The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics
By Bruno Forte
Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art
By T.J. Gorringe
Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination
By Malcolm Guite
Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality
By Belden C. Lane
TOWARD THE END of his life, the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth wrote that the theologian’s work should be wholly governed by the “logic of wonder.” Of course, Barth went on to note parenthetically (and I would guess, with a smile), there is the persistent danger that theologians will instead end up committed to just the opposite: the wonder of logic. In my experience, many people seem to find theology and beauty to be an odd pairing. They are surprised or puzzled when I mention the titles of some of the courses I teach: Faith and Beauty, Theology and the Arts. Perhaps this is precisely because there have been too many theologians devoted to the wonder of logic, and too few to the logic of wonder. Certainly, the term often used to designate this particular academic sub-discipline, “theological aesthetics,” sounds daunting, technical, and austere. Whatever the reasons for this perceived estrangement, four recent books testify to the depth and vitality of the current conversation between art, beauty, and Christian theology. All are thoughtful, well-researched, and attractively written works by practicing theologians. Two in particular—those by Belden Lane and Malcolm Guite—are thoroughly exceptional books; beautiful, engaging, and filled with striking insights. Moreover, each of the four is accessible and relatively free of technical jargon. They breathe the air of delight and astonishment and exude the logic of wonder.
Having said all of that, one of the most notable things about these four contributions is not what they share in common, but the ways they are different. One general impression that emerges from surveying them together is the breadth of the current dialogue.
It is a conversation, to begin with, that extends to more than one artistic medium and considers the function of beauty in more than one domain. Bruno Forte is mostly concerned with the topic of beauty within theology itself. His book surveys “the deep, even though not always obvious, contribution of theological thought to the understanding and experience of beauty.” Belden Lane, on the other hand, gives special attention to beauty in the natural world and in erotic love, and the vital role delight in this beauty has to play in Christian spirituality. Malcolm Guite’s volume is a theological study of poetry, while Timothy Gorringe explores “parables of the Kingdom” in visual art.
The books are also diverse in the theological resources they identify. Guite’s main dialogue partner is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose achievements as a poet are well known, but whose contributions as a philosopher and theologian are less widely recognized. Belden Lane’s Ravished by Beauty turns to Reformed theology—a tradition often assumed to have little interest in earthly beauty—and demonstrates instead the rich resources to be found in the work of John Calvin, the Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards. The basic theological categories for Timothy Gorringe’s Earthly Visions, in turn, are taken from Karl Barth—another theologian sometimes caricatured as hostile to beauty. Again, the range of sources is instructive. There is more than one place to turn in the Christian tradition for thinking about art and beauty. This is a conversation that is not only deep, but wide.
The Whole in the Fragment
This breadth is most evident in Bruno Forte’s small but dense Portal of Beauty. Forte is Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto and a leading Roman Catholic theologian. In this book, he devotes separate chapters to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, as well as to two twentieth-century theologians—the Roman Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar and Paul Evdokimov, an Orthodox theologian who wrote a celebrated theology of the icon. The book concludes with additional chapters on music and film.
Forte opens his book with a striking claim: “Beauty is an event; beauty happens when the Whole offers itself in the fragment.” Beauty, in other words, is not some static property, like redness. Rather, according to Forte, it is the moment when, startlingly, the Whole—the deepest meaning and truth of things—blazes out among us. Beauty (we could say in more explicitly Christian language) is one of the ways God reaches into our midst. It is, in the words of Forte’s title, a portal. There is another aspect to the image of a portal however: it suggests that beauty is not only one way God reaches toward us, but one way that we journey toward God. Beauty, according to Forte, is not only something one is drawn to, but is meant to be something one is drawn through. Beauty does not, on its own, transform us. It is, rather, an invitation and a road, along which one may begin the journey of transformation.
One of the interesting things, then, about Forte’s book is how it draws attention not only to the power of beauty, but to its limitations and fragility. “When the All offers itself in the fragment it reveals the fragment’s ineluctable finitude,” he writes. “[W]hat is beautiful makes plain the frailness of beauty.” Forte suggests that the very power of beauty is, paradoxically, a power to point beyond itself. Through beauty we are drawn to the surface of things, and through beauty we also learn that there is more than a surface, that there are depths. The power of beauty, Forte suggests, is its power to testify to that which lies beyond our grasp, indeed beyond the beautiful object itself. Beauty awakens in us desires and longings that beauty itself cannot completely fulfill.
Forte derives this particular theology of beauty from a profound meditation on the meaning of Jesus Christ. Beauty, Forte has said, happens “when the Whole offers itself in the fragment,” but of course, he writes, for Christians this offering happened decisively and definitively in Jesus Christ. “Beauty happened once and for all in a garden outside Jerusalem’s walls,” Forte declares. “The Cross of Beauty is raised on Calvary’s hill.” Christianity asserts, scandalously, that the beauty of the infinite is revealed most fully in a ruined body dangling from a gibbet. If this is really true—if the cross really is where the glory of God blazes out—then Christianity profoundly reorders (Forte uses the word “betrays”) our ordinary understandings of beauty. Jesus manifests the glory of God, not despite the limitations of the incarnation and the brokenness of the cross, but in them. “Becoming little in this way,” Forte writes, “is truly divine…. The Crucified God is the form and splendor of eternity in time” (my emphasis). This means that beauty itself includes a kind of humility, self-surrender, and brokenness. This theological vision of a beauty radically reordered by the cross also represents, it seems to me, an aesthetic opportunity. It should prompt those of us who are artists not simply to affirm beauty, but to think again about what we mean by “beauty.” In light of the cross we might begin to articulate an aesthetic that—unlike so much of the thinking of the past century—would preserve an important place for beauty. At the same time, this beauty, precisely because it truly is beauty, would include within its dimensions both victor and outcast, both glory and suffering, both splendor and humility.
A School of Desire
Just this sort of complex and nuanced aesthetic is evident in Belden Lane’s Ravished by Beauty. One reason that the concept of beauty fell out of fashion during the past century was the post-Enlightenment divorce between “beauty” and “sublimity.” Burke, Kant, and other eighteenth-century philosophers associated beauty with the gentle, pleasant charm of meadows and pastoral scenes, while the awesome and terrifying vistas of mountains and wilderness were characterized as “sublime.” As a result, beauty came to be more and more connected with a kind of sweet and insipid prettiness. The understanding of beauty that Belden Lane recovers from Calvin, Edwards, and the Puritans, however, is of a different sort altogether. The Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on God’s sovereignty, was fascinated by the utterly free, untamable, and even threatening character of God’s beauty—particularly as seen in the “the undomesticated wildness” of the world. Indeed, Lane argues, any honest consideration of the natural world makes it “impossible to affirm any ‘Bambi theology’” or to imagine a beauty of only babbling brooks and pastel meadows. Rather, “the world God has made, with all of its desire, remains as insistently wild and terrible as it is lovely…. The God of nature is a deity full of disturbing wonder.”
Lane is in some respects an unlikely apologist for the Reformed tradition. He teaches historical theology and spirituality at St. Louis University, a Jesuit institution, and describes himself as having a “love-hate relationship” with John Calvin. Certainly, Lane doesn’t hesitate to point out what he perceives to be the contradictions and shortcomings of Reformed theology. Nevertheless, he writes, Ravished by Beauty is ultimately “a story of going home again.” It is Lane’s attempt to revalue and re-appropriate the insights of the Calvinist theological tradition in which he was raised, and which he rejected as a young man.
What Lane discovers and champions in the Reformed tradition is in fact a powerful confluence of the two concerns that have occupied most of his scholarly career—spirituality and environmental issues. Reformed spirituality, Lane writes, is above all a spirituality of delight and desire. (Calvin’s personal seal, some will remember, depicts a flaming heart.) In the stream of Reformed thought that Lane considers, the beauty of the natural world is a principal way this desire is inflamed, while also providing the language and imagery by which this desire and delight are articulated. Through the language of beauty, Calvin, Edwards, and the Puritans urged “the awakening of desire for a God of ravishing beauty mirrored so generously (and flagrantly) in the world of nature.” Lane also draws attention to the ways Reformed spirituality employed erotic imagery. As they had done with natural beauty, Reformed writers looked to sexual passion both to stir the Christian’s desire for God and to provide the language for expressing that desire. Despite the popular conception of Puritans as, well, puritanical, Lane writes that “by the time of the Westminster Assembly…desire had become…the heart and blood of Puritan spirituality.” In particular “nature and marriage”—natural and erotic beauty—“became the principal ‘schools’ by which Puritans were instructed in this earnest desire.”
For Lane, this Reformed emphasis on beauty and desire is particularly significant, not only for the ways it can enliven one’s spiritual life, but for the way it can fuel concern and care for the environment. Beauty, in other words, turns out to be essential to both spirituality and ethics. Like the Reformed thinkers Lane surveys, our consumption-driven culture is centered on desire, but ours is a misshapen and misdirected longing. “A misplaced yearning lies at the heart of the current ecological crisis,” he writes. “Desire is killing us, along with our planet.” For just this reason, Lane believes, the Reformed spirituality of beauty calls to our culture with particular power and urgency. “The focus of environmental concern (and of the spiritual life),” he urges, “is not so much a matter of clutching and acquiring, but of relishing and savoring. It involves the honing of our ability to delight. We will not be able to save, after all, what we have not learned to love.”
If Ravished by Beauty draws attention to the ethical significance of beauty, then Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry highlights its epistemological importance. Lane’s book is an implicit critique of the Enlightenment divorce of the beautiful from the sublime. Guite’s book, similarly, is a sustained and direct critique of the Enlightenment divorce of reason from imagination, knowledge from poetry, and truth from image. Guite begins by surveying the history of modernity’s suspicion toward poetry, and its systematic banishment of imagination to the realm of fantasy and diversion. Against this distinctively modern prejudice, Guite contends that the imagination, “far from being a merely subjective realm of fantasy, is, in fact, an essential instrument with which we grasp the truth” (my emphasis).
Guite suggests that the special contribution of poetry to knowledge arises in part from the poem’s power to “transfigure vision.” The poet exercises a kind of “double vision” which Guite describes in terms very similar to Forte’s portal imagery. The poet carefully attends to the surface of things, with the poem acting as a kind of mirror to reality. But in moments of poetic transfiguration, “the mirror becomes a window, a window into the mystery which is both in and beyond nature.” We see the world and at the same time “see through and beyond” the world to the depths of things. The poet finds “that the visible may also be alive with ‘what’s invisible.’” In this way the poet broadens our understanding of the world by illuminating both the surfaces and the depths, describing not just the world, but the meaning of the world. For this reason Guite believes that “the poet, as much as the philosopher or the scientist, is concerned with helping us to look beyond surfaces at what is really there. What he directs us to is not only ‘the loveliness and wonders of the world before us’, but also something ‘inexhaustible.’”
In saying all of this, Guite does not argue his case so much as he demonstrates it, through careful and skillful readings of poetry. This is a particularly striking and attractive virtue of this lovely book. The main chapters are devoted to close readings of the poems of Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, and others. The way Guite has written the book is in fact a demonstration of his thesis. First, he demonstrates how seriously he takes poetry, by not simply talking about it, but by listening and attending carefully to it. Moreover, throughout the book, the most important insights and arguments are not parallel to, but rather emerge from Guite’s dialogue with the poems. The poetry itself yields delight as well as knowledge and understanding. In this way, Faith, Hope and Poetry incarnates the best sort of theological engagement with the arts, one in which both theology and art are valued and given full play.
Parables of the Kingdom
A similar attention to the artistic material under discussion marks Timothy Gorringe’s Earthly Visions. This study of visual art is extravagantly produced, with more than fifty color reproductions and a similar number of black and white images. Gorringe, like Guite, avoids theologizing about beauty in the abstract, free of actual instances of art. (Indeed, if anything, Earthly Visions would have been more satisfying if more space had been devoted to theological reflection. Too often, the explicitly theological interaction with the paintings is limited to two or three pages at the end of a chapter.)
Gorringe argues “that great art can function as a kind of parable—to be precise, a secular parable.” This category of “parable” is borrowed from Karl Barth. In his Church Dogmatics, Barth suggests the term “secular parables” to describe those words uttered outside the church—in art, in nature, in the ordinary world of human activity—which may nevertheless be, in the deepest sense, “true words.” In particular, Barth describes the music of Mozart as a kind of “parable of the kingdom.” In speaking of parables in this way, Gorringe (and Barth) are not proposing that we allegorize works of art in order to derive theological principles from them; neither are they suggesting that works of art should be treated as illustrations of Christian truths. Rather, Gorringe is interested in “the way in which portraits, landscapes, still life, pictures of markets, of Venus, of peasants, may become ‘real testimony to the real presence of God on earth.’” The theological ground of this possibility is that, in the words of the psalm, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Because all things are from God and held in being by God, there is no “secular” realm, no domain from which God is excluded. Moreover, in Jesus Christ, God has made himself known in the midst of the created world, indeed through the very stuff of the material world. For these reasons, we should expect to discern God’s presence and hear God’s voice anywhere and everywhere, not only in the precincts of the sacred, but in the heart of the supposedly secular.
These secular parables are explored across six chapters devoted to (respectively) Botticelli’s paintings of mythological subjects, genre paintings of peasant life, portraiture, landscape painting, still life, and abstraction. The chapters on landscape and still life in particular echo themes found in both Ravished by Beauty and Faith, Hope and Poetry. Gorringe believes that these two genres each have the potential to unveil the depths of things—the emotional complexity of Mont Sainte-Victoire as revealed by Cézanne, or the surprising significance and gravitas of a cabbage as presented to us by Cotán. These artists reveal a physical world that is simultaneously our home and resistant to domestication, one that offers itself to us but is decidedly not at our disposal, nor under our control. The artist, Gorringe writes, gives us a “world made strange,” redolent of glory and thick with mystery. And the particular parable this sort of landscape or still life enacts, Gorringe believes, is an especially potent one. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and with this, the insistence that the ordinary material stuff of creation can be taken up by God and transfigured. However much Christians might affirm the truth of this transformation, “[m]ost of the time we are simply unable to see that: part of the abiding appeal of landscape painting is that, at its best, it opens our eyes, as the eyes of the disciples were opened, to see the ordinary in a completely different way.”
An Expansive Beauty
As I mentioned earlier, I often find myself explaining—on airplanes, at social gatherings—what one studies in a class called Faith and Beauty, or why a theologian would be interested in music and art. One answer is suggested by Balthasar, who began his Theological Aesthetics with an appeal to the three great Platonic transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. Together these three encompass the major areas of human concern and endeavor. Of course, theologians are concerned with truth—with understanding and right belief. And of course, theologians are likewise concerned with goodness—with ethics and right action. But because the Gospel is good news for the whole of life, theologians are equally interested in beauty. The books surveyed here indicate the range and the vitality of that interest, and the wealth of reflection on beauty available within the Christian tradition. But they demonstrate the expansive importance of beauty in another way as well. As Lane, Guite, and Gorringe make clear, each in his own way, these three transcendentals are inseparable. Art and beauty are in fact among the ways we come to know the truth about ourselves and the world in which we live. Beauty is likewise an ethical imperative, inciting us to pursue the good, enabling us to recognize it, and equipping us to enact it. The transcendentals are, of necessity, one. Balthasar observed that, emptied of beauty, truth no longer captivates. Rather it becomes mere fact, inert data, devoid of significance, meaning, or fascination. In the same way, stripped of the luster and glory of beauty, goodness no longer attracts or compels us. We are left instead with either a dead moralism or a demonic pragmatism.
Beauty itself, then, is expansive. Its precincts have commerce with ethics and science, personal relationships and stewardship of the environment, the inner contours of desire and the outer structures of society. And of course (as Forte emphasizes particularly) beauty also has a role to play in our relationship with the One in whom truth, goodness, and beauty reside fully and perfectly. It does not have within itself the resources to renew creation, but it speaks to us of a creation renewed. And, if we will attend carefully, it can begin to train our disordered desires in the logic of wonder.
—Reviewed by Steven Guthrie
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.