By Jeff Mallinson –
What do we mean when we call something good or bad, whether in aesthetics or ethics? These days, it seems that children tend to have a quicker and more genuine response. The rest of us these days, find locating goodness, truth, and beauty far more problematic.
Philosophers have described goodness, truth and beauty the transcendentals, or what Aristotle called the ὑπερβαίνειν (huperbainein); for him, these transcend all his other categories of being. Plotinus speaks of “beauty, goodness and the virtues.” The ancient philosophers were not consistent with their enumeration or order. For simplicity’s sake, we might think of these transcendental goals as the three great quests of philosophy:
the good, ethics
the true, epistemology and logic
the beautiful, aesthetics
It’s hard to ignore the relationship between these transcendentals and a theological framework. For Christians, the great transcendentals are located in God, and revealed in Jesus himself. Forgive the long passage here, but I believe it makes sense of how these all fit together:
“Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
Here, all the answers to life’s (and philosophy’s) big questions are embedded here: beauty draws us to truth, truth leads to goodness, and goodness draws the world back into God’s beauty. We encounter beauty when we get a glimpse of the world from the perspective of the beatific vision. Only from this perspective can we see the truth, how things truly are in light of the Gospel. When (and only when) we have the truth, we can begin to be good, albeit imperfectly. When we are good, the lost and broken can catch a glimpse of the divine light borne by the Kingdom of God and its means of grace. By becoming citizens of this kingdom, they can begin to see things from God’s beautiful perspective. Then, people will see the truth and hence goodness will push back against the ugliness in our fallen world.
How do I draw all this out of John’s Gospel? Let me suggest that we can make the following connections:
The Way—This is the beauty (which we behold in Jesus). The Greek ὁδὸς (hodos) indicates a road or journey. Thus, it is already and not yet. It is incremental. We see in a glass darkly but soon will see face to face. Is truth in the eye of the beholder? Yes, in a sense, but it is not arbitrary subjectivity here. Who is the ultimate beholder? God.
I don’t think that the way is identical to ethics for Christians: the way is not the way of merit and ascent, for it comes only through the Gospel, through the revelation of God’s salvation in Christ. This is the context of John 14, where Thomas confesses in verse 5 that, with respect to the way, he and his pals don’t know it. They are quite familiar with the Ten Commandments, but are unclear as to how to find salvation in this Kingdom of Heaven about which Jesus speaks. No, it is not ethics but a way of finding beauty where the glory Christians fail to look. Other traditions have terms that relate to a way (like the Chinese Tao or Hindu Dharma). Though the actual directions for the way are understood differently in these traditions, it remains interesting that a “way” seems to suggest something like a worldview or a religious perspective. We need Jesus’ perspective: and that perspective helps us to see genuine beauty.
The Truth—The truth (ἀλήθεια/aletheia in Greek) is revealed in the person of Jesus. Now, the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce suggested that “Logic follows Ethics and both follow Aesthetics”. (Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Harvard, 1931), Vol. 1, p. 311). Luther said something similar in his Heidelberg Disputation, theses 19 through 21:
19 That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened,
20 he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21 A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
This can also be illustrated in practical issues of life. For instance, if I’m an addict, I won’t be able to clean up my act without first experiencing a “moment of clarity.” Likewise, in marriage, if I am only interested in winning arguments I will be unable to experience a harmonious marriage, which requires us to examine the true root causes of disputes.
The Life—I connect goodness with this true life (ζωή/ zoe in Greek) because John in 13:35 records that Jesus saying: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This isn’t to say that we are entirely sanctified by any means. But if our neighbors don’t see any real love in us (again, not perfected works, but sincere love for the world) then they are right to wonder if we’ve got the real deal, if we ever really tasted the beautiful truth. Indeed, if your particular community of faith is not marked by love then you might rightly worry that your congregation is on the wrong track concerning the beauty of the Gospel.
So what’s the point of all this?
We are marching toward Lent, which will lead to a horrific Friday that Christians oddly call Good Friday. Why do we do this? Because it is the precise historical culmination of the good the true and the beautiful in human history. Isn’t it ugly and painful? Yes. And yet, from God’s angle, we can call it good. At the moment when everything seemed overwhelmed by evil, false allegations, and ugliness, God’s goodness, truth and beauty were in fact powerfully active.
Thus, that God reconciled the world to himself through the cross of Christ is the truth that unlocks other truths. It is unexpectedly beautiful. It is good because it sets us free from sin death and the devil, making us free to love our neighbors not because we have to, but because those who have truly tasted the uncut Gospel can’t keep their mouths shut about what they’ve encountered. Such people grow uncomfortable living by the old karmic logic. They can’t help embracing the wounded, consoling those broken by the church or those crushed by the world. Love marks the true church out because, through Word and sacrament, we marinate in God’s love each week and—try as we Christians might—the holy marinade of Christ’s blood can overcome our blandness and fetidness.
So, dear reader, behold God’s beauty by turning your eyes to Christ. Let the light of Christ’s beauty enlighten your view of the true state of things even when the horizon looks bleak, and live as beacons of love. Rejoice that the Incarnate One has unlocked the most important questions of this life in his own person. As C. S. Lewis noted: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” (From a talk called “Is Theology Poetry?”)
Check out this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast to hear a discussion about how we ought to respond to things that reflect God’s sublime reality.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Composed while sipping a decent Port, between chapters of Boris Gunjevic and Slavoj Zizek, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse.