Theological Aesthetics, round 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the weird and wonderful field of theological aesthetics, and how it is relevant (or not) to the contemporary situation. (And concurrently, how if I come out of school as a theological aesthetician, I might at least be able to get a job at a religious nail salon.) And so I thought for the sake of practice I’d better give a brief introduction to how I am approaching the topic at the moment.

The version of aesthetics we have inherited in Western philosophy is mediated through Kant, Burke and Hegel, not to mention postmodern philosophy, so it has taken on certain colorations that would not have been there for, say, Augustine when he wrote his City of God. For Augustine, created things “openly reveal to our senses their forms” which enables us to discern the beautiful “pattern” of God’s design (Book XI, Ch. 27). The emphasis is thus not on our detached, rational judgment of a natural object, or on the (postmodern) impossibility of ‘objective’ knowledge of our surroundings, but on the way an object freely displays to us its unique, beautiful qualities. Our task is to open ourselves to perceive the splendour of form (symmetry, proportion, fittingness) in relation to the whole divine work of art, the entire “hierarchy of created realities, earthly and heavenly” (Ch. 22). “Seeing the form,” as von Balthasar later emphasized, is moreover how divine truth, beauty and goodness are disclosed; nature actually has something to communicate to us, and beauty plays a central role in this ongoing revelation.

We remember from Genesis 1 that God affirms that his handiwork is “good” (see again City of God Book XI, Ch. 22). Augustine takes this to mean that the goodness of God flows naturally into the goodness of creation. This radiant goodness, divine in origin, shines forth in the beauty of each created thing. For St. Bonaventure writing much later, the love that exists within the Trinity itself is what “explodes into a thousand forms”[1] in creation; the endless patterns of multiplicity and diversity are already represented (in unity) in the person of the Son and expressed outward.[2] In this way, the many “temporally unfolding forms” help us to understand analogically the movement of the Son going forth from the Father, which is a movement of love, goodness, truth, gratuity, life.[3] As Trinity, God has within himself a dynamic process of generation, creativity and communion, and this resonates outward into the sensible realm. Thus beauty, goodness and ontology are inextricably linked in a Trinitarian, ‘aesthetic’ scheme.

Of course we can’t skip over or leave to the side modern/postmodern developments in aesthetics – the elevation of taste and judgment (Kant), the sublime as opposed to the beautiful (Burke), the idea of art as a sensuous but ultimately imperfect predecessor of philosophy (Hegel), as well as other Enlightenment and pessimistic collapse-of-Enlightenment schemes. But I think we can rehabilitate a loosely Augustinian, theologically informed aesthetics that reconnects aesthetics with Trinitarian “theo-ontology” (a term I am borrowing from Stanley Grenz) and so too with the actual, sensible, beautiful world we inhabit. Aesthetics is not just about looking at nice pieces of art, or stopping to smell the flowers; it is not rendered irrelevant by the questions posed by postmodernity. Instead, it is right at the heart of our experience of the world. Theological aesthetics is a way to connect our lived experience with deeper realities, opening ourselves up ‘ecstatically’ to the cosmos as it ‘opens up’ to us, disclosing divine truth, beauty, goodness, even love.

[1] Quoted in Leonard J. Bowman, “The Cosmic Exemplarism of Bonaventure” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Apr. 1975), 183.

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Peter Casarella, “Carmen Dei: Music and Creation in Three Theologians,” Theology Today 62 (2006), 491.


3 thoughts on “Theological Aesthetics, round 1

  1. I think I can get on board with this Theological Aesthetics… I think finding a place in Theology/Spirituality for our subjective experiences, while also finding a way to connect those experiences to something shared, universal and true is a very timely and important question. In my experience, Christians often perceived subjectivity to be the enemy… I like this move towards reclaiming it. Very interesting…

  2. Hey Brett,

    You may remember me from good ole CHPS– Ariel Thomas passed your blog along to me. I’m also doing theological studies, except I’m in Boston. Are you doing an MA? Sounds like interesting stuff.


    1. Thanks for stopping by Lisa (and Ariel) – and sorry it took me so long to notice this comment! Good luck with your theological studies south of the border, hopefully we can compare notes sometime. I’m doing a PhD in theology at U of T. (BTW, I think we have some non-Woburn mutual friends – do you still keep in contact with Danny Georgi?)

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