Friday, October 28, 2011

The Place of Beauty: A historical and theological observation - part 3

Head of Christ by George Rouault (1939)

What is significant about the art world’s rediscovery of and the church’s growing interest in Beauty? First, I think it is indicative of human nature. As human beings we long to experience good – particularly beautiful—things in life. The initial paragraph of Father Thomas Dubay’s book, The Evidential Power of Beauty says this:

Every human person is drawn to beauty. A night sky can thrill, as can an exquisite orchid, a Mozart concerto, or a lovely face. John Henry Newman, an intellectual and literary giant, would on occasion weep with delight as he played his violin. The more gifted among us are sometimes so vibrantly alive that even created splendors touch them deeply. Because their receptive capacities to be enriched by and responsive to reality are deep, they grow to a maturity far beyond the usual. They live life to the hilt and themselves become works of art – to borrow a phrase from Saint Paul (Eph 2:10)[1]

Second, is the opportunity for dialogue between two parts of society that have shared little interest in each other for the last 100 years. A few years back I helped run an IAM conference on “Artists as Reconcilers” where Yale Seminary professor Dr. Miroslav Volf spoke. In the course of his research he found out that the then head of Yale’s art department, Richard Benson, had been asked what the relationship between art and the church was. In short, Benson’s reply was that there was no relationship; Volf summarized Benson’s thoughts stating, “art is fundamentally transgressive, religion is fundamentally conservative, the two are at odds with one another.”[2]

Theologian Miroslav Volf

Perhaps they are not as far apart as Benson thinks. The Church and the art world have an opportunity to dialogue about art and beauty and learn from one another – the Church, to learn how to make art, the art world to learn what is the true source of Beauty. As one who believes there is a supreme Creator who has His hands in history, I truly believe this parallel interest in Beauty is not an accident.

At this point it might be appropriate to bring some definition to beauty. This is no easy task as it has been pursued for many millennia, and I for one am not assuming that I could bring any new insight into the matter. Also, our limitation as human beings is not an insignificant factor.

We must accept the fact that we are talking about a concept that may ultimately be beyond our comprehension. However, I am not willing to concede that we cannot know anything about Beauty because we cannot FULLY grasp every aspect of it. I believe we can apprehend beauty, see and understand it, but I do not believe we can know everything there is to know about beauty. This is not unlike the other two transcendentals Beauty is usually accompanied by – Truth and Goodness.

Can anyone really say they know all Truth? Can anyone know all Goodness? We can know Truth, and Goodness, and we can know them truly, but knowing all Truth and/or Goodness comprehensively is problematic.[3] Is it wise to simply dismiss any possibility of knowing Truth, Goodness and Beauty because we can only know part and not the whole? I don’t think so.

I would assert it is the same with my knowledge of God. I can know God truly, I can apprehend Him, but to say that I know Him comprehensively would mean I would need to be God to know Him completely, and that’s just impossible.

Much of the Church may not have been exercising any creative expressions of Beauty in teh 20th and 21st centuries, but they do have the intellectual and theological content on which to base Beauty. This is a great boon for the art world, who seem to lack the ability to define Beauty beyond "You know it when you see it."

[1] Dubay, Thomas, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet, San Fransico, CA, 1999, p11.

[2] Go to for an audio of this talk by Volf.

[3] When I wrote this paper for my Professor Dr. Charles Mackenzie he told me at the time that he was working on a book about the nature of infinity in science, based on lectures he gave at Stanford some years back. As we discussed this concept he told me when scientists run into a seemingly incomprehensible idea, possibly associated with infinity, they usually give the idea a name and move on in their research and understanding. They see their limitations, but are not daunted by them. Apprehending Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is no different.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Place of Beauty: A historical and theological observation - part 2

This is the second of six posts on the subject of Beauty, the Art World and the Church. It is based on a paper I did for Dr Charles Mackenzie on Theology and Aesthetics at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

"Regarding Beauty" conference cover

As a result of this self diagnosed lack of beauty, the art world began to hold conferences and seminars that addressed the topic (SEE Fuglie). Others, including Danto, wrote of the subject of beauty. However, there seemed to be a lack of integrity to their content. It wasn’t that what they were saying wasn’t true, but—after almost a century of usurping traditional views of beauty—the art world lacked the vocabulary to articulate that which was lost. Fuglie summarizes this well:

Two hundred years of Kantian subjectivity coupled with the spurning of the beautiful by Modernist avant-gardes have left us with an impoverished language for the discussion of beauty or of aesthetics in general. Attendees at the symposium for the exhibition Regarding Beauty at the Hirschorn Museum in 1999 heard a great deal of discussion about the topic of beauty by principle speaker Arthur Danto. But when pressed for a definition of beauty’s characteristics, he was not willing to go beyond the…bromide of ‘you know it when you see it.’[1]

Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote about what happens when a world loses beauty:

In a world without beauty—even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it—in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it; in such a world the good loses its attractiveness, the self evidence of why it must be carried out.[2]

Whereas the modern art world could claim the loss of beauty as an inadvertent action, the loss of beauty…and art…in the Protestant Church would find a harder time claiming ignorance (but that’s a topic for another day). Regardless of how the art world and the Church arrived at their prospective points, both seemed to have shared the timely rediscovery of beauty.

Art critic Hans Rookmaaker

In the Nineties—while Scarry, Hickey, Danto, and the rest of the art world were tackling this new concept of beauty—seeds of the importance of beauty and art planted back in the 60’s and 70’s by such individuals as Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker were finding
fertile ground among Christians in the arts. The same year that Elaine Scarry was making her laudable defense of Beauty at Yale, Steve Turner a British poet and journalist did several lectures to groups of artists who were Christians in Nashville.[3] Those lectures later became his book Imagine: A vision for Christians in the arts.[4] Turner, spent some time at L’Abri, the noted community started by Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. And it was there that he, and others[5] were exposed to a worldview that looked at art on its own terms, in light of God and the Bible. They desired to see art made by Christians freed from the constraints of solely being used in church worship and evangelism as religious tools. Instead, they longed for the work to enhance the beauty of His creation and church.[6] Also, in the Nineties, noted painter Makoto Fujimura—after finishing study in Japan—moved to New York City where he founded the International Arts Movement (IAM). The purpose of IAM is to create the “world that ought to be” through encouraging people to wrestle over issues of art, faith, and humanity. Its rise as an organization has paralleled Fujimura’s—who has become a leading spokesperson for the Church and the arts (but more about him later).[7]

Academia was also a part of this growth in the interest of beauty and art in the Church. In 1997, Jeremy Begbie founded the “Theology through the arts “ project at St. Mary’s College the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This program—along with his speaking, writing, and teaching—is becoming a strong basis for articulating a fuller theology of beauty as related to the arts and the Church.[8]

Since 2000 the growth of resources and interest inside the Church has grown steadily. Beyond that, a myriad of conferences by IAM, and Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) have grown in influence.[9] Books by authors like Andy Crouch, Nancy Pearcey, sociologist JD Hunter, plus lesser known works by TM Moore and David Hegeman contribute to the forming of a theology of the arts. The periodical Image Journal—with the tagline “Art, Faith, and Mystery”—was launched in 1989. This journal and their sponsored events—like “The Glen Workshop” held annually in Santa Fe, New Mexico—are setting a foundation of critical theological and philosophical thinking about art and culture, and are also influential in the production of cultural artifacts…beautiful art.[10]

to be continued...

[1] Fuglie p68.

[2] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs, The Glory of the Lord: Volume 1 Seeing the Form, San Fransico, CA, 1982, p19.

[3] Turner, Steve, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Downers Grove, IL, 2001, p9

[4] Turner p9.

[5] Actor and minister Nigel Goodwin, painter Chris Anderson, authors David Hegeman, Betty Spackman, and Nancy Pearcey whose recent book Saving Leonardo is about the Arts and the Church.

[6] Turner p23.

[8] Begbie is now at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina heading their “Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts”.

[9] A conference IAM did in 2002 in partnership with Image Journal called “The Return of Beauty” was based on Elaine Scarry’s book.