Theology and Beauty: The Transcendentals

“The witness borne by Being becomes untrustworthy for the person who can no longer read the language of beauty.” – Hans Urs Von Balthasar

 

What has beauty to do with theology? For centuries of academic theological study the answer has been, largely, “nothing.” If Plato saw being as built upon the three transcendentals of the good, the true, and the beautiful, much of modern theology has reduced its work simply to the true. Our interests, both within the larger world and within the church, have been reduced to the pragmatic and utilitarian. We have lost a sense of ontological value precisely because we have lost a theological aesthetic. In what follows a case will be made for the interrelationship of aesthetics and ontology. We need a theological aesthetic to make sense of existence. The case for this thesis will be rooted first in the substance of the Triune God, and then related to the world.

The Transcendentals

It is no small thing to attempt a discussion of beauty. Philosophers have wrestled with both a definition of beauty and the objectivity of judgments about it for centuries. To enter into that fray and attempt to dispute with the likes of Plato, Kant, Aquinas, Hegel, and Croce would be foolish. My education does not permit such advanced and technical interactions. Yet, we must say something about beauty. It is helpful, perhaps, if we start by considering the three great transcendentals and their relationship to one another.

It was Plato, who first posited a trio of ultimate values for existence. The three transcendentals, known to us now as truth, goodness, and beauty, are to be pursued apart from any other end than themselves. It is these three values which are to justify all our actions and rational conclusions. Philosopher Roger Scruton explains:

Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful. In some way, philosophers have argued, those answers are on par: each brings a state of mind into the ambit of reason, by connecting it to something that it is in our nature, as rational beings, to pursue. Someone who asked “why believe what is true?” or “why want what is good?” has failed to understand the nature of reasoning. He doesn’t see that, if we are to justify our beliefs and desires at all, then our reasons must be anchored in the true and the good.[1]

The transcendentals, as ultimate values, are meant to be sufficient explanations for belief and practice. Our interest in them is what Kant called a “disinterested interest.” We value these things because they are themselves valuable, not for what they might do for us. We have no other ulterior reason for affirming the true, the good, and the beautiful than that they are the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Furthermore, these transcendentals are interrelated such that a person cannot neglect the one without also losing the other two. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has said:

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 also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil…In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.[2]

So, the emphasis of the Christian theologian on the true and the good requires an equal emphasis on the beautiful. We neglect the beautiful only to our own shame and to the weakening of our theology. For, in losing the beautiful we lose also the good and the true.

When we talk about these ultimate values, however, we are not merely talking about matters of axiology. We must begin to see how these relate to matters of ontology too. We may recognize this more readily in relation to concepts of the true and the good.

Often when scholars speak about the relationship between truth and ontology they have in mind the correspondence theory of truth. The correspondence theory argues that the validity of a statement is dependent on its relation to the world and specifically how accurately it describes that world. So, truth or falsity may be determined by examining a claim’s correspondence to what is. While rationalists in general have argued against correspondence theory – since they believe we cannot know reality apart from our own minds – and while empiricists have perhaps overstated the case for correspondence, Christians can acknowledge that there is some validity to the correspondence theory.

John Frame explores the theories of epistemic justification by means of a perspectival approach, arguing that:

there is a place for correspondence, as there is a place for coherence. Either may be used as a definition of truth or as a test of truth (they are perspectivally related), as long as they operate within a framework of a biblical world view. Scripture teaches that through divine revelation, we do have access to the “real world.” We discover the “real world” not only through sense-experience but also through rational concepts and subjective states and particularly through Scripture, our supreme criterion of reality.[3]

There is a relationship between truth and being. From one perspective, then, the correspondence theory of truth holds up. Frame continues:

Thus it is not surprising that when we seek the truth, our thought process is very much a kind of “comparison.” We compare our present idea of truth to that which God is leading us toward through Scripture and the various elements of our thought process. We never “get outside of” our own thoughts; the rationalists and subjectivists are right on that account. But God’s revelation is able to penetrate our thoughts, so that even within our own subjectivity we are not without divine witness. Thus there is always a process of comparison between our thoughts and what God is showing us – a process of comparison that may be called a “search for correspondence.”[4]

Truth, then, corresponds to reality, it has an ontological component to it. We know this from Scripture as well which speaks of truth as a person, a being: namely Christ (John 14:6).

We may also speak of goodness in terms that move beyond axiology. The ontological component of goodness can be most evidently seen within medieval theology. The medieval church developed what has come to be known as perfect-being theology. In this development, perfection is not merely a characteristic but a person, namely God himself. Because God is perfection He must, therefore, exist. We see again, being and the transcendentals have an intimate relationship.

Does the same hold for beauty? That is the question at hand. We must considering whether, then, there is a necessary relationship between ontology and aesthetics. If there is, we will need to consider the implications of ignoring it for our theological work and Christian lives.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 2.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form. Vol. 1. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009. 19.

[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Philipsburg: P&R, 1987. 141

[4] Ibid. 142.

 

Comments

  1. RON Campbell says:

    Wanted to ask you a quick Thursday night recovery 34 year old son GaryWas released from rehab yesterday I’m going to invite him on Thursday night but what exactly am I inviting him to Just an FYI Pastor Bob and Patrick Council Gary for many months years ago PlusWas taking biblical counselingAt bbc Walked away from the Lord years ago 😦 Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Ron, Thursday’s Transformation Groups include two parts, each 1 hour long. The first part is our large group time of worship and a short teaching. Then guys break for support tables to discuss specific issues about their struggle and to engage in accountability. Anyone is welcome and we’d love to have Gary join us next week at 7pm.

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