One of the most frequently quoted passages from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s many writings is his famous assertion that the “only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” The beauty of holiness and the beauty of art are not mere ornaments but the strongest argument for what the Church teaches.
So, for all of the Church’s formidable intellectual achievements, including its great synthesis of classical philosophy and divine revelation in her theology, could it really be that the saints and works of art alone are truly “effective”? Does beauty move human beings in a way that truth alone cannot?
Ratzinger answered this question in his 2002 address to the members of Communion and Liberation, stating, “All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it ‘has a wax nose’: in other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough.” In contrast with the arguments of reason, Ratzinger continues, “the encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart.”
Perhaps, however, the distinction between art and argument, between beauty and truth, is not so categorical as these passages, quoted out of context, suggest. From the very beginning, the Apostles indicated as much. In the Acts of the Apostles, we find examples of how the first Christians learned to speak about what had been revealed to them in Christ – and their several ways are striking.
Early in Acts, indeed on the day of Pentecost, Peter steps out to address Jews “from every nation” who have come to the city of Jerusalem. Peter quotes to them the prophet Joel, who proclaimed that God would pour out his Spirit so that “your sons and daughters shall see visions, / and your old men shall dream dreams.” He cites David on the promise of the Holy One who will not “see corruption.” This “Jesus. . .you crucified and killed” is the Holy One who has been “raised up,” and the Apostles have now received the Holy Spirit.
Peter shows, in other words, that Christ and the Church are the fulfillment of the prophets’ words. In a subsequent address, he argues for Jesus as the “Holy and Righteous one” promised by “the God of our fathers,” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Peter’s addresses are but a foretaste of how Stephen, when arrested, will speak to the high priest. Stephen retells the whole history of the Jews, from Abraham to Moses, from the flight out of Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land. He shows that the Jews have always persecuted their prophets, Moses included, and that, by implication, Jesus is the new Moses and his fulfillment, who has now been “betrayed and murdered.”
After his conversion, Paul preaches in the synagogue and offers a similar history. He recalls the priest and prophet, Samuel, and the kings, Saul and David, before he shows that Jesus is the Holy One whom God has promised and resurrected, and who fulfills at once the roles of priest, prophet, and king.
In all these cases, the apostles appeal to their Jewish audience’s knowledge of salvation history to argue for Christ as the promised Son of God.
Something very different happens, though, when Paul addresses the loquacious, curious, and “very religious” men of Athens. He tells them Christ is the “unknown god” whom their philosophical desires seek. He quotes a Greek poet to show that the God of Jesus Christ is the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” He appeals not to Christ as the fulfillment of history, but as the cause and logos of the cosmos, the whole world order.
Paul never repeats this argument to the Athenians, however, the way he and Stephen repeat Peter’s historical appeal to the prophets. When we next hear Paul preach, it is as a “witness.” He bears witness to the power of Christ to transform a life – his life. For, he was one who “persecuted the Way,” as he calls Christianity. Christ threw him to the ground and blinded him, and through his baptism at the hands of Ananias, he regained his sight, received forgiveness of sins, and now gives his life to Christ.
Paul bears “witness” a second time when he is brought before Agrippa and Bernice. Once again, he speaks of his devotion as a Pharisee, which led him to oppose Jesus, and repeats the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus.
In some respects, these three kinds of preaching could not be more different. One appeals to the Jews’ knowledge of their scriptures and sacred history and holds Jesus as their fulfillment. The speech to the Athenians appeals to the laws of the cosmos, the order of reality, gleaned through wisdom and metaphysics. Both of these argue from general truths, as it were, the truths of history and the truths of being. Paul’s bearing witness at his conversion may seem, by comparison, no argument at all. He merely confesses the great transformation that has been wrought in him by Christ’s word, power, and spirit.
All three, however, are arguments from beauty, at least as the classical and Christian world understood that word. For the beautiful was the term used for the wonder and delight born in us, when we see how parts fit together to make a whole when we see the orderliness, coherence, and inner meaning of things in a unified vision.
The Jews hear of the beauty of history, where the present makes sense of and fulfills the past. The Athenians hear of Christ as the logos, the principle of order that causes all things to be and to seek their highest good. Paul’s argument is an appeal to moral or ethical beauty, which was the most celebrated kind in the Hellenistic world in which he lived, for even the most skeptical ancient people still desired their lives to be full, that is to say, to become things of beauty or “glory.”
When we take them together, we see that the form of Christ fulfills the “form” of time, space, and our interior yearnings for wholeness. It’s as if there were a pattern with a part missing, whose shape we could discern, but now we see it fitted into place. They are all arguments for the truth. But they do not seek to convince their audience of the truth by proving a mere fact of is or is not, however. Rather, they show to the eye of the mind a more comprehensive order, an order we may eventually understand as truth, but which we at first see, and finally come to adore, as a revelation of beauty.