Beauty is back, it seems. A generation or so ago, the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar lamented the absence of art and beauty from academic theology and academic reflection. He thought that this absence impoverished the thought world of modernity. And so he called for, and then championed, a retrieval.
The academy, of course, has never totally banished aesthetics. It perennially emerged among small cadres of professional theologians and philosophers. But it had long been a dormant category of analysis with only a marginal influence—not to mention contemporary consumer society’s evisceration of beauty. Now the resurgence of aesthetics has overflowed disciplinary boundaries and insular academic circles. A number of scholars, from von Balthasar to Aidan Nichols, David Bentley Hart, Francesca Murphy and Roberto Goizueta (in his recent book on the theological aesthetics of liberation), to name only some of the most influential, have brought theological aesthetics increasingly into the public conversation. Never, in the modern era, have art and beauty been beckoned to the academy with such zeal.
Stratford Caldecott, who directs the Faith & Culture initiative at the University of Oxford, goes so far as to advocate beauty as the vindication of education and knowledge in the public imagination. Caldecott deprecates the fragmentation, hyper-specialization and, most importantly, the still foreboding chasm between the sciences and humanities in our contemporary intellectual culture. In his Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (Brazos Press, 2009), he advances beauty as the way beyond the impasse.
The movement is reciprocal. Practitioners of the arts and humanities must undertake the rigorous work of discovering the mathematical, the scientific, the structural dimensions of their crafts. Practitioners of the natural sciences must be open to the beauty and harmony that often accompany the most appropriate models or theories of empirical results. (I had a mathematics professor who once claimed that he believed in God—at least in a vague, nondescript sense—because of the sheer beauty of Euler’s Identity, eiΠ + 1 = 0, which shows that the five fundamental numbers of mathematics—numbers which reappear over and over again in various models for physical phenomena, for what goes on in reality—exist in some harmonious interrelation.)
Caldecott notes that his synoptic view of the unity and coherence of knowledge hearkens back to classical Pythagoras and, especially, to the medieval mind, the scholastic imagination. Though he does not suggest an uncritical return to ancient worldviews, he suggests a re-appropriation of the medieval enchantment with the world as a way forward. Those in the modern academy who are able to remain open to the insights of religion will notice that the Christian intellectual has long had the resources for this ambitious vision of the unity of all knowledge and the coherence of the world. For “beauty,” as David Bentley Hart says, “defies our distinctions, calls them into question, and manifests what shows itself despite them: God’s glory.”
Hart continues to argue in The Beauty Of The Infinite: The Aesthetics Of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2004) that the dominant impulses of neither modernity nor postmodernity are able to ultimately recover or appreciate beauty. Modernity, insofar as it attempts to capture and circumscribe, insofar as it subsumes beauty by truth and insofar as it reduces the human person to the res cogitans, fails to facilitate receptivity of the given, to support the experiences of beholding and being enraptured. Postmodernity, not as the rejection but rather “the culmination of the critical tradition of modernity,” turned reflexively on itself, “proves wanting in courage and consistency.”
“The truth of no truths,” Hart surmises, “becomes, inevitably, truth: a way of naming being, language, and culture that guards against the boundaries of thought against claims it has not validatedâ€¦.it becomes a metanarrative, the story of no more stories, so told as to determine definitively how much may or may not be said intelligibly by others who have stories to tell.” In Hart’s assessment, the main thrust of the postmodern mind, explicitly or implicitly, has been what he calls the “metaphysics of violence,” which presents the great counter-narrative to the Christian gospel of shalom and beauty.
The gospel lays the proper and appropriate foundation for beauty, because in the Christian faith beauty emerges not merely accidentally but necessarily from the response to a God who in very essence is a perichoresis of love, a dynamic dance of three persons, a life of eternally shared gift, delight, translation, mission, fellowship, feasting and joy—the Triune God. “Beauty’s authority, within theology,” as a function of the God who also chooses for his own fellowship to overflow in Creation, vindicates the creation and the integrity of the given, the body, the world. Hart argues, it “guards against any tendency toward Gnosticism, for two reasons: on the one hand, worldly beauty shows creation to be the real theatre of divine glory—good, gracious, lovely and desirable, participating in God’s splendor—and on the other, it shows the world to be unnecessary, an expression of divine glory that is free, framed for God’s pleasure, and so neither a defining moment in the consciousness of God nor the consequence of some defectâ€¦within the divine.”
Now this recovery of beauty, it seems to me, probably represents the most vibrant and generative impulse in contemporary theology—particularly the implications for the coherence of knowledge among a disjointed intellectual culture. I heartily commend the study of these concepts to anyone interested in the current intersection of art and academy. Yet, nevertheless, let me also express two reservations.
First, I am wary of the tendency to overlook the broken and distorted dimensions of the creation, to trivialize the resiliency of evil, in the emphatic appeal to beauty. The result—often unintended—can be a homogenization of experience, a beauty not received but applied, a use of the concept which fails to give voice to the deep, guttural lament of the human experience. Here neocalvinist thinking has something essential to contribute. While the dimension of Creation remains ever more fundamental, the dimension of fall is also operative. The spectrum of experience is important. Enrapturement with beauty, of course, entails a discernment of the shadow side to what is not beautiful—a recognition of the distortion of beauty, the ugly. Calvin Seerveld captures it in his A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (Toronto Tuppence Press, 1995): consummate artwork (and so reflection upon beauty) depicts, “with simple majesty the mixture of sorrow under sin in the world and joy at the presence of the Comforter,” the complexity of reality, the “hurt and the laughter, the thoroughgoing chiaroscuro” of the human condition.
For the resurgence of aesthetics to flourish, for it not to sow the seeds of its own destruction, advocates of beauty must not forget its interrelationship with the other two theological transcendentals—the true and the good. Even if “among the transcendentals,” as Hart says, “beauty has always been the most restless upon its exalted perch” and “possesses a phenomenal priority, an indefectible precedence over whatever response it evokes; it appears on the vastest of scales and on the minute, at once familiar and strange, near and remote; attempts to make it obedient to a particular semantics inevitably fail, and expand uncontrollably into an every more inexact prolixity,” the beautiful is grounded in the true and the good.
Von Balthasar himself followed his theological aesthetics with a theological dramatics and a theological logistics. He reminded us that the return to beauty did not entail that the “aesthetic perspective ought now to dominate theology in the place of the logical and the ethical.” For it is the case, von Balthasar noted, “that the transcendentals are inseparable, and that neglecting one can only have a devastating effect on the others.”
Will contemporary aestheticians, more influenced by the postmodern mind, be able to maintain such a synoptic view? The three are interrelated. Truth, in its very asymptoticity, its very inexhaustibility, becomes the beautiful. The content of beauty is supplied by the true. And the response to beauty is the good. So we are freed from a potential tyranny and enabled to share the beauty in gift with the other, in the manner of the ethical. If potential shoals are navigated, beauty will continue its work reinvigorating theology and the academy and providing a compelling framework for the late modern imagination.