The excerpt below is from the introduction of a book that I highly recommend. Evangel readers will be treated to a concise survey of how beauty declined in modern religious thought and how it is slowly being reclaimed. The authors evaluate the gains and costs associated with contemporary theological aesthetics, proposing a way forward: “As we consider the aesthetic implications of a trinitarian approach to creation, we must acknowledge human brokenness and creaturely suffering, seeking redemptive approaches to culture that involve bearing not only evangelistic witness but also alternative visions of artistic excellence.”
The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (InterVarsity Press, 2007)
Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin
After a period of considerable neglect in modern religious thought and church culture alike, beauty has begun to reclaim its rightful place in the larger scheme of Christian theology. For many centuries, along with goodness and truth, it formed part of the triad of transcendental ideals that the Christian tradition inherited from the classical age and appropriated for its own uses. From the beginning of the Christian era to the dawning of the modern world, a rough consensus about the interrelationships of beauty, truth and goodness governed Western conceptions of everything from the workings of language to the intricacies of creation and the mysteries of providence. “Beauty is the splendour of truth,” observes Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and to explain his passion for beauty, Stephen draws upon the thought of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, among others. In doing so he crisply outlines the synthesis of nature and grace that for centuries had assured beauty of a central role in Christian reflection on the nature of God and the drama of redemption.
Under a number of pressures, that synthesis gave way in the early modern period, and the theological interest in beauty entered a period of slow but steady decline. Over time the ideal of beauty seemed increasingly irrelevant to the new realities that science, economics and politics were either discovering or creating at the dawn of the modern age. Discoveries in astronomy and in physics, for example, made it all but impossible to reconcile classical ideals of symmetry with a dawning awareness of the sprawling and ragged particularity of the physical universe. In turn, advances in scientific understanding fed a rapidly growing appetite for technological mastery, which to this day remains unsated. Add to this mix a growing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century emphasis on individual particularities and cultural differences, and it seems in retrospect hardly surprising that the classical ideal of beauty was displaced from the center to the periphery of modern thought.
Regrettably, the forces unleashed by the Protestant Reformation played a key role in the drama of beauty’s displacement. To say that is not to claim that the Reformers were blind to the appeal of beauty. On the contrary, John Calvin and Martin Luther were masters of prose style and showed a keen awareness of beauty’s nuances and meaning. In like manner, during the eighteenth century, the Methodism of Charles and John Wesley evidenced vibrant alertness to the substance of spiritual beauty, the writings of Jonathan Edwards focused with intense brilliance on “the excellency and beauty of God,” and in music the glorious example of J. S. Bach gave evidence of a deep sensitivity to beauty in the Reformation tradition.
Nevertheless, as brilliantly as they embodied the beautiful in their own works, the likes of Luther, Bach and Edwards could do little to counter the disregard for beauty that marked much of Protestant theology and experience. By shifting the focus from the intricate harmony of the outward creation to the virtuous passions of the inner spirit, Protestant culture, perhaps unintentionally, fostered indifference to beauty beyond the self. In the fundamentalist tradition of the early twentieth century, in particular, beauty was seen to be suspect, and close attention to it was discouraged on biblical, theological and eschatological grounds.
Eventually, as the evangelical descendants of fundamentalism began to pursue faithful engagement with the complex realities and apologetic significance of cultural life, attention to the God-given possibilities of beauty returned quite naturally. While signs of profound aesthetic weakness remain, sources of hope have also begun to appear within contemporary theology as well as academic and cultural life at large. In Roman Catholic theology, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar spent half a century developing a comprehensive theological aesthetics, and his work continues to open up fruitful lines of inquiry. Protestant contributions regarding beauty have been modest since Edwards, but recent works by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Frank Burch Brown, Edward Farley and others provide examples of developing strength. If metaphysics played the role of first theology or philosophy in premodern ages and epistemology took first place in the modern era, then it seems that axiology—a general theory of values, whether in terms of ethics or aesthetics—could dominate after the postmodern turn. Theologians may be catching up.
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In the modern world, efforts at engaging the arts theologically have appealed to the doctrines of creation and incarnation for support. Particularly within Catholic and evangelical Protestant aesthetics, recent decades have witnessed considerable interest in a so-called “sacramental” view of the arts and an “incarnational” view of reality. In certain regards the renewed emphasis on incarnation and sacrament has allowed vital elements of Christian truth to emerge. Yet the gains here have come at some cost, for when doctrinal categories are abstracted from their confessional contexts, they can readily become skewed or distorted, forced to serve ends quite apart from their proper meaning.
For example, this has proved to be the case with the terms sacramental and incarnational in contemporary Protestant aesthetics. All that God created is indeed good, and through that goodness God has given a mandate for cultural life and artistic production. Furthermore, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God reaffirmed the dignity of creation and the cultural vocation of human beings. In Christ the sacraments link the creation with the incarnation, as through them we receive those “gifts of God for the people of God” which supply tangible means of celebrating and sustaining our union with the risen Lord.
If applied without theological discernment or restraint, however, the doctrine of creation can be used to foster any activity that appeals to a culture at a particular time and place. In making use of this doctrine, then, we do well to remember that because of the fall into sin, the created order remains in “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). As a result of the effects of sin, God has given us a redemptive mission as well as a cultural charge. Far from suggesting that the arts are or should be primarily evangelistic tools, the reality of sin and the claims of the gospel mean that artistic forms stand under judgment and in need of grace as fully as human ideas and actions do.
To bring the doctrines of creation and redemption together, we turn to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yet in isolation the incarnation has fared equally poorly in aesthetics as has the doctrine of creation. At times, Protestant advocates of the arts in particular have promoted the incarnation as a general concept of the divine blessing of the world rather than as a doctrine of the specific redemptive activity that God has accomplished through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The incarnation, after all, is a truth about his particular reality and not about us, except insofar as we are the human objects of the saving action of the divine subject. Moreover, the Bible tells us that the incarnate Lord was not beautiful in some earthly respects (Is 53:2), and apparently his apostolic messengers, such as the apostle Paul, need not be aesthetically effective either (see 1-2 Cor). All of which raises the question, Have “incarnational” approaches to the arts taken sufficient account of this?
Both God’s providential sustenance of creation and the redemptive particularity of the incarnation call for dynamic rather than static approaches to beauty, and they seem to disallow generic endorsements of the arts as inherently sacramental activities. In Scripture the sacraments are signs of God’s saving activity, and they possess both temporal and spatial density. The idea that all of nature is a sacramental repository of grace is problematic inasmuch as it trades on a static conception of value as something that is fixed in objects and readily accessible to the human imagination. Similarly, for such a view the particularity of the biblical sacraments and their essential connection to the work of Jesus Christ easily fade into the background or disappear entirely when eclipsed by a general theory of revelation. If everything becomes sacramental, then nothing is sacred—or to be sacred means nothing much in particular.
If the doctrines of creation, incarnation and sacrament are to have authority for Christian approaches to aesthetics, then we must attend to the reality of the Fall; the dynamics of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and the workings of the Spirit in the life of the church. In short, all our theological reflections on the arts require the constant reminder that when we turn our eyes upon Jesus, we see his face turned toward Jerusalem and his gaze fixed upon the cross as the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). If God is most glorified, according to John, when Christ is lifted up to be crucified, then whither Christian approaches to beauty?
Beyond turning our eyes upon Jesus, the Bible also enjoins us to focus on our hearing. In connection with faith, the scriptural privilege is accorded to hearing, along with some wariness about sight. As some premodern Christians such as Augustine recognized, the beauty of the natural world can distract us from the God revealed in Christ’s weakness. In a sense we ought to “use” creation for God’s glory rather than “enjoying” the world for its own sake. The costly self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ not only heralds the value of the material world but also highlights what ultimately matters, and in so doing calls us to look for the new creation. Because we hope for what we do not yet see, beauty has a certain Logos-centeredness which acknowledges that the forms of this world are passing away.
Church fathers may have overlooked the ways in which enjoyment of God’s created gifts can be an act of worship. And Protestant Christians may have heralded the divine Word to the eventual neglect not only of sacrament but also of beautiful art. Later, some puritanical Protestants may have even denied the value of ordinary life that the Reformers sought to recover. Yet, even still, Scripture warns us against lusting with worldly eyes and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator, thus eclipsing our anticipation of the new creation with the present form of this world. Even in the eschaton, after all, we will not see God per se but rather revelation remains the dialectical unveiling-with-veiling of the spoken Word.