Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Could Christian evangelism build on mystical yearning?


What do modern people lack, spiritually?

Some people have the experience of yearning for something which the world cannot give - for example when enjoying music, or a story, or a landscape - we may feel a joy which is also a yearning, since we know the world cannot satisfy it - indeed that we ourselves are unable to sustain it.

Either such moments are a meaningless delusion, or they mean something - and that something feels very important.


Christianity explains such moments and feelings as a foretaste or glimpse of Heaven.

The moments are meant to be an inspiration and encouragement - these moments ought not be sought for themselves, certainly these moments should not be grabbed or held onto; yet they are moments which with the right attitude are good for us, indeed potentially very good for us indeed - this is Christian mysticism, the via positiva - the worldly path to transcendence.


Christian evangelism and apologetics usually ignores this - instead focusing on morals and logic. But the yearning triggered by beauty is another way-in.

Yet Christian worship usually seems almost entirely to neglect this! Where, in the Christian life, are such moments of yearning encouraged?


This is not a matter of cheerful and enjoyable music, but of sublime music; not a matter of comfortable churches but beautiful churches (beauty which may be the glory of a cathedral or the plain austere beauty of a Quaker meeting house like Brigflatts).

And the words - the words ought not be merely true or sincere or interesting or relevant or funny - but poetic. Pointing beyond themselves. How dare we neglect that!


Imagine someone who feels this other worldly yearning going to church - what will they find? Will this yearning be encouraged and taken up into its full meaning; or will the church be irrelevant to yearning?

Church ought not be merely friendly, or at least friendliness is not enough - neither is happiness enough (there is plenty of modern friendliness, and even happiness, we can get happy friendliness at a fast food outlet) - but each and every formal act of Christian worship should itself be hinting or pointing at transcendence.  Neither is good advice nor solid teaching enough; and certainly good works are not enough.


Modern souls cry-out for a Heaven-glimpsing beauty which is especially deficient in modern life since modern life is so comfortable, so full of varied distractions and instant pleasures.

Yearning for the unattainable, the unworldly, is not confined to Christians - but Christianity has the capability of not just explaining but doing something with this transcendent yearning.

Christian worship, Christian life ought - surely - to encourage transcendent Heaven-glimpsing experience if at all possible?

Christian evangelism should be able to encourage those who are experience this yearning, to take their search into the Christian church, in expectation that this feeling will be channeled and nurtured.


Note: The above argument is based on CS Lewis's writing on Joy/ Sehnsucht and JRR Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories.


  1. Yes. Say you found yourself suffused with such yearning for the sublime, and stepped into this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lC7V8hG198&feature=related.

    What would you think? How could you possibly think that you had strayed from the proper path?

  2. Peter S. said…

    I would press the point even further than that: for those thoroughly self-armored against God and the transcendent, beauty is often the only way in (or out). As a telling case in point, the only good word the recently late Christopher Hitchens ever had to say with regard to religion and its works was to praise Isfahan:

    Interviewer: “So there are some redeeming aspects to religion after all?”
    Christopher Hitchens: “Sure, I’ve been to Isfahan.”


    Peter Hitchens: “And also, the interviewer asked him [Christopher] whether he thought that religion was wholly unredeemed. And he said no, of course not. I’ve seen Isfahan. Now I also have seen Isfahan, which is one of those most beautiful places on Earth. And it’s obviously the work of people who believe profoundly in God. So I was intrigued by that remark, and I’ve put it up on my blog, having transcribed it from the Hay Festival website. Of course, I thought that people should know about that. But oddly enough, as is so often the case with important things, nobody even seemed to be interested in it.”


    As an example of what they are gesturing toward, one might take a look at the following (full screen recommended; rotate view to interior dome as well):

    Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque Interior 360° Panorama:

    Shah Mosque Hall Interior 360° Panorama:

  3. @Kristor

    Indeed - and the English Anglican cathedrals are (apparently) attracting reasonable sized congregations (albeit at the expense of parish churches).

    Yet how seldom the cathedral choirs perform sublime music - there are whole services without any sublime music, although there is plenty to choose from, and instead dull Victorian stodge or ear-splitting 20th century stuff.

    And they often use modern language prayer books and Bibles - it's like they are embarrased by beauty.


    @Peter S - ahem - I'm not sure whether I approve of using my posting on Christian evangelism to praise Islamic architecture! I think Christianity's most formidable foe is doing well-enough without this blog's assistance. And I personally find that this style of architecture leaves me - almost literally - cold: to me it feels impersonal, opressive, petrifying...

  4. Peter S. said…

    First of all, it is the Hitchens brothers who are praising Islamic architecture, although of course, I am perfectly happy to do so as well. With regard to your final comment, I find this astonishing: “cold…impersonal, oppressive, petrifying.” To the contrary, I find that traditional Islamic art has a quality – distinct among the sacred and traditional artistic legacies of the world – of lucidity, limpidity, expansiveness and contemplativeness of considerable beauty and spiritual attraction. The perfection of form to be found in certain architectural creations, such as the Taj Mahal or Alhambra, is almost miraculous.

    With that said, I am perfectly happy to praise English Gothic as well – indeed, the Chapel of King’s College in Cambridge or Lady Chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey are just as miraculous as anything I have mentioned above. Let me go one better and recommend the following: Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook’s “The English Cathedral” – the best illustrated book on the subject – and Paul Binski and Steven Green’s “Divine Designs” 15 part series on English religious art and architecture, available as a Region 2 2-DVD set.

  5. @Peter S - well, I'll let you have the last word.

    Ooops, I didn't.

  6. Peter S. said…

    Well, that’s easily corrected. Having mentioned the two standout English Gothic masterpieces, let me also mention a very different masterpiece of English Gothic – at once more recent and more intimate – and one of my favorites: the Gothic Revival church of St. Giles in Cheadle, built by the great Victorian architect Augustus Pugin and known as “Pugin’s Gem”. Multiple panoramic views may be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/stoke/360/stgiles/index.shtml. Pugin – best known as the design architect, in collaboration with Charles Barry, of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) – was the leading figure in the British revival of the Gothic style. Rosemary Hill’s “God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain” is a fine study of the man.

  7. Has anyone here read philosopher Roger Scruton's book Beauty, by the way? I haven't, but I thought it might help some of us to become able to verbalize thoughts about the beautiful.

  8. Peter S. said…

    The following two essays by Peter S. Williams are of immediate relevance to the present post and are recommended:

    “Beauty and the Existence of God”

    “Aesthetic Arguments for the Existence of God”

  9. Peter S. said...

    Regarding Roger Scruton's "Beauty", I would start with his hour-long video adaptation of the same:

  10. I was just viewing a Talking Heads discussion between Robert Wright and physicist Lawrence Krauss about "Why is there something instead of nothing?" just before I surfed over here, so perhaps that is what put me in the right frame of mind, but when I looked at both the cathedral and Isfahan I immediately thought of the beauty of mathematics.

    Mathematics is also at the root of what we consider to be beautiful in music and indeed in architecture, flowers - even human faces. Use a computer to average 100 human faces and the result will be beautiful.

    The yearning for the sublime is actually, to a Platonist like me, the yearning for mathematical beauty. The yearning for that which is unattainable on Earth is a yearning for the Platonic realm of ideals. Like the Christian God, this Platonic realm is eternal, timeless and uncreated and the physical universe seems mere Shadowlands in comparison.

  11. @bgc: re the horrid modern and stodgy Victorian music often performed by good Anglican choirs, and the bad modern prayers and translations: yes. Same thing happens in America. Soaring Gothic Cathedral, really excellent choir, but even if they are performing Byrd, the service itself is ugly. Don't get me started on the preaching, which is generally even flatter than the modern translations.

    The pathetic, sad thing is that if the Anglican communion made a strong commitment to the sublime in liturgy - which has always been their specialty - and returned to the old forms, and made a really significant investment in music programs that emphasized the performance of early music, attendance would boom. But for the Church to do that, it would have to repudiate its leftism first (another thing that would create an explosion of attendance). And it is not going to do that.

    Sigh. It's like watching Salisbury Cathedral dismember itself.

  12. Question: how do you answer the call to be a "light before men" when the secular left has co-opted biblical charity and the popular culture has become so hostile to biblical morality? If you do good works (material charity) you're hardly noticed, or you're lumped in with the welfare state. If you champion the morality, a few people will be attracted by its boldness, but the great masses (at least where I live) will find it dark and repellent.

    I think you're onto the answer. In our age, our light does not shine from material works or moral code. While important, they are not the source or core component of our light. The source of our light, perhaps, is our experience of transcendant beauty and mystical yearning. The light arises from our certainty in its existence and source and fullness, and our hope in the renewing of the world to come.

    My checklist-oriented linear mind finds this concept difficult. It also struggles to rectify the hope and renewal with the obviously distressed state of modern life. But it's the best answer I've encountered to the challenge of how, in modernity, to conceptualize your light shining before men.

  13. @senexada - thanks, that's a helpful clarification.

  14. While considering the many good thoughts that have been offered here, let's remember that much of what each of us needs to do is respond to innumerable quotidian situations in a faith-full manner. Somewhere I think C. S. Lewis (such a great evangelist, addressing both intellects and imaginations) says that we are apt to think of "interruptions" as just that, things that take us away from our "real" work. But for the Christian, some or many of these "interruptions" /are/ his real work at the moment, to be responded to in unfeigned patience and charity.

    I know, I know. I find that almost impossible to remember sometimes.

  15. Peter S. said...

    Two articles by Roger Scruton may serve as valuable introductions to his philosophic reflections on beauty, and are perhaps appropriate to mention here:

    Roger Scruton, “The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty”

    Roger Scruton, “Beauty and Desecration”