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Book Review: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

By November 1, 2011January 30th, 2023No Comments

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Does it seem odd to hear the claim that mathematics and liturgy are related? That they are closely—even essentially—related? Or does it seem strange to consider that a mathematical proof may not be complete with the right answer if the construction of the proof is not beautiful? Or is it surprising that a respected scholar and fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, would argue that the quadrivium of the seven liberal arts could serve as a powerful way to combat consumerism?

These connections likely sound odd to our contemporary ears, but Stratford Caldeco ’s impressively concise book, Beauty for Truth’s Sake makes a persuasive case that such connections and relationships are foreign to us because of the prevailing fragmentation and scientism in modernity. Against this modern worldview that emphasizes bare facts and non-related categories, Caldeco urges us to remember the “wisdom of the past” in the liberal arts tradition that seeks out the unity and harmony amongst the parts of the universe for the sake of the whole and to see the imprint of the Logos that orchestrates every part of creation into a cosmos of love.

Hence, Caldeco ’s book seeks the integration of knowledge, and mathematics is his gateway to discuss the order and design of God’s creation. Specifically Caldeco introduces the quadrivium of the liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy. These four classical disciplines were the culmination of the seven liberal arts and the prerequisite before students would move on to the more advanced study of theology, law, or medicine.

Yet, lest the mathematically fainthearted reader falter at the mention of classical mathematics in Truth for Beauty’s Sake, we should note that the quadrivium is not some specialized, textbook-driven approach to mathematics. The goal of the quadrivium is hardly to train minds merely to configure equations and outcomes like a scientific calculator. The quadrivium seeks to uncover what is behind and within mathematical problems and equations—namely the proportions and qualities of God’s creation discovered in the beauty and harmony of his revelation through the language of mathematics. Hence, the quadrivium wrestles not only with the question what and how but also with the question of why. The quadrivium is equally about beauty, order, imagination and poetics as it is about final outcomes and utility. Nor is the restoration of the quadrivium for today an antiquarian endeavor.

However, while Caldeco emphasizes the quadrivium extensively, it is not right to say that this book is about the quadrivium. Caldeco argues for the renewal of the quadrivium in today’s education as a way to re-integrate faith and reason. He opens the book with these words: “In the modern world, thanks to the rise of modern science and the decline of religious cosmology, the arts and sciences have been separated and divorced. Faith and reason often appear to be opposed, and we have lost any clear sense of who we are and where we are going.”1 Caldeco proceeds to point out that this separation of faith and reason is a failure to see God’s sovereignty, grace, and order in and through creation. Against this modern separation between the “realm” of faith and reason (or between the arts and sciences), Caldeco seeks to reacquaint us with the seven liberal arts: “The classical ‘Liberal Arts’ tradition of the West 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.”2

With the goal of uniting faith and reason set, Caldeco does not hide the main thrust of his book:

1. Education is the passing on, or “transformation,” of culture that carries our “values, priorities, and the way we structure the world.” Hence, the fragmentation of contemporary education leads to the loss of generational values, even a “denial of ultimate meaning.”

2. The “keys to meaning are form, gestalt, beauty, interiority, relationship, radiance, and purpose.”

3. “Education begins in the family and ends in the Trinity.” In other words, every part of life—from praise of God’s beauty to humble service and work to the contemplation and search for truth—is a way to God. “The cosmos [entire universe and all its parts] is liturgical by its very nature.”3

As these three points display, Caldeco ’s thesis is about much more than mathematics, or even the liberal arts. These arts and disciplines are ways of organizing the journey to wisdom. And how different is this goal of liberal arts education than the goal of secular education in modernity? Against the backdrop of wisdom, the predominant goals of being “well-rounded” and credentialed for employment are transitory, whereas true education is a lifelong habit of learning, of seeking to understand what it means to be human (Imago Dei) and what it means to live redemptively as the church called to bear Christ to the world.

Perhaps the greatest worth of Caldeco ’s book is how he connects the lost wisdom of the liberal arts to this mission of Christian education. Caldeco offers a vision of Christian education that is deeper than having prayer to begin the day and incorporating a Bible class into the curriculum. Caldeco reminds us of the need to convey and embody truth in the content and form of the curriculum, and a liberal arts education stands as a time-tested cohesive way to Wisdom. Beauty for Truth’s Sake is a timely book for this secular age that has no memory and little “sense of the sacred.” Caldeco ’s nal vision of education seeks nothing less than to awaken in man a sense of his place as God’s beloved creature within the harmony of the creation song. This existence is a great mystery that can only be lived sacrificially as an o ering of thanksgiving and worship. Hence Caldeco concludes with an appeal to the liturgical nature of the cosmos. He quotes Eric Peterson to make this point:

“The…worship of the Church is not the liturgy of a human religious society, connected with a particular temple, but worship which pervades the whole universe and in which sun, moon and all the stars take part. And so we read in the introduction to the Sanctus of the Liturgy of St. James: ‘Him do we praise the heavens and the heaven of heavens and their concerted might, sun and moon and all the singing galaxies of stars, earth, sea and all that they contain.”

Caldeco ’s book is both refreshing and convicting. It challenges all believers on the root assumptions behind beauty, education, art, worship, and the way we view creation.

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