Throughout the history of western thought, theology has been a persistent topic and many philosophies of aesthetics have sprouted from theology. Augustine, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jonathan Edwards have all contributed to the topic of theological aesthetics. Beginning with Plato, art and physical beauty have been seen as connected with something divine: hopefully this condensed survey of religious aesthetics will help unpack this idea and provide us with more tools to discerning why artwork is important to us.
St. Augustine defines humankind as “animal, rational, and mortal” (Augustine 173). Reason allows us to connect pieces of our knowledge together and some humans are able to use reason as a guide to knowledge of God. Reason comes to us through language and thereby through hearing which leads Augustine to argue that human beings are most receptive to the form of art that is heard, i.e. music.
When we hear music (like this song from the 300s, around Augustine’s lifetime), we experience two types of pleasure: the pleasure from the senses and pleasure from reason. The reason why our rational capacity takes pleasure in art is because it has a sense of design or order. For example, music is made up of sound that is pleasing to the senses, e.g. we like to listen to clarinets, not nails on a chalkboard. Music also has a “certain rhythmic measure” (Augustine 175) that delights reason through the senses, which is why the clarinet must be making sound in some kind of order for us to delight in it as art.
Reason delights in beauty because it “wish[es] to be straightway transported to the most blessed contemplation of things divine” (Augustine 178). Although reason “realize[s] that nothing please[s] it but beauty” (Augustine 180), it begins to suspect that the order in beauty reveals universal truth. If the human being is not preoccupied with earthly beauty, he or she will be able to focus on God. In this way, Augustine’s argument is platonic: physical beauty in art is derived from an absolute, unchanging, eternal standard. However, Augustine adds that the connecting link between the two is a sense of order that is recognized by the rational side of our human nature.
Instead of giving aesthetics a subordinate role, Hans Urs von Balthasar prioritizes the idea of beauty as integral to our understanding of truth, God, and goodness. According to Balthasar, God creates the image for us and the image is an example of a form. A form is something that is indissoluble and greater than the sum of its parts. Examples of forms include the gospel, marriage, a human being and being a Christian (Balthasar 26-7). A form involves a kind of mystery whereby all of the imperfections of the constituent parts are transcended and a new kind of more real and more true thing is brought into being that cannot be explained by, say, Aristotle’s four causes. For example, I can not describe a human being to an alien by listing that person’s chemical and psychological properties or by reciting an evolutionary history or genealogy. Those are part of the person but none of them really capture the person (Balthasar 26).
All forms have beauty and Balthasar states that “the form as it appears to us is beautiful only because the delight that it arouses in us is founded upon the fact that, in it, the truth and goodness of the depths of reality itself are manifested and bestowed, and this manifestation and bestowal reveal themselves to us as being something infinitely and inexhaustibly valuable and fascinating” (Balthasar 118). Because forms are beautiful, Balthasar states that we naturally are enraptured by them. Balthasar uses the example of the Christian parable of the merchant who finds a pearl of great worth and sells everything he owns in order to buy it. The person who experiences beauty knows the immense value of it and will do apparently irrational things to obtain the thing. According to Balthasar, Christians similarily are enraptured by the beauty of Christ and will do anything to continue to experience it (Balthasar 33). In fact, in order to prophesy for God, prophets must necessarily be artists and present their message in a form of art, namely poetry (Balthasar 44). However, the physical form of beauty “takes us only as far as the threshold” and afterwards, the beautiful form of Christ is experienced (Balthasar 65). So, for example, this picture would have beauty grounded in a reality while this piece of art would be beautiful only. According to Balthasar, worldly beauty (which includes the beauty of art and the beauty of worldly forms) and the beauty of God are equal in their vivacity and magnificence but Godly and Christian beauty are grounded in a solid reality.
Balthasar, like Plato, emphasizes the fact that worldly beauty can lead us astray from what is real (Balthasar 124). Therefore, Balthasar’s philosophy has platonic overtones but also prioritizes beauty in that the experience of beauty (both of aesthetic and art forms and of spiritual forms) as integral to the Christian experience. However, by broadening the meaning of beauty beyond just physical art, Balthasar connects sensible art to other valuable things, such as a human being or God.
According to Delattre, Jonathan Edwards, in a similar manner, finds beauty in different forms other than art: beauty is a characteristic of God, human spirit, ethics, justice, and anything else that is good (Delattre 2). In order to experience non-physical beauty, Edwards describes a sense different from hearing, touch, taste, sight, or smell: that is a spiritual sense. This spiritual sense allows grace to be felt and ethics to be beautiful (Delattre 5).
Edwards also prioritizes the idea of sensual experience. Sensual experience inspires human beings to affections such as anger, love, or impatience; these affections then cause human beings to will and then to act. Edwards states that “the affections of men are the springs of the motion: take away all love and hatred, all hope and fear, all anger, zeal and affectionate desire, and the world would be, in a great measure, motionless and dead” (Delattre 6).
Edwards’ interpretation allows the experience of physical beauty, say an image of a gorgeous natural waterfall, to be connected with spiritual experiences of “beautiful” ideas, such as when one realizes the beauty of democracy. Both are things that create affections in a human being and thereby motivate our actions. In this way, physical beauty is given a more prominent and important role in Edwards’ philosophy: a beautiful sculpture can inspire people to give large sums of money to museums or a beautiful person can inspire irrational actions.
Theological perspectives on aesthetics introduces ideas such as rational order in art, Balthasar’s “form,” a spiritual sense, and a broadening of the concept of beauty. Broadening of the idea of beauty allows the beauty found in aesthetics to be connected with things like justice and ethics and God. This allows us to account for why we enjoy artistic beauty: we recognize in it the same sort of either order or “form” that we find in other things. By connecting beauty to things like justice and ethics, it seems that aesthetic and artistic beauty is naturally made subordinate to these other things. However, by rejecting the idea of mimesis, physical beauty no longer becomes a shadow or imitation but instead is meaningful on its own.
Prioritizing beauty alienates art that is not beautiful, particularly modern art. However, I think that focusing on Edwards’ idea of a spiritual sense or using Augustine’s theory about order, will allow us to describe ugly art. When we look at art we are experiencing something that could be good, like experiencing justice, or bad, like experiencing hate. What is interesting about art is that we experience it and recognize order in it that is similar to the way in which we experience important, meaningful ideas. Although a painting is just a collection of paint and canvas, we value and name it “good” in the same way that we might value and experience love. This is somewhat like taste, in that our experience of the artwork is connected to some sort of feeling of approbation. However, this view allows art to be kept in contact with the rest of our values by making the act of experiencing art similar to the act of experiencing values or meanings. I think that this concept could be very useful in aesthetic philosophy because it achieves meaning for the artwork.
Augustine. “Selections from De Ordine.” Trans. Robert P. Russell. Philosophies of Art and Beauty. Eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns. London: University of Chicago, 1976.
Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord. Trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Eds. Joseph Fessio S.J. and John Riches. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982.
Delattre, Roland Andre. Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards: An Essay in Aesthetics and Theological Ethics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.