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The what, why, and how of beauty: A conversation with John-Mark L. Miravalle

“Beauty,” says the author of a new book on the topic, “which on my view is the unity of order and surprise, attracts us because it corresponds to our nature.”

This is an installment in our series on the evangelizing power of beauty. In this series, we are looking at how beauty can bring us to God, convey a sense of the sacred, point us toward the Truth, and even help us know how to be good. Through essays and interviews, this series will examine how the beautiful can lead us to the true and the good.

Dr. John-Mark L. Miravalle is Professor of Systematic and Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. His most recent book, titled Beauty: What It Is and Why It Matters (Sophia Institute Press, 2019), is a profound exploration of the concept of beauty. Miravalle examines how our concept of beauty has developed and how some of the greatest thinkers over thousands of years have discussed beauty and its importance. He explores beauty in both its natural and supernatural context.

“[A]s believers, we know, or ought to know, that every created good should ultimately lead us to the Uncreated Good,” he writes. “Finite beauty directs and draws the soul to Infinite Beauty.” Further, he notes, “Christ has revealed to us the beauty of God in Himself, the beauty of God become man, and the beauty of the providential program.” Created beauty leads us to the uncreated Beauty, the transcendent God.

Miravalle recognizes and emphasizes the role that the beautiful can play in evoking the divine, and the way that beautiful depictions, which are meant to evoke something more, can have a profound effect on people. “[P]eople fall on their knees before art only when it communicates more than just itself. People fall on their knees before art only when that art expresses and represents the divine.”

Miravalle spoke with Catholic World Report about his book and the evangelizing power of beauty.

Catholic World Report: Why are we attracted to beautiful things?

John Mark L. Miravalle: Beauty, which on my view is the unity of order and surprise, attracts us because it corresponds to our nature. As intelligent beings, we long for order – for things that are true, understandable, rationally accessible. It gives the mind a peaceful pleasure to discover and rest in an orderly pattern.

And as free beings, we long for surprise – we want to celebrate the fact that things could have been otherwise, that the creative act of God’s will and finite wills cause things do be not out of necessity, but out of gift. Surprise gives us the thrill of appreciating that nothing is obvious – it’s all intrinsically marvelous.

CWR: What makes beautiful things beautiful, and ugly things ugly?

Miravalle: As I’ve said, what makes something beautiful is that it combines these features of order and surprise. But the corollary of this understanding of beauty is that there are two ways in which a thing can be ugly: either it lacks order or it is unsurprising. Disorder is when something lacks order – when it’s broken, chaotic, perverse, twisted. This kind of thing can startle us with a kind of warped pleasure, but it leads us down the path of increasing shock and deformity. It’s this that motivates people to indulge in sexual fetishism, dysfunctional reality tv, and horror movies.

Banality is when something lacks surprise – it’s just the same old boring thing, again and again and again. Then the order turns into monotony, mechanization, routine. Even good things lose their luster when we repeat them thoughtlessly. You have to preserve the surprise character of reality if you’re going to see its beauty.

CWR: Are some things inherently beautiful?

Miravalle: Sure – all reality, in fact. On the traditional Catholic view of the transcendentals, reality = truth = goodness = beauty. When we engage reality with the mind and will, we call it truth and goodness. When we allow ourselves to be surprised by truth and goodness, we experience reality as beautiful.

CWR: What role can beauty play in evangelization?

Miravalle: If we’re going to spread the Gospel, we have to show that it satisfies the whole human person. That means not only satisfying our intellects with the truth, or our moral sense with a clear portrait of justice. It also means satisfying our passions, our emotions – bringing them to fulfillment. Beauty does that, because beauty addresses the feelings as well as the intelligence and will. You can know the truth, and not feel anything. You can choose to do the right thing, and not feel anything.

But you’re not having an aesthetic experience – you’re not appreciating beauty – unless you feel something. So we need to keep finding ways to present the Gospel in an orderly and surprising (i.e., a beautiful) way, to make sure the faith is living passionately, and not just cerebrally or ethically.

CWR: How does man-made beauty participate and reflect beauty in God’s creation?

Miravalle: Nature is God’s original artwork, and, in a sense, science depends on the beautiful character of the cosmos. If the natural world weren’t orderly, science could never discover its laws (because there wouldn’t be any laws to discover). But if the natural world weren’t surprising, scientists wouldn’t need to make hypotheses and experiments to find out what it’s actually like – the continuing quest of scientists to understand more deeply is a monumental testament to the non-obviousness of the universe. Consequently, all human art seeks to incarnate order and surprise in physical form, following the example of the Divine Artist.

CWR: The Catholic Church has produced some of the most beautiful art in Western civilization. Would you say this flows naturally from the beauty of the Faith?

Miravalle: I would think so. Falsehood is a disorder, a dissymmetry between the mind and reality. The truth of our faith – the purity of our doctrine – prevents that disorder from infecting both Catholic teaching and the Catholic imagination. But the Christian story is also, as Chesterton wrote, the “Strangest Story in the World.”

The central story God wrote into the text of the world is the story of the infinite become finite, of life being put to death, and of our being restored to the Heavenly Father precisely through our murder of His Beloved Son. Humanity will never get over the surprise inherent to that story, and Christians will never lack inspiration for art that astonishes if they continually draw upon that supreme marvel of salvation.

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About Paul Senz 127 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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