A theological aesthetics

“Beauty is … a word with which the philosophical person does not begin, but rather concludes … a word from which religion, and theology in particular, have taken their leave and distanced themselves in modern times by a vigorous drawing of the boundaries. … It is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.  Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.  No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form (1961, 2nd 1967, ET 1982, pp. 17, 18; vol. I of The Glory of the Lord)

I made a start on Balthasar’s opus this weekend, a good slow read of the long Introduction and on into “The Light of Faith,” in Part II.  Balthasar is one of those writers whose work seems to reflect the product of an immense luxury of both time and intellect.   Notwithstanding these summary lines from the Introduction, the author manages to indulge a rich style without descending to rhetorical flourishes to get himself around a difficult problem (a characteristic I dislike in both Karl Barth and P.T. Forsyth).  I’ve had the book from the library since March without much penetration, but was moved enough by brief glances to renew it a couple times.  Now that I have a glimpse of what he is up to, I feel I should persist at least as far as his discussions of faith and of revelation.  Failing in that, I fear I will be bearing his ghost around with that haunting feeling I buried him too fast.

“Yet if the philosopher cannot begin with this word, but can at best conclude with it, should not the Christian for this very reason perhaps take it as his first word?  And since the exact sciences no longer have any time to spare for it (nor does theology, in so far as it increasingly strives to follow the method of the exact sciences), precisely for this reason it might be high time to break through this kind of exactness, which can only pertain to one particular sector of reality, in order to bring the truth of the whole again into view … not only man’s truth and that of the world, but the truth of a God who bestows himself on man, the truth not only of the historical Gospel and of the Church that preserves it, but the truth of the growing Kingdom of God …”


12 thoughts on “A theological aesthetics

  1. I don’t think I will ever have the ‘luxury.’ I want to read this first volume though.

    The fact that vonB was a Roman Catholic makes me think he must have been on the church’s dole and therefore had nothing but time to write, but I doubt this is true (funny I should even write that without looking up the facts) – I guess it’s an old prejudice about monks and cloistered writers. I’m jealous, obviously.

    • Von B. I believe was the only major theologian of the 20th century not to ever have an academic post. I’m sure he had a lot of time then to write large, multi-volume treatises (not sure if one would call his Trilogy either a dogmatics or a systematic theology).

  2. I see you quoted his Preface to the Paulist Press collection of Origen’s writings in a recent post.

    Looks like he entered the Jesuit order about age 24, did a ten-year course of studies with them and then served as a journal editor for who knows how long. Sweet.

    Thanks for writing. And thanks again for the post on the Kant reading group. I think we share an interest in Pannenberg also.

  3. Of the many books by Pannenberg I have had from the library since winter, only volume 1 of his Systematic Theology remains in my home stack. Have you read it?

    I want very much to find a contemporary theologian who is able to work outside the framework of both inerrancy and infallibility, and yet who retains a significant foundation for elaboration of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

    In his Introduction to the ST, Pannenberg sounds like someone I can work with, but I haven’t penetrated beyond that. You could save me a lot of time with a brief review of his view of the Incarnation. Care to try?

  4. I am by no means a Pannenberg expert, only have read some minor works of his and his monograph on Christology. I have, however, read the textbook on Pannenberg’s theology by the late Stanley J. Grenz, which outlines Pannenberg’s thought quite well. Of Pannenberg’s view of incarnation, Grenz says:

    “[In his Systematic Theology] Pannenberg reaffirms the council declaration voiced in Jesus – God and Man. . . . Pannenberg proposes that the connection between Jesus and God not be viewed directly (via the unification of deity in the form of the logos with humanity) but indirectly, via Jesus relationship to the Father. He finds the focal point for this relationship, which shows Jesus to be the son, in Jesus’ obedience to the vocation given him by the Father through which he differentiated himself from the Father. For Pannenberg, this conclusion is dependent on the resurrection, for the Easter event confirmed the conduct of Jesus as the path of obedience to God.” (p.161)

    Pannenberg is not an adoptionist though (though he is occasionally read that way). He does affirm that Jesus belongs “to the eternity of the intratrinitarian life . . . that forms the essence of the Godhead.” (p.188).

    Good enough?

    • Well it’s pretty exciting to hear that, actually. Yes, this is enough to make me want to read on in the ST.

      I’m OK with any thinker who dares to teach the pre-existence of the Son. I really did find the Introductory chapter to be very good. I see that he called out Barth on his critique of Schleiermacher – implying that Barth actually follows FDES in an important point.

      I liked your response so much I edited some typos 🙂 please check my correction on that last quote from Grenz (“the the eternity…” should be “to the eternity…”?

      Thanks, AJ

  5. There is no religion greater than Beauty.

    Truth is Beauty, Beauty is Truth – Keats.

    Perhaps the place to start when considering Beauty and The Beautiful altogether would be the image at the top of your blog?

    There is no Beauty to be found there. Just the usual collection of obviously self-possessed strutting male egos.

    No color, no female presence, no children, no natural world, no “green fuse” (Dylan Thomas), no flowers. Obviously no de-light.

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