Fr. Patrick Reardon · May 13, 2013
Audio length: 32:38
Fr. Pat considers the Gospel message of St. Thomas Sunday through the triple lens of what classical philosophy calls "the transcendentals": the true, the good, and the beautiful.
St. Thomas Sunday 2013
It has for decades been my custom, as you know, to pace the Sunday sermon along a series of three points. Normally this is effected by a simple process of sequence, one-two-and-three.
This morning, however, the substance of the three points requires that I somewhat abandon this sequential pattern and speak of all three points in a circular motion, as it were. Today’s three points form, in fact, a kind of circumincession, where each subject is essential to the other two. Some of you may recognize that the very word, circumincession, derives from traditional and standard Triadology.
I want to consider the Gospel today through the triple lens of what classical philosophy calls the “transcendentals”: the true, the good, and the beautiful—the three transcendent qualities of being.
These, then, are today’s three points: truth, goodness, and beauty.
I adopt this approach because the Paschal season—now only a week old—appears to call for it. Exactly one week ago—recall it with me—we all stood here, rather exhausted and bleary-eyed, and listened to the proclamation that affirmed—with breathtaking boldness—
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him… In him was life, and the life was the light of men… He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world did not know him… And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth… For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Let me mention the circumstances in which we listened to these words: First, it was the middle of the night, and we were all surrounded by the darkness of Egypt and Sodom. Second, in our hands we carried candle-flames as we stood and listened to those words.
Third, these words are proclaimed in the Church only one time each year. If you miss the Pascha service, you must wait a whole year before you will have another chance to hear them. (Compare this frequency with the several occasions, each year, when we listen to the story of Jesus driving the demons into the pigs!)
Fourth, in order to prepare ourselves to hear the opening words of the Gospel of John, we had set ourselves to forty days of prayer and fasting. We believe that anything less would be a kind of profanation of what those words declare.
The opening words of the Gospel of St. John form the initial salvo of what Holy Church calls “theology.” John’s authorship of those words is what justifies his title, St. John the Divine, or St. John the Theologian.
Even after spending forty days in prayer and fasting, we were scarcely prepared to take the measure of that proclamation. It is daunting to our minds to consider that the divine Logos, who lived eternally with God, is also the formal cause of Creation: “All things were made through him.”
Our minds are overcharged—in danger, as it were, of short-circuiting—when we hear, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” And no human culture, no matter how high and sophisticated, is truly ready to be faced with the fact that “the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Over the centuries, Holy Church, when she listened to this proclamation, took care to furnish the room of her mind with the assets of classical philosophy. Indeed, I am far from certain that Holy Church will ever find a better mental provision for listening to the Gospel of St. John. When those words were first proclaimed, they were proclaimed in an intellectual world largely shaped by the teaching of Plato. God sent Plato to the Greeks as surely as He sent Isaiah to the Hebrews.
Under the influence of Plato, classical philosophy meditated extensively on what it called the “transcendentals”: the true, the good, and the beautiful. Classical philosophy regarded those transcendentals as qualities of being: Truth is being as knowable; goodness is being as lovable; and beauty is being as admirable, attractive, and desirable. These transcendentals are qualities of the “real”—that which is. In the Christian faith, that includes everything—the good God and all the good things that God created. We Christians believe ourselves to be surrounded by truth, goodness, and beauty. This is what we call reality, or being.
In each of these transcendentals, we observe the dynamism of a tension: In truth there is the energetic tension between the one and the many. In goodness there is the lively tension between duty and freedom. And in beauty there is the spirited tension between proportion and form (Gestalt).
Let us consider, then, the first transcendental: The true is being as knowable. Truth, that is to say, is a characteristic of knowledge because it is a quality of being. Truth is the metaphysical link that joins the mind to the essence of reality; truth is the “rule governing their mutual relation” (Balthasar).
For the purpose of clarity, let us contrast this Christian and classical perspective with the shameful reduction of truth common in certain modern philosophies that renounce transcendence. These recent philosophies diminish truth to logical systems, forms of Positivism, mere syllogistic coherence, and “sterile systems that go by various names: functionalism, logicism, linguistic analysis” (Aidan Nichols). There is no place for a metaphysics of truth in these systems of modern intellectual emptiness, those efforts representing what René Guénon called “the reign of quantity.”
Against all such intellectual reductions—all such eviscerations of truth—we Christians proclaim that truth is the inner essence of reality. This is so, inasmuch as reality is infused with the Logos, because “in him all things were created.”
Truth, then, is not a mere construction of our minds. We Christians are convinced on this point because we have beheld the glory of the incarnate Logos, in whom all things were made. Rising from the dead, he has revealed the eternal truth to our minds, for in him was light, and the light was the life of men. He invites us today to place our fingers on those openings where the light of truth shines forth from his very hands, the hands of him who gave form to the universe.
No more, for us, a reduction of truth to some mere external, logical correspondence between sentence and fact—as poor, desperate Thomas imagined. Grace and truth are what we know in the vision of God’s glory shining forth from the face of the risen and transfigured Christ.
Next, let us consider the second transcendental: Goodness is being as loveable. The good is the true presented to us in the form of an invitation. The good is the summons to a decision. Just as we confess that truth is a quality of reality itself, so we insist that the good is the moral companion and image of the true. What truth is to the human mind, goodness is to the human will.
The difference between right and wrong is a difference of essence, for the same reason there is an essential difference between true and false. Consequently, the universe in which we live is not morally malleable; we reject the claims of the good only at our own peril. Reality is not safely mocked. He who spits at heaven spits in his own face.
Goodness is rooted in truth. For this reason, the neglect of goodness—to say nothing of the denial of goodness—leads ineluctably to the forfeiture of truth. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares:
If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.
Only the truth can save us from the darkness. The abandonment of moral integrity produces a deep intellectual darkness. It deprives us, not only of the truth, but also of the good. St, John calls this “abiding in darkness.”
Jesus says, “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me should not abide in darkness.” This is the voice emanating from the deepest recess of reality.
Observe that the truth is not simply something known, but it is a path along which we are to walk. We must first “walk in the light.” Examine, then, the proper word order: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He initially presents himself as a path. He invites us to walk along that path. The inaugural step toward the truth is the decision to walk by the light. In practice, we do not know Jesus as the truth until we determine to follow him as the way. Only through those steps do we learn to know him as the life.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus cautions us:
A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Finally, let us consider the third transcendental: Beauty is being as admirable, attractive, and desirable.
Of the three transcendentals, none is more ignored today than the beautiful. The beautiful is universally dismissed as purely subjective and arbitrary. Even in those cases where modern philosophers actually believe in truth—even when modern moralists profess adherence to goodness—the beautiful always seems to get short shrift on the contemporary scene.
Indeed, let me suggest to you that the major and defining heresy of modern thought is best summed up in what is usually taken to be a self-evident axiom; namely, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
I tell you, I cannot think of a more depraved pronouncement than that one. Only the depths of hell could have thought of such a thing. To imagine that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is radically to divorce the beautiful from the true and the good.
When God looked out on each thing He had made and, behold, “it was good,” that goodness was not simply in the eye of the Beholder. What God saw was good; it truly was kalon. He inserted our existence in a beautiful world.
The modern thesis, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is a straight-out repudiation of what our Father in heaven has done; He made a beautiful world, and beauty, most emphatically, is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is truth and goodness as admirable, attractive, and desirable.
John Keats, after spending several hours in the contemplation of the Elgin Marbles—the frieze figures from the Parthenon of Athens—composed his famous “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” His arguably most memorable line in that poem summarizes my own frail comments today: “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. This is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
Perhaps this is why Holy Church devotes one day each year solely to the repudiation of the hellish suggestion that “beauty is the eye of the beholder.” On one day each year—August 6—we gather together to cast scorn on such a notion. We assemble at the altar to celebrate the infinite beauty that shines forth from the face of the Logos. We gaze at this transfigured brilliance as much as we are able to bear.
Modern rationalism amounts to an impoverishing denial of the transcendentals. By “reducing truth-theory to verification and abandoning the good and the beautiful to subjective arbitrariness, [it] has torn apart the image of being” (Aidan Nichols). The modern world has repudiated the transcendence of art, because it has repudiated the Logos of the primeval Artist. In modern rationalism, the symbolic has been replaced by the diabolic. It tears apart those things that have no life apart. It endeavors to destroy the inner unity of reality itself.
Can philosophy once again recover that perception of the transcendentals that once ravished the souls of Adi Shankara and Plato? (Here I give only my own opinion. With this paragraph I stop proclaiming the Gospel and simply share an impression that burdens my mind.) I confess I do not think it is possible for modern philosophy to be redeemed by its own resources. Modern philosophy, it appears to me, is too far-gone in decay. It has truly forgotten how to instruct itself.
I share this view only as my own opinion: I believe that philosophy today needs a redemption that only the Christian faith can give it. Left to itself, modern philosophy is as blind as Bartimaeus sitting along the road at Jericho. And unlike the blind man at the pool of Siloam, whom we will consider some weeks from now, this modern blind man was not born blind. At one time, philosophy really was able, in some measure, to see. It is the great tragedy of modern philosophy that it truly did blind itself; it systematically gouged out its own eyes. It played the Philistine to its own Samson.
Our task—not as philosophers but as Christians—is to proclaim what the other Apostles said to Thomas: “We have seen the Lord.” Let us take care never to lose what we have seen. In devout prayer, each day, let us reach out our hand and place it, firmly, in the open side of truth. Let us abide in loving contemplation of the Logos who speaks to us from the pages of Holy Scripture. Let us tarry in the upper room of our minds with the risen Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.