Recovering the Beauty of the Theologian
The beautiful is that which is pleasing when apprehended… – Thomas Aquinas
In 1970, looking out over the world, still picking up the carnage of its two world wars, and looking back over his own life, ravaged by the brutality of the USSR, Alexander Solzhenitsyn mused upon the ‘enigmatic remark’ of Dostoevsky’s idiot: “beauty will save the world.” “What sort of a statement is that?” Solzhenitsyn asks, “when in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything?” And yet, giving it some more thought, Solzhenitsyn realized that there is something peculiar about the power of beauty. Beauty, by its very nature, is “irrefutable,” he remarks. It possesses the power to move “even an opposing heart to surrender.” Perhaps, then, he surmised, beauty will save the world. Perhaps in an age when truth is so controverted and goodness so sparse, beauty will rise up and do the job of all three.
Nearly fifty years on and in the West, at least, the church has had rather to contemplate the reality of ugliness. It is repulsive. Leaders, teachers, those who were supposed to be theologians—disciples of God—have shown a level of corruption that causes onlookers naturally, rightly, to turn away in disgust. There has been much scrambling in search of a fix. What to do?
This is not a new problem, of course. Gregory I, in the late sixth century, warned that “there are some [leaders and teachers] also who investigate spiritual precepts with cunning care, but what they penetrate with their understanding they trample on in their lives” (I.ii). In contrast to these wolves, pastors ought with diligence and rigor to pursue holiness and virtue. In prayerful dependence upon God, Gregory instructs, the leader and teacher ought to be humble, careful and wise in his speech, pure in his actions.
There should be, in other words, a correspondence between thoughts/beliefs and actions; a proper proportion and symmetry. Interestingly, at the end of the work, he says that in putting it this way he was simply trying to “paint a portrait of a handsome man” (IV). Broadening his category of pastor to the category of theologian, we may put it thus: he was painting a picture of a beautiful person. Gregory understood the power of beauty.
John Webster has recently written that being a theologian includes an “obligation to exercise certain virtues.” This is because, he notes, theology is not simply ‘thinking right thoughts’ but the attention of renewed intelligence to the God who ‘gives to us the law of our existence’ (221). The study of theology is one way—an important way, but not the only way—that the theologian loves God and enjoys growing communion with him. The teaching of theology is one way—an important way, but not the only way—that the theologian bears witness to that communion and enjoins others to it. The theologian who thinks to have done her task with study, lecture, and article, is deficient at best.
One has to be careful here, of course. For every theologian, renewed intelligence comes by way of process. Becoming a virtuous person is a case of becoming. Yet, for those of us in the modern world, where theology is simply one among many academic disciplines—the study of religion, which can be adequately done by those ambiguous or even hostile to Christianity and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Webster helpfully reminds the theologian thattrue theology is practiced. It is the application of the ‘renewed intellect’ to the instruction of God which issues forth in a ‘renewed life’ in obedience to God..
This raises a poignant question for me. What if theologians, or those training to be theologians, thought of their task as more than checking off a list of books that comprise the canon of their discipline, more than mastering some academic sub-field, more than acquiring a certain agility to play gracefully on the playground of ideas? (More, I say, not less.) What if they thought of their task as foundationally about becoming a beautiful person?
Of course, to become a beautiful person is to become a good person. It is, by reliance upon the gracious and gifting Spirit, to cultivate those virtuous habits of mind and life. But to put it in terms of beauty has an ‘others focus’ about it. That is, one’s goodness is what one is; beauty is one’s goodness apprehended by another. Perhaps in a time like ours, precisely when the repulsive nature of ugliness is so powerfully apparent, the attractiveness of beauty, when displayed, will likewise powerfully shine forth.
Perhaps it’s time theologians—whether academics, priests, or pastors—took their cue from the idiot. Maybe then we will find that God’s idiot is wiser than the worldly wise. Maybe then we will find, as Solzhenitsyn suggested, that Dostoevsky’s phrase was not careless but prophetic.