The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

It is the longing I first remember. I desperately
wanted to be good. Of course,
I tested the boundaries tightly drawn
around parental definitions of good and
bad, approved, condemned, and censored.
It was usually clear that I was not lining
up with these oft-voiced thoughts of
the good. Yet somehow this didn’t seem
to enter into my childhood account of the
virtue. I wanted to be good. Good in a
manner far beyond parents and teachers
(though I seemed more eager to please the
latter than the former). Good in a way that
altogether overwhelmed the inane legalisms
and relative pieties around me. Good
in a way that somehow reached the source
itself.

It was Plato who famously argued that
we should struggle out of the dark caves
of ordinary human existence and towards
the eternal Forms–of which the supreme
Form is the Good. The pull of goodness
was for me the first step toward the God
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (whose very
name indicates the first step was not my own). I desperately longed to be good, to
know Good, to somehow become united
with it. Yet unfortunately, when climbing
out of dark caves, churchly regulations
and narcissistic perfectionisms look much
like the thing you think you are seeking,
and the terrifying God who demands perfection
(Matthew 5:48) seems the terrible
schoolmaster who will not have it any
other way. No matter how many A’s my
adolescent efforts were able to manufacture,
no matter the good deeds for shut-ins,
the outrage at local racism, the attention
to ethics in history and in school, God
seemed a teacher I could not please.

My pursuit of the good no sooner became
an impossible undertaking than it
became my most devout undertaking. The
God I followed through high school and
college was one I feared, though at the
time it was not the kind of fear that comes
from the force of great beauty, but more
the terror of insatiable expectation. I did
not yet have the words to voice what C.S.
Lewis’s Orual managed in Till We Have
Faces
, when she finally had her chance to
state her case against the gods. And yet,
the first time I heard her words I knew
they were my own: “That there should be
gods at all, there’s our misery and bitter
wrong. There’s no room for you and us in
the same world. You’re a tree in whose
shadow we can’t thrive.”

Nevertheless, I resigned myself to
this God. Whether I saw myself more as
the wry opportunist keeping one’s enemies
close or the sad duckling eating out of the hand of the one who plucked all
her feathers, in those days God was never
far from my mind. I wanted to be good, I
wanted to please, I wanted to meet God’s
approval, I wanted to be united with it.
I knew I was failing, but new formulas
for success, much like the latest self-help
manual, appeared as often as I needed
them. I prayed religiously. I read daily. I
fasted and served. I changed my major
to religion. I went to Jerusalem. I went to
seminary. Only then did I resign myself
to failure.

It was in the throes of giving up my
defeated attempts to please this divine
terror and pursue his Good that his face
began to change. Images of good kings,
gentle fathers, and untame lions, childhood
hopes, and fairytales long forgotten,
began to appear in thoughts and dreams.
I found myself suddenly startled by the
troubling idea that I was angry–not because
I couldn’t reach the higher good
myself, nor at the ravenous headmaster
who demanded it. No, I was maddened
at the thought that the Father who demands
perfection could be good Himself.
This was troubling to me, first, because
my fury was real, but second, because it
simultaneously seemed foolish. I was angry
at the possibility of a good God’s mere
existence. Goodness had long seemed so
unattainable that I willed the Source had
to be evil or only a myth. It was far more
disconcerting to consider that God might
be both good and true.

It would be nearly a decade after this
awakening of sorts before I would hear
the term “apologetics,” but it was in that
glaring, undeniable realization of my own
illogic that my journey towards the One
Who is True began. Now, far too often the
field of apologetics is seen (both by its
critics and its lauders) as the discipline
that allows one to climb Mount Zion and
nearer to God with the shining tools of
reason. I have no such misconception in
my own apologetic journey. I would still
be content with my first angry contradiction
had the mount not come to me. It
is God who is in the business of moving
mountains; reason is only God’s occasional
means.

But it was God’s means with me. Up
until this point, most of my life had been
spent wholly unconcerned with truth as a
philosophical category. This is not to say
that I went about declaring reality purely
relative or truth non-existent. It was far
less conscious than this. The idea of following
God because of some good this
following would afford me, the idea of following
God out of fear, dread, legality, or
even hatred–this somehow made sense
to me. But the idea of following God because
the story was
true, because a good
God was really there,
 
The God I followed through high school and
college was one I feared, though at the time
it was not the kind of fear that comes from
the force of great beauty, but more the terror
of insatiable expectation.
 

because Christ was
indeed who he said he
was–this had never
entered my mind.
Apologetics was like
learning a foreign
language, but at once
a language that filled
in the fuzzy abstractions and missing
pieces of my own. What if it was all true?
It was not unlike the rousing of self Annie
Dillard describes as strangely recognizable
in An American Childhood–“like
people brought back from cardiac arrest
or drowning.” There was a familiarity in
the midst of the foreignness. I woke to
mystery, but so somehow I woke to something
known. It meant entertaining a new
starting point; it meant admitting that I
might not have been seeing with all the
facts in the first place. It meant that God
was there all along.

Of course, it did not mean that my
angered questions gracefully bowed out
at the thought that they might be premature
or even nonsensical. Reason has
very little to say to the child who wants
to know why her father left; words are not
what she is looking for. My initial discovery
of truth had to give way to something
beyond ideas and logic, and it did not take long for this to become apparent. If
Jesus is who he says he is then Christianity
is indeed not a matter of preference
or pedigree; but this hardly suggests that
the pilgrimage is void of questions that
cannot be answered or existential struggles
wholly unsatisfied by human thought.
The apologist who remains at the level of
words and arguments is no more instructive
than the religious leaders who wanted
to pelt the crumbled adulterer with stones.
When our truth is as flat as a formula or a
book–even holy formulas and books–our
discipline is a delusion, as Jeremiah once
said, our god something less than God.
And we fall miserably short of being ready
to give the truest account of the hope that
is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

As I learned to see myself as a truthseeker
and truth-teller in the midst of ordained
ministry, I had to learn that truth
is not simply something
passive that we intercept,
like the outcome of
a CSI episode that leaves
us entirely certain of
“what really happened.”
Truth certainly has this
definitive element, to be
sure;
 
Apologetics was like learning a foreign
language, but at once a language that
filled in the fuzzy abstractions and missing
pieces of my own. What if it was all true?
 

the Logos which
became flesh is God’s definitive account
of truth. But this is something far deeper
and more dimensional than hard, unresponsive
facts and verses, as further
evidenced in John’s description of Christ
as one full of grace and truth in himself.
There is a corresponding, interactive
quality to truth, which cannot be merely
argued in words, but is best understood
by engaging its depth and character
within a world of impersonal, simplistic
alternatives. For if truth is personal–indeed,
a person–it demands a lifetime of
shared engagement with the one who is
truth and the Spirit who actively leads
us into a discovery of this truth. Sadly,
the mystery of the Christian religion is
far greater than many often leave room
to discover. Paul’s description of Jesus is
as full of inscrutable truths as it is compelling
evidences: “He was revealed in
flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in
throughout the world, taken up in glory”
(1 Timothy 3:16). Evidences of the
heights and depths of this divine truth
can indeed be received as factual, definitive
fingerprints. But so they are clues
that point to a multi-dimensional, inexhaustible
person full of grace, and truth,
and beauty.

Such an idea is perhaps set to narrative
in the characters of The Idiot, in
whom Fyodor Dostoevsky sets forth the
bold assertion that “beauty will save
the world.” The sheer number of ways in
which this quote has been taken from the
prince who uttered it and handed to lessdiscerning
philosophers attests to the
risk inherent in the idea, and perhaps
inherent in beauty itself. Even in the
story, the prince’s grand pronouncement
is immediately the subject of interrogation–“What sort of beauty? ” But Prince
Myshkin affirms in response it is who
will save the world. Dostoevsky, too, entertains
the proclamation in a person, in
Myshkin himself, who lives the quality of
beauty as if distinctive of his very soul. It
is Myshkin who chooses again and again
to help rather than to harm, to give mercy
rather than malice; he forgives tirelessly,
though surrounded by people who
do not. In fact, it is this group that labels
Myshkin the “idiot” because he refuses to
participate in the withering ugliness of
their own ways. In Dostoevsky’s analysis,
if beauty will save the world, it will
indeed be a Person.

For those waking to the light of truth,
for those speaking to the light of truth,
there is a temptation to overlook the personal
in the midst of the philosophical.
When Plato said that beauty is the splendor
of truth, he had in mind the Forms, literally
Ideas. Comforting though it is to those
who instinctively sense we were not meant
for the darkness of caves, the truth he had
in mind is inherently different in substance and character than the God-Man
who looked his troubled friends in the
eyes and said, “I am the Way, the Truth,
and the Life.” Here we find not words, but
the Word enfleshed, the transcendent
in person. He is goodness, truth, and
beauty incarnate, beckoning us out of
the darkness to follow, to die, to become
as he is. As it turns out, my old desire
not merely to be good but to somehow
become united with it was not my own
thought after all.

Herein, much of my ministerial passion
now finds expression, hope, and flesh
itself. For if the incarnation is a call to participate
in the glory of God as persons who
imbibe that glory, then there is most certainly
in beauty the potential to save, for
God is both the Source and the Subject.
This is why I write, why I minister, why I
defend the hope that is within me. God is
not merely interested in goodness; he is
goodness in a body, stepping near enough
to consume us, but offering instead a paradoxical
alternative: “Whoever eats my flesh
and drinks my blood remains in me, and
I in him
” (John 6:56). Thus, as a soul or
a neighbor, as a minister or an apologist,
I cannot afford to omit the possibility of
God reaching out to the world in beauty,
mystery, or transcendence, in goodness or
kindness, in truth, logic, or reason, but I
labor to show the hope of each possibility.
For He is all three in person–the Good, the
True, and the Beautiful. And like Myshkin,
I, too, can attempt to rise above the ugliness
of this world, having the courage to
risk beauty, living as one who recognizes
the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,
and so choosing to boldly reflect this goodness,
truth, and beauty in a world that
would have otherwise.

In the end, I believe the Good, the
True, and the Beautiful will indeed save
the world. But He will not stop with mere
rescue. “For if we have been united with
Christ in a death like his, we will certainly
be united with him in a resurrection
like his” (Romans 6:5). This, like the
kingdom both present and coming, is a
reality we can spend a lifetime imagining,
fostering, commending.

Jill Carattini is a specialized
minister with the Reformed
Church in America serving
as managing editor of
A Slice of Infinity, a daily
online essay, at Ravi Zacharias
International Ministries.