Many are suffering these days with a sense that their lives are meaningless. A 2019 poll in Great Britain showed that 9 in 10 people between the ages of 16 and 29 reported that they felt their lives were meaningless. CDC statistics from 2018 reported that deaths by suicide were up 25% from 1999 as people were increasingly seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, in many cases brought on by a sense of meaninglessness.

In this blog:

  • Meaninglessness and the “Dictatorship of Relativism.”
  • What are the Regina Academies doing to save students from the despair or meaninglessness?
  • What role does technology play in keeping us from asking the “big questions” of life that point us toward meaning?
  • Beauty may be the best path back to truth as we follow the “via pulchritudinis” (the way of beauty) out of the nihilism and despair of the current moment and find once again the real meaning of life that only exists in Jesus Christ.
  • Three ways we can help children experience beauty.

How and where do we find meaning in our lives?  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, just before he became Pope Benedict XVI, spoke of the “Dictatorship of Relativism”. Relativism denies that truth and morality are absolutes, and contends that they are changing and can only be defined by historical or cultural context. It denies that there are truths expressed in the nature of things – the human person among them. Adam was given the responsibility by God to name all the creatures in the Garden of Eden, but he didn’t give them their nature. God, their Creator, did that.

If, as a society, we are unable to agree on reality as something that transcends the individual, then society becomes fractured and that leads to nihilism and despair. If we are told there is no truth that defines who we are as human persons, then of course life becomes meaningless. There is nothing outside of ourselves to which we can aspire.

There are no meaningless lives in the Regina Academies

The Regina Academies are Catholic classical schools whose core mission is to save our students from the despair of meaninglessness. We teach them that all living things have a nature that is rooted in their creation; that meaning is found in knowing the truth, and that they can know the truth with confidence. As human persons, faith and reason together allow us to contemplate the mystery of God in whom we can ultimately discover, and fulfill, the meaning of our lives.

The transcendentals (truth, goodness, and beauty) are universal attributes that reflect the divine origin of all things. Our schools stress the transcendentals, and students learn to see in them a reflection of the true source of meaning who is Jesus Christ himself — the one in whom Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are embodied in perfection.

Young people are critically at risk of becoming victims of the Dictatorship of Relativism. The music they listen to, movies, video games, and social media almost exclusively deny objective morality and truth. Research has shown that even some very popular apps are designed to trap users in a downward spiral of despair.

The enthusiasm of youth is a wonderful thing, but young people’s sense of discernment is formed over many years. Until then, the only anchors they have in truth and morality are in their home, their school, and their church. We can’t let them down.

The dangers of distraction

Technology is a wily foe that is hard to resist. It can easily fill every moment of our free time and distract us from contemplating the important questions humanity has always asked: Who am I, and why am I here? What is truly real? What is truly meaningful? What is truth? What is the good, and how can I act to achieve what is truly good?

What are the consequences of giving in to these distractions that leave no time for contemplation? No time to ponder the big – and most consequential – questions of what it means to be human and created in God’s image? Perhaps we’re finding out. When these questions are no longer pondered, the loss of faith will soon follow.

Almost 25 years ago data already showed that 70% of youth didn’t believe there was any such thing as absolute truth (Barna, Third Millennium Teens). Current data shows that the median age of disaffiliation from the Church is 13. These statistics give a particular urgency to the time we have with our students in the Regina Academies. We would be naïve to not think that some of our students will fall into the relativism trap and be tempted away from the Faith.

How do we lead children to desire what is true, good, and beautiful when their virtual, two-dimensional world is built on fantasy, illusion, and a quick dose of virtually induced pleasure? How can we help them find the faith we long to share with them when their peers are saying religion is just outdated fantasy? How can we tell them their lives have meaning if science teaches them they are a mere random accident, and they were not created by a loving God? We face some tough competition.

The Via Pulchritudinis

Those familiar with Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Ministry may know that he believes Beauty is the only one of the three transcendentals that people in our culture will no longer reject. In his experience, any attempt at evangelization that leads with either a moral demand (the good), or a claim to possess the truth is doomed to failure. Beauty, as the ancient philosophers taught us, provides a pathway to the rational mind through the senses. As Bishop Barron says, “The pattern is more or less as follows: first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!).”

Here are a few suggestions of how we might help students discover this way of beauty and engage them on their journey to truth and a meaningful life.

1. Discovering Beauty in Nature

Just as we teach our children that the way to overcome vice is by strengthening the opposing virtue, perhaps one way we can meet the challenges of the virtual world is with leisure time spend in the real world — in nature.

Regina Academies Are our lives meaningless? 1
Clearing Winter Storm, Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984)

Nature inspires wonder, and only the most hardened secularists can experience nature and not have their minds moved to its Creator. Young children see wonder everywhere. We need to keep that wonder alive.

As the psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork” (Ps 19). And also, “When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Ps. 8.3-6).

With a little encouragement to contemplate the wonder of God’s creation, children may begin to see themselves in perspective. Hopefully they will begin to ask those deep human questions that technology buries — the questions that have been the inspiration for art and literature from the beginning… “Who am I that God is mindful of me?”

Some who have left religion without good formation in science OR religion say their questions about the compatibility of science and religion weren’t answered.  Students formed in the Regina Academies have their questions answered and know that good science finds no contradiction with what we believe as Catholics.

Experiencing the wonder of creation can move the mind beyond creation itself to question the hand that created it. That is the movement from the senses to wonder, or as Bishop Barron says, from the beautiful, to the good, and ultimately to the true.

2. The Role of Beauty in the Liturgy
Baroque Church
Celebration of Mass in a Baroque church

The Church’s supreme act of worship, the Mass, has in some places become a vehicle for subjective personal expression rather than solemn worship. Except during periods of decadence, the Church has always held the highest standards for artistic beauty and reverence in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As humans, experiences of the senses are critical in forming belief. Beauty and solemnity in the liturgy reinforce the reality that is taking place at Mass.

Beautiful architecture, sacred vessels, vestments, music, and sacred art all are involved in the movement from the tangible to the intangible. These things are not just distraction, as some claim. If we believe the Mass perpetuates Christ’s sacrifice that saves us from our sins, then how can those things that are used in the celebration of the liturgy be anything other than the very best we have to offer.

The statistics regarding Mass attendance, belief in the Real Presence, and the consequent exodus from the Church, are all evidence that the liturgical experimentation of the past 50 years hasn’t worked. Throughout history, ritual, beauty, and solemnity have drawn Catholics to more deeply internalize the gravity and reality of the sacrifice made present during our celebrations. The smells and bells of liturgical ritual are important reminders of who we are as God’s children by virtue of our creation in his image and by his redeeming sacrifice (listen to what Jordan Peterson has to say about the Power of Beauty and religious experience).

Classical education values what is noble in our cultural patrimony as a source of beauty, goodness, and truth. We offer our students the best literature, art, and music to study in class. Why would we not surround them with beauty in our worship?

3. The Arts in the Classical Curriculum
The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Gianlorenzo Bernini (1652)

The phrase, beauty is in the eye of the beholder has no place in a Catholic education. To deny objective beauty is to deny objective truth and objective morality. The transcendentals must be taken as a whole because together they define the same object – Jesus Christ.

Art and music must be taught in school as uniquely human languages that communicate without words. True, they can be analyzed by describing their respective elements like color, tone, rhythm, line, and form, but art is not created to be an academic exercise. It is important for students to learn these various elements and how to use them to describe what they see and hear, but the arts must be experienced to be truly understood.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit
Rabbit. Jeff Koons, 1986. Sold in 1991 for $91 million and holds the record for the most expensive piece ever sold at auction.

There is another very important reason to bringing the arts into the classical curriculum. The development of art reflects the developments that have taken place through time in history, literature, and philosophy. When studied together, students see that as culture moved away from God, art lost its beauty. With the advent of the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, man began to assert mastery over creation and with pride in his own ability, God was pushed aside. The movement away from objective truth, and the increasingly reductionist view of what is means to be human in relationship to God can be seen and heard in music and art.  Compare the music of Beethoven or the sculptures of Bernini to Papa Roach or Jeff Koons. Which are the most beautiful aside from any personal preferences.

This is why art and music are essential in an integrated classical curriculum. They are a means for students to experience the periods of history and not just learn facts. Even more, they learn how their culture forms them, and how the pursuit of truth cannot be separated from beauty and the moral life. They begin to learn to be discerning of the culture around them.

How we can save the world.

In a world despairing of meaning, how do we return meaning to people’s lives? The way of beauty is an ancient pathway to truth. Where do we begin? We begin with our own – our families and the students we have in our schools.

Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium that “formation in the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) ought to be part of our effort to pass on the Faith.” In the Regina Academies, we have an opportunity to surround our students with beauty, whether it be in nature, the liturgy, or in the classroom.

In his novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky said that “the world will be saved by beauty.” So, let’s prove him right. Let’s save the world!