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 our hearts, 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