Following up an earlier post, “The Imagination between Beauty and Goodness,” in which I discussed how the imagination might help bring the values of beauty and justice into closer proximity, my purpose here is to consider the following: How are we to understand the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in our contemporary world?
In the early 1970’s, Jürgen Moltmann rightly argued that the “relation between ethics and aesthetics…are inseparable both in our awareness of God and in the life of faith.” In his effort to draw aesthetics and ethics back into conversation Moltmann appealed to Karl Barth as “the only theologian in the continental Protestant tradition who has dared to call God ‘beautiful.’”
Hans Urs von Balthasar partly credits Søren Kierkegaard’s followers for allowing a residual breach not only between aesthetics and ethics, but even wider on the Kierkegaardian hierarchy, “a meeting between aesthetics and religion.”
According to Balthasar, “the Kierkegaard revival in various ways had an anti-aesthetic effect on theology.” More descriptive:
The determining factor in those who follow Kierkegaard consciously or unconsciously is the opposition they sense between the two realms. The word ‘aesthetic’ automatically flows from the pens of both Protestant and Catholic writers when they want to describe an attitude which, in the last analysis, they find to be frivolous, merely curious and self-indulgent.
In a classic analysis of aesthetics and ethics in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard suggested that “aesthetics called for concealment and rewarded it. Ethics called for disclosure and punished concealment.” In the context of Abraham’s crisis to follow the command of God to sacrifice Isaac, one does not have the luxury of resting on the borderline, which in Kierkegaard’s terms is the “interesting,” or rather, “a category of crisis.” For Kierkegaard, this category “marks the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical.”
Kierkkegaard is right to a certain extent. Moltmann too concedes that “the life of Jesus in the gospels stands under the signs of manger and cross, homelessness and murder. In the face of such suffering, aesthetic categories fail rather abruptly.” And yet, I want to suggest that aesthetics or concealment does not necessarily entail a failure of recognition, but can cross the borderline and relate to disclosure. Take for example, C.S. Lewis’ use of “pretense.” According to Lewis, “there is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you [this may be more in line with the type of concealment Kierkegaard is protesting against]. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing.”
Lewis asks the question, “What is the good of pretending to be what you are not?” In context, Lewis here is referring to “dressing up as Christ.” He continues:
If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realise what the words mean, you realise that you are not a son of God. You are not being like the The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He [God the Father] has ordered us to do it.
If concealment is “the element of tension,” lacking recognition, it may also disclose some of the mystery for how we can say things like, “by his wounds, have we been healed.” And in this way, the life of discipleship finds aesthetics and ethics colliding in unique and wonderful ways.
Timothy Allen and his family reside in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is writing his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Professor David Brown. Currently, Tim’s research focuses on the dialogue between theology and popular culture – more precisely, on the role of the imagination in theological constructions of the doctrine of heaven.
 Jurgen Moltmann, Theology & Joy (London: SCM, 1973), 63.
 Ibid, 59.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, ed. John Riches, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, vol. Volume 1: Seeing The Form (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), 50.
 Ibid, 52.
 Ibid., 51.
 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (New York: Penguin Books, 2006; reprint, 1985), 104.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 100.
 Moltmann, Theology & Joy, 49-50.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996; reprint, 1996), 163.
 Moltmann quoting from Isaiah 53.5 in Moltmann, Theology & Joy, 50. See also, Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 100.