Beautiful Orthodoxy, by Mark Galli

A defining feature of our day is rage. We are angry about everything: politics, our sports teams,
religion, life. We have this sense that life should be full and meaningful—or at least on a
trajectory toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. But things are not so. Something has
gone wrong. And we can’t fix it. The result? Rage. Anger. Despair. Christianity offers a solution
to this malaise of modernity. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Our hearts can find rest.
Our lives can be full and meaningful. Yet, many Christians struggle. Some seem to focus on the
boundaries of faith—who’s in, who’s out, who has correct doctrine, who doesn’t—and are
perceived by many in culture as smug and self-righteous. They represent an ugly orthodoxy.
Others, attempting to be relevant to a culture that disdains traditional ethics, argue that we
need a new ethic of permissiveness about almost everything. These Christians are walking a
path of beautiful heresy. It seems we Christians must make a choice—either orthodoxy or
beauty but not both. In his book Beautiful Orthodoxy, Mark Galli argues there is a better way:
“it is in Jesus Christ that we can know, relish, and live into ‘beautiful orthodoxy’” (p. 12).

Goodness

We long to do good. We want to do what is right. Yet, we struggle. We fall short. In chapters 1
and 2, Galli explores the twin facts, famously discussed by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, that
there is a moral law and we transgress it daily. These facts are a blessing and a curse, according
to Galli. They are a curse because they make life harder. It would be nice if we could just “do
what is right in our own eyes and be done with it” (p. 20). Yet, there is blessing here too: the
moral law points to the givenness of reality. It suggests that we can flourish if we can just figure
out what the good life is supposed to be and how to obtain it. One historically prominent idea
that is of renewed interest today in the academy is this: the good life is the virtuous life.
Scripture has no qualm with this vision of the good life. Surely this is part of the answer. We
can, through effort, prayer, and practice become admirably virtuous. This common goodness,
as Galli puts it, is the penultimate good. Yet, when we turn to Scripture and the ethical
teachings of Jesus such as the Sermon on the Mount, we find a “massive frustration” (p. 28) at
the heart of the call to live virtuously. We are called to be like Jesus. And we just can’t do that
on our own. “We’re not good at letting Jesus rule over our entire lives or reflecting his love to
the world” (p. 28). This is tragic. The good news of the gospel story is that tragedy doesn’t get
the last word, however. There is comedy too! Who would have foreseen that we become fully
human—good—when we repent and offer our lives back to Jesus in creaturely response? Here
we find the great divide between secular versions of virtue ethics and the Christian vision: “in
the end, the finest biblical picture of the good life is not a person who is morally righteous or
religiously faithful, but one who practices mercy . . . . the life of mercy begins not with vows to
become moral heroes, but with repentance”(pgs. 32, 33). Beautiful orthodoxy enfolds common
goodness and the hard-won moral and intellectual virtues obtained into ultimate goodness.
Man’s highest good is communion with God through union with Christ. At the heart of ultimate

goodness is mercy (on God’s part) and repentance (on ours). All then is gift. All is from God and
to God.

Truth

We care about truth in many spheres of life—science, politics, religion. The problem isn’t a lack
of concern for truth. The problem is, fundamentally, with how that truth is obtained. If
autonomous man arrives at the truth for himself or herself, then all is well and good. If truth is
revealed from on high—well that is another story! Dogma—the revealed truths of religion—is
widely held to be a conversation stopper, a veiled ploy to assert power. And this is
understandable. How many of us have been a part of a conversation in which “God told me so”
is thrown down like a Royal Flush in a poker game? There is not much more to be said at that
point. Game over. The real issue, Galli argues, is not with dogma, however. Everyone has a
dogma—whether grounded in unaided human reason or divine revelation. The fundamental
question concerns whether these dogmas are true. Do ones’ beliefs correspond to reality? Do
they match the way things are? This is why orthodoxy matters. Christians have affirmed, for
example, the truths of the Nicene Creed for millennia because it is believed that these truths
correspond to the way things are. Galli argues in chapter 3 that this common understanding of
truth as a correspondence between a proposition and reality is essential to a life well-lived.
But, there is a deeper—more uncommon—notion of truth at the heart of Christianity (chapter
4). Jesus calls us to not only stand in right relationship to ideas (i.e., propositional truth) but to
enter into a right relationship with “Truth himself” (p. 48). In other words, in Christianity, we
discover that reality is at rock-bottom relational and that man’s highest good is found in
relation to God. There is knowledge that and there is knowledge of. Christianity offers us
knowledge that God exists, and more importantly, knowledge of God. Jesus makes orthodoxy
beautiful because he stands at the center and offers himself to us: “Bearing fruit—or human
flourishing—does not come from grasping intellectual insights about the nature of reality, but
by entering into and remaining in a personal, intimate, mystical relationship with Jesus Christ”
(p. 45). Holding to his teachings and abiding in Jesus—this is the truth that sets us free (John
8:31-32). This is the uncommon truth that transforms common truth.

Beauty

When confronted with beauty in art, nature, music, or a gentle touch, humans are led, as Galli
observes in chapter 5, to contemplate the divine: “beauty takes us out of ourselves, even out of
this world” (p. 53). While the nature of beauty is elusive, it is a mistake, argues Galli to identify
it with subjective experiences only. Beauty is an objective feature of the world. Moreover, the
experience of beauty, as studies show, is an essential feature of a life of flourishing. The
connection between beauty, human flourishing, and the contemplation of the divine is
suggestive. As C. S. Lewis colorfully describes it in his essay “The Weight of Glory,” we don’t
merely long for beautiful things, we long for the source of beauty through beautiful things. This
connection between beauty and the divine, further explored in chapter 6, presents us with a
paradox: “beauty can lead us to God; beauty can also lead us to false gods” (p. 57). The

experience of beauty is pleasurable. If we never move beyond the experience of beauty, to seek
the source of beauty itself, however, we fall into idolatry. By following the divine thread, we
move from experiences of penultimate beauty to ultimate beauty and the experience of awe:
“Ultimate beauty [prompts in us] the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that
fascinates us yet also makes us tremble” (p. 59). We find this greater—ultimate beauty—in the
Jesus and in the actions and lives of those who faithfully follow him.

Beautiful Orthodoxy

This vision for a beautiful orthodoxy has implications for all of life. Common goodness and the
pursuit of virtue encourages us to everyday goodness, acts of love that “let our neighbors taste
little bits of grace” (p. 66). Ultimate goodness pushes us further—moving from common
courtesy to “social action” and more. The pursuit of truth touches every aspect of our lives too.
When we enfold this common view of truth as “right ideas” into the larger vision of Jesus as the
Truth, we are pushed and prodded to locate our lives in the gospel story in a way that is inviting
and challenging to others and to the many lesser stories found in the world. The call of beauty
encourages us to cultivate hope through the things and meaning we make in the world.
Beautiful orthodoxy reminds us of the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” As Galli
summarizes, “[We] may not always exemplify the good, the true, and the beautiful, but we are
good, true, and beautiful because we are one in union with Christ. This merciful reality,
saturated in grace, is what drives us to make Beautiful Orthodoxy a living presence in our
churches and in the world” (p. 73). Amen. May it be so.

Our sponsors

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *