The way of beauty in a relativistic culture
In a message sent to the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, Benedict XVI recounted a striking personal encounter: “For me, an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: "Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true."
What is it about the brush with something beautiful that awakens the heart at least the notion of the Creator and of the human person’s capacity to know him? Does beauty, understood as a way of bringing the Christian faith to others, hold a particular value for the modern age?
Many leaders in the Church are drawing increasing attention to this way of evangelization. In the concluding document of a Plenary Assembly in 2006, it was confirmed as a particularly useful method in a radically relativistic culture where rational discourse is increasingly difficult: “With a spirit of suspicion hanging over truth and goodness, the Via Pulchritudinis – the path of beauty – is now more than ever a necessity. It fosters the faith of the people making them capable to witness to their faith and this, obviously not only during liturgical celebrations, but also throughout life in general.”
The encounter with beauty offers a unique opportunity to meet God because it brings the person to knowledge not through instruction but through a direct experience that is unhampered by the limitations of verbal apologetics, a mechanism that is not always effectively received by many individuals. As Benedict XVI puts it, “Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”
Anything truly beautiful leads ultimately to the saving beauty of Christ, who pierces through all arguments, and for this reason the way of beauty is a privileged pathway to evangelization.