Clifton Edwards, Creation’s Beauty as Revelation: Toward a Creational Theology of Natural Beauty (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 194 pp.
In his book God and Mystery in Words, David Brown drops an intriguing sentence left intriguingly undeveloped: “Although nowadays it is the Holy Spirit that is usually credited with working outside of the Church, in the past it was once Christ as Logos.” Now one of Brown’s protégés, Clifton Edwards, picks up on this notion and develops it into a full-blown argument.
Edwards, a graduate of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, has produced a closely-reasoned and wide-ranging exploration of theological aesthetics based upon his doctoral dissertation. It is among the growing list of publications emerging from the program. Edwards’ project focuses on the revelation of God available in nature for those with the wit to perceive it. Made in the image of a divine mind, the human mind has the capability to receive such revelation made so abundantly available in the workings and structures of nature, which express themselves in beauties that serve as a “phenomenality of God” (xvii).
Edwards calls his project a “creational theology” to set it apart from old-fashioned natural theology, which typically sought to ground the knowledge of God clarified in special revelation with truths available, supposedly, to the unaided reason. Edwards does have a greater confidence in human reason than many of his Protestant fellow-travelers, but his trust is not a mere return to former foundationalist certitudes. A creational theology in Edwards’ hands is a working backwards from a perspective grounded in the Incarnation towards an interpretation of the experience with the natural world. It seeks to allow created nature to speak, as it were, in its own voice of what it has to say about God. Creation in this telling is likened to an artistic work issuing from purposive intentions, intentions found in the logos-inherent structures of creation. Christians confess that this logos is not merely the Mind of classical Stoicism but a Person discovered in Jesus of Nazareth and of a narrative of creation, fall and redemption of which nature eloquently attests.
The concept of logos, however, forms the linchpin of Edwards’ argument, connecting pre-modern epistemology, which read nature as divine handiwork, with Incarnational Christianity that survived the acids of modernity to a post-modern re-appropriation of analogical imagination and contemplation of nature as God’s self-disclosure. Along the way Edwards appeals to a great cloud of witnesses, including Augustine, Aquinas, Michael Polanyi and John Ruskin. Aquinas and Polanyi provide Edwards with the makings of what he variously terms an “aesthetic rationality”, which is aware of its social-historical conditioning (3), but is nonetheless capable of accessing reality. He never uses the phrase, but I think of Edwards’ basic epistemic position as that of critical realism. A critically realist epistemology grounds Edwards’ argument that the artistic-text of nature speaks volumes of the Being of God.
Edwards’ focus on aesthesis, however, includes frequent reference to ascesis, that is, the intentional habits of indwelling the logic of a particular viewpoint, cultivating what he calls interpretive “beauty-skills,” employing the imagination, and opening one’s heart to desire as a way toward God. Honing these “symbolic epistemic practices” is argued as necessary if one is to learn to read the natural symbolism of nature, that of the structures, workings, patterns and rhythms of nature that issue in what Edwards calls “perceptual beauty.” The result is a Christian account of the Book of Nature:
As embodied image and Logos, Christ offers, and is himself, an aesthetic rationality and symbolic communication that becomes a hermeneutical key to the artful book of the world. As Christ images God via the physical-sensory, perceptual beauty can do likewise, albeit with a different emphasis: whereas Christ is, in some respects, a “stumbling block,” beauty is a smoother path to tread (117).
Easier apologetics is not Edwards’ aim. Rather, it is to regain for Christian theology a whole swath of human experience, which modernity had suggested was off-limits to the knowledge of the transcendent. Edwards’ book is part of a recovery project.
Those of a more philosophical orientation will rejoice in Edwards’ careful search for “conceptual clarity” and the construction of argument. Those of a more practical or “artsy” bent may find the text hard slogging at times, but the effort will be paid in an expanded awareness of a history of thought and the rationality of the imagination. For my own part, I left Edwards’ book with a renewed appreciation for the power of natural symbolism, such as landscape, atmospherics, the structures and patterns of nature, and phenomenon such as water, fire, wind and sky. Edwards’ thoughtful integration of the ugliness and suffering within the parameters of nature as a witness of its falleness and a sign of its redemption was very helpful.
Reviewed by James McCullough.