Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beauty for Truth's Sake

Rarely do I finish a book and exclaim, “I have never even thought about most of these ideas.” Yet when I finished Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, I was dumbfounded. Although a bit heavy in quotations in some spots, this book opened a new world to me. That new world was the unity of knowledge. Christians often teach about not dividing sacred from secular and integrating the Bible into all of life, but most of these efforts amount to very little other than applying obscure Bible passages in strange ways. Caldecott, a Catholic theologian at Oxford, has given Christians interested in education a new vocabulary for “Christian worldview.”

The book is about the classical Liberal Arts tradition of the West that “once offered a form of humane education that sought the integration of faith and reason, and that combined the arts and the sciences, before these things became separated, fragmented, and trivialized.” For Caldecott, this tradition can only be recovered by going back to the sources (ressourcement). The most important source for Caldecott is not Boethius, Augustine or even Socrates and Plato. It is Pythagoras. Pythagoras? The right-angle triangle guy? That’s what I mean by “I’ve never even thought about that before.”

Caldecott introduces the book by quoting Pope Benedict at length. His book The Spirit of the Liturgy attempts to connect prayer and action, the soul and the exterior world, society and the universe, into a single harmonious whole. The ordering of the soul is deeply connected, of all things, to the mathematical ordering of time, space and matter. I’ll join Caldecott and quote Pope Benedict at length:

“Among the Fathers, it was especially Augustine who tried to connect this characteristic view of the Christian liturgy with the worldview of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his early work ‘On Music’ he is still completely dependent on the Pythagorean theory of music. According to Pythagoras, the cosmos was constructed mathematically, a great edifice of numbers. Modern physics, beginning with Kepler, Galileo and Newton, has gone back to this vision and, through the mathematical interpretation of the universe, has made possible the technological use of its powers.

“For Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe (‘cosmos’ means ‘order’!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal form of music. The courses of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony…

“But a further step was taken with the help of the Trinitarian faith, faith in the Father, the Logos [the Son], and the Pneuma [Holy Spirit]. The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor, as people now came to see, can it be explain by stellar deities. It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained. The Logos, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes. In virtue of his work in creation, the Logos is, therefore called the ‘art of God’ (ars=techne!). The Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art—the beauty of the universe—have their origin.”

Let me try to summarize with my pea-sized brain: All of creation and thus all knowledge finds its source in Jesus, the Logos, the great bridge between God and man. He creates the world through an great ordering of all things (Genesis says God created order from chaos). This order is mathematical and constant, and the universe itself is set to a kind of rhythm that resembles a cosmic song. This “great edifice of numbers” carries with it a serene simplicity and unity that can only be called beautiful.

Western civilization lost its connection to a cosmic order at the Enlightenment. All was separated and dissected when, at the same time, it lost its faith in God. God became relevant only to one’s personal values, but was dethroned as God of the Universe. But in this vision of the world – this old vision – the natural world is the overflow of the Mind of the Maker. God is Lord of both the individual as well as the universe. Caldecott is trying to re-infuse meaning into education by recovering an ancient view of the world’s unity in Christ.

Like I said, I’ve never even thought about most of these ideas. I think this book will require several blog posts…

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