Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

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Beauty and Desecration 2  —  Roger Scruton

July 22, 2014

 

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness. Roger Scruton, a philosopher, is the author of many books, most recently Beauty.

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Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table.

This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home — the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right — through decorating, arranging, creating — are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.

This second example suggests that our human need for beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters — Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cézanne — and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. The art of landscape painting, as it arose in the seventeenth century and endured into our time, is devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things. It is not that landscape painters turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe of which we occupy so small a corner.

Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it?

These questions are of great urgency for us, since we live at a time when beauty is in eclipse: a dark shadow of mockery and alienation has crept across the once-shining surface of our world, like the shadow of the Earth across the moon. Where we look for beauty, we too often find darkness and desecration.

The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal. For the most part, transitory purposes organize our lives: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, the small-scale pursuit of power and comfort, the need for leisure and pleasure. Little of this is memorable or moving to us. Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires.

We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person but the “mortal remains” of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as, in some way, not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience, a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred, demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not just to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter — for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter — but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form.

The body is being reclaimed for this world by the rituals that acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it another way, consecrate the body, and so purify it of its miasma. By the same token, the body can be desecrated — and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles dragged Hector’s body in triumph around the walls of Troy.

The presence of a transcendental claim startles us out of our day-to-day preoccupations on other occasions, too. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This, too, is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the intensest life.

But in one crucial respect, they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante, from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture. It has fueled the sense of the sacred down the ages, reminding people as diverse as Plato and Calvino, Virgil and Baudelaire, that sexual desire is not the simple appetite that we witness in animals but the raw material of a longing that has no easy or worldly satisfaction, demanding of us nothing less than a change of life.

Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex — these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.

All of us have a desire to flee from the demands of responsible existence, in which we treat one another as worthy of reverence and respect. All of us are tempted by the idea of flesh and by the desire to remake the human being as pure flesh — an automaton, obedient to mechanical desires. To yield to this temptation, however, we must first remove the chief obstacle to it: the consecrated nature of the human form. We must sully the experiences — such as death and sex — that otherwise call us away from temptations, toward the higher life of sacrifice. This willful desecration is also a denial of love — an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture: it is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable. The modern stage director who ransacks the works of Mozart is trying to tear the love from the heart of them, so as to confirm his own vision of the world as a place where only pleasure and pain are real.

That suggests a simple remedy, which is to resist temptation. Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those — like Calixto Bieito — who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away.

It is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time — I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration — amplified now by the Internet — drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms — the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention — the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber — to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us — the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it.

 

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Beauty and Desecration 1  —  Roger Scruton

July 21, 2014
The West's great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

The West’s great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.

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At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality — however achieved and at whatever moral cost — that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch — something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.

In a seminal essay — “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939 — critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. 

We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars — for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France — from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society — as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty — as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. 

But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze — shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha — who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature — such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. 

Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.”

But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies.

I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry — these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. 

Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.

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The Power Of Art — Gregory Wolfe

May 30, 2014
A Blue tit at a reflection pool at the Woodland Feeding Station Hide in Worcestershire UK

A Blue tit at a reflection pool at the Woodland Feeding Station Hide in Worcestershire UK. “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” Hans Urs von Balthasar

Gregory Wolfe is the founder of Image and the Director of the Center for Religious Humanism. He also serves as Writer in Residence and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University.

He served as a judge in nonfiction for the 2005 National Book Awards. Among his books are Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography (ISI Books) and Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel (Notre Dame). A collection of his editorial statements from Image, entitled Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery, was published in the fall of 2003 by Square Halo Books. He has co-edited God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Paraclete). Another collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, was recently published by ISI Books.

His website is www.gregorywolfe.com.

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I came across these words of a character in Mark Helprin’s recent novel, A Soldier of the Great War. An Italian professor of aesthetics, a man who has been scarred by the cataclysms and tragedies of the modern world, tries to explain the power of art:

My conceits will never serve to wake the dead. Art has no limit but that. You may come enchantingly close, and you may wither under the power of its lash, but you cannot bring back the dead. It’s as if God set loose the powers of art so that man could come so close to His precincts as almost to understand how He works. But in the end He closes the door in your face, and says, ‘Leave it to me.’ It’s as if the whole thing were just a lesson. To see the beauty of the world is to put-your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone-on the other-side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.

I no longer (if ever) bought the argument that art can save our souls. But I do credit it with being able to redeem our age or to give us a true image of ourselves by showing us the horror and the boredom to which we can descend — not to mention the glory to which we may be privileged to glimpse.

It was Eliot himself who formulated the best response to those who want art merely to depict idealized forms of beauty. “We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal. It is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.” Eliot’s perception is the natural extension of Dostoevsky’s prophecy that “Beauty will save the world.” Just as Christians believe that God became man so that He could reach into, and atone for, the pain and isolation of sin, so the artist descends into disorder so that he might discover a redemptive path toward order.
Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World

Toward the end of my undergraduate days, I came across a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture which I found startling and even a bit disturbing. Solzhenitsyn begins his address on the nature and role of literature with a brief, enigmatic quotation from Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Solzhenitsyn confesses that the phrase had puzzled and intrigued him for some time. And yet, he told the distinguished audience, he had come to believe that Dostoevsky was right.
Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World  

Politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint. My own vocation, as I have come to understand it, is to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture in order to discover how the imagination may “redeem time.”

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“Dostoevsky not only preached, but, to a certain degree also demonstrated in his own activity this reunification of concerns common to humanity–at least of the highest among these concerns–in one Christian idea. Being a religious person, he was at the same time a free thinker and a powerful artist. These three aspects , these three higher concerns were not differentiated in him and did not exclude one another, but entered indivisibly into all his activity. In his convictions he never separated truth from good and beauty; in his artistic creativity he never placed beauty apart from the good and the true.

And he was right, because these three live only in their unity. The good, taken separately from truth and beauty, is only an indistinct feeling, a powerless upwelling; truth taken abstractly is an empty word; and beauty without truth and the good is an idol. For Dostoevsky, these were three inseparable forms of one absolute Idea.

The infinity of the human soul–having been revealed in Christ and capable of fitting into itself all the boundlessness of divinity–is at one and the same time both the greatest good, the highest truth, and the most perfect beauty. Truth is good, perceived by the human mind; beauty is the same good and the same truth, corporeally embodied in solid living form. And its full embodiment–the end, the goal, and the perfection–already exists in everything, and this is why Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world”
Vladimir Soloviev, The Heart of Reality

 

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T. S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor 2 — Roger Scruton

April 30, 2014

[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.

[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.

 We continue with part II of Roger Scruton’s analysis of Eliot’s attempt to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. Eliot assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise.

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Eliot’s life began with a question: the question of modern life and its meaning. His literary work was a long, studious, and sincere attempt to provide an answer. In the course of this enterprise, Eliot re-shaped the English language, changed the forms of English verse, and produced some of the most memorable utterances in our literature.

Although an impressive scholar, with a mastery of languages and literatures that he reveals but does not dwell upon in his writings, Eliot was also a man of the world. He worked first as a teacher, then in a London bank, and then in the publishing house of Faber and Faber, which he made into the foremost publisher of poetry and criticism in its day. His unhappy first marriage did not impede his active participation in the literary life of London, over which he exerted an influence every bit as great as André Breton over the literary life of Paris.

His refusal, through all this, to adopt the mantle of the bohemian, to claim the tinsel crown of artist, or to mock the “bourgeois” lifestyle, sets him apart from the continental tradition which he otherwise did so much to promote. He realized that the true task of the artist in the modern world is one not of repudiation but of reconciliation.

For Eliot, the artist inherits, in heightened and self-conscious form, the very same anxieties that are the stuff of ordinary experience. The poet who takes his words seriously is the voice of mankind, interceding for those who live around him, and gaining on their behalf the gift of consciousness with which to overcome the wretchedness of secular life. He too is an ordinary bourgeois, and his highest prize is to live unnoticed amidst those who know nothing of his art — as the saint may live unnoticed among those for whom he dies.

To find the roots of Eliot’s political thinking, we must go back to the modernism that found such striking expression in The Waste Land. English literature in the early part of the twentieth century was to a great extent captured by pre-modern imagery, by references to a form of life (such as we find in Thomas Hardy) that had vanished forever, and by verse forms which derived from the repertoire of romantic isolation.

It had not undergone that extraordinary education which Baudelaire and his successors had imposed upon the French — in which antiquated forms like the sonnet were wrenched free of their pastoral and religious connotations and fitted out with the language of the modern city, in order to convey the new and hallucinatory sense of an irreparable fault, whereby modern man is divided from all that has preceded him. Eliot’s admiration for Baudelaire arose from his desire to write verse that was as true to the experience of the modern city as Baudelaire’s had been to the experience of Paris. Eliot also recognized in Baudelaire the new character of the religious impulse under the conditions of modern life: “The important fact about Baudelaire,” he wrote, “is that he was essentially a Christian, born out of his due time, and a classicist, born out of his due time.”

Eliot’s indictment of the neo-romantic literature of his day was not merely a literary complaint. He believed that his contemporaries’ use of worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms betrayed a serious moral weakness: a failure to observe life as it really is, a failure to feel what must be felt towards the experience that is inescapably ours. And this failure is not confined, he believed, to literature, but runs through the whole of modern life. The search for a new literary idiom is therefore part of a larger search — for the reality of modern experience. Only then can we confront our situation and ask ourselves what should be done about it.

Eliot’s deep distrust of secular humanism — and of the socialist and democratic ideas of society which he believed to stem from it — reflected his critique of the neo-romantics. The humanist, with his myth of man’s goodness, is taking refuge in an easy falsehood. He is living in a world of make-believe, trying to avoid the real emotional cost of seeing things as they are. His vice is the vice of Edwardian and “Georgian” poetry — the vice of sentimentality, which causes us not merely to speak and write in clichés, but to feel in clichés too, lest we should be troubled by the truth of our condition.

The task of the artistic modernist, as Eliot later expressed it, borrowing a phrase from Mallarmé, is “to purify the dialect of the tribe”: that is, to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience — not my experience, or yours, but our experience, the experience that unites us as living here and now. And it is only because he had captured this experience — in particular, in the bleak vision of The Waste Land — that Eliot was able to find a path to its meaning.

He summarizes his attitude to the everyday language of modern life and politics in his essay on the Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and it is worth quoting the passage in full:

To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing — when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation [vocab: To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate] — Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbose. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it. . .
For Lancelot Andrewes (London: Faber, 1970 [1929]), 20

For Eliot, words had begun to lose their precision — not in spite of science, but because of it; not in spite of the loss of true religious belief, but because of it; not in spite of the proliferation of technical terms, but because of it. Our modern ways of speaking no longer enable us to “take a word and derive the world from it”: on the contrary, they veil the world, since they convey no lived response to it. They are mere counters in a game of cliché, designed to fill up the silence, to conceal the void which has come upon us as the old gods have departed from their haunts among us.

That is why modern ways of thinking are not, as a rule, orthodoxies, but heresies — a heresy being a truth that has been exaggerated into falsehood, a truth in which we have taken refuge, so to speak, investing in it all our unexamined anxieties and expecting from it answers to questions which we have not troubled ourselves to understand. In the philosophies that prevail in modern life — utilitarianism, pragmatism, behaviorism — we find that “words have a habit of changing their meaning. . .or else they are made, in a most ruthless and piratical manner, to walk the plank.” The same is true, Eliot implies, whenever the humanist heresy takes over: whenever we treat man as God, and so believe that our thoughts and our words need be measured by no other standard but themselves.

Eliot was brought up in a democracy. He inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world and the cause of so much ignorant hatred of America. But he was not a democrat in his sensibility. Eliot believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process precisely because of the carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he writes:

When the poet finds himself in an age in which there is no intellectual aristocracy, when power is in the hands of a class so democratized that while still a class it represents itself to be the whole nation; when the only alternatives seem to be to talk to a coterie or soliloquize, the difficulties of the poet and the necessity of criticism become greater.
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1961]), 22

Hence, the critic has, for Eliot, an enhanced significance in the modern, democratic world. It is he who must act to restore what the aristocratic ideal of taste would have spontaneously generated — a language in which words are used with their full meaning and in order to show the world as it is. Those nurtured on empty sentiment have no weapons with which to deal with the reality of a god-forsaken world. They fall at once from sentimentality into cynicism, and so lose the power either to experience life or to live with its imperfection.

Eliot therefore perceived an enormous danger in the liberal and “scientific” humanism which was offered by the prophets of his day. This liberalism seemed to him to be the avatar of moral chaos, since it would permit any sentiment to flourish and would deaden all critical judgment with the idea of a democratic right to speak — which becomes, insensibly, a democratic right to feel. Although “human kind cannot bear very much reality” — as he expresses the point, first in Murder in the Cathedral, and then in Four Quartetsthe purpose of a culture is to retain that elusive thing called “sensibility”: the habit of right feeling. Barbarism ensues, not because people have lost their skills and scientific knowledge, nor is it averted by retaining those things; rather, barbarism comes through a loss of culture, since it is only through culture that the important realities can be truly perceived.

Eliot’s thought here is difficult to state precisely. And it is worth drawing a parallel with a thinker whom he disliked: Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the crisis of modernity had come about because of the loss of the Christian faith. This loss of faith is the inevitable result of science and the growth of knowledge. At the same time, it is not possible for mankind really to live without faith; and for us, who have inherited all the habits and concepts of a Christian culture, that faith must be Christianity. Take away the faith, and you do not take away a body of doctrine only, nor do you leave a clear, uncluttered landscape in which man at last is visible for what he is. Rather, you take away the power to perceive other and more important truths, truths about our condition which cannot, without the benefit of faith, be properly confronted — such as the truth of our mortality.

The solution that Nietzsche impetuously embraced in this quandary was to deny the sovereignty of truth altogether — to say that “there are no truths,” and to build a philosophy of life on the ruins of both science and religion in the name of a purely aesthetic ideal. Eliot saw the absurdity of that response. Yet the paradox remains. The truths that mattered to Eliot are truths of feeling, truths about the weight of human life. Science does not make these truths more easily perceivable: on the contrary, it releases into the human psyche a flock of fantasies — liberalism, humanism, utilitarianism, and the rest — which distract it with the futile hope for a scientific morality.

The result is a corruption of the very language of feeling, a decline from sensibility to sentimentality, and a veiling of the human world. The paradox, then, is this: the falsehoods of religious faith enable us to perceive the truths that matter. The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make human reality imperceivable.

Eliot’s solution to the paradox was compelled by the path that he had taken to its discovery — the path of poetry, with the agonizing examples of poets whose precision, perception, and sincerity were the effects of Christian belief. The solution was to embrace the Christian faith — not, as Tertullian did, because of the paradox, but rather in spite of it.

This explains Eliot’s growing conviction that culture and religion are in the last analysis indissoluble. The disease of sentimentality could be overcome, he believed, only by a high culture in which the work of purification was constantly carried on. This is the task of the critic and the artist, and it is a hard task:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. . .
Four Quartets in T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), 182.

This work of purification is a dialogue across the generations with those who belong to the tradition: only the few can take part in it, while the mass of mankind stays below, assailed by those “undisciplined squads of emotion.” The high culture of the few is, however, a moral necessity for the many, for it permits human reality to show itself, and so to guide our conduct.

But why should the mass of mankind, lost as they are in bathos, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” be guided by “those who know” (to use Dante’s pregnant phrase)? The answer must lie in religion, and in particular in the common language which a traditional religion bestows, both on the high culture of art and on the common culture of a people.

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The God of Beauty 2 – Paul Johnson

March 4, 2014
There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it -- there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh -- no English artist ever did it better -- he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

 

It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable of enjoying beauty, and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich man. The poor of West Africa, who have little but their native pride, may well be happy to observe that their small country is capable of creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe’s largest, and that the black African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as munificently as the white Westerner.

The 8,000 medieval parish churches which we still possess in England — the greatest single item in our national dowry of art – were built and paid for by a society most of whose members had few material possessions. They now constitute a monument to their generosity and magnanimity, which we will continue to use and enjoy so long as we have the sense to preserve them. They give us as much satisfaction as they give to God, for whose glory they were erected. And do not the souls of those medieval men and women, now in Heaven, rejoice that their churches, created with so much sacrifice, still sound forth God’s praises?

Early in the century, both the Protestant and the Catholic communities of Liverpool, a city then famous for its religious fervor, decided to build new cathedrals. Paradoxically, the Protestants chose a gifted young Catholic architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and he produced for them the design of a masterpiece in Edwardian Gothic. With prodigies of effort, the work was financed and built, and finally completed in the 1980s, long after sponsors and architect were in their graves — as usually happens in the case of cathedrals.

But this marvelous building, the finest erected in Europe this century, survives to do them honor, and to honor too the resolution and faith of the Anglican Church in Liverpool. The Catholics of the Edwardian age also chose a fine architect: the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, an Anglican by conviction but a Catholic by artistic sentiment. He designed a glorious church, on the scale of St Peter’s, in the most sumptuous Baroque, to be built of marble. This was an even greater labor and expense than the Anglican cathedral, but the immense crypt was in due course completed. Then came the war, which halted construction.

Some time after the war, Archbishop Heenan — later cardinal — estimating that the cost of completing the project was more than the Catholics of Liverpool could bear, decided not to complete it. Instead he commissioned and built a much cheaper thing, by a meretricious Modern Movement architect, with a peculiar tent-like roof, which has led the jeering Protestants of the city to christen it ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’.

The Catholics, who were barely consulted by Heenan in making his decision, now hang their heads in shame that they must worship in such a hovel, already showing signs of decay. They are indeed poor, but they would have found the money for Lutyens’ magnificent basilica. I reproached Heenan at the time, as being a man of little faith.

I told him about the church which our parish priest had insisted on building, against much advice, when I was a child, and how the money had been found to complete it. He expressed contrition, and maybe it is still not too late to resurrect Lutyens’ ambitious scheme, for the glory of God in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall see.

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that among the most privileged of human beings are those who have the honor to erect a great church to God. They must be considered the most fortunate of artists, and dearest to their maker. Most, as I say, do not live to see their work finished, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being among their number. But there are exceptions. Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St Paul’s, supervised its main construction, and lived to see it completed.

This immense work brought him little material reward, caused him endless heartache and anxiety, brought him opprobrium and eventually dismissal, and received surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime. But at least he saw it finished, and thereafter he came once a year, to sit under its dome, to pray, to meditate and to rejoice. Those must have been cherished moments – both to him and to God.

However, no good purpose is served by designating a hierarchy of God’s favor for creative geniuses. All artists endear themselves to him by depicting his creations to the best of their ability. Painters are often genuinely pious men and women, despite their wild notions about the Deity. It is common among them to kneel down and pray in dedication before beginning a canvas, and kneel down in gratitude when they have completed it. Sometimes they have misgivings about their failure to use their talents exclusively to praise and explain God’s works – thus Botticelli, one of the purest and most gifted of them all, came bitterly to regret his secular works, with their voluptuousness and riot. He is even said to have destroyed some.

But that was foolish – as foolish as the iconoclasts who, in most faiths, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, have gone around destroying works of art in churches, as vain, idolatrous and blasphemous. It is not for any one or any group of us to decide that people have been wrong to worship God in their chosen fashion.

Far more likely it is that God takes particular pleasure in seeing our attempts to use our skills to replicate the beauty he has created. God is the greatest of all connoisseurs. All my life I have been a landscape painter, after a fashion, as my father was before me. I now regret not having painted more, but I chose to earn my living by writing and the demands of that trade are exigent and for many years I painted little. During the last decade I have tried to make up for lost opportunities by painting what I see wherever I go in the world, even if I only have a few snatched minutes for a quick sketch. The results have been rewarding far in excess of my expectations.

Not only have I accumulated a large stock of sketches and finished paintings, from all continents, but the quality of the rendering has improved. I feel, increasingly, that I am painting for God, as much as for myself and my friends. God gave me this certain, limited talent, and I am serving him by seeking to improve it while making a record of what he has created in the world. To me at any rate, painting is prayerful. It is also one of the most innocent of enjoyments. And it instructs. There is no doubt that painting forces us to look very closely at what God has done and so to grasp the design of nature, just as painting a building gives us a marvelous insight into the intentions of the architect.

Hills and mountains, rivers and waterfalls and lakes do not just come into existence haphazardly. They are formed over long periods by powerful natural forces, and studying them closely while painting enables one to understand these processes and so paint better. No one who spends long hours and days painting landscapes can be without considerable knowledge of the way God has made the world, and of the relationships between beauty and purpose in natural forms.

For a long time I was singularly inept in drawing, and still more painting, trees, so that I almost despaired of them. But they are among the finest of God’s creations – noble things, so full of majesty and honor, and so varied. So I persevered and made a special, painstaking study of their structure, and at long last I began to understand how God designed them, and how it was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art. So I improved and now take enormous pleasure in painting trees, albeit with occasional failures still.

What I have undoubtedly neglected is the human form. I like to put figures in my landscapes, as my father taught me, just to indicate scale, and I am often ashamed at how poor they are. So I often tell myself that I must go back to life-class and really master the human form by drawing it patiently and industriously. So far this has not happened, and the months and years go by, and I realize yet again the importance of resolution and persistence and will-power in all schemes of human improvement. I say to myself now: ‘I will find time to carry out this resolve, as soon as I have finished this book.’ For who can deny that the human form is in many ways the finest of God’s works of art?

The scriptures tell us that God created man in his own image. We do not know exactly what this means, and it certainly cannot mean that God looks like a man in an ordinary visual sense. We are left with a mystery, but perhaps we can begin to solve it by studying and painting the human form with the diligence its radiant beauties merit. There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine.

That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

Studying the works of God and trying to reproduce them visually brings us close to our creator. It is one way to know him. But it may be that the musician gets even closer. The universe is an exercise in harmony as much as in shape and colour and texture, and none can doubt that there are celestial sounds as well as visions. Then again, all creation is a series of abstractions as muchas a series of material realities, and these abstractions can be expressed musically as well as mathematically and algebraically.

Composing, reproducing and hearing sounds of exquisite beauty and profundity can give us extraordinary insights not just into beauty, but into goodness itself. After hearing a great symphony, telling us, but entirely in abstract terms, of truth and justice and heroism, we arise better men and women. The musicians in the orchestra feel it, the conductor feels it, the listeners feel it. The mood may not last, but it is much to have felt it at all. It is akin to the lifting of the heart and spirit we experience at a religious ceremony when we have concentrated our thoughts well and meditated deeply. So music works on our minds, and God listens too.

It must be a fine thing to have composed the music which has so held players and audience and so raised their minds to God. That is why, I think, Jean Sibelius told me, in the summer of 1949, ‘to compose is often an agony but it is the quintessence of privilege too’. Many composers have been deeply religious people, humbly rejoicing in this privilege — none more so than Joseph Haydn, whose long, industrious and painstaking life, so modestly conducted amid so many difficulties and setbacks, is a model of artistic integrity in God’s service.

Or there is the case of Anton Bruckner, childlike and wholly innocent in his devotion to God, who spent so many hours seated at the organ, alone with his music and his maker, and then poured forth his prayers in vast symphonies, few of which he ever heard performed. His ninth, last and greatest he dedicated, quite simply: ‘To Almighty God’.

In contrast to architects, painters and composers, writers have a mixed record in God’s service. They are so numerous and varied that it is risky to generalize in any way, but it is remarkable how many writers, in all civilisations, have tended to take a critical view of established order and sought to subvert it. It is probably the single most striking characteristic of the mind which wishes to express itself through the written word.

Now, of course, in subverting order they may be carrying out God’s purpose, and there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament where that is exactly what its more passionate writers are doing. But I have spent my entire working life among writers and I know very well that the cast of mind which they habitually possess, and which harbors huge resentments of the world as it exists, is not necessarily motivated by selfless altruism. To praise God is not usually the writer’s intention in picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a word-processor. More likely it is to express a grievance or work off a resentment or articulate a personal longing or simply to rage — in addition to making money, of course. Writers are sinful and fallen and unsatisfactory man writ large.

It will be, for me at least, one of the great points of interest of the next world to see how God, in his justice, sorts out all the giants and pygmies of the pen. How will Voltaire fare? Some Christian polemicists write as if he were already in Hell, but I am not so sure. A man’s writings have to be judged in their effects, if any, over many generations, and these may be contradictory and, in aggregate, difficult to assess. We may be sure God will do them justice, however, and this may often in the end surprise us.

Where will he place Tolstoy, that astonishing combination of humility and arrogance, wisdom and madness, piety and destruction? He will have difficulty with Milton, too, who sought — so he said — to justify the ways of God to men and ended by writing a masterpiece whose hero was Satan. I do not know how Shelley will fare, he who professed atheism and practised a kind of exalted pantheism, who preached socialism and was a monster of personal selfishness. The fact is, nevertheless, that men and women have been uplifted and inspired by Shelley’s poetry and become better people in consequence.

How will God reward or punish, sanctify or damn the immense mass of gifted men and women who have given contradictory messages to the modern world? All will come up for judgment – the Baudelaires and the Hugos, the Hemingways and the Joyces, a mad genius like Ezra Pound and a calculating operator like Zola, the reckless like Rimbaud and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints like Chesterton.

I cannot imagine how God will arrange Sartre and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Rilke, Yeats and Lorca in any order of sanctification or devilry which makes sense. But it will undoubtedly be carried out: therein lie the fascinating things to come. What evil have their writings done — then and since? What good — in their lifetimes and thereafter? The heavenly computers will whirr and deliver and the notices of judgment will be posted, and the writers, disheveled, apprehensive, ashamed or defiant, struggling or abject, will be brought out to be given their laurels or punished, in front of all the watching world.

But there are also those writers who have not sought to tell the world what to do, to create Utopias out of their own unaided intellects and incited people into trying to bring them about, but instead have simply set themselves to portray God’s universe and his people in loving words. They will have a smooth passage through the storms of that tremendous judgment day. There are writers who, by their modest genius, or even merely by their carefully husbanded and honed talents, have sought chiefly to enable their readers to see God’s creation with fresh eyes — have taught us to look, again and again, at the world around us and the way humans behave.

To teach us about the universe, to encourage us to explore and value and treat tenderly all its manifestations and inhabitants, is a salient work of art in itself and an act of worship. Such writers are dear to God, and they are valuable to us too: for the understanding and reverence we bring to the world around us is a salient part of our duty, as we are beginning to discover.

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The God of Beauty 1 – Paul Johnson

March 3, 2014
The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter's itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

Jesuit educated (at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford ) Paul Bede Johnson is an English journalist, historian, speechwriter and author. He was educated. Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. I’ve enjoyed several of his more than 40 books (Intellectuals, Modern Times, The Birth of the Modern). This is a chapter from a little gem of a book, The Quest for God.

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When I was a child, I always associated the notion of God with beauty. There were several reasons for this. The first was that, in our house, the only things which seemed to matter, which were treated as important, were religion, education and art. My father was headmaster of an art school, and a practicing painter. He produced watercolors mainly, but also etchings, drypoints, lithographs and other kinds of prints, and at his schools the pupils were instructed in sculpture and pottery as well. In our house was an art room (it was always called that, not a studio, regarded as an un-English expression), where my father worked.

Art and education were intermingled and both were sacrosanct. My father’s very limited resources were primarily devoted to the education of his children, and great significance was attached to our schooling, and our performance at school. But even more important was religion: that is, attending church, prayers, holy pictures and statues, fasting and abstinence, keeping the commandments and pious practices. I became aware of this order of priorities at a very early age.

The second reason I associated God with beauty was our local church. Shortly before I was born, our parish priest, an ambitious and energetic man, decided to build a new church and bought a virgin site, not far from our house. He consulted my father at every stage of this undertaking, from the original design, throughout the construction, and during the completion and decoration of the building. The church was conceived on the largest possible scale. No architect was employed, but our priest, sometimes accompanied by my father, travelled in Europe to look for models, and eventually hit on a compromise between two which had taken his fancy.

So the church had a large Gothic tower joined to a series of Romanesque domes, and three-and-one-half in number, the half-dome covering the high altar, and the other three the nave. The edifice was built of stone and in order to carry its immense weight, in a part of Staffordshire riddled with old mine-workings and liable to subsidence, a thick raft of concrete was placed under the foundations.

Most local Catholics did not believe in the ability of the parish to carry through and finance this immense undertaking — and non-Catholics were scandalized by our audacity and pride. Even my father was worried by the responsibility of it all, and by many other aspects of the design and construction. But our priest was a man possessed by a vision and he was determined to carry it through, no matter what.

And he did carry it through, at remarkable speed. The main construction period coincided with the Great Depression, when there were thousands out of work in the neighborhood and the evidence of dire poverty was everywhere. This made it more difficult to borrow money or to raise funds to finance what was known as ‘the Debt’. On the other hand, it may be that it was easier and cheaper to get labor at this time, and to spur it to exceptional efforts, and this explains why the church was so soon completed.

At all events, by the time I came to consciousness the church was nearly finished, and the internal decoration was proceeding. My father was much involved in this, and so was I as a small, wondering and rapt spectator. It was as though, in a modest way, I was a witness to the topping-out and the embellishment of the great basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. As the church was so near, I was in and out of it many times a week. It was not so much that I was fond of it as completely dominated and overawed by it. It was, physically and in every other way, a huge presence in my life.

My father often drew and painted it and so, in due course, did I. It did not occur to me, in my childhood, that God and art had separate existences, since both were so intimately united in the church itself. Only later did I perceive there was such a thing as secular art, and even then it seemed to be more a tributary of religious art rather than an autonomous entity.

God presided over everything, it appeared, but he had a particularly close connection with any artistic endeavor — architecture, of course, painting, sculpture, but also brass- and ironwork for the church fittings, stained glass for the windows, needlework for the vestments and altarcloths, and various kinds of precious metalwork for the holy vessels. God was also somehow involved in the casting of the massive bronze bells, and the elaborate process whereby they were hoisted to the top of the great tower, so that they could ring out over the surrounding countryside, proclaiming triumphantly that the magnificent church had, indeed, been finished.

The association between God on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other, was thus impressed upon me from the earliest age, so that I took it quite for granted. Hence, when I studied theology at school, what attracted me most among St Thomas Aquinas’s various proofs of God was the fourth one, from beauty.

St Thomas argued, as I recall, that we were aware, through our senses, not just of beauty but of degrees of beauty. It follows from this that there is an absolute beauty, and that thing or being is God himself. We love God, in this life, as the very epitome of goodness, which we perceive from his works and from the love for us which radiates from him. But we cannot — yet — see God and we thus have no conception of the absolute beauty which is him. That, I imagine, will be among the chief delights of Paradise, the contemplation of an effulgent and myriad-natured beauty, which is perpetually changing and modulating, yet permanent in its serenity and power.

I suppose we shall all — if we get there! – be beautiful then, and one of the characteristics of salvation will be the acquisition of power to enjoy beauty in ways we cannot now even imagine. Heaven will be a celestial academy and gallery of living art, whose beauties will penetrate and envelop our very souls. We will walk among and converse with those Raphael madonnas and Botticelli angels and Michelangelo and Donatello Davids. But it is the beauty of God himself which will most entrance us.

God, it is clear, gives us a foretaste of his beauty in the universe he has created. Its beauty, like its energizing forces, radiates from him. Indeed, the fact that God rejoices in beauty is one reason why he created the universe in the first place. The universe, like God himself, is living beauty, constantly changing its form with fresh delights. It creates beauty by its motions. The starry heavens were the first intimations of beauty which penetrated the minds of primitive men and women, who had no possessions and hadnot yet taught themselves to make things, but already possessed the power of ecstasy.

During those long nights of distant antiquity, they lay on the ground and contemplated with wonder and satisfaction the movements of the stars. It was almost certainly then that they grasped what beauty is about — an intimation of God. The stars taught them that God was there, and that he was even greater than the stars because he had made and arranged them and set them in motion. So beauty did indeed lead men to God, as St Thomas later argued.

The universe, from its inception — from that first Big Bang — has had an awesome beauty but, as it expands and develops, its beauties multiply and intensify. We can see this ourselves, as the number and variety of flowers increases, and we and nature together produce finer specimens. Human beings, always beautiful, become more so as new and healthier generations succeed each other. The girls are prettier than ever before, and there are more of them to catch the eye. The young men are taller, stronger, more handsome.

The universe is so full of beauty that it is difficult for one limited human being to take it all in. We travel more than ever, and have far easier access to the splendors of the world than any of our forebears, but it is beyond our power, even in a lifetime, to absorb more than a fraction of what God has provided for our delectation. God is, if anything, too generous, as Martin Luther is recorded as observing in his Table Talk: ‘Dr Luther, holding a rose in his hand, said: “Tis a magnificent work of God: could a man make but one such rose as this, he would be thought worthy of all honor, but the gifts of God lose their value in our eyes from their very infinity.”

God provides us, then, with countless models of beauty, and it seems to me manifestly part of his purpose for us that we should learn to reciprocate, by producing beauty ourselves. It is one important way in which we return God’s love for us. We cannot give him power or possessions, for he has everything of that kind already, but we can give him beauty of our invention, and he rejoices in it, however inferior it may be to his own inventions, just as fond parents enjoy the drawings of their tiny children.

Artists of all kinds are dear to God. He endows them with their skills and, in rare cases, their genius, and delights in the way they make use of them. Woe betide an idle artist, neglecting God’s gifts! — a point Milton makes in one of his greatest sonnets when he writes of ‘talent which is death to hide’.

Some visitors to Rome, seeing the marvelous works of art created there under papal patronage, especially from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, deplore the expenditure of so much time and money and energy on mere artifice. They see the glories of papal Rome as materialism triumphant, sanctified secularity, paganism enthroned. That is an arguable point of view and throughout the millenniums of belief austere souls have sought to praise God without any aids of beauty.

But to my mind, and I think to most people’s, to create beauty is one way in which we respond to God and praise him. To erect buildings and to adorn them with art specifically so that God may be worshipped in them is a worthy occupation for a pope and his cardinals. And it is no bad thing, incidentally, for an ecclesiastical ruler to have the physical means to overawe his secular rivals. Not long ago I was in Rome with Margaret Thatcher on a private visit, and Pope John Paul II kindly arranged for her and one or two of her friends to be shown the Sistine Chapel, reopened after the most extensive restoration in its history.

It was a rare privilege to see Michelangelo’s frescos without the perpetually milling crowd which fills the chapel throughout its official opening hours. It was a still rarer experience to see Margaret Thatcher, this Queen of Politics, this outstanding exponent of the art of ruling, quite overcome — rendered speechless, in fact — by the splendor of beauty brought into being by a genius under ecclesiastical patronage. She saw that the church can command, as well as the state!

No pope or archbishop should be deterred from erecting monuments to Almighty God by mere difficulty or expense. We have to think of future generations, as well as our own. And we have to think what God himself wishes. The catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

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Balthasar and the Beautiful 4 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 6, 2014
The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera. Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera. Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post, Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 for full intro.

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The Relation Of Apologetics To Dogmatics
One important corollary of Balthasar’s estimate of the respective roles of the subjective and objective evidence for Christian revelation is a shift — for those inclined to accept his approach – in the relation of apologetics to dogmatic theology. These are two of the most important branches of Christian thought, so this is no bagatelle. Through his theological aesthetics, Balthasar seeks to modify the currently understood picture of apologetics by presenting apologetics as incipient dogmatics. For Balthasar, investigating the motives of credibility — the ways in which revelation commends itself to us on the ordinary rational level – is constantly on the point of trembling into loving prostration before the figure of the Word incarnate.

Here a bit of background may be useful. There were Christian apologists from the first generations of the Church after the apostles. But the first Catholic theologian to treat the issue of apologetics in a fully systematic fashion is usually reckoned to be the thirteenth-century German Dominican St Albert the Great. His `antecedents of the act of faith’, antecedentia fidei, include the most important theses of what we now call fundamental theology.

They concern especially the metaphysical presuppositions of divine revelation, the fact of such divine revelation in Christ, and the character of Scripture as the witness to that revelation. One question Albert did not settle clearly was the relation of these `antecedents’ to the certainty aspect of faith. The problem of the kind of certainty produced by apologetic argumentation and its relation to the free and supernatural character of the act of faith was one that long troubled the Schoolmen.

Some masters of the early High Scholastic period — such as William of Auxerre, William of Auvergne, and Philip the Chancellor — admitted two sorts of faith. The motives of credibility were said to produce `intellectual faith’ (other terms were also in use), which, said these thinkers, should be distinguished from faith in the full theological sense of the word.

Merely intellectual faith, precisely because it rested on the rational force of arguments, had neither the religious nor the moral value of the virtue of theological faith — properly Christian faith — in the strict sense. That virtue is virtuous precisely because it has the character of an unconditional response to God as the `First Truth’, Prima Veritas, made possible by sharing in a more than natural light — by sharing a light, in fact, that is the light of supernatural faith proper, called by the Scholastics the lumen fidei.

It is noteworthy that both Albert and Thomas are disinclined to give what the cathedral masters called `intellectual faith’ or some synonym thereof the title of `faith’ at all. The motives of credibility — such considerations as the Savior’s miracles and his fulfillment of prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching and his ethical perfection — may make people certain in some kind of adhering to the bearer of revelation (such adhering was sometimes known as certitude adhaesionis, `certainty of adhesion’). But this is not as yet the recognition of Jesus Christ as the very Word of the Father.

Over against, in particular, early Deist thinkers, Catholic writers from the sixteenth century onwards stressed the importance of the rational motives of credibility. Though in the later part of that century, owing to the challenge of Protestantism, a section `on the Church’, de Ecclesia, was customarily added to Catholic treatises on apologetics, the main content of Catholic apologetics for divine revelation did not differ greatly from that treated by their Protestant counterparts.

The classic Catholic representatives of this stream undertook to prove the principles of both natural and revealed religion, moving through an account of natural theology and natural law to treatment of the possibility, utility and necessity of supernatural revelation, and the features of miracle and fulfilled prophecy which (especially) enable one to recognize a divine mission in act, the whole thing ending up with a discussion of the claims of the Church and the principles of Catholic faith. From the mid-eighteenth century on, this structure remains largely constant up until the manuals in use in the 1920s and beyond.13

This was so even if in another way these treatises were always being modified, pouring into the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mould discussions with such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Darwin, the history-of-religions school of empirical scholarship, Liberal Protestantism and Modernism. But by the time Balthasar was setting out to begin his lifelong study of Christian thought, in the 1920s and 1930s, some Catholic philosophers and theologians were declaring a degree of dissatisfaction with the entire approach.

Why might that be? The main criticism, and one Balthasar largely shared, was that such treatises claimed to establish the fact of divine revelation without ever envisaging the meaning of its content. Painting with broad brush-strokes: in these works the relation of supernatural truth to human realities was not manifest. And while that relation wholly exceeds what human beings could ever expect, so Balthasar would want to add, the wonderful character of that excess was not brought home.

Presumably the Gospel offers an intelligible message — something we are meant to understand, even if this `something’, by its grandeur, also stretches our powers to a point where only the gracious enhancement of our capacities can serve our turn. (Where the appropriate paradigm of knowledge is love, then understanding and mystery will develop together, in direct proportion to each other.)

But such was the emphasis on the proof of revelation by arguments external to itself that this intelligibility (even if it were an intelligibility with a depth of mystery to it) failed to make a proper appearance in justifying revelation’s claims. Hence the critical epithet ‘extrinsicist’ applied to these schemes: the supernatural order seemed to be externally added on to the natural as an autonomous supplement, rather than fully integrated with the natural and suitably interiorized there.

Where Catholic apologetics was concerned, the single most influential dissentient voice was the French philosopher and lay theologian Maurice Blondel.  Without disputing that some place should be given to the considerations adduced in early modern apologetics, Blondel proposed to give the lion’s share, in any commendation of revealed religion, to an account of how the internal logic of the act of faith corresponds to the `logic’ of the highest kind of human activity we know: namely, when we set out to discern meaning — and (especially) the fullness of meaning — in human life at large.

It is not enough to adduce arguments to show the fact of divine attestation to Jesus. The mystery of Christ must be presented as throwing light on the whole human condition. The question is not so much to prove by miraculous facts the rights of Jesus as divine legate (though this is certainly not illegitimate, and can even be called necessary), but, in Balthasarian terms, to discern in the `figure’ of Jesus, his acts and destiny, a divine-human presence penetrating and transforming our sense of relation with God, with the world, with other persons and indeed with ourselves. In so doing, the Revealer, so we discern, confers on human history the weight of eternity.

Naturally enough, this cannot be done without treating the content of revelation from within, rather than simply the fact of revelation from without. What Balthasar is attempting in the Theological aesthetics coheres with much of this Blondelian programme, though his manner of pursuing its agenda is entirely is own. Certainly, Balthasar had no desire to replace an extrinsicist apologetics with an apologetics of natural immanence. As he wrote:

[T]he tradition never set the criterion for the truth of revelation in the centre of the pious human subject, it never measured the abyss of grace by the abyss of need or sin, it never judged the content of dogma according to its beneficial effects on human beings. The Spirit does not reveal himself,- he reveals the Father in the Son, who has become man. And the Son never allows himself to become re-absorbed in the human spirit

How then does Balthasar proceed? His first step is to show that beauty is a possible vehicle for divine self-manifestation. As we have seen, considered ontologically, beauty is not just a property of all created things qua created. What appears in the beauty of created forms is the radiance of being, der Glanz des Seins. Beauty thus speaks of the meaning of that which transcends and yet inheres in all existents.

Secondly, Balthasar treats beauty as the vehicle of the actual revelation of God in Christ, a revelation made when the eternal manifests itself in a concrete, material form, breaking into this world, as beauty does, numinously (for beauty, in words Balthasar liked to quote from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, is the beginning of the terrible). In the case of revelation, this means the eternal breaking in with the glory that truly inheres in the form of Jesus Christ.

The epiphany of this form is not just sheerly overwhelming, however, for exploration of the career and fate of Jesus shows it is an intelligible history. This form is a narrative form, and the meaning of the story is divine love. Here the content and the form are one since both are wonderful. The content is as marvelously beautiful as is the form, and Balthasar’s explanation for this is that both content and form reflect love. Love shares the structure of beauty. It confronts us with the mystery of the otherness of some other and calls forth a corresponding wonder and admiration.

Thirdly and finally, Balthasar develops his theological aesthetics in two parts that are, however, strongly unified as well as distinct. And this two-in-one exposition spans the separate treatises of (early modern and modern) apologetics and dogmatics. This is so because Balthasar’s aesthetics is not only an epistemological investigation of the kind of `seeing’ involved in faith. It is also a doctrine of what he terms `ecstasy’. There is `ecstasy’, first, in the going out (in Greek, ek-stasis) of the Godhead in weakness into the world as the manifestation of the love that is interior to the divine glory.

There is `ecstasy’, secondly, in the way the believer is seized by the divine glory in this revelation in Jesus Christ and is taken up thereby into a share in the life of God himself. Ecstasy, so understood, contains in principle all the main themes of dogmatics — the Trinity, Christology, the doctrines of justification and sanctification, as well as of the sacraments, the Church and eschatology, the Last Things. Faith is a response to the radiance of what St Thomas calls the bonum promissum, the beautifully ordered whole of salvation that is offered to us, exceeding any such `whole’ that exists within the world.”

So what we have here is a tendency to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between apologetics and dogmatics just because Balthasar wants to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between what the Schoolmen called `certainty of adhesion’ and the virtue of theological faith properly so called — the faith that, corresponded to in loving conversion, justifies and saves.

Balthasar can proceed in this direction because he doesn’t think that what explains the act of faith is simply rationally available materials plus an elevation of human judgment by supernatural light. In his view, there is not only God’s gracious supplying of more light with which to judge materials accessible to any reasonable person supplied with appropriate historical data about Jesus and arguments to back up those data. There is also, he maintains, a `light’ that shines forth from those materials themselves in their beautiful ordering in Jesus’ person, life and work.

The act of faith needs both kinds of light: light from within where God can affect my powers of knowing and willing internally, since as my Creator he is closer to me than I am to myself, and light from without — light striking one from Jesus Christ himself as a figure in history who is made palpable to me in the preaching and Liturgy of the Church. On the one hand, the glory of the divine self-emptying in Jesus Christ can be seen only by `eyes of faith’ when God has prepared me interiorly to be receptive to Christ. On the other hand, the `eyes of faith’ can only see when the light of faith falls on them from the divine form that Jesus is. What the eyes of faith see when this interplay of light works as it should is the opening of the divine heart in love, the self-disclosure of the Trinity.

Conclusion On Aesthetics
It is in the lives of saints and mystics that the inspired seeing which animates the Christian life in general and theological aesthetics in particular is most fully in act.
Balthasar identifies its key as humility, which is the readiness to accept the gift of the divine love as it is, to appreciate the necessary and rightness of the form of the divine revelation as we are given it.

Much of Balthasar’s celebrated concern with the practice of holiness as precondition of fruitful theologizing belongs here; adoration and obedience follow from humility, and draw good theology in their train. Henri de Lubac once contrasted Balthasar’s theology with Hegel’s. Whereas Hegel called his own thought `speculative Good Friday’, de Lubac calls Balthasar’s a `contemplative Holy Saturday’.

Evidently, I note in passing, de Lubac was not `phased’ by Balthasar’s theology of the Descent into Hell which turns, of course, on the events of the first Holy Saturday: perhaps he realized that for Balthasar while the Descent is, unlike for most of Catholic tradition, the end-point of the mysteries of Christ’s humiliation, it is also, in keeping with Catholic tradition, the starting-point of the mysteries of hi exaltation.

The useful phrase `contemplative Holy Saturday’ in the wider meaning de Lubac intended for it, brings out the degree to which Balthasar’s material dogmatics are informed by his fundamental theological insight into the nature of faith a contemplative seeing, as well as the extent to which his theology  centers on the self-emptying of the Son of God which reached full term in the Descent into Hell.

It also reminds us that the final volumes of the theological aesthetics consist in a reading of the Old and New Testament. Balthasar at the close of this massive work turns again to the Bible in the hope that, now we grasp what is at stake in theological aesthetics, we can read the Scriptures with new eyes. If we do so, we shall see how though the New Testament’s amazing consummation of the Old, the mystery of all creation, man included, received its definitive interpretation as the hidden presence of Absolute Love, to which, in its luminous, bountiful and exuberant character, beauty’s qualities of clarity, integrity and proportion, by analogy, belong.

See too how the recipients of God’s self-revelation — ourselves — receive thereby the call to make the divine visible in charity, the specifically Christian love of God and neighbor, the intended moral outcome of Balthasar’s entire work. These statements are not only conclusions drawn from his theological aesthetics. They are also anticipations of the message of his theological dramatics and theological logic as well.

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Balthasar and the Beautiful 3 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 5, 2014
The life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery -- the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form -- has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning -- ultimately the task of a theological dramatics -- the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful.

The life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery — the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form — has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning — ultimately the task of a theological dramatics — the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful.

Objective And Subjective In Revelatory `Evidence’
We have said that the aesthetic act always has both an objective and a subjective side to it. It is a subject’s marveling appreciation of an object. The absolutely foundational opening volume of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is governed by this pair of terms. Divine revelation in Jesus Christ has, in the first place, subjective evidence. What Balthasar means by `subjective evidence’ here is certainly not vague and conjectural evidence.

Rather, it is evidence from the side of the human subject. Divine revelation in Jesus Christ also has objective evidence. What Balthasar means by `objective evidence’ is not the only kind of evidence worth having but, more specifically, evidence from the side of the divine-human object.

Let us take the subjective evidence first. It may seem at first sight disconcerting that Balthasar identifies the subjective evidence for revelation as faith itself. Surely faith is a response to the evidence of revelation: can it be, in that case, itself part of the evidence? Balthasar holds that, in an important sense, God’s self-revelation is, and can only be, self-authenticating. Faith accepts its own object on the authority of that object which in this way becomes `subjective evidence’ for it.

The classical account of faith as an infused theological virtue — the account found in Thomas — already claimed that our recognition of God is God’s own act in us: it is the inchoatio gloriae, the `beginning of glory’. Crucial to the act of faith is a power of apperception experienced as a gift from a source beyond oneself. And yet no such gift — no such grace — is, in Catholic doctrine, irresistible. We have to co-operate. On our part, the grace of faith requires a readiness to receive the light God gives, and a self-surrender to that light.

On God’s part, faith entails the gift to us of fresh insights, motives, impulses, by which we are gradually shaped into the pattern of Christ as well as granted understanding of that pattern. Behind these statements lies Thomas’ account of understanding, and with it ancient Greek philosophy which, thanks chiefly to Aristotle, saw mind as both receptive or `patient’ (passive) and also spontaneous or `agent’ (active). To cite Chesterton’s wonderful little Thomas book one last time:

The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes.
G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p.121

A light shines for the mind as well as for the senses when the intellect as agent judges aright the impressions, mental as well as sensuous, that the intellect as patient receives. In the case of faith, this light is a divinely enabled intensification of the intellectual light in which we make our natural judgments. For Thomas, the light of faith is indeed an anticipation of the light of glory, the beatific Vision.

In all this, Balthasar’s distinctive stress lies on how the light of faith makes possible, on our own more modest level as disciples, a certain alignment with the experience of Christ himself. Balthasar emphasizes how archetypal for us as Christians is the experience which Christ himself had in his human nature of his Father and himself in the Holy Spirit. We come to know of that uniquely formative experience through the apprehension of Christ found in the New Testament writers — who are not just a few more authors from the ancient world but inspired witnesses, or what Greek Christians call `hagiography’, the `sacred writers’. The variety of their witness — which for some scholars undermines the consistency of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament — Balthasar regards as, on the contrary, vital to their function. The varied appearances of an object to observers capable of communicating their experience is the only way something of the object’s fullness (if it has one) can be transmitted by the witnesses.

In our appreciation of those witnesses, when carried out by the light of faith, we are to let our own senses and imagination be disciplined and re-shaped pneumatically — by the action of the Holy Spirit. Some spiritual authors tell us not to stay on the level of images, of the imagination. But for Balthasar when, in personal prayer and devotion, we break through to another level where the sensuous seems to be stripped away, and we go beyond images, we should not understand that as a happy victory of the superbly intellectual side of us over the wretchedly sensuous.

Rather, we should understand it as a participation by precisely that sensuous side of us in the self-emptying of Christ. For Balthasar, the negative incomprehensibility of God to materially embodied creatures like ourselves is less interesting than the positive incomprehensibility that derives from the overwhelming greatness of God’s triune self-giving or self-humbling (‘kenotic’) love which the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery display.

This brings us, then, to revelation’s objective evidence. There must also be objective evidence and not just subjective, or else Catholics would be fideists — people who think belief can and should proceed without any reference to external legitimating grounds. For Balthasar, the chief objective evidence in Christianity is: Christ Jesus as he is in himself, the Trinitarian Son disclosing in his humanity the hidden tri-unity of divine being.

That includes what conventional Catholic apologetics has treated as objective evidence for the truth of Jesus’ claims — such things as Christ’s miracles (above all, his Resurrection), his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching, his moral perfection, and so on. But on Balthasar’s understanding of the matter, the Christological objective evidence also goes beyond that set of considerations since, after all, they are only signs of his Trinitarian identity, not that identity in and of itself.

Now to see Christ in this fuller way for who and what he really is, we must have an unlimited willingness to receive the impress of God’s greatness and glory. Here Balthasar’s position can be regarded as the exact antithesis to Bultmann’s. Bultmann’s work belongs to a long line of theological speculation which gradually debilitated the physical and metaphysical texture of its object.

For Bultmann, the visually graspable shapes of nature and salvation history do not mediate our approach to God because created being is not constituted from substantial self-transcending forms. Nature and history are not impressed with illustrative form, so God has to be approached in a way that abstracts from all human perceptibility.”

Balthasar says the contrary. The necessary willingness to receive the impress of God’s greatness and glory is mediated in the Church — not least through the variety of her approved theologies, a number of which Balthasar explores in the second and third volumes of The Glory of the Lord.

As Balthasar presents it in those volumes and in other essays, theology is a rich and complex activity which at one pole contains the careful logical analysis which explains the faith and answers heresy (‘controversial’ theology), and at the other pole – ultimately, the more important one — embraces the adoring contemplation of God. The adoring contemplation aspect of theology may seem something essentially mysteric — typically, apophatic and imageless, but Balthasar notes how in many of the great mystics it has gone hand in hand with a capacity for densely concrete, and in its own way precise, poetic expression.

It is as if the vision of that which is above-and-beyond-form, the vision of `Super-form’, by its very fascination prompts the human form-creating powers to move into action on their own level. The poems of St John of the Cross are a good example, and indeed Sanjuanist (vocab: of St. John of the Cross) thought is included by Balthasar as one of his examples of how all great theologies are `beautiful’ through pointing in some way to the initial vision without which there would be nothing worthwhile for theologians to analyze in the manner of a theological logic.

The two volumes of The Glory of the Lord devoted to such historic examples from the work of clerical or lay `doctors’ (scare-quotes since Balthasar does not confine himself to those canonically and liturgically so recognized) are not merely illustrative of Balthasar’s project or simply preparatory to it. Taken cumulatively, they are meant to suggest how it is that, without a theological aesthetics, no theological logic worth its salt can be written. Unless the content of theology is marvelous, why indeed should we spend so much time explaining its truth? This is one important way in which Balthasar’s trilogy — aesthetics, dramatics, logic — hangs together.

Another such way, which relates the aesthetics not to the logic so much as to the dramatics, is that, for Balthasar, the life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery — the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form — has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning — ultimately the task of a theological dramatics — the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful. Compare the witness of iconography and the exalted language of the Liturgies about the Cross.

The Religious `A Priori’ And The Theological `A Priori’
As the discussion earlier in this Chapter of the grace of faith will already (I hope) have suggested, the light in which we appreciate subjectively the objectivity of the divine epiphany in Jesus Christ is not the same as the intellectual light in which the mind makes natural judgments — even though both of these kinds of illumination are given by God. Despite his dislike of the bloodless abstractions of Transcendental Thomism, Balthasar uses a formula of the sort such Thomism borrowed from Kant so that he can underline the difference he sees here.

In his epistemological writings, Kant had used the Latin logical term `a priori’ to refer to the way human understanding is structured in advance as it comes to scan the materials of experience. Using this same terminology, it is of great importance to Balthasar to grasp the distinction between what he terms the `religious a priori’ in our ordinary human experience and the ‘theological a priori’ in our distinctively Christian experience.

Let us take the religious a priori first. The religious a priori is our natural participation in the light of God as Creator. That prior structure of human awareness is `transcendental’ in the sense of the word proper to Kant and the — in Kantian perspective, rightly so named — `Transcendental’ Thomists.

This sense of the word should be carefully distinguished, then, from the meaning given it by the high medievals (see Chapter One of this study, and especially note 2) in whose company Balthasar was more at home.) The religious a priori is the `transcendental’ presupposition of the objective vision we can entertain of the divine reality in, and on the occasion of, the natural forms of creation. It is the source of religious experience in general, and includes an intuition of the absence as well as the presence of God in all contingent being which, of course, as contingent, finite, imperfect feet, can never entirely mediate the God who is absolute, infinite, perfect. This is how human beings produce symbols and construct myths about the `What’ and the `Who’ lying beyond all creation. The religious a priori is the source of mytho-poetic thought in all cultures and periods.

How, then, does the theological a priori come in? By way of contrast, might be Balthasar’s best answer. By contrast with the religious a priori, the theological a priori, while taking the religious a priori for granted, differs from it in being distinctively Christological and Trinitarian in character. It is what enables our response to the new light of Christ granting human beings as this does a participation in the uncreated light of the Holy Trinity. The theological a priori is the `transcendental’ presupposition of our sharing in the inner life of the Trinity through Jesus Christ on the basis of a connaturality with the divine Persons given by the Mediator, the God-man, when he took what was ours (namely, humanity), so as to give us a share in what is his (namely, divinity). Amazingly, it becomes second nature to us (hence, `connaturality’) to be, through Christ, in tune with the triune God.

In sum: the religious a priori enables us to perceive the objective light of the Creator in the forms of the creation, whereas the theological a priori enables us to perceive the objective light of the Trinity in the historical form of Jesus Christ. This second `transcendental’ structure is not inbuilt at creation, it is a matter, rather, of God’s `second’ gift, in a new order of the divine generosity. Entirely gratuitous, it is a fresh gift of a connaturality with the divine that goes beyond our natural imagehood of God.

It brings about what Balthasar terms a new `proportionality’ between man and the divine Trinity – something that can in no way be inferred from the nature of the human spirit, not even in the dynamic orientation to God creation confers upon us. The theological a priori concerns itself with the distinctively Christian experience as irreducible to any other, no matter how religious.

The manner of expression shaped by the theological a priori may draw on genres known to `religious man’ at large — but what is done with them through the Gospel differs utterly. Myth is now actualized. In the bodily Resurrection of the incarnate humanity of the Word, the literal and particular are carried into the vertical transcendent realm in a final and eternal manner. The symbol takes root in the reality of ever-lasting being.

The images used in biblical revelation may have affinities with those the mythopoeic imagination uses in this or that extra-biblical culture to express its sense of the Eternal. The shapes of human imagining are not, indeed, to be expunged. Rather, the forms of natural, man-generated, aesthetic, if they admit the Christ-form, will be given a transcendent relation to the supernatural. In his study Science, Religion and Christianity, Balthasar praises Baroque literature and art for having so imaginatively played out the realization of the figures of Greek myth — Orpheus, Odysseus, Eros — in the person of the historic Christ.

As C. S. Lewis liked to remark, myth has become fact. Or, as Balthasar puts it, the truth of Jesus Christ is found at the point where what he calls, in the metaphysics volume of his Theo-aesthetics, the `two piers’ of myth and philosophy can finally be made to form an entire bridge. Myth tries to make sense of the world through concrete images. Philosophy tries to make sense of the world through articulating universal truth. They reach out towards each other, but never quite meet.

The ineluctable growth of the philosophic impulse pushed myth toward the periphery of the human imagination. Myth continued to exist but without philosophy it became increasingly enclosed in gnostic fantasy. Philosophy then became cut off from doxology and prayer which had been instinctive for myth, and its concept of human reason narrowed. When the religious a priori gives way to the theological a priori these ills can be healed, this rupture in humanity’s quest for a truth that would also be beauty repaired.

We have here one major source of Balthasar’s disagreement with the approach of his erstwhile fellow Jesuit, Karl Rahner. To Balthasar’s mind, Rahner made a great mistake in blocking together the theological a priori with its merely religious counterpart. Rahner’s vocabulary is partly the same and partly different, which could make comparison confusing. But the upshot is that Rahner tends to treat the Trinitarian and Christological revelation as simply the fullest (in Rahner’s word) ‘thematization’ or conscious, explicit articulation of a piety which is itself not yet `thematic’ — not consciously, explicitly articulated — but, at least in principle, pre-contains the content of the supreme revelation since our intellectual nature is turned towards the human-divine encounter, without our being aware of it, from the very start.

For Balthasar, this renders the given, historic revelation vulnerable to what some would frankly call ‘demythologizing’ and others, more politely, `resolution into its transcendental formality’. It seems to come down to much the same thing. (This is the argument of Balthasar’s little polemical work Cordula, translated into English as The Moment of Christian Witness) What Balthasar objects to in Rahner’s theology of faith is that it fails to derive faith from the form of Christ. Christ’s form does not verify itself (as it should) by virtue of the unique evidence contained in its amazing and unexpected beauty.

Instead, it commends itself by its ability to satisfy, especially on the level of the understanding, a drive towards transcendence already entirely operative in peoples’ lives (so no great surprise is involved). Balthasar sees Rahner as, so to speak, almost half way down the road to Rudolph Bultmann, for whom God cannot be known objectively in the image of Christ but only non-objectively as the condition of possibility for the human self-understanding that occurs on the occasion of hearing the Gospel of Christ.59

Balthasar shows his forthright commitment to the Christian revelation in its irreducibly specific pattern when he insists that, in collaboration with this inner grace, the form of Christ makes for a new revelation with its own evidence which no insight into the dynamism of the human spirit in its tendency towards God can either anticipate in advance or verify in retrospect. There is in fact no need at all in man that can explain or authenticate the words and deeds of Christ. Only Christ’s form makes those words and deeds lucidly plain. The `a posteriori’, historical, evidence of that form is what founds Christian faith, not some `a priori’, ahistorical state of affairs which has come into consciousness for this or that individual through prompting by the general a posteriori experience.

In any case, what human expectation could envisage a triune, totally self-sufficient Creator becoming man in a tiny speck of dust somewhere in the universe .end presenting his own extremity of humiliation, suffering — both physical and spiritual — and substitutionary death as the very form of life for all mankind? This rhetorical question identifies Balthasar’s most basic theological conviction. Nowhere else but in the historical form of Jesus could anyone find the evidence to verify so extravagantly wasteful a love on the side of divinity and so utterly devastating a burden on the side of humanity.

As Balthasar puts it in his theology of the Easter Triduum, no human evolution, hope or desire can unite the Hellish destruction of Good Friday with the splendid affirmation of Easter Sunday.6° Only Jesus’ form can verify a triune God who knows no need to subject himself to such horrors and yet in his total freedom does so. The evidence of the form of Christ is thus akin, Balthasar argues, to that of an artistic masterpiece. This form knows no external necessity in either divine or human reality, yet once we apprehend it we see that it `must’ be as it is.

Balthasar stresses the rupture and transformation that Christian conversion entails. Pace Rahner, it is not simply a matter of one who is already an anonymous Christian becoming so openly by name. For the Old Testament, as the Book of Exodus testifies, human beings were told by God, `Man shall not see me and live’. The New Testament fulfils this. We died to ourselves in God when we were converted to Christ and then we were brought to life again.

In Jesus, the believer has for the first time seen God. It follows that what is incomprehensible in God no longer proceeds from mere ignorance. Rather is it the daunting, stupefying incomprehensibility of the fact that God so loved the world as to give his only Son. The God of all plenitude lowered himself not only by entering his creation as a creature but by entering it in the conditions of an existence determined by sin, destined for death, removed from God. Such was his amazing grace.

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Balthasar and the Beautiful 2 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 4, 2014
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s life was hardly the plain, uneventful life of a scholar. Born in 1905, he lived through the horror and devastation of both World Wars, writing his doctoral thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitler’s rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In 1929, after a retreat where he felt a powerful call to the priesthood, he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best of his time including the Polish philosopher, Erich Przywara, and French Jesuit and patristic scholar, Henri de Lubac. Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century–yet he never held an academic position in theology. Far from being an ivory tower academic, he was involved with the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was there that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who converted to the Catholic Church and became the recipient of what seems to have been intense mystical graces. Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but live in the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John. To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar eventually had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: to leave the Jesuit Order and become a diocesan priest.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s life was hardly the plain, uneventful life of a scholar. Born in 1905, he lived through the horror and devastation of both World Wars, writing his doctoral thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitler’s rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In 1929, after a retreat where he felt a powerful call to the priesthood, he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best of his time including the Polish philosopher, Erich Przywara, and French Jesuit and patristic scholar, Henri de Lubac. Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century–yet he never held an academic position in theology. Far from being an ivory tower academic, he was involved with the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was there that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who converted to the Catholic Church and became the recipient of what seems to have been intense mystical graces. Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but live in the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John. To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar eventually had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: to leave the Jesuit Order and become a diocesan priest.

We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post for intro.

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The Centrality Of Christ In Aesthetics
Where the perceptual object in question is Jesus Christ, the real object thus presented to us is not just one of the possibilities of created being. Owing to the Incarnation, the object here presented through beautiful form is not merely human being but in a direct and plenary (vocab: unqualified; absolute) way divine Being itself. In this unique instance, then, the sensuous appearance is loaded with the endless significance and inherent authority of the divine. In this particular case, accordingly, `beauty’ will also be called `glory’ as well, for appearance charged with the inexhaustible significance and inherent authority of the divine is a plausible first stab at defining what the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures mean by `the glory of the Lord’.

Balthasar’s aesthetics begin humbly, at the level of sense perception, but ultimately they investigate the meaning and content of encounter with the glory of God. The form of revelation is the main theme of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics because it is `the glorious evidence of divine agency in the world’. God, of course, is not part of the world. He cannot be ranged among the many things that happen to exist (a good Thomistic point: God is not in any genus of being, any type of thing). This does not mean, however, that God fails to attain to form. Surely we should say, rather, that God is that to which all form fails to attain. We can call him, with Balthasar, not ‘non-Form’ but `Super-form’.

In speaking of God as `Super-form’, Balthasar offers his own theologically aesthetic version of the Thomistic claim that the human creature has a natural desire for the vision of God. Translated into theologically aesthetic terms, this reads: we humans desire to find a perceivable form that transcends our powers, and in that way to transcend ourselves by knowing ourselves to be thus transcended. For this reason, the contemplation of God is, as the mystics show, not only dark and baffling but also a cause of joy for us.

To search out the beautiful is to explore, then, not only the formal possibilities of being but also the possibilities of human feeling-response in the face of the forms that being takes. It has, therefore, both an objective and a subjective side to it (we shall look at this more closely in a moment). Notice meanwhile how Balthasar is not saying that perception of anything beautiful should be regarded as equivalent to an act of recognition of God.

What he is saying is twofold. First, for those who have some awareness of God as the Source of all being, beauty acquires ontological depth. Such people can develop a habit of seeing the world as transparent to God. That is highly relevant to belief in creation. Secondly, and even more importantly, the events of salvation history — where God is active, presenting himself for contemplation — show the divine to have its own style of manifestation, and we must learn to register its impress. That is highly relevant to belief in the Incarnation. In the biblical revelation, the self-disclosure of God comes to a climax in Jesus Christ.

As the centre of Scripture, Christ unifies Old Testament and New Testament in a single form. Once seen as such, he can also be recognized as the centre of creation: “the One who brings genesis and apocalypse, the original creation and its eschatological fulfillment, into a single form likewise.” In `Revelation and the Beautiful’, Balthasar draws attention to the need for holism these affirmations entail:

The historical revelation is molded throughout into a single structure, so that the person contemplating it perceives, through the relationships and proportion of its various parts, the divine rightness of the whole. For however clear and convincing these relationships are, they are inexhaustible — not only in the practical sense, because we lack the power to grasp them in their entirety, but also in principle, because what comes to light in the structure is something which opens our minds to the infinite.

Note, however, that Jesus Christ is the centre of this structure, not the exclusive content of it. Though Balthasar’s vision always centers on the figure of Christ, he does not follow the great Protestant Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, for example, in making Christ’s form as God made human the sole analogue between God and the world. Balthasar states plainly that it is impossible to understand beauty as supernatural revelation without first experiencing beauty naturally, in creation.

Still, perhaps the best argument for the existence of the transcendentals is their capacity to infuse the human community with shared meanings where goodness, truth and beauty are concerned. And in this regard, Jesus Christ, whose Gospel has enabled millions in many ages and cultures to find such meaning, is as it were an open window on the transcendentals, joining together webs of human sensibility so that people can apprehend the transcendentals in their full reality.

Of course, Christ is a very unexpected climax to the experience of the beautiful. As Balthasar suggests in his meditation on the Easter Triduum, Mysterium Paschale, the Incarnation is ordered to the Passion: from the very word `Go!’ its direction is the Cross.” In Jesus Christ it will, then, be a strange and terrible Beauty that is born. Hence Balthasar’s remark in `Revelation and the Beautiful’:

For this reason, the glory inherent in God’s revelation, its fulfillment beyond measure of all possible aesthetic ideas, must perforce remain hidden from the eyes of all, believers and unbelievers, though in very various degrees.
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, p.113

Naturally, Balthasar can hardly say that the glory of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is something entirely hidden to everybody: in that case, there would be no point in writing a Christ-centred theological aesthetics at all. But there is a point! The Incarnation is the supreme presentation of aesthetic form despite or rather, when seen more deeply, because of the Cross. As Balthasar explains:

Insofar as the veil over the face of Christ’s mystery is drawn aside, and insofar as the economy of grace allows, Christian contemplation can marvel, in the self-emptying of divine love, at the exceeding wisdom, truth and beauty inherent there. But it is only in this self-emptying that they can be contemplated, for it is the source whence the glory contemplated by the angels and the saints radiated into eternal life … The humiliation of the servant only makes the concealed glory shine more resplendently, and the descent into the ordinary and commonplace brings out the uniqueness of him who so abased himself
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, pp.113-114

Here is a form than which none more wonderful can be imagined. For the `ground’ that appears in this `gestalt’, above all in the moment of the Cross, is the love that the Trinity is. That statement is the climactic assertion of Balthasarian ‘theo-aesthetics’. In the next Chapter, we shall see how, for Balthasar’s ‘theo-dramatics’, two more words need adding to this formulation: the ground that appears in the Christ-form is the love and freedom of the triune God.

The Unification Of Human Experience By Aesthetic Form
In his theological aesthetics Balthasar expects human experience to be completed and unified when guided by aesthetic form. To cite once again from `Revelation and the Beautiful’:

Everywhere there should be a correspondence between object and subject; the external harmony must correspond to a subjective need and both give rise to a new harmony of a higher order; subjectivity, with its feeling and imagination, must free itself in an objective work, in which it rediscovers itself in the course of which … there may be as much self-discovery as experience of another.
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, p.105

As that highly original student of Balthasar’s work Francesca Aran Murphy has pointed out, Balthasar presupposes, rightly enough, that human beings need rounded patterns through which to shape their experiences and make of them a coherent unity. Our capacity for awareness of such rounded patterns is called imagination.

Owing to Balthasar’s epistemological optimism and ontological realism, the thrust of the imagination for him is towards the real foundation which upholds all such forms. As we have seen, Balthasar employs a realistic metaphysics for which form is a basic principle. In such a metaphysic, beauty will be treated as an objective reality, present both in natural reality and in artistic works and accessible to us through their mediation.

For Balthasar (as for anyone else, for that matter), the word `imagination’ denotes a human faculty that eschews the quantitative measuring techniques of the empirical sciences. But for Balthasar (unlike for many other writers), the functioning of imagination can and should be grounded in objective reality.

Whereas historic Romanticism was plagued by Idealism, according to which imagination tells us chiefly about our own minds, the matter looks very different when a realist metaphysic is brought into the picture. Symbolic forms, though of our devising, allow us to gesture toward the inherent reality of things. The imagination expresses meaning in terms which draw the mind into the world.

When a realist metaphysics, recognizing the force of imagination, is combined with an orthodox Christology, the vista opened up is transformed again. Now our imaginative penetration of the world finds its response in a form a supremely rounded pattern — who rises up to meet it from beyond all human powers of exploration, since this form — the form of the Word incarnate — discloses God himself, author and archetype of being as a whole. While revealing itself to us from its source in the Uncreated, from what lies beyond the natural world, this form is also an attracting principle that draws out man’s effort to unite himself imaginatively with the created, with the natural order found in the cosmos and in human existence.

At one and the same time, then, the shape of this unique form, Jesus Christ, is both congruent with the activity of the human imagination at large, for imagination in general works on what is given in creation, and yet extends infinitely beyond all humanly discerned patterns — and, indeed, beyond the range of creation itself. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge divined, and he was, in this regard, an English forerunner of Balthasar, the highest unity the imagination can conceive is that which joins the finite and the infinite.’ But as Balthasar stresses with a vigor absent in Coleridge, this joining is supremely carried out by God himself in assuming human nature into unity with his divine Word.

The Deficiencies Of Modern Theological Culture
As Balthasar was aware, much modern theology does not honor this claim. Modern theological liberalism characteristically takes as its base the organization of human experience rather than the objective givens of divine agency impacting on nature and history. Probably Kant is the single greatest culprit here, because he it was who established the quite misleading presupposition that what critical thought considers is merely why we experience the world in the way we do. The situation deteriorates even further with Neo-Kantianism, influential in the German Universities (and notably Marburg — later to host the philosopher Heidegger and the exegete and quasi-theologian Bultmann) around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For Neo-Kantians, the threads binding the Kantian subject to an objective world were attenuated even further. In their view, Kant was hasty in allowing that external sense impressions impinge upon the mind, and misguided in granting the existence of a noumenon behind such perceptual presentation, the elusive `thing in itself’. Such Neo-Kantianiism is, it would seem, the philosophical origin of the ‘demythologising’ movement in Christian theology, and that has been, under whatever name, an enormously influential movement, both academically and in ordinary Church life. It is a movement to which Balthasar was implacably opposed.

Bultmann had regarded all alleged ‘knowledge’ of reality as mere objectification; projecting onto the largely unknowable a screen of our own culturally generated ideas: such false ‘objectivity’ must be stripped from the New Testament record. To his mind, the cosmological canvas on which the New Testament writers painted concealed the true message of the Gospel, which is the `extra-worldly’ dependence of the human person on the divine. For Bultmann, the Gospel has to do with my subjective relation to God within my own existence — my relation to him as myself a subject called to shape the meaning of life as I go along, thanks to my own ‘existential’ decisions, what I choose to regard as ‘authentic’, as valid ‘for me’.

Francesca Murphy draws attention to the usefulness of Balthasar’s corpus for those seeking to repel the Bultmann-style subversion of revelation-guided thought. Balthasar was clearly right to identify the hazards of granting primacy to what the last Chapter of this study called an ‘I ‘ I’ principle in laying intellectual foundations — rather than the ‘I’-world principle where the transcendentals can enter the picture from the very start.

A starting-point in the ‘I’-’I’ relationship will always prejudice the chances of any presentation of the incarnate Christ as divinity given in and through form. If as philosophers we follow the Kantians (and here is why, unlike most modern thinkers in the German language, Balthasar preferred to Kant the more classically inspired mind-set of Goethe), we abandon the really metaphysical path to God leading as that path does through a substantial, material world — in other words, a world of substances that make themselves known through their forms to human intelligence, mediated by the senses. And when we come to the theology of revelation, where the acting subject is not ourselves but God himself reaching out to us, we shall inevitably, sooner or later, cease to think of God’s movement toward us as really mediated by the forms and images, understood as valid for everyone, in which the Bible deals.

This for Balthasar is where appeal to pulchrum, the transcendental we call ‘the beautiful’ can help restore the integrity of a Christologically-given revelation of the God of all being. The significance of the beautiful is that it indicates how an object might be outside us, facing us, and yet at the same time draw us into itself. Of all the transcendentals, the beautiful is the closest to our senses. It is, therefore, more directly present to us than are hue other transcendental properties of being.

The beautiful is a fully objective property of being, but it is the nature of this property to be communicative, to communicate itself to observers. The beautiful is reality under the aspect of form, known as such by imaginative intuition, just as truth is reality as best known through propositions, by the intelligence, and goodness is reality as best known through values, by the moral sense.

These ways of knowing refer to the same world manifesting itself in distinct but analogously related ways: as beautiful, true and good respectively. Specifically, the antidote Balthasar would prescribe for the sick theological patient is stored at the centre of his aesthetics where he draws on the Augustinian and mediaeval tradition which ascribed transcendental beauty most especially to the divine Son. In, for example, the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, St Thomas explains that Christ has radiance through being the Art of the Father, where the Word illuminates the mind that contemplates him. He has proportion because he is the fullest likeness of the Father. He has integrity because his form is the Father’s form. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia q39, a8]

And for Aquinas precisely those three qualities — radiance, proportion, integrity — are the hallmarks of the beautiful. St Thomas was speaking of the pre-existent Son, who is with the Father from all eternity. Balthasar, by contrast, wants to apply pulchrum to the incarnate Son, precisely in his sensuous as well as intelligible form, a form that is well accommodated to our finitude so that we may grasp it.

But how, we may ask, is this particular doctrine the remedy an ailing theological culture needs? The human yearning for structured intelligibility, the single chief impetus to the making of art, suggested to Balthasar an analogy in art — and notably visual art — for the form and splendor attaching to the transcendent beauty of Christ  Considered as symbols, artworks function within the analogical network of being whose indefinitely extended character we charted in Chapter One.

Though they belong to immanent being — the realm of being that is suitably proportioned to the human mind, they also participate in the transcendentals, and thus they have a relation to the transcendent, divine Being that is all creation’s source. Aesthetic beauty, we can say, strives towards transcendental beauty, and this is a token of its spirituality.

Yet aesthetic beauty cannot spiritualize itself. It is ordered to the delight of the embodied human mind of everyman or everywoman — toward the satisfaction of the imagination as earthed in this world. It can, then, only receive a direction toward the transcendent, and do so, accordingly, from beyond itself. The supreme, altogether unified, and yet interior experience the Romantics were looking for is not self-shaped.

Rather, it is shaped by a transcendent and supernatural form. The subject of religious experience, the human self, can be, ought to be, and has been, re-formed by its transcendent object. Human experience enters true synthesis through receiving an objective revealed form that brings it to fulfillment. The self becomes re-formed divinely when it lets Christ’s archetypal experience form its own.

All instances of the real participate in form in analogically ordered degrees, but that means in unequal degrees. Every beautiful form possesses an openness to the infinite, but some beautiful forms possess this more than others. Beautiful form is heterogeneous, differentiated, qualitatively variable, of more or less significance in terms of focusing the totality of being at large. A snow-crystal, a mango-tree, Michelangelo’s statue of King David, the Aurora Borealis, St Francis kissing the leper, do this to varying degrees.

Every form is a contraction of the totality of being, and some are more contracted than others. This should remind us that it is for God to provide the norm by which he will interpret himself (the word-play of `norm’ and `form’ only works in English — and Latin, but Balthasar wants his readers to understand `authoritative principle’ [norm] in aesthetic terms form]). Only God can fashion a form that could be a comprehensive revelation of himself, the world and our relation to both of these.

Balthasar stresses, however, that, though the phenomenon in which God supremely shows himself is indeed overwhelming, it is still a norm that is comprehensible to human modes of perception and knowing, and does not simply override these or lay them to one side. As he puts it in the metaphysics volume of the theological aesthetics:

if a concept that is fundamental to the Bible has no kind of analogy in the general intellectual sphere, and awoke no familiar echo in the heart of man, it would remain absolutely incomprehensible and thereby a matter of indifference. It is only when there is an analogy (be it only distant) between the human sense of the divine and divine revelation that the height, the difference and the distance of that which the revelation discloses may be measured in God’s grace.”
The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics
IV The Realism of Metaphysics in Antiquity p. 14

No beauty in the world can be identified with God’s glory – though we might suspect that human personality, where the being of the world comes to its crown and its varied splendors (including their relation to God) can be perceived, might be a special locus for imaging glory (were it not, at any rate, for moral evil — a rather large obstacle in the way). There is, however:

one concrete historical event in which divine glory is fully present: in the beauty of the Christ form.so
S. Van Erp, The Art of Theology, p.138

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Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 3, 2014

 

Hans Urs von Balthasar was considered to be one of the most important Catholic writers and theologians of the twentieth century. His works include over one hundred books and articles. He was devoted to addressing spiritual and practical issues of his time and resisted reductionism and the human focus of modernity, wanting Christians to challenge modern and philosophical assumptions. Balthasar is most famously known for his sixteen-volume systematic theology which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. The Glory of the Lord, the seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, introduces theology based on the contemplation of the good, beautiful, and true. The second part of the trilogy, the five-volume Theo-Drama, focuses on theodramatics, the actions of God and our human response. Balthasar particularly focuses on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. His soteriology, Christology, and eschatology are also developed in this series. The trilogy is completed with the three-volume Theo-Logic. Here, Balthasar describes the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (Christology) to reality itself (ontology). Finally, in Epilogue Balthasar brings together the three parts of his trilogy by providing an overview and analysis of the preceeding 15 volumes. The Hans Urs von Balthasar Collection is sure to bring you insight, whether you’re wanting to discover new theological ideas or are seeking a deeper understanding of Christology, eschatology, Mariology, soteriology, and ontology.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was considered to be one of the most important Catholic writers and theologians of the twentieth century. His works include over one hundred books and articles. He was devoted to addressing spiritual and practical issues of his time and resisted reductionism and the human focus of modernity, wanting Christians to challenge modern and philosophical assumptions. Balthasar is most famously known for his sixteen-volume systematic theology which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. The Glory of the Lord, the seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, introduces theology based on the contemplation of the good, beautiful, and true. The second part of the trilogy, the five-volume Theo-Drama, focuses on theodramatics, the actions of God and our human response. Balthasar particularly focuses on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. His soteriology, Christology, and eschatology are also developed in this series. The trilogy is completed with the three-volume Theo-Logic. Here, Balthasar describes the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (Christology) to reality itself (ontology). Finally, in Epilogue Balthasar brings together the three parts of his trilogy by providing an overview and analysis of the preceeding 15 volumes. The Hans Urs von Balthasar Collection is sure to bring you insight, whether you’re wanting to discover new theological ideas or are seeking a deeper understanding of Christology, eschatology, Mariology, soteriology, and ontology.

John Christopher “Aidan” Nichols OP (born 17 September 1948) is an academic and Catholic priest. Nichols served as the first John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at the University of Oxford for 2006 to 2008, the first lectureship of Catholic theology at that university since the Reformation. He is a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and was formerly the Prior of St Michael and All Angels in Cambridge. Nichols began his academic work in the Russian theological tradition and has written on many figures including Sergei Bulgakov. However he is best known for his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar, publishing three analytic volumes on von Balthasar’s famous trilogy: The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics (1998) , No Bloodless Myth: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Dramatics (2000)   and Say It Is Pentecost: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Logic (2001).  He was also one of the contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (2004) . The following is taken from a chapter on a much shorter work concerning Beauty, Goodness and Truth in Balthazar’s thought.

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The Place Of Beauty
Balthasar was deeply opposed to the separation of the beautiful from the true and the good. The idea of beauty, he lamented, has been reduced to that of a merely this-worldly aesthetics, with baleful consequences for Christian faith and morals. Beauty’s separation from the other transcendentals, and the consequent rise of what Balthasar terms the ‘aestheticisation’ of the beautiful, is at least partly responsible, he thinks, for the inability of people to pray and contemplate.

The notion of the sheer beauty of the divine Being has disappeared. The severance of beauty from goodness and truth also helps to explain the perceived reduction of the moral order to a self-centered relativism, and the retrenchment of the metaphysical order to a materialism placed at the service of either technology or psychology or both. The final upshot of all this, he predicts, will be incapacity for either faith or love.

Unfashionably, Balthasar holds that, in the modern Western epoch, the Church has become the guardian of metaphysics. We live in a period when `things are deprived of the splendor reflected from eternity’. In our time, only an orthodox Christian mind and heart can bridge the gap between, on the one hand, an acosmic spirituality — a religiosity concerned merely with salvation in some other realm, private, interior, extra-mundane, and, on the other hand, a present world consigned to domination by positivists for whom all that exists is only organized matter.

Revelation can be a therapy for a metaphysical malaise that has, at the moment, no other medicine available. Tutored by revelation, the orthodox believer can show people how once again to experience the cosmos as what Balthasar terms `the revelation of an infinity of grace and love’. In the course of the eighty or one hundred years before Balthasar was writing, imaginative writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins, in England, and, in France, Paul Claudel and Charles Peguy managed precisely this, as had in Austria, qua composer of music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a century before them. They showed it was possible.

And so they gave us marching orders for what we in our turn should be doing — `all proportions guarded’, as the French say, not all of us can be great creative artists — as Christians who reflect on the revelation given them and wish to apply its benefits to the surrounding culture.

More widely, in Balthasar’s analysis, there must be a reunion of philosophy and theology, and, within theology, a reunion of spirituality and dogmatic thought, if there is to be for Western man — who is now for many purposes global man — a recovery of the sense of the integrity of being, in its co-constitutive transcendent and immanent dimensions. Thus in the first part of his trilogy, which he called a `theological aesthetics’, Balthasar sets himself the task of trying to perceive the objective form of revelation, in creation and in Jesus Christ, in all its splendid, harmonious and symphonic fullness.

What Are `Theological Aesthetics’?
What, then, does Balthasar mean by `theological aesthetics’? It is important to get clear from the outset that he does not intend to confine himself to a consideration of the beauty of the created world — whether, with antiquity, we have in mind there the harmony of the cosmic order, or whether, in the spirit of European Romanticism, we are more struck by the terrible but wonderful power of nature. Without excluding such considerations, the defining question of theological aesthetics goes beyond them — as it must if it is to include in its purview not only creation but salvation. For Balthasar, that defining question runs: How can the revelation of God’s sovereign grace be perceived in the world?

In his use of the phrase `theological aesthetics’, Balthasar gives the `aesthetics’ component two co-essential meanings. The first of these is indebted to Immanuel Kant, who used the word frequently enough in his Critique of Judgment, which is itself an essay in philosophical aesthetics albeit of the limited sort that Kant, on his own presuppositions in epistemology and ontology, felt able to write. `Aesthetics’ considers the part played at the higher levels of our experience by the human senses, of which sight has often been singled out as the most noble. So `theological aesthetics’ will consider the part played by the senses — with their associated powers of memory and imagination — in the awareness of God.

Balthasar invokes this meaning of the phrase in relation to, above all, the series of revelatory events and processes which culminated in the appearance of Christ. In Christ, his eternal Word or Son now come on earth, God made himself — as the First Letter of St John insists — a sensuous Object, being seen, heard, touched. Indeed, thanks to the assumption of human nature by the Logos at the Incarnation, a woman (we call her, accordingly, the Theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’) felt him growing in her body.

In the opening volume of The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar stresses the way the divine ‘form’ that is made available to human perception in Jesus Christ is mediated by the historical record (the Gospels and other New Testament writings), but also by the Liturgy and Christian experience. In various ways, a number of which he explores, the human imagination has been seized by this central figure of revelation — this (in Latin) figura, this (in German) Gestalt, this (in both English and German) F/form, which is close enough to another Latin word for it: forma.

Still on the first meaning of the phrase ‘theological aesthetics’: when Balthasar embarked on this project, many readers seemed to have had difficulty in getting hold of what he was saying. But really, his concept of the aesthetic perception should not perplex a readership in any way familiar with the res Christiana, ‘the Christian thing’. Take, for example, what G. K. Chesterton has to say on the subject in his celebrated came to study St Thomas Aquinas. In the passage I have in mind, he is talking about the difference the Incarnation makes, or should make, to the way we evaluate the importance of the senses. In Christian theology, wrote Chesterton

[It]here really was a new reason for regarding the senses, and the sensations of the body, and the experiences of the common man, with a reverence at which great Aristotle would have stared, and no man in the ancient world could have begun to understand. The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh but God had not despised it. The senses had truly become sanctified; as they are blessed one by one at a Catholic baptism. ‘Seeing is believing’ was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual, as in Plato’s world; it was mixed up with real conditions of real belief.
G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas27

So much, then, for the first meaning of `aesthetics’ in the term ‘theological aesthetics’: it signifies, quite simply, having to do with the senses.

The second way in which Balthasar uses the term `theological aesthetics’ is to denote a study of beauty — more especially an account of beauty as a transcendental determination of being, and most especially of all an exploration of the revealed cone-late of beauty which is, so Balthasar held, the glory of God.

Not all the Scholastics had treated pulchrum, `the beautiful’, explicitly as a transcendental, but the conviction gradually settled on the Thomist school that it is –just as much as truth and goodness or the remaining transcendental which Balthasar never used to structure a distinct theological treatise: unity. Thus for a mid-twentieth century Thomist, Jacques Maritain, beauty is the `splendor of being and of all the transcendentals re-united.’

On this presupposition, we might describe beautifully former objects as in-gatherings and out-pouring of that `splendor’. In Balthasar’s case, the most important of the key terms in the first use of `aesthetics’, namely `form’, recurs in the second way Balthasar uses the term. Form is just as important to an understanding of beauty as it is to an account of how reality is presented to us by the senses.

Again, some people confess themselves bemused by what Balthasar means by the word `form’, which owes something to Goethe but rather more to Aquinas. But here, once more, is what Chesterton had to say in his little book on St Thomas:

‘Formal’ in Thomist language means actual or possessing the real decisive quality that makes a thing itself Roughly, when [Thomas] describes a thing as made out of Form and Matter, he very rightly recognizes that Matter is the more mysterious and indefinite and featureless element; and that what stamps anything with its identity is its Form.

And Chesterton goes on to say in this same passage:

Every artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental; that the form is the foundation. Every sculptor knows that the form of the statue is not the outside of the statue, but rather the inside of the statue; even in the sense of the inside of the sculptor. Every poet knows that the sonnet form is not only the form of the poem, but the poem.

And Chesterton concludes, rather peremptorily perhaps:

No modern critic who does not understand what the mediaeval Schoolman meant by form can meet the mediaeval Schoolman as an intellectual equal.”

Like Chesterton and indeed Maritain, Balthasar is thinking of natural forms as well as humanly shaped ones. A relatively straightforward summary of what he has in mind might run something like this. The perceptible form of an object is the expression, under particular conditions, of its metaphysical form — its essence or nature. We are glad when a perceptual form is rich, clear, and expressive because we feel that it lays open the object to us, even though we may also feel there is more in the thing’s nature than appears in this or that single expression.

From here we can go one step further. Something’s nature, surely, is itself one expression of the inherent possibilities of being at large. So when, in appreciating the clear, rich, expressive sensuous form, we also look through it to the nature of the thing in question, through that again we look to what one student of Balthasar’s aesthetics has called `the vast ocean of formal fertility which is the mystery of being’. The form of a thing may tell us more than just about itself. It may also tell us something about the world in which it is situated, about the universe.

The clarity of form in Balthasar’s aesthetics can usefully be contrasted with Descartes’ equally strong emphasis on `clarity’ in his philosophy of mind. Descartes was in love with what he called `clear and distinct ideas’. Balthasar’s concept of clarity, however, is taken from Thomas, for whom clarity — radiance — is one of the essential traits of the beautiful, along with proportion and integrity.

This is a very different sort of `brightness’. The brightness of the beautiful is something that overwhelms us, impelling us and enabling us to enter further into the depths of being than the unaided intelligence can venture. And whereas the Cartesian `idea’ is, in Scholastic terms, an intuited potential essence — something that may or may not be the case about the world, the Thomistic `radiance’ is expressed by a form actually enacting its own existence, its being-in-act.

We could explain the meaning of the second component in ‘theological aesthetics’ as an intersection of two axes: `vertical’ and `horizontal’ (not exactly exhilarating language, but it is handy). For Balthasar, the dimensions of the beautiful are ‘vertically’, an infinite depth of splendor, which, `horizontally’, is expressed in a materially graspable extension of form. The beautiful unifies — on the one hand — the definitely shaped form of something present, something on which the mind can come to rest, with — on the other hand — an endless sea of radiant intelligibility in which the mind can move without limitation. The beautiful is, as he would put it, the meeting-place of finite form with infinite light.

Balthasar seems to expand the Scholastic teaching on pulchrum by marrying it with the notion of the `sublime’, an idea the late-eighteenth-century Romantic authors found, or thought they found, in the ancients. The sublime reminds people that ontological beauty is a mystery whose inner momentum can never fully be grasped.” Unlike the Romantics, however, Balthasar is always careful not to allow `sublimity’ to dissolve forms into a general sea of being, where objects lose their outlines and coalesce.

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