One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple – Psalm 27:4 (ESV)
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth – Psalm 96:9 (ESV)
Christian pastors, teachers, and members of local churches are typically and rightfully focused on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Indeed, you will often find it somewhere in a mission statement of the local church. Certainly, the Lord’s command to His disciples is central to the mission and life of the church, the body of Christ.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age – Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
The “making of disciples” is often understood as the church’s missional effort under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and this effort can often take on the form of apologetics. Christian apologetics has to do with a reasoned account of the faith for its establishment and defense.
The Biblical source for apologetics can be found in 1 Peter 3:15. This reasoned account has typically appealed to a confidence in truth as a self-evident category. In other words, truth is of its very nature compelling, and if the non-believer is exposed to it then he will be gripped by it.
My question about this is not about the power of truth, especially God’s Truth, to capture and lead the person to salvation. It is whether reasoned (intellectual, rational) appeals to truth and goodness are, by themselves, most fitting in the contemporary cultural scene, which is marked by a lack of confidence in rational truth as an absolute category.
How many times have you heard people say to you: “Well, that’s just your truth. I respect it, and please respect my truth” or “Live and let live; don’t tell me how to live my life and I will not tell you how to live yours.” Consequently, classic apologetic approaches to non-believers, or “dead” believers, often land on hard and dry ground.
This is the post-Christian, post-modern world we inhabit, and in which we do the work of evangelization. We obey the Great Commission precisely in the context of this world. So, we do not abandon the message, but we might consider other approaches.
I wish to consider beauty as a way of evangelization. While appeals to truth and goodness may not always be gripping, the human encounter with beauty typically makes us pay attention.
Our encounter with beauty, in its various forms, is usually met with openness, desire, attunement, presence, and simply being in the encounter. Just think of experiences like this that you have had in nature, music, literature, a human body, etc. We might remember the even more intense encounter with beauty in the experience of human love.
Though the post-modern heart may be darkened to what is true and good, it is still captivated by beauty revealing love, and this experience may be the road to Christ for many persons in our world.
The 20th century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had the insight that one of the ways God moves persons towards Divine love is to encourage the non-believer to ponder his encounters with beauty in the world, particularly as found in human love.
An open door is offered to see the mystery of Being as revealed in beauty (Romans 1:20). This is pre-evangelization; it is meeting the non-believer on ground that has real potential for being seeded with the Word of God (Matthew 13:1-23).
But something else happens in the non-believer’s encounter with worldly beauty that is real and crucial, especially in the experience of human love. Human love is marked by three failures: limitation, selfishness, and death.
Indeed, this is the crisis of worldly beauty, a crisis that may lead to a vital question in the non-believer’s heart and mind: Is there a beauty beyond these “failures” of human love? In his book Love Alone Is Credible Balthasar writes:
Human love being finite seems to contradict itself [because] what loves means….is that the present should be eternal. Love’s brokenness and finite quality are dramatically made evident in death.
Man cannot find an answer to his predicament; he is lost in a maze without apparent exit or liberation. That is the crucial point in evangelizing the non-believer (and, let us not forget, the “dead” believer). There is an answer to man’s situation. Balthasar writes:
God’s love [is] a love which goes in search of man in order to lift him out of the pit, free from his bonds, and place him in the freedom of the divine love that is now human as well.
How can man perceive God revealing Himself and, thereby, give himself to God in an act of faith? God, who is Love (1 John 4:8), has wonderfully amazed the world with His self-revelation as the Beautiful One, Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior!
How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights – Song of Solomon 7:6
For the coastlands shall hope for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from afar, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has made you beautiful – Isaiah 60:9
God has revealed Himself in the Son to liberate man from all human “failure” or brokenness (sin) and bring him to live within the Divine life of the Trinity.
This is not all…
The pinnacle of God’s self-revelation as the Beautiful One, as Love Incarnate, is the cross: Jesus Christ, true man and true God, nailed to the cross.
In this ugly place of human existence (death by crucifixion) God reveals himself as absolute, total, self-giving love.
The Trinity is self-emptying Love!
In the form of the disfiguring and repulsive death on Calvary, the crucified Messiah is the clearest revelation of who God is.
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not – Isaiah 53:1-3 (ESV)
This is the moment of transcendent beauty. As John’s Gospel tells us so profoundly, the cross is the Son’s glory (John 13:31-32) because it reveals a love to the absolute end.
Now, let me return to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), evangelization, apologetics, non-believers, and beauty. Divine love is reasonable, but it transcends human reason. In the cross, the non-believer is provoked by an experience of beauty beyond any worldly beauty he has ever known (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
His fears and questions about love’s limitations, especially the finality of death, are met with the offer of sharing in God’s own eternal life. He realizes that his fragile human love can be transformed and elevated to share in the inexhaustible love of God.
In this encounter with divine love and beauty there is something required in man, like the different types of soil where the seed of God’s Word is sown (Matthew 13:1-23). Man requires an open heart, a heart that is able to surrender to beauty, a heart that knows and feels its anguish as it faces its desire to love in the face of death.
In the end, it is only a heart ready to surrender that will lead the non-believer to belief and life in Christ.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
This surrendered heart is itself a gift – it is grace.
Finally, I have a word for the Christian apologist. Divine love as revealed on the cross is meant to transform the apologist as well. As the believer is transformed in the process of sanctification, the believer’s life must take on the form of Christ, crucified love.
Such a believer can lead a person to Christ and His church by being a fruitful image and agent of Christ, if he first loves that person and is willing to suffer for him.
The beauty of the apologist’s life, a life lived in and shaped by the beauty of the crucified and risen Lord, will draw others to perceive and be captured by Love Himself.
What a splendid and dignified calling that we have inherited as sons and daughters of the Father!
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me – Galatians 2:20 (ESV)