My Photo
Location: California, United States

Friday, April 02, 2010


I was re-reading a paper I'd posted in 2006 - The Analogy of Beauty and the Limits of Theological Aesthetics by professor of theology Daniel B. Gallagher - about the transcendentals, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, and the tendency of some theologians to put Beauty at the top of that list. I don't really understand the theology, and what made me look up the paper again today will probably make no sense to anyone else, but still it occurred to me that many in the church seem to value the beauty of its structure and their place within it over the goodness of witnessing to the sometimes ugly truth. At any rate, I thought I'd post just the introduction and its footnotes to the (quite long) paper ......


The Analogy of Beauty and the Limits of Theological Aesthetics
- Daniel B. Gallagher


"Aesthetic" approaches to theology are becoming ever-more popular. A glance at a list of published dissertations from any theological school or seminary indicates that the burgeoning interest in theological aesthetics has yet to wane. In many cases, the staggeringly large corpus of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) forms the basis for much of this doctoral work. But younger scholars are also taking note of the aesthetic aspects of theologians as diverse as Paul Tillich, Emil Brunner, and Hans Küng.[1] Moreover, through the highly influential work of Frank Burch Brown, theological aesthetics is no longer limited to any specific specialization; fundamental, dogmatic, biblical, sacramental, and other sub-disciplines have all been affected by the effervescence of aesthetic interest.[2]

Aesthetic approaches to theology, however, are not new. In fact, a heightened sensibility to theological aesthetics is in large part due to the resourcement movement of the mid-twentieth century. The rediscovery of the patristic tradition by such figures as Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar generated a lively enthusiasm for a Christian apologetics with the power to communicate to a disillusioned world battered by two major wars.[3] But aside from its capacity to communicate to a contemporary audience, a reformulation of the role of beauty in the theological sciences is well grounded in the tradition itself. That is to say that because beauty had played such a critical role in the thought of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, the Pseudo-Dionysius, and others, it had already earned a rightful place in speculative theology before bursting onto the scene in the twentieth century.

Balthasar himself viewed his work as a restatement of ideas already developed by early Christian thinkers.[4] Several scholars of Balthasar's work have highlighted the creative exposition of Romanticism in his work, evidenced, for example, by his great affection for Goethe.[5] Yet the driving force behind Balthasar's staggering theological output was essentially patristic. Balthasar did not so much find an additional locus theologicus in the Romantic movement as he did the stirrings of a human spirit Christianity had embraced all along.[6]

More recently, David Bentley Hart, writing from of the Eastern Orthodox perspective, has offered a systematic account of theological aesthetics encompassing an impressive range of philosophical and theological sources.[7] He provides a particularly incisive critique of post-Kantian and post-modern aesthetic theory. Hart is firmly convinced that theology "must inevitably make an appeal to beauty ... rather than simply 'truth'".[8] Hart's conviction has struck a sympathetic chord in both the Eastern and Western theological traditions.[9] Indeed, aesthetic theology might provide an impetus for greater progress in the ecumenical dialogue in the years to come.[10]

Yet, in the midst of all this enthusiasm, I believe a note of caution is in order. Theologians must be careful not to rush too precipitously into theological aesthetics without due regard for its limits. Theological aesthetics needs to be delineated, or at least kept in check, by counter-realities such as evil, ugliness, and sin. Moreover, theology must not lose sight of the relationship between beauty and the other traditional transcendental properties of being, unity, goodness, and truth. In short, as potent as it may be, aesthetics is yet but a theological approach rather than the theological approach. A study of beauty's role throughout the history of theology shows that these limits were at least implicitly acknowledged from the very beginning. If there was any subordination of the respective transcendental properties of being in respect to their role in theology, beauty was subordinate to the good, the one, and the true rather than the other way around. As I hope to demonstrate, Hart seems to argue for the primacy of beauty over goodness, unity, and truth.

In what follows, I examine some of the more salient points of the aesthetic tradition in theology to draw attention to its limits. I have chosen to pay particular attention to the aesthetic theory of Thomas Aquinas, as he seems to synthesize the Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysical traditions in regard to beauty and its mode of existence in both God and created things. Especially poignant is the underlying doctrine of analogy informing Aquinas' theory of beauty. I then offer a critical analysis of David Bentley Hart's development of an analogia delectationis for aesthetic theology. I argue that setting up beauty as the primary transcendental in theology may risk undermining the distinctive aspects of the good and the true and fail to acknowledge adequately the infinite distance separating sensible and supersensible beauty.


[1] Particular attention has been devoted to Paul Tillich, "Art and Ultimate Reality," in Writings in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: De Gruyter, 1990); Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative: A Study in Christian Ethics, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth Press, 1937); Hans Küng, Art and the Question of Meaning, trans. Edward Quinn (London: SCM Press, 1981).

[2] Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics: A Theological Study of Making and Meaning (London: MacMillan Press, 1990).

[3] See Aidan Nichols, The Word Has Ben Abroad: A Guide through Balthasar's Aesthetics (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998).

[4] See "A Résumé of My Thought," Communio, Vol. 15 (1988).

[5] See, for example, Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: Continuum, 1994).

[6] "All the unifying principles of the ancient world - such as the Logos of the stoics, the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being rising from matter to the supraessential One, the abstract majesty of the unifying power of Rome - all these were regarded as baptizable anticipations or the God-Logos in person who entered Israelite history, filled the whole world, in whom were the Ideas which were the pattern by which the world was made, and in relation to whom the world could be understood." Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, trans. Alexander Dru (London: Burns & Oates, 1968), 12-13.

[7] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003). (Hereafter, Beauty of the Infinite).

[8] Beauty of the Infinite, 3.

[9] See reviews by Donald Essman in Reviews in Religion and Theology, Vol. 11, No. 4 (September 2004), 598; William C. Placher in Christian Century (September 7, 2004; Geoffrey Wainwright in First Things 141 (March, 2004), 36-39; Daniel Gallagher in Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol. 17, No. ½ (2005), 193-194.

[10] See Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter between East and West (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1995).



Blogger Cura Animarum said...

"If there was any subordination of the respective transcendental properties of being in respect to their role in theology, beauty was subordinate to the good, the one, and the true rather than the other way around."

My understanding was that Beauty was entirely dependent on Goodness, Oneness and Truth...lacking any of the three Beauty cannot truly be present. That's almost ten-year removed philosophy of Aesthetics though...loved the class but I could be wrong about the relationships.

7:08 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

I do think Beauty is considered the sort of slippery transcendental because it can lack goodness and truth but still seem besutiful? I guess guys like Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Hart have placed more emphasis on Beauty and aesthetics, but this is really all over my head :)

12:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home