Last evening at the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., Father James Bradley gave a wonderful talk on “The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness”, as part of the TOT (Theology On Tap) Talks organized by the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington. Pointing to examples from areas such as art, music, and architecture, Father Bradley challenged his listeners to consider the impact of beauty in our lives, and how it points us to the transcendent. He asked the deeply important question of whether contemporary acceptance of what was formally considered ugly or demeaning, as being equal or superior to what was formally considered beautiful, is leading us away from God. You can listen to the audio of Father Bradley’s presentation when it is archived on the TOT page later today.
While the reader may, with good reason, assume that I would have quite a bit to say on this question, I instead want to focus on a comment which Father Bradley made in the course of his presentation. He noted that when engaging with those who do not accept the Christian worldview on topics such as beauty, we often find ourselves getting nowhere by making apologetic arguments based on doctrines and principles which have been rejected by those who disagree with us. To put it another way, if I might, when your neighbor absolutely insists that your cat is not a cat, but rather a dog, then all of your insistence to the contrary is not going to make much of a difference.
Father Bradley asserted that when discussion proves impossible, it is through example that we can make said difference. How we as Christians live our lives can draw people to reconsider their entrenched positions about those very important subjects on which we disagree. If we are seen as people of joy and love, engaging in acts of kindness and charity, and surrounding ourselves with beauty in all things, we are more likely to be able to engage with those who refuse to meet us on common intellectual or philosophical grounds. In other words, it is time for us to recover not only the thought, but the actual practice of being a Christian in a time which increasingly rejects Christianity.
An early document written roughly a century after Christ’s Resurrection, known to historians as The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetes, may give us some idea of the sort of thing I mean. In this letter, the unknown author writing in about 130 A.D. describes how Christians are both a part of the world, yet at the same time set themselves apart from that world by the manner in which they choose to live. Note how the distinctions which the author draws between the practices of the wider of society of his day, and the Christians of his time, seem eerily reminiscent of some of the practices and ideas of the present age:
[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.
I wonder how many of us who today call ourselves Christians, could consider this early assessment of what our ancestors in the Faith were like, and still recognize ourselves in such a description. We have forgotten that ours is not simply another philosophy among many competing philosophies, but rather a complete way of life, one which is supposed to be manifest to the world, not donned and doffed like a pair of favorite socks. One sees this type of Christianity throughout Western Europe for example, where apart from christenings, weddings, and funerals, the vast majority of Europeans never darken the doorstep of their local church; this phenomenon is sadly becoming all the more apparent in this country, as well.
As Christians are paid increasingly less attention in the marketplace of ideas, we see that simply the removal of our voices from the din has not been enough for those opposed to Christianity. We must be made to conform to the zeitgeist, whenever possible; when this is not possible, then we must be silenced. Given this, and if we consider the historical roots of Christianity such as in the passage given above, then Father Bradley’s reasoning that our lives must themselves be the argument for Christianity at all times, but particularly when words fail us, makes perfect sense.
Certainly, it would be far easier to simply take down the blood-stained banner of the Resurrection, and fly instead the white, surrendering flag of relativism. Yet to do so would be to deny Christ, something which no Christian wants to do. The Early Church understood, despite the difficulties which they faced in getting themselves heard, that when our words are ignored, a living Faith through our actions can speak volumes, especially in a highly mutable society. It’s high time that we recall and re-embrace this lesson for ourselves.