Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone: The role of the beautiful in the life of the Christian6:00:00 AMHannah Bruckner
Leading up to Easter break, myself and the other Student Fellows here at the Hildebrand Project hosted a debate one evening on the topic of beauty. I spent several weeks pouring over the texts of Hildebrand (including a special edition of his soon-to-be-published Aesthetics!) in order to prepare for what my opponents could possibly say in order to defy Dietrich von Hildebrand’s position that beauty is a value. I went the “traditional” route; I prepared to face arguments from the relativist standpoint and to address the seeming problem of personal preference/taste in regards to the beautiful.
I could not have anticipated the argument I would face.
I expected to stand in the face of relativism and defend the realm of values in general. Instead, I faced an argument that, to me, seemed both reasonable and hard to offer a quick answer to: as Christians, shouldn’t we only revere beauty insofar as we can use it to make us better people? Or to help us pray? Or to lead us to the moral sphere? It was as if they were saying, isn’t beauty just a distraction by itself?
This caught me off guard. The argument was reasonable and well thought out. It also appealed to our predominantly Catholic (enthusiastically Catholic) audience. The error of this position is not very apparent at face value.
Luckily, this position is nothing new (although it was relatively new to me). Hildebrand already wrote an entire piece addressing it, titled Beauty in the Light of the Redemption. While I didn’t spend much time reading over it before the debate, I did mention it and recommended that our audience give it a read. Following my own advice, I decided to revisit Beauty in the Light of the Redemption after the debate.
Beauty, according to Hildebrand, is a “reflection of the inner excellence and dignity” of a thing (Source). The beauty of Christ arrests our affections and our will and inflames us with devout love. The beauty of the saints has an irresistible pull on our hearts, raising them to higher things. The goodness of this sort of beauty is clear because it inheres in the life of Christ. But what about the beauty of audible and visible things that are not explicitly being used for spiritual devotion? What is the purpose of this beauty? Is it good just because it is? Or is it only good if it serves some sort of purpose for us? What value is there in gazing upon the vastness of the Grand Canyon or the skillful brush strokes in the dancers of Degas?
Hildebrand rails against the notion of puritanism in regards to the realm of the beautiful. The “puritan” standpoint holds that beauty of this sort is a luxury that has no place in the life of the Christian. With so many economic and political questions and social justice issues coming to the forefront of the Christian agenda, who has the time for beauty anyways? To this, Hildebrand powerfully and simply states: “utilitarianism is by no means the spirit of the Gospel.” Contrary to the thought of many modern regimes and ideologies, the usefulness of something is not necessarily the greatest or the only standard by which one can judge the value or dignity of a thing. In fact, there are many cases in which the utility of a thing seems to be nearly irrelevant. Thus, Hildebrand touches on what Christ Himself taught by saying that man does not live by bread alone.
While many proponents of the “puritan” position would cite the life of Christ as their main source of inspiration for their argument, they may be surprised to find that the key to refuting their own position can be clearly seen throughout the Gospels. While Hildebrand is mainly remembered for his contributions to philosophy, his knowledge and application of the Scriptures should not be overlooked. With the expert eye of one who is in love with the study of the Gospels, he points out that the superabundance that comes with life in Christ can be seen in His miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. Some things are not strictly necessary. Some things, like the superabundant gift of wine at a feast, are just good. It is good to delight in things that deserve our delight. It is good to laugh, to smile, to be lighthearted, to dance. Some things are just superabundantly … good. So while utility is certainly important, it is not sufficient for understanding the love of God from the Christian standpoint, because His love is an extravagant excess, an overflowing. We see this in the beauty of creation. There is no need for the loveliness of the lily, or the magnificence of a waterfall. Rather, it is simply good that they are lovely and magnificent.
The penitent woman in the Gospels who anointed Christ’s feet with precious oils was also criticized for the seeming uselessness of her action, but Christ praised her for displaying the superabundant overflowing of her love. So while beauty is not always useful, it is good. It is a superabundant overflow of the love of the Triune Godhead for mankind. It is only in this reflection on the Gospels and in this marveling at the excessiveness of God’s love that Hildebrand was satisfied in silencing those who seek to live by bread alone.