What if Beauty is the Big Question?

Photo by  Dylan Gialanella  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dylan Gialanella on Unsplash

This post first appeared in Fathom Magazine

Theologians often have funny names. Their names are often particularly hilarious because their writings are so serious. So there is this incredible juxtaposition of scholarly work with clown names.

Let me introduce you to one of these serious theologians with a silly name: Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Go ahead, take a moment to laugh.

Even though his name is ridiculous, Balthasar’s work was anything but a joke. Balthasar made it his intention to rail against modern philosophy, particularly around the notion that beauty, goodness, and truth were either unimportant or radically subjective. For Balthasar these transcendentals (beauty, goodness, and truth) had been dismissed as speculative and were not actually real things, but merely names that man assigned to what suited their fancy. Underneath this assumption was a significant philosophic shift that originated with William of Ockham’s “nominalism.”

Nominalists suggested that truth, goodness, and beauty were just ideas or names that we used to talk about the “real” things. These “real” things were primarily reserved for the material plan of existence, so it created a worldview where:

  • The only real things were material

  • Truth, goodness, and beauty were simply subjective designations of material things

  • The world could not point beyond itself

As a result, the world, as Charles Taylor has argued, became “disenchanted.” The world was no longer shot through with the presence of God.

Balthasar’s chief frustration with the spirit of modernity is how it had relegated beauty to the sidelines. In the modern man’s mind the two most important questions were: What is true? And, what is good? You may say, “Wait a second, those are the two most important questions!”

Balthasar would disagree. And, I think he has good reason to do so.

Balthasar argued, if the rest of the world has gone astray from the Christian view of the cosmos by relegating beauty to be the “last word,” we (Christians) should make it our goal to make beauty “the first word.” He simply asked the question, “What if beauty was the big question?”

Now, I assume you might put forward two objections:

  • Beauty is subjective

  • Beauty doesn’t impact real life

We’ve all heard the cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The problem with this: it’s not really true. Beauty, like truth and goodness, is measured against a standard. What is that standard? Balthasar suggests that standard is the glory of the Lord. Beauty is derivative of glory, and so anything that claims to be beautiful must be measured against the supreme revelation of beauty in the glory of the Lord.

So sure, Christians believe there is an objective standard to beauty, but of course they would. But it’s not just Christians who hold to this objective standard. Almost the entire tradition of western philosophy held to an objective standard by which to measure beauty. Certainly the two central figures in the history of ideas, Plato and Aristotle, both argued vociferously that claims to beauty should be measured. Plato championed the censorship of various artistic renderings of the gods and virtue, because he believed that false representations could so seriously affect the human person that it would change their core being. Aristotle wrote an entire book on the question of beauty, Poetics, where he makes the case that production of the beautiful in artistic imitation can actually “perfect” what we observe in nature.

Up until the modern period, beauty was not seen as subjective. It was seen as something that could be measured, because it would be measured against the standard of the Beautiful. Where that standard was located was debated, but that there was a standard was not.

But, why does this matter at all? Even if it’s not subjective, isn’t beauty a secondary or tertiary consideration, behind truth and goodness?

Balthasar certainly doesn’t think so. He says, “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…But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.”

Did you catch that? Balthasar concedes that we have more answers about the world than we once did, but the answers no longer captivate us, because they are not tied into a presentation of the Beautiful.

Emily Dickinson said, “Truth dazzles gradually.” We live in a world where the dazzle has been removed from the presentation of truth.  So people are no longer interested in truth. Don’t believe me, just pop over to your Facebook feed.

Beauty is not some adornment placed on goodness and truth, nor is it simply the byproduct of truth or goodness. Beauty is as vital to making sense of man’s situation as anything. Without beauty, truth and goodness are either undesirable or inconceivable.

As he considers the modern theological and philosophic landscape he finds himself in, Balthasar is disheartened because the drive towards reckoning with truth was always contiguous to the prizing and pursuit of beauty, which has been relegated to the sidelines. In his preface to volume one in the Glory of the Lord, Balthasar uses three Latin terms to describe the project of his trilogy: Pulchrum (beauty), Bonum (truth), and Verum (goodness). For Balthasar the quest of theological aesthetics is to demonstrate that man comes to an understanding of truth and a participation in goodness, on the basis of beauty.

Balthasar goes as far to say, “that the essential thing is to realize that, without aesthetic knowledge, neither theoretical nor practical reason can attain to their total completion.” So, for Balthasar, aesthetic knowledge is not an added extra, it is the foundation need for sound judgment. And yet, the malaise of modernity is rooted in its unwillingness to treat the Beautiful seriously.

Balthasar doesn’t just suggest beauty is important, he claims that apart from Beauty the truth is neither intelligible nor desirable. Apart from exposure to the Beautiful, we can’t even discern what claims to be true. But where do we find exposure to the Beautiful?

For Balthasar, Jesus Christ is the form, he is where beauty is particularized, concretized, revealed. And on the foundation of this beauty, in man’s perception of this beauty, access to true knowledge of every other thing is opened up. Balthasar would often stress the relational dimension to knowledge, arguing that we could only know ourselves in light of the love of another. He often spoke of how the mother’s smile both opens and fulfills the child’s desire to love. According to Balthasar, the love of Christ was so foundational that it becomes not just the primary source of self-knowledge, but of true knowledge, goodness, and beauty. As scripture says, “In your light do we see light…” So, if we are to know and love anything rightly, we must do so in the loving light of Christ.  

In the very beginning of Love Alone is Credible, Balthasar names off a few key Christian thinkers, many of which he surveys in the Glory of the Lord and then he makes an interesting comment: “Lovers are the ones who know most about God: the theologian must listen to them.” Later on in the same book, Balthasar says, “The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about the Christian’s faith is that it obviously presumes far too much. It is too good to be true.”

Lovers, those who relish in the Beautiful, the mystics discipline themselves to meditate upon the glory of the Lord; they are the ones we must listen to. We must “consider their way of life and imitate their faith,” because they have drawn near to the glorious presence of the Lord.

The world was created and will culminate in an explosion of glory. Beauty is the big question. It’s the first word and the last.

Kyle Worley