.” And they keep walking. But the man who does see – he stops walking for a bit because something is owed in return, when such a gift of seeing the beautiful is received.

There is something holy about the good, and the beautiful, and the true. Its holiness demands something of us. We owe something in return, not merely because the gift is pleasing to us and gives some passing momentary pleasure. No, the good and the beautiful and the true have a transparency to something greater than themselves, and they thereby invite us to something greater than ourselves.

Humanity is, today, in a place of deep confusion. Before his elevation to pope, Card. Ratzinger (homily in Mass before the Conclave, 2005) preached about the errors and dangers of relativism:

To have a clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of “doctrine,” seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the “I” and its whims as the ultimate measure.

Consider the distortion to these transcendental values of truth, goodness and beauty, in a culture under the sway of relativism:

Truth is not recognized as an attribute of God in Jesus Christ (“I am the way and the truth and the life”), nor even as an eternally existing and absolute reality independent of any human perception of it. Rather, “truth” is what “I” agree with and define to be true. What is true for me can be different from what is true for you, because there is no absolute truth.

Goodness is not recognized as grounded in the goodness of God (“No one is good, but God alone.”), nor even merely as a good common to all men for all times. There is no absolute good. Rather, goodness is what is good for me, what pleases me, what satisfies me. What is good for me might be very different from what is good for you, since we all have different tastes.

Beauty is not recognized as the eternal radiance of the eternally true and good (“I am the good Shepherd” is literally, “I am the Shepherd the beautiful.”). Rather, in the world of relativism, there is no beauty beyond what is aesthetically pleasing in some way to me. As for truth and goodness, for beauty it is the individual and his subjective preference that defines beauty and what is beautiful.

Thus in today’s world, the center of gravity of reality has shifted from the world in which I have been created and placed, to a world inside of me, to my perceptions and preferences and pleasures. To say that something is good, or true, or beautiful is to say something about me and what I think and judge, not about the thing outside of and independent of me. To see something beautiful is “really” to say, “When I look at that, I feel beauty in myself.” (See, for example, C.S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man.) Thus, the man of relativism is actually saying, “When I look at that thing I am beautiful.” It is all about me.

Of course, for all its self-centeredness and egoism, such relativism is not a bold assertion of actual self-importance and strength, but an admission of extreme poverty and loneliness. Such an aesthetic is bankrupt, and reveals even while being denied, an empty bravado and the terror of ultimate unimportance. The loudest ones among us have so little to say. The ones all self-centered are standing on nothing more substantial than their own poor and weak and transient thoughts – ideas – that can vanish in a moment. They possess nothing beyond the phantoms and fleeting phantasms of their minds, and are thus the most needy of all.

What are we to do? We need to become more prayerful, if we would be credible witnesses of an interior life more solid than the empty counterfeit that modernity offers. We need to walk and live ever aware of the eternal realities, and we need to stand on them, reverence them, indeed we need to return to them – to Him – their due. That is, truth and beauty and goodness deserve something of all of us because they point us by design to God. In Him we are to remain, and all that we are therefore ought to reflect His truth, beauty and goodness. All that we do ought to repay Him with human acts that are also good, true and beautiful. And if we, being then credible witnesses, point others to goodness and truth and beauty beyond what the unbeliever has thought and known under relativism, perhaps something will resonate in him. Perhaps he will stop walking and look again, listen again, and see anew. Perhaps he will be touched by and risk the invitation to transcendence, even by way of you or me. Faith is a gift – often received through the hands and loving patience of another.


Responses

  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks again, for helping us ponder more deeply the world in which we live. Ours is a culture more relativistic and less inclined to go beyond self, perhaps than previous times. So it is very important that we remain in God’s Absolute Truth, and for love of Him, seek to help others, who cannnot yet see with the eyes of faith. We cannot give what we do not have, so your final paragraph urges us rightly to deepen our relationship with God and share His Life with all:

    “What are we to do? We need to become more prayerful, if we would be credible witnesses of an interior life more solid than the empty counterfeit that modernity offers. We need to walk and live ever aware of the eternal realities, and we need to stand on them, reverence them, indeed we need to return to them – to Him – their due. That is, truth and beauty and goodness deserve something of all of us because they point us by design to God. In Him we are to remain, and all that we are therefore ought to reflect His truth, beauty and goodness. All that we do ought to repay Him with human acts that are also good, true and beautiful. And if we, being then credible witnesses, point others to goodness and truth and beauty beyond what the unbeliever has thought and known under relativism, perhaps something will resonate in him. Perhaps he will stop walking and look again, listen again, and see anew. Perhaps he will be touched by and risk the invitation to transcendence, even by way of you or me. Faith is a gift – often received through the hands and loving patience of another.”

    In this month of Mary, I’m mindful of how she pondered things in her heart (cf. Luke 2:19). She who is Model and Mother of all shows us how a human person can transcend self and live for God and others, by His Grace. The Holy Family of Nazareth “seemed” ordinary, but what Truth, Beauty and Goodness emanated from Jesus, Mary and Joseph! By God’s Grace, may our “ordinary lives” be holy as well.

  2. Dear Thomas,

    To contend with those who refuse to see is a work of mercy, but nonetheless laborious for all of that – so prayers for you and your efforts.

    I suspect there are, indeed, those who do not want to see. For some of those it becomes intolerable that others do, or that others are willing to put themselves into God’s hands in prayer and in trust, believing Our Lord’s words to St. Thomas. St. Thomas of course did not doubt, he just demanded definite proof. It is possible to be here and not demand more than God is offering. Indeed, sometimes it is our noisy insistence on our demands which prevents us from hearing what God is already telling us.

    A period of quietness and contemplation and prayer, on the model of Our Blessed Lady, would do us all good, not least those loud atheists whose very loudness makes one wonder. If they are so sure nothing is there, then what is their purpose in challenging you and others? If you are wrong, no harm is done. They can’t, after all, be out to save your soul. Perhaps they just wish to whistle against the darkness?

    peace,

    John

  3. Dear Thomas,

    I suspect many follow the flow, and what is politically correct. If atheism is in vogue, then they find reasons to discredit religion, especially at the academic level.
    However, forgetting that most of the institutions they study in were once founded by religious orders.

    Faith is a free gift from God. I believe Saint Augustine one wrote “I understand because of Faith, and with Faith I understand.” Saint Monica prayed for him for seventeen years before his conversion, and the Church considers his conversion a major miracle.

    Frank Sheed once wrote that he had never lost an argument but never converted anyone. In other words, prayers, on our part is the answer.

    God bless,

    Gene

  4. Dear Thomas,

    It is also prudent to remember the following when discussing our Christian Faith with worldly people.

    John 15: 18 – 21

    18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.
    19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
    20 Remember the word that I said to you, `A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.
    21 But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.

    Our youngest son is a graduate in civil engineering and also in journalism, in short he is not stupid. (Even though, sometime I do think so.) You know parents. 🙂

    A few years ago he was operated for cancer at the Notre Dame Hospital in Montreal. It was a fourteen hour operation and four teams of doctors worked on him to save his life. His mother was there and he would not hear anything about going to confession and receiving the Last Rites. His chances of making it were 50/50 and he knew this, still is…. He doesn’t believe in God “it’s a lot of crap” to use his word. Arguments doesn’t work, all we can do is pray for him, for his conversion.

    However, with prayers, we are confident that some day he will convert but in God’s own time and way.

    Gene

  5. Dear Thomas,

    Yes, Gene’s points have much force. All we can do is to defend the Faith and give reasons for the hope that is in us.

    peace,

    John


Leave a Reply

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: