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 …”