Beauty as Love: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics

According to Hans Urs von Balthasar, in The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1, Seeing the Form, if theological aesthetics is about anything it is about beauty, and if beauty is about anything in particular it is particularly about love, a love which Christ, the archetype of all forms, embodies and expresses perfectly and against which all created forms are to be measured and to find their ultimate telos.

663 pages of writing on theological aesthetics, then, yields a surprising result: von Balthasar is much less interested in “aesthetics,” even less so in the arts, than he is in love. Put otherwise, von Balthasar finds theological aesthetics to be a proper starting point for theology inasmuch as it allows him to speak about beauty, which for him rightly pushes the discipline of theology to confront the twin movement of beholding and of being enraptured by the Triune beauty—which again brings him back around to love, to desire.

To contemplate beauty is precisely to contemplate divine love, but this is not any kind of love. This is the concrete love of God in the form of Christ, a kenotic love, which the Holy Spirit sheds abroad in the human heart. Unless theology begins here, von Balthasar repeatedly insists, we will get neither truth nor goodness right (18-19). Without beauty, goodness will turn hedonistic and utilitarian, while truth will turn cold. Without beauty, we will neither pray right nor know how to love.

Form and splendor as a movement of love

Two primary elements mark the beautiful, according to von Balthasar: form and splendor. Together, as “light” transforms the object in view (the species) into something comely (or speciosa), form and splendor produce something love-worthy. More properly, they generate a transportation of love. To be transported, he explains, “belongs to the very origin of Christianity. The Apostles were transported by what they saw, heart, and touched—by everything manifested in the form” (32). When von Balthasar describes a “theory of rapture,” which for him constitutes the very content of dogmatics, he talks of it as a double and reciprocal ekstasis: a movement of God to humankind in revelation and a movement of humankind to God in faith.

Riffing off of von Balthasar, I would diagram the encounter with beauty this way:

When we encounter beauty, we encounter it as a kind of epiphany that 1) pulls us in to the object of beauty (as an act of eros, where we simultaneously lay hold of and are laid hold of by the beautiful object), 2) pulls us up towards the Source of beauty (as an act of contemplation), 3) pulls us outside of ourselves (as an act of ecstasy), and 4)pulls us out towards others (as an agapic act).

In von Balthasar’s scheme, our encounter with beauty rightly occurs without our ever escaping into the object of beauty, and so falsely losing ourselves, nor escaping beyond the object of beauty, and so leaving it behind as if the object or form were no longer “needful.”

The Christomorphic pattern of beauty

Echoing Karl Barth, it is instructive to note how von Balthasar hews his ideas on theological aesthetics to an intensively Christological pattern. Any theory of beauty, he argues, must reckon first and finally with the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Following the 18th century German philosopher and pietist Johann Georg Hamann, von Balthasar describes an “aesthetic obedience to the Cross,” or a trinitarian glory as kenosis, this way: “as being proper not only to the God who became Man, but even before that to the Creator who, by creating, penetrates into nothingness—proper, also, to the Holy Spirit, who conceals himself ‘under all kinds of rags and tatters’” (80).

It is hard to match von Balthasar’s beautiful prose, so I will let him speak again in his own words:

In the face of the Cross, love is sobered to its very marrow before God’s agape, which clothes itself in the language of the body; and, in the face of this intoxicating language of flesh and blood that gives itself by being poured out, love is lifted above itself and elevated into the eternal, in order there, as creaturely eros, to be the tent and dwelling-place of the divine love! (654).

In the end

In his vision for a sound theological aesthetics, von Balthasar sees, finally, the Bride of the Lamb coming down from heaven to earth, arrayed in the beauty of her form and splendor. His title, in a sense then, has nearly said it all: theological aesthetics is about Seeing the Form. Yet we might have arrived at a more accurate description of his theological aesthetics if he had titled his volume, Seeing the beloved Form.

David is a doctor of theology candidate at Duke Divinity School, where his research interests include the fields of pneumatology, liturgical theology and theological aesthetics. The editor of For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, he blogs at artspastor.blogspot.com. His wife Phaedra, a visual artist and gardener, is excited about the implications of von Balthasar’s ideas for an arts center out in the middle of nowhere in central Texas that combines hospitality, art-making, chicken-raising, goat-tending, dance-a-thons and Martha Stewart-like parties.

4 Comments

  • Brett Potter says:

    Thanks for this David… Francesca Aran Murphy also wrote a good article on how the centre of Balthasar’s thought is not Beauty, as one might expect, but love.

    Do you see any possibilities for a “theology of art” (rather than just a “theological aesthetics” proper) growing out of Balthasar’s thought?

  • David Taylor says:

    Brett, my tentative answer to your question is yes, and the most natural point of connection is between the way art functions (in all its variegated forms) and the way in which we understand the role that “desire” functions in our experience of it. Graham Ward’s language of “a pedagogy of desire” would be helpful in this regard.

    It’s far from un-complicated, of course, but I think Protestant Christians could benefit by taking seriously the vocabulary in Scripture, in Augustine, in the medieval mystics, Jonathan Edwards, and William Dyrness on the positive nature of desire viz our life before God and our life in the created realm (rather than exclusively highlighting its negative aspects).

  • Matt Marron says:

    Obviously this isn’t new to you, but I’ve always loved Plato’s defining of “beauty” as KALEO – both that which is beautiful and that which “calls” – resonating within each of us as something good, true, etc. Loved the article.

  • Brett Potter says:

    I completely concur, I like how you put it… we Protestants need more desire in our theology, especially when it comes to art and beauty!

    Tillich also talks about “eros” that animates our encounter with art but I think Balthasar’s version of “double ekstasis” (which retrieves Pseudo-Dionysius) is theologically richer.

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