God the Word, hidden in beauty

Chartres Cathedral

Over at Read the Fathers — where I’m now the lead admin — we recently finished reading Justin Martyr’s Apologies. My week-in-review of this/these texts was concerned with Justin’s Logos theology, principally the idea that God the Word, the Logos of John 1 (‘In the beginning was the Word…’) exists as the Logos spermatikos in the minds and hearts of humans, even of pagans.

The presence of the Logos spermatikos is the reason why Greek philosophy is capable of getting things so very right. God the Word exists in all correct reasoning, in all truth, whether a disciple of Jesus is the one who expresses it or not.

This has come into contact with something else that has been rattling about in my brain lately, namely that beauty is a vehicle for God as well.

First, two fragmentary stories. Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option, tells how the beauty of Chartres cathedral was foundational for cutting through his atheism and converting him to Roman Catholicism. Only a religion that would produce architecture so beautiful was worth believing.

Malcolm Guite, who blogs here, during the Laing Lectures at Regent College 2019, talked about his conversion to theism when visiting Rome. He was not converted by the splendour of St Peter’s or my dearly beloved late antique mosaics, but by a visit to Keats House, where he read some Keats, and found there a beauty that his own reductionistic unbelief could not accommodate. I do not know what Keats’ own faith was, but his poetry is not explicitly Christian — mind you, this was Guite’s stepping forth into theism, not yet into the embrace of Christianity.

Beauty stalks the earth abroad, despite the darkness of so much pain. It is in cathedrals and poems and music and freshly fallen snow.

Beauty points people towards God.

A third, even more fragmentary story. My cousin’s husband Georg once started telling me a story about one of his seminary professors. This professor discovered the Rolling Stones. And he loved them. He thought this music was great. It was beautiful. But it jarred against the sort of Christian sensibilities he had at the time. How could people who so clearly do not know Christ produce such good music? This is honestly as far as the story got, before we were interrupted. I think (but am not sure) that Abraham Kuyper came up.

How I think the story would have ended was that the beauty of God does not restrict itself to those who know Him. We are all made in the image of God, after all. And He is everywhere. And so pagans like the Rolling Stones can make amazing music.

Let us come back to Justin, then. Beauty is a sign that there is a God. It is evidence, like logic and truth and good philosophy, that Christ is at work in His world, in the lives of people. Therefore, not only can it help save a soul, as with Dreher and Guite, it also produces results in human hearts, hearts restless since they do not rest in the embrace of the Most Holy Trinity.

The upshot of this, then, is fairly simple and perhaps less complicated than what I have written. Just as the Church Fathers were glad to ‘spoil the Egyptians’ by taking the truths of pagan philosophy and putting them into the service of Christ, so should we recognise beauty when we see it, regardless of its maker — whether it is the beauty of the Rolling Stones or of Buddhist art from Gandhara or of Virgilian verse. Praise God for it.

And then, let us seek beauty where we can, and pray for it to draw our loved ones into the rich warmth of God’s love.

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