Once during dinner, one of the friars tried to end a discussion about which artwork ought to hang on our walls by suggesting that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “Would you say the same about truth?” another friar responded, in a rather challenging tone. After all, why accept relativism in matters of beauty when it is so obviously wrong in matters of truth?
A new academic year begins, and once again, I will spend some of my time at Vancouver Island University, to provide chaplaincy services to their students and staff. It is an incredibly difficult job, as this entirely secular campus does not believe in having a chapel or provide room for chaplaincy services. So, I am on my own, doing ministry with my faith as my only resource.
Just as last year and in order to have a reason to come regularly, I signed up for one course: philosophy of aesthetics. Here is my chance to figure out how the experience of beauty relates to the experience of truth! Since my intellectual formation began in mathematics, it is there that I first thought about their relationship. When trying to prove a statement in mathematics, there are usually several ways to do so. There can be several true paths to the same answer. But some are better than others, and mathematicians talk about the beauty of a proof. There can be elegance and simplicity in a proof, or lack thereof. A proof can be aesthetically pleasing, or not. Among the true answers, there are some that are beautiful, and some that are not, and a good mathematician is someone who knows and values the difference.
Beauty leads to a deeper appreciation of what is true, and it allows us to see a greater ordering principle among true statements, and the larger unity of which they are part. Beauty never goes against what is true, but it builds on what is true, and it lifts the beholder of truth out of the mere factual knowledge of truth. In beauty, truth become fully real in the personal experience of being alive, as an individual who is called from the height of the fullness of personal being–called by God.
After our first introductory class, I walked away thinking that this course that I picked only because it happened to fit best into my work schedule might end up being a very interesting class, and just the thing that I need to study to do the ministry that I want to do. I really look forward to seeing how the students engage with this topic. Think about it. A secular university has many courses that provide true knowledge and true understanding, all meant to give the student a certain amount of factual knowledge, usually to prepare them for some aspect of the work that they want to do some day. Secularism is really about this “just the facts” attitude, limiting debate to the things that all can be expected to agree upon. But, what if this includes beauty, and if beauty is one of the features of the world that we know is real and that we know exists beyond the facts and stands above them?
Beauty is one of the proofs of God’s existence, and our knowledge of beauty is our knowledge that God is alive and present to us. For people like me, men and women who want to witness their faith in secular places and outside of our churches, pointing out that beauty is real is an excellent strategy to lead people to faith. So, I think that I picked the right course.