Maeve Louise Heaney, “Theological Aesthetics in Contemporary Theology”

[O]nly revelation can set the standards for beauty. – Maeve Louise Heaney, Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word, p.195

Of all the concepts we westerners have dragged along through the centuries, few are as misunderstood, contested, and relegated to the irrational and even incomprehensible as “beauty”.  Any writer on aesthetics will say pretty much the same thing; around the time Immanuel Kant wrote The Critique of Judgement, and set the determination for beauty within the the perception of the individual subject – even if, as Terry Eagleton points out, he insists that the perceiving subject does so as if following a universal law – the ability to speak coherently about beauty as something that inheres in objects, particularly object created by human beings, has become nearly impossible.

This situation was not made easier when modernist artists began to accept this particular bit of nonsense, creating non-art, anti-art – consider Dadaism as a kind of combination of both – and even pop art.  By denying the reality of beauty, accepting only that some might find something worth purchasing in any particular piece without any need to discuss “beauty”, we have been left through much of the modern era without the ability to discuss beauty.

In the midst of this, starting in the middle of the 20th century, the concept of beauty returned, at least to theological discourse, in a big way,  Theologian and later Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, in which he returned the concept of “beauty” to how we talk about God.  In his footsteps have followed many who have tried to expand upon him, cover up his deficiencies, argue various points, but even Heaney concedes that any theological aesthetics worth its salt has to go through von Balthasar.  To that end, of all the thinkers whose work she surveys in this very long chapter, it is the prolific Swiss Cardinal-to-be who receives the most attention.

And for good reason.  Grounding beauty in the revelation of God, von Balthasar set forth on a journey across the centuries and thinkers, looking at how they spoke of the beauty of God.  That beauty is a quality or characteristic of the Godhead flows from the inner Trinitarian life of the Three Persons, whose perfect love overflows in to a Creation filled with that love and called very good.  That “very good” links both the ethical and the aesthetic, demonstrating that our good Creation, even fallen, still holds beauty within it.  We humans, created in the image of God, have the capacity to create beauty, broken and sinful as it might be.  We can recognize beauty because it is a part of who we are as creatures of a Creating, Good, Beautiful God.

Of all the mistakes made since Kant, making “taste” – perhaps the most important part of any theory of beauty – completely subjective.  Yet, without a common set of categories that define taste, we are left adrift, even should we allow ourselves to contemplate the notion of beauty.  I wrote about the issue of taste yesterday and if anything was clear from that discussion, taste must expand beyond the individual, and must push the individual outside his or her comfort zones in an effort to appreciate beauty of all sorts.  In a day and age in which we are exposed more and more to the beautiful as imaged across cultures, this becomes necessary, especially if we Christians are going to be in conversation with others very different from ourselves.

You lethargic, waiting upon me,
waiting for the fire and I
attendant upon you, shaken by your beauty

Shaken by your beauty
Shaken. – William Carlos Williams, Paterson

One of the most difficult issues with which to contend when it comes to beauty isn’t how to define it, or how we can perceive it together.  It is, rather, the actual rarity of true beauty.  Having once sat for twenty minutes in front of a Jackson Pollack painting, I can attest to the fact that it nearly impossible to do so without ending up changed.  As music, more immediate and all encompassing an art form – something all the authors Heaney examines, and a position she herself holds as central to any musical theology – captures the whole person in a way no other art can (she briefly mentions, without much explanation, Don Saliers’s idea of synesthesia, which would have been important), beauty in music is even more rare.  It is rare for whole pieces of music to be so beautiful, although many would regard Mozart or Bach as coming close.

For me, it’s little moments that push me beyond the music in a way that takes my breath away, makes me see and feel and experience that which I can only call holy.

“June” is a pretty song, a series of tension-and-release moments in which instruments and voices are layered upon one another in what should be a pretty familiar formula.  Between 4:11 and 4:25, something happens that makes this more than just something pretty.  That combination of voices and instruments, of the build-up and release of tension becomes something truly beautiful.  The first time I heard this, who knows how many years ago, I sat up in my seat.  I played the whole song again.  That tiny little 14 second snippet came along and I knew it – this was Beauty with a capital “B”.  It is so short, catching even the casual listener by surprise that it is almost easy to miss.

I concluded from this that true beauty is fleeting, not because of the sinfulness of humanity or the world.  True beauty is fleeting because, unlike ugliness, unlike the banal, unlike even the Good and the True, true beauty transcends not only our ability to grasp in its fullness; like the love of the Godhead it overflows and overpowers those who encounter it.  Beauty is nothing more or less than revelation in action.  We humans can know beauty, and music can convey beauty, because beauty defines the Divine-Human Encounter, particularly the Incarnation of the Son of the Father through the Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth.