Recovering the Beauty of the Christian
The beautiful is that which is pleasing when seen… —Thomas Aquinas
As I indicated in my last post, I’ve been thinking about the topic of an apologetic for the Christian faith in light of our time and culture of ugliness (both inside and outside the Church). I suggested that theologians and leaders would do well to place a special emphasis on living beautifully. In this post, I would like to continue that line of thought, now thinking specifically about laypeople. I was put on to thinking about this by some of the early church apologists. These defenders of the Christian faith often did so—very strangely by Modern standards—by appealing to the ethical excellency of its followers.
Take the Epistle to Diognetus for example (I know, he’s not considered one of the early ‘apologists’; still, he did defend the faith, whoever he was). He says that Christians are not different from other humans on account of their ethnicity, language, or even cultural practices. Christians live in all countries and cultures, and they partake in the customs of those cultures (so far as those customs don’t violate the law of God). What distinguishes Christians, he says, is the way they live in those cultures, and particularly, the way they give their lives: “They love all [people], and are persecuted by all…they are poor, yet make [others] rich…they are slandered, and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers…” For this reason, he, in a wonderful little phrase, calls Christians “the soul of the world.” They recognize what is true good and animate the world for movement toward it.
Or, take Justin Martyr. He could plead with the emperor that Christians were “more than all other men” promoters of peace and civility, responsible, patient, and kind. Or, Tertullian could argue that amidst the wanton and licentious Roman culture, Christians remained unspoiled and virtuous, and thus the best kind of citizens.
I’ve read a fair number of modern apologetical works. Apologists don’t make these kind of arguments for Christianity anymore. They like to play with ideas (as do I, I must admit). The poignant question at this point, it seems to me, is this: could apologists make these kinds of arguments today? Maybe they have been forced to play with ideas. Maybe we need to recover a vision of the beauty of the Christian.
This connection between the beauty of holiness and apologetics is a scriptural connection, of course. The apostle Peter in his first epistle admonishes Christians to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). The broader context of this admonishment, though, makes it clear that the kind of defense Peter has in mind involves “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (3:8). It is precisely this kind of ‘Christ-likeness’ in one’s attitudes and behaviors that allows for a defense of the faith: so that “when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (3:16).
And this brings us to Shelley—yes that Shelley. He famously claimed that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he meant is that humans are persuaded to believe certain things and to act in certain ways not by working rationally through the various arguments and options. Humans are persuaded at the level of what he called ‘imagination.’ At the level of imagination we encounter things holistically and take in their meaning and value. And it is this encounter that moves a person.
The imaginative encounter moves a person either by attraction or repulsion. Only after this encounter does reason step in. Reason, by taking things apart, analyzing, and wading through arguments, only serves to justify to ourselves what our imagination has already persuaded us of. Imagination moves the heart; the reasoning mind follows in its wake.
Now, whether or not that is how persuasion ought to work in a human (and a good bit of Western philosophy would quibble that it is not how it ought to work), I think Shelley is right in that this is the way persuasion actually works for so many people. Our attractions and repulsions play a hugely significant role in what we believe, the decisions we make, and how we think about things.
This is why it is vitally important that not just leaders but all Christians take up the mantle of holiness, given to us by our elder brother, Jesus. Walking in holiness, living beautifully, is powerfully, and deeply, attractive; much more so than mere arguments. The opposite is true as well. This means that living unholy lives is more deeply repulsive than not knowing the arguments.
Yes, of course, we shall have to beseech our God of grace for a double portion of his Spirit in order to take up that mantle. And yes, of course, wearing the mantle will be an affront to some. There will be some eyes so maladjusted to darkness that when they encounter true light shining through us, they will wince and turn away; or worse. But I think it will also be true, and maybe more often true than not, that a good many will see all the more clearly in the light; a good many will feel its warmth and pull.
Perhaps it is time that Christians stop taking their cues from those who insist upon fighting for my rights (to empower others, of course). What about giving up our coats as well? Perhaps it is time for Christians to stop taking vengeance into their own hands (be sure to call it fighting for ‘equality,’ of course). What about blessing our enemies? Perhaps its time for Christians to stop the plots to seize power (from those who don’t deserve it, of course). What about becoming meek? Perhaps, rather than becoming apprentices of the scheming art of ‘insisting,’ Christians ought to practice that wonderful openness to the world, the art of self-giving. Jesus said woe to the one who gains the whole world but loses her soul. Could we, precisely by losing ourselves, gain the world its soul?