Beauty is a beautiful idea. For a while now I've been fascinated by the possibilities of beauty not only as a theological idea, or the focus and possibility of a theology of beauty, but as one of the dimensions of human experience which has congruence with how and why we do theology at all. The statement "God is beautiful" sounds either naively pretentious, eye-rollingly banal, or hopelessly vague, when used of the God whose light is a dazzling darkness, whose love shatters all human preconceptions and whose holiness is robed in infinite mercy so that those who come near to worship survive exposure to that Being which calls all other beings into existence, and sustains them by a grace unspeakable and full of glory.
The last few decades the discipline of theological aesthetics has been growing as an increasingly fruitful theological style. The towering work of Von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord is not so much a benchmark as a landmark. It will always be in the landscape background of the discipline, but that landscape is changing and new features are becoming familiar and established.
My own interest in theological aesthetics arises from asking myself what goes on inwardly in the process of artistic activity. Writing Haiku, working away at a poem or doing tapestry are some of the activities I get up to that aim at aesthetic satisfaction in the results. In particular stitching colour and texture into shapes and ideas that bear the weight of significance, has produced images that are themselves objects of beauty. What is it in that which is beautiful which creates a current of awareness so powerful that it demands attention, compels stillness, and draws from us the sigh of surrender to the moment?
Allegri's Miserere, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Hopkins' Pied Beauty, Sand Stoddart's statue of Coila, (above) a perfect rosebud and even a well composed photograph of the same flower, a kestrel hovering, the face of a friend, a cat demanding attention!, those rare near perfect moments of aloneness looking at sea, sunset, garden or, often for me, sunlight through trees: all offer moments of beauty. Which is an odd way of putting it - is a moment of beauty a description of the time, or of the impact of the object of attention during that time. I suspect the question is one of those failures of imagination when analytic questions are a category mistake.
Theological aesthetics takes experiences like that and asks the God kind of questions. Creativity, is that the creature demonstrating she is indeed made in the image of the Creator? Why does beauty seem congruent with God, and not ugliness? Or is it possible that there is also a beauty in ugliness,that the category ugliness requires careful scrutiny to subvert the certainties of our own blinkers? What is lost in human spirituality when people are deprived of beauty and the time to sunbathe in the light of the beautiful that boosts health of soul and body? Can aesthetic experience help us to apprehend something of the nature of God that language cannot reach, or express, or even comprehend?
Emerson wrote 'Beauty is God's handwriting, a wayside sacrament', the kind of vague feel good definition that still has enough truth to make it worth quoting. Perhaps God's handwriting is in a language, and script so unfamiliar to us we require to relearn the alphabet, take patience to decipher, and be humble enough to know that our grammar and vocabulary will never extend to an acquired fluency in translation. Beauty is often most intensely felt in glimpses, brief intimations, those moments of encounter when we recognise that our capacity to receive and take in and appreciate, will always be so limited by our finitude that we, if we are both wise and humble enough will settle for the mystery, joy and longing, the promise of unfulfillment, that are essential elements of beauty.
David Bentley Hart's book, The Beauty of the Infinite is a difficult book, and a brilliant one, the one because the other. But his affirmation of beauty as a key category for an adequate Christian theology, in this book and his recent tour de force against new atheism, The Being of God. Being, Consciousness, Bliss gives reassurance to those crucial aspects of human knowing which affirm mystery, intellectual finitude, and the importance of aesthetic judgement when our eyes look towards the invisible, and discern in what is seen, and what is not yet visible however hard we stare, the beauty of holiness.
Now and again I nuse this blog to think out loud - or at least think through a keyboard. Apologies if this all seems a bit 'Well, yes Jim, but so what......?'