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.