Spiritual Formation

Beauty: a Better Way to Believe

Recently I was speaking with a young man about the Christian faith and he said something like the following, “I’ve tried to believe. I’ve given it everything I’ve got, but it just doesn’t work for me. I can’t make myself believe.” The requirement of “faith alone” is one of the most difficult hurdles concerning the Christian message. How can I “just believe” if I just don’t? As I sensed with this young man, people sometimes experience anguish in their attempts to be a Christian. Surely God does not expect us to close our eyes and leap into the dark? How then can I go from nonbelief to faith without it being merely “blind faith”?

The Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, sheds great light on this question by giving us what we might call  the mechanics of faith. His insight has to do with what theology calls the  transcendentals,  Beauty, Goodness and Truth. The key, says Balthasar, is the logical progression from one to the other and in the above order. 

When zealous Christians tell us, “Just believe,” they are, of course, saying just believe that the gospel is true. But to begin by focusing on Truth is to start at the wrong end of the three-fold progression. While doctrine certainly has its place, propositional truth statements have no spark. Just hearing that “God forgives sins“ or “Jesus saves,” are positive declarations, but by themselves they don’t have the firepower necessary to bring us to faith. Truth is the last step; we begin with the beautiful. We must be internally moved to believe. A fire must be lit in our belly and it’s Beauty that kindles it. 

Anything truly beautiful (as opposed to the merely glamorous) sparks joy and evokes wonder. It ushers us into a realm of grace as when we watch a ballerina or hear the music of Mozart. We’re touched by gentle beauty when we behold a robin feeding her newly hatched chicks  securely snuggled in the nest she’s provided. Even more so, when we gaze at a newborn human baby cooing and smiling at us our thoughts and feelings elevate to a higher plane.  Beauty causes our eyes to lift up and look for something more, something beyond the here and now.

When we resist hardening ourselves, beauty awakens sensitivity and feeling for others. Somehow we become more aware of the good and are more apt to participate in it. Thus we are led on to the second transcendental, Goodness. True beauty in any form tends to make us want to be good. However, we are especially moved toward the Good when we consider the beauty of those who give their lives freely to individuals who can’t pay them back. Hearing about Mother Teresa makes us want to do something for the poor.  

Balthasar reminds us that ultimate beauty resides in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we encounter his beauty in action as he heals an outcast leper or forgives the woman caught in adultery our attention is caught. The highest beauty can be seen in the climax of Jesus’ life, that is,  when the Son of God gives his life on the cross for the salvation of all, even those who betrayed him– people like you and me. As we continue to consider this heavenly person, light and heat are generated. We begin to thaw out spiritually, to open up more fully to the Good. We may not necessarily believe at this point, but the stories of Jesus have drawn us in and we want to hear more. 

Having been inspired by the beautiful and now wanting to do good and perhaps beginning to do so, we arrive at the last transcendental, Truth. And Jesus said we will only know the truth as we purpose to put it into practice.(John 7:17) As James says, without an act of faith, there is no faith.”(James 2:17

So don’t worry if you believe the gospel’s truth or not. And by all means, don’t try to make  yourself believe. Rather, devote yourself to studying Jesus. Let yourself be immersed in all aspects of his life so that you see the Beauty whether you think it’s true or not. As the title of a well-known book said, the gospel (good news) is “the greatest story ever told.” Jordan Peterson said on his podcast that there could never be a greater story. You can’t get any better than God himself becoming a human being to save us from pain, evil, sin and death. Then to take us ultimately to a literal heaven upon earth! Give yourself time to consider Jesus and see what happens!

Image:Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Spiritual Formation

The Magnificent Mystery of Us

A couple of years ago I awoke in the middle of the  night and, for some inexplicable reason, found myself pondering the story of Cinderella. As I did, I felt a distinct impression, “That’s you.”

As when God speaks, it created delight in me.

The glass slipper speaks of a beautiful realm that Cinderella  was made for, a world that contrasted vividly with the shabby one of forced servitude that she had to inhabit . Each one of us is a prince or princess created to fit perfectly–fit into a world of royalty much more magnificent and mystical than what we have imagined.

In short, we are God-like–the wonderful mystery that Christians almost never take seriously. The church has been very efficient at pointing out how fallen we are, but tends to never get much past that. We have sinned, no question, but we are being made good again, “redeemed!” When we actually see what the Bible means by that term, we  thrill with the mystery of it!

Think about it, what does it mean to be “one spirit with” God (1Co 6:17) or to “partake of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4)? What does it mean to be created in the very image of God (Gen 1:27)?  Jesus didn’t shy away from this truth. Indeed, he astounded his hearers when he referenced a verse in the Psalms  which calls human beings ‘gods.’ Just to make sure they got the point, he reminded them that the scripture cannot be made void (Joh 10:35). Thus he expected his followers to live up to this high calling by being perfect–just like their Heavenly Father (Mat 5:44).

Can this really be true? How, in any meaningful sense, are we actually like God? It’s not in our intellect. As someone has noted, compared to God, we’re all developmentally delayed. It’s not in our power. We live in a frail body destined for the grave. The one area where we can enter into the divine is that of goodness. It’s by love, even for our enemies, that we show ourselves to be children of God. The littlest kindnesses, even simply greeting people we don’t know, demonstrate perfection like that of our Father in heaven. (Mat. 5:43-48).

It’s time we throw off the cloak of negativity and self-condemnation in order to embrace the whole truth. The good news is NOT that we’re selfish and sinful. Rather it is that we were created to be like God and that he has come down to restore his image in us once again through the Gospel. So great was God’s desire for us to fit into his royal kingdom, he didn’t just put outward garments on us like the fairy godmother did for Cinderella. No, he placed his very essence in our innermost being, the promised Holy Spirit, the Christ of God!  Now you can go out and do something good!