Theologian calls beauty ‘starting point’ for faith

Denver, Colo., Feb 7, 2013 / 04:03 am (CNA).- Prominent theologian Dr. Michael Waldstein said that despite the modern world's dismissal of the connection between goodness and truth, the beauty of the natural world and human relationships can lead to faith in God.

“Natural beauty and human love are an important starting point. If you take true beauty seriously, you are a far way toward being open to an even greater love,” Waldstein told CNA on Jan. 31.

A professor of theology at Ave Maria University, Waldstein gave his remarks following an address at Denver's Augustine Institute concerning “Faith, Science and Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg Address.”

He said that “glimpsing Christ's beauty and taking it seriously” is a challenge for modern man because of the tendency to see a “dichotomy between faith and truth.”

Waldstein’s address began by contrasting two understandings of the word “faith.” One, he said, is displayed by individuals such as Richard Dawkins and sees faith as “belief that isn't based on evidence.”

Another understanding of faith, one more compatible with Christianity, is accepting the testimony of a reliable witness, he said, adding that faith understood in this way is necessary for human existence, and the rejection of it is irrational.

Francis Bacon, an important figure in the scientific revolution, articulated the principle that “human knowledge should be for the sake of power over nature,” he continued. That choice led to the reduction of the sphere of knowledge to mere “mechanics” – mathematics and physics, what can be made.

With this choice, Waldstein said, “the good was displaced from reality.” This resulted in a distinction between goodness and beauty – or values – on one side, and truth – or facts – on the other.

Modernity therefore sees science as concerned with objective “facts,” he explained, while values are viewed as a subjective phenomenon divorced from reality.

“Here you see, I think, why Richard Dawkins cannot but judge anything that's not in the very traditional scientific mode, as being unable to refer to something real,” Waldstein reflected.

This separation between truth and goodness, he said, means that “unavoidably, values are seen as imposed on you by somebody else. If everything except the mathematical aspects of nature are simply projections, then that projection came from somebody.”

Waldstein linked this to two current debates in American culture, namely contraception and the concept of gender.

The Obama administration's recent contraception mandate requires employers to offer health insurance coverage of contraception and sterilization, even when employers object to supporting their use on moral or religious grounds.

The dichotomy between truth and goodness “is why it is so difficult in our culture to understand the argument” surrounding contraception and conscience, the scholar said.

When truth and goodness are linked together, he explained, then it is possible to have an intrinsic link ordering the conjugal act towards the resultant good of openness to life.

“That is impossible for our contemporaries to understand, because for that ordering to take place, what you have to focus on is the goodness of the act. Because of that goodness, the act, through a nature in itself, has an orientation to it.”

He explained that when facts and values are separated, then people cannot see why contraception is an objective evil.

“But if goodness is a mere value imposed, then this idea is insensible – you can't make sense of it. You see it as a religious argument, because any value is going to be a subjective projection into the facts.”

Waldstein also explained how the idea of gender, as opposed to sex, represents a worldview in which “our body is a neutral machine with no meaning in itself, but all meaning is projected by us into it.”

“It follows then that men and women aren't, in virtue of their bodies, men and women. As far as gender is concerned, that is not the realm of fact but of value.”

“This,” he said, “is a consequence of the choice of mechanics as the master science – the separation between fact and value.”

Waldstein said that recapturing natural philosophy “plays a central role” in the new evangelization and overcoming the separation of truth and goodness. Natural philosophy's view allows an objective understanding of nature while also keeping goodness and values within the sphere of the objective.

The scholar told CNA that the encounter between persons is a way to help people think again about nature.

“Expression is such an amazing thing. I look at you, and I see you look, and it's fabulous, it's stupendous.” He said that rather than being a “complicated process” of thought and analysis, the encounter of persons can be summed up in this experience: “I see you look.”

“In the Gospel of John, in the prologue, when it talks about the Word becoming flesh, it's interesting that the very first effect of that… is that 'we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth,'” he said. “That's beauty; glory and beauty are very closely related to each other.”

Waldstein concluded that “to have a glimpse of that beauty which appears in Christ – glory, the glory of love, giving himself unreservedly, that, according to John, is the real motive of faith.”

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