Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

God's Glory Appears: The Need for Beauty in Theology

IN HANS URS VON BALTHASAR, the theory of aesthetics--the theory of human perception of beauty, and human response to it--is a central, if implicit, chord of his ethics. Von Balthasar sees human perception and response to beauty (which deals with the created order) as analogous to human perception and response to the divine glory (which deals with Christ and God). The latter response (to divine glory) of a man to Jesus, is fundamentally the moral act. Jesus Christ is God's glory made manifest in a unique way, and man's perception of that glory demands a response, one of free submission and love, to Christ's form.  Confronted suddenly with Christ, all responses to beauty become relativized or subordinate to Christ without thereby losing their worth.  After all, they are still theophanous, or God-revealing, in a sense.

For Von Balthasar, morality may be said to be a preeminent form of aesthetics. They run parallel in analogous channels. Aesthetics is human response (love) to the Word in the created world (which gives rise to beauty). Morality is the human response (love) to the Word in the God-Man Jesus (which gives rise to glory).  In a middling channel, as it were, is our response to our neighbor, where the image of God in man radiates the God behind it in a particular way, to be sure in an order infinitely below the Christ-form,  but still commanding a moral response. 

Balthasar's understanding of the word "glory" is biblical. His theory is founded upon an elaboration of the Hebrew word kabod (כָּבוֺד) or the Greek word doxa (δόξα). Kabod and doxa are the words most frequently used in the Scriptures to refer to the divine beauty that manifests itself in the vestiges of God in the created order, in the forms of the world. "Since reality is always charge with divine presence," Steck states, "it is always possible for graced eyes to find in worldly form the reflection of the absolute," the Logos. Beauty points beyond itself to the implicit creator behind it.  "Thus, divine beauty, glory, has its analogue in earthly beauty."  Steck, 12.  There is an "analogical tie" between beauty and glory.  Steck, 12.

 The Mosaics of Monreale, Palermo: Jesus Christ Pantokrator.

The appearance of glory in Christ--the "Christ-form"--is unique, decisive, and absolute. While glory lies behind earthly, created forms, Christ is the divine glory itself made flesh. "Christ is himself absolute truth, goodness, and beauty in concrete form. He makes visible that to which every other instance of truth, goodness, and beauty can only point." What is implicit in the created order becomes explicit in Christ through the created order, i.e., his human nature. Because the glory of God shines both through created things and supereminently in Christ there is an analogy that may be drawn between aesthetics (the human response to glory in created things, eros) and morality (the human response to glory in Christ, agape). The appropriate response to the divine image in our neighbor (also agape), is deeply tied to our response to Christ, and, unlike our response to beauty (which is psychological and may even, if corrupted be sentimental or maudlin), our response to our neighbor is a moral response. Moral response to glory, which certainly does not exclude the affective or psychological part of man, is nevertheless something entirely different from psychological, sentimental, or emotional response which is the typical reaction when confronting beauty.

Importantly, for von Balthasar, when one encounters Christ, one does not only encounter truth, good, and being, one also encounters beauty.  Christ is beautiful.  Indeed, he goes beyond beautiful to being glorious.

While the appearance of God's glory in Christ and our response to it is preeminent, one must not therefore reject the appearance of God's glory in creation and our response to it.  One might say that the former is the response to the Logos in faith, while the latter is response to the Logos in reason.  Therefore, the former is theological, the latter is philosophical.  But (as one might expect in a Catholic theologian) they are mutually supportive, and not in opposition.
Ultimately for von Balthasar, non genuine theology of glory--and thus no adequate Christian theology--can be achieved without the inclusion of beauty as a part of the philosophical substratum of theological reflection.

Steck, 12.

The aesthetic response that von Balthasar identifies is not that of Kierkegaard's aesthete.*  Unlike Kierkegaard's aesthete who lives for himself and whose aesthetic response is self-regarding, the human who responds to beauty is, in von Balthasar's view, drawn out of himself and is other-regarding.  Human response to beauty is similar to human response to truth, to good, to being.  In fact, neglect of beauty distorts our response to truth, to good, and to being.  For von Balthasar, beauty is a transcendental.**  Just as there can be a theology of truth, of good, of being, there can be a theology of beauty or a theology of glory.

Von Balthasar finds this theology of glory is "at the enter of the most important and creative theologies in Christian history."  Steck, 11. 

[Von Balthasar] finds indicators of this theology in the themes that reappear in the works of these great thinkers [Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, Dante, Pascal, and Hopkins]: the ever-greaterness of God, the eros of human longing which Christ awakens, the orientation of nature to the advent of grace, the sacramentality of the world's images, the shattering of human understanding before the "whylessness"*** of God's love as revealed in Christ.

Steck, 10.  Von Balthasar thus extracts from Catholic tradition his theology of glory.  He ties it with the Catholic concept of the "analogy of being"†  By tying these two together, he concludes that "divine beauty, glory, has its analogue in earthly beauty."  And beauty then becomes important "because it assists in a theological reflection on divine glory."  Steck, 12.  This connection is some important for von Balthasar, that "no genuine theology of glory--and no adequate Christian theology--can be achieved without the inclusion of beauty as a part of the philosophical substratum of theological reflection."  Grace builds upon nature.  Theology of glory builds upon aesthetics.

Beauty is also necessary "because it alone can preserve the connection between truth and goodness."  Steck, 12.  Truth, good, and beauty belong as a trinity.  Remove beauty from the mix and truth and good separate into separate spheres.  Truth becomes empirical science with its "thin" view of nature.  Cold, ugly, inhuman.  Remove beauty and good devolves into what is useful, one falls into utilitarian or pragmatic ethic.  Again, cold, calculating, inhuman.  "For beauty indicates that the world is already more than simple facts and that its goodness is more than the determination of costs and benefits."  Steck, 13.

It is beauty that makes us wonder about truth.  It is beauty that makes us desire to do good.  Beauty also allows us to be open to truth and good, particularly the true and the good in divine revelation.  "For von Balthasar, the beautiful form heralds creation's openness to 'something more.'"  Steck, 13. 

Finally, it is beauty that provides a pedagogical aid to truth and good.  It allows metaphors, images, parables, etc. to describe truth, to encourage the good.  Imagine a world where you tried to encourage your fellows to do good if you could not tell the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.  Imagine a world where you tried to encourage your fellows to truth, without an icon of the Pantokrator or without the image of a Crucifix.  Imagine getting your fellows to love God without Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring or without St. Bernard of Clairvaux's Jesus dulcis memoria.  Imagine enjoining them to love the created world and give thanks to the Lord for it without St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun.

Our love for God ought to be opulent, and only beauty allows for that to happen.
*Kierkegaard divides human response or spheres of existence into three: aesthetic (life "for self"), ethical (life "for others"), and religious (life "for God").  This division is discussed in a variety of his works, including Either/Or, Guilty/Not Guilty and Stages on Life's Way.
**Steck defines the transcendental "being" as "the most general and universally predictable [sic] {I think this should be predicable} feature of reality, transcending yet including all of them." Steck, 11.  The other transcendentals (one, good, true, and beautiful) are nothing other than being under other aspects.  "Insofaras being is undivided in an existent, it is 'one.'  Insofar as it is knowable, it is 'true.'  Insofar as it is lovable, it is 'good.'  Insofar as it is both knowable and lovable (at once), it is 'beautiful.'"  Steck, 11.  There is some controversy about whether beauty is a transcendental and whether St. Thomas believed it to be. 
***This word ("whylessness"), used by von Balthasar, is obviously a neologism in English.  It is used by e. e. cummings in his poem "enterno(silence": "an i breathe-move-and-seem some perpetually roaming whylessness" to describe the thoughts of someone meditating in autumn of impending winter, clearly a reference of an aging man contemplating the imminence of his death and the whylessness or meaninglessness of life.  It is the utterance of a man unsinging, not a man singing.  As used by Steck and von Balthasar, "whylessness" seems to have a positive connotation of the utter gratuity of grace.  Is is the "whylessness" of a man singing, of a man in love.  Ultimately, there is no "reason" for God's grace, it is "whyless," it is nothing but an utter act of gratuitous love.  It is like a lover answering the question, "Why do you love me?"  "I don't know," is the response, "I just do."  Any mention of attributes ("you're beautiful," "you're kind," "you make me happy," etc.) is, in a sense, a diminishment of authentic love is is "whyless."  The notion is taken by Von Balthasar from the writings of Meister Eckhart who in his Sermons and Tractates wrote about the "whyless" nature of our response to God and the "whyless" nature of love, of creation, or grace (Âne warumbe / sunder warumbe). 
†Analogy of being (analogia entis) is a central concept in Catholic theology.  Very simply, it stands for the proposition that there is an analogy between God's absolute being, good, truth, unity, and beauty and contingent, created being, truth, unity, and beauty.  Though the difference between created and creator is infinite, there remains yet an analogy between the qualities of the created and Creator.  So we are able to predicate things we learn from created reality (the beauty of a beloved, fidelity in marriage, life, goodness) supereminently to God and not be lying or saying false things about him, but saying something meaningful and true, even if very limited.  We can do this by reason, which allows for natural theology.  It is also done in revelation.  How else could Jesus compare God's love for his people to a hen's love for its chicks? (Cf. Luke 13:34).

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