Whither beauty, goodness, and truth in the modern American church?


The following argues that the re-integration of the spiritual and the material/social is the deepest task of both the faith & work movement today and the Christian Study Center (CSC) movement. I wrote it in 2016, after the national meeting of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers–hosted that year at Wheaton College.

The early church, per Robert Louis Wilken, Darrel Amundsen, C S Lewis, and many others, understood truth, beauty, and goodness to be intrinsic, inarguable, and universal goods (that is, to be secured for all people, as God wants all people to have them), as had the classical world before them. And drawing on the Christian understanding of the material world as intrinsically good (which the Pagan philosophers did not share), the early Christians were also able to add to these three values a fourth, bodily health and well-being—a value so vividly supported by the Incarnate Christ’s healing activity on earth.

The church then proceeded to say (again, per Wilken) that, while these four things are intrinsically and universally good, none of them provides, of itself (nor even do all four taken together), a suitable telos for humanity—and that indeed any of them become life-destroying idols when pursued in and of themselves, without the transcendent referent: the universal call to love and serve God. (This is the burden of Augustine’s theological discussion of uti love and frui love–that is, the loving of things that are not ultimate, and the loving of the ultimate, which is God–and it is also the burden of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.)

The early Christians responded to this transcendent referent by identifying three “theological virtues” – faith, hope, and love, which they added to the four classical (“cardinal”) virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.

The new Christian value of the good of bodily health, along with the Christianized classical values of truth, beauty, and goodness, each informed and amplified through the transcendent referent, and pursued with the help of all seven virtues, birthed in the Christian medieval West the institutions of the hospital, the university, the cathedral and liturgical art and architecture, and the ethical systems of the scholastics that would lay important foundations for modern jurisprudence.[1] This was the origin of huge swathes of the culture and the vocational arenas of today’s world.

So for example, the bodily (and indeed holistic bodily/soul/spiritual) health of the suffering poor was served in the new medieval institution of the hospital through the classical virtue of justice and the theological virtue of love/mercy. The stunning architectural and artistic beauty of the Gothic cathedrals was arrived at through a joining of all the ordinary virtues of creative, working humans, with the transcendent virtue of faith. The university pursued truth through prudence and courage informed by faith and hope. The canons of western law emerging out of the medieval period served goodness through attention to—again (as with the hospitals)—prudence, justice and love.

The medievals understood both the intrinsic good of health, truth, beauty, and (moral) goodness and the transcendent reality of a loving, creating, and redeeming God (along with associated graced virtues) who must be our final end if we are to pursue those goods in ways that truly serve human flourishing rather than becoming idols. They joined them in all their pursuits – they were woven into the fabric of their institutions.

Today, the secular West has tried to retain the intrinsic good (and pursuit) of health, truth, beauty (though not in our art and literature!), and goodness (narrowly construed), but without the transcendent referent (though often “haunted” and “cross-pressured,” per Charles Taylor); it has therefore made idols of each of those intrinsic goods, thus corrupting each in different ways.

Lewis put it clearly:

While a Christian and a non-Christian may both wish to do good to their fellow men . . . the one believes that men are going to live for ever, that they were created by God and so built that they can find their true and lasting happiness only by being united to God, that they have gone badly off the rails, and that obedient faith in Christ is the only way back. The other believes that men are an accidental result of the blind workings of matter, that they started as mere animals and have more or less steadily improved, that they are going to live for about seventy years, that their happiness is fully attainable by good social services and political organizations, and that everything else (e.g., vivisection, birth-control, the judicial system, education) is to be judged to be “good” or “bad” simply in so far as it helps or hinders that kind of “happiness.” The Christian and the Materialist hold different beliefs about the universe. They can’t both be right. The one who is wrong will act in a way which simply doesn’t fit the real universe. Consequently, with the best will in the world, he will be helping his fellow creatures to their destruction.

What Lewis is pointing toward here is the need to reclaim what the early and medieval Christians had, and had without question: a wider, deeper, longer—and we must believe as Christians, truer—view of human flourishing than is allowed in the modern secular West.

But it is not just the secularists who are the problem today. Much of the modern church – especially the evangelical Protestant wing that has become so numerically dominant in America – has emerged from the conflagration of the Enlightenment clutching the transcendent referent more or less intact. But along the way to modernity, we have lost any convincing, Christian explanation or rationale for the intrinsic good of health, truth, beauty, and goodness. We have accepted that these are somehow “secular goods,” supplied through secular means – well enough in their own way, but irrelevant to that larger transcendent story.

We have therefore lost any Christian rationale for the vocations that pursue and steward these goods. We have therefore abdicated Christian responsibility for any of the great institutions created in the Christian West. And we therefore sit now in the university (in particular – in the Christian Study Center movement), trying to figure out how to reattach those institutional legacies to our faith, which has become merely spiritual—having nothing much to say to the pursuits of the material good of health, the intellectual good of truth, the affective (in the holistic sense) good of beauty, or the social good of goodness. We have nothing Christian to say to who we are as material, intellectual, affective, social beings.

But this is no way to live! To be true to who we are as human beings, we must pursue of each of the four goods both fully and virtuously (because they are indeed goods) and in light of the Christian Transcendent, stewarding God’s gifts on earth (because we are indeed God’s). So, for instance, we must pursue health in the hospitals and beauty in the studios and workshops as stewards of the divine gift of material creation and the feeling soul. We must pursue truth in the universities and laboratories as stewards of the divine gift of reason. We must pursue goodness in the law courts and the halls of government as stewards of the divine gift of community (“It is not good for man to be alone”) and the divine value of justice (per Moses, the prophets, and Jesus).

None of these can be pursued as ends in themselves, severed from the transcendent referent. This is the lesson of Augustine, and of Boethius’s Consolation. And, indeed, of the Narnia Chronicles and the Ransom trilogy (note that Lewis listed the Consolation as among the ten books that had most influenced his “sense of vocation and philosophy of life”).

The re-knitting of these goods to the transcendent referent that all early and medieval Christians knew so well . . . this is the truest and deepest task of the so-called “faith & work movement” today. It is also the truest and deepest task (I believe) of the growing cadre of Christian Study Centers.

[1] “Canon law originates much later than Roman law but predates the evolution of modern European civil law traditions. The cultural exchange between the secular (Roman/Barbarian) and ecclesiastical (canon) law produced the jus commune and greatly influenced both civil and common law.” Wikipedia.

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