For Christian virtue to rise above its pale and monotonous image, it must, like art, become a bridge between the visible and the invisible.

In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus looked up into the face of a priest and was struck by its gray, mirthless, sunken appearance. Dedalus had considered taking holy orders, but now a future confined to the holy life seemed “grave and ordered and passionless.” The prospect of pursuing an artificial perfection seemed unbearable.

Stephen Dedalus came close to living out his life as a committed Christian. He cherished the state of grace after his conversion and responded to the call to be holy, but he felt a cleavage between human wholeness and the religious goodness that he saw. And so he turned to something else that moved him to the depths: the passionate pursuit of beauty as an artist. In our own time, Dedalus’s road away from religion has become a congested freeway.

Making Truths Tangible

When aroused to confront the challenges of a secular age, believers usually focus on the difficulty of believing. Our contemporaries seem to have a hard time grasping tales of angels and demons, the Virgin Birth and the Second Coming. We struggle to make these truths tangible in a world whose inhabitants do not regularly bump into miracles.

Much effort has gone into creating an intellectually credible apologetic, but Christianity faces another problem, one that involves deeper instincts: the problem of who has got the good life. If religious truth does not grab us by the lapels, religious goodness is still less compelling. Experience speaks louder than doctrine, and thus, for the great majority, goodness is what first attracts their attention. Very few turning points ...

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