“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past…can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
– Hans Urs von Balthasar
In part one of this article, I wrote of the tendency in classical education to train “culture warriors” rather than “culture-makers.” That is, we arm students with logic, apologetics, and an ideological rhetoric, that enables them to argue and debate, but seldom persuade. In warring with modern culture, but neglecting to create culture, we only ensure the deepening of the divide between the Church and society.
As von Balthasar claimed in the quote I shared above, this practice attempts to divorce truth and goodness from beauty. But beauty will have none of it. She will not be taken from her sisters. Truth, isolated from goodness and beauty, becomes little more than a blunt weapon to be used on opponents. Goodness, isolated from truth and beauty, results in moralism. And beauty, isolated from truth and goodness, results in postmodernism – as Gregory Wolfe observed, “With less and less substance in their words, the artists supported by the progressives have resorted to irony, political propaganda, and sensationalism to elicit a response from their audience.” The attempt to form beauty remains, but without content.
Of course, this highlights the inseparability of truth, goodness, and beauty; but should also remind us that we – the Church at large and classical educators, in particular – are not speaking the language of postmodern culture. By this, I do not mean that the Christian community should say the same things as postmodernism, but that the medium we use must take into account postmodern thinking.
What would make us think that formal logic and persuasive essays would affect those who have denied truth? Yet, this is precisely our method – arming for logical argument, pointing out inconsistencies and fallacies to those who do not care. In our time, ignoring beauty – that is, the creation of art, literature, music, poetry, and other works of the imagination – means giving our world the “silent treatment.” Wolfe emphasizes this in quoting Robert Royal: “Art has become more important in the postmodern world…because the truth claims of philosophy, theology, ethics, and even nature seem weak. The argument on many campuses over the canon has taken on added heat precisely because, where truth is assumed a priori not to exist, images and atmosphere will shape how most people think” [emphasis mine].
To bring this discussion back to the world of classical education, in particular, I need to be note that we are not curators. Our work is about more than exposing students to the beauty of the past, as noble a task as that is. Put another way, I fear our tendency has been to preserve the works of Western Civilization as museum pieces, rather than trying to bring their truth, goodness, and beauty to bear on the modern world. Here I must quote Gregory Wolfe, at length, yet again:
When conservatives turn to art and literature they generally look to the classics, safely tucked away in museums behind marbleized covers. Ironically, many conservatives don’t seem to have noticed that they no longer have anything to conserve – they have lost the thread of cultural continuity. They have forgotten that the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship applies not only to the environment and to institutions but also to culture.
In seeking to uphold and appreciate the Western tradition, we cannot give up on current culture; a culture that speaks more in images than argument, that upholds beauty more than truth and goodness. We must search for and find more opportunities to once again weave together our love of truth and goodness with beauty, for these sisters cannot be separated without great devastation.
To be continued…
Reposted from my weekly column for the CiRCE Institute