Cultivating Ears to Hear Beauty’s Call

Asher Brown Durand. "Kindred Spirits". 1849.
Asher Brown Durand. “Kindred Spirits”. 1849.

Attending St. Andrews, I found myself one of the few defenders of natural theology, surrounded by a chorus of (very polite) Barthian “Neins!” It was, of course, with great amusement when I discovered that the one chink in Barth’s dialectical armor was his soft spot for Mozart. In Church Dogmatics, Barth rhapsodizes, “[Mozart] heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time – the whole context of providence.”[1] Bold words, to be sure, from a theologian whose entire theological project revolves around the ongoing necessity of God’s miraculous action to make Himself known.

In this way, though, Barth isn’t alone. I’ve found that skeptics of one stripe or other are more sympathetic to theistic arguments from beauty than nearly any other form of natural theology. In a debate on the existence of God, agnostic philosopher Peter S. Fosl admitted that Cat Stevens’ song “Morning Has Broken” pushes him over to theism on some days. In another recent debate, an atheist admitted that the argument from beauty was the last bastion of his belief in God. Anthony O’Hear, an atheistic philosopher, speaks powerfully about the feeling that aesthetic experience gives while still maintaining that this sense of the divine is just an illusion:

Through art, particularly the great masterpieces of the past, we do have intimations of beauty, of order, of divinity, even, way beyond the biological. . . in appreciating the beauty of the world. . . we are seeing the world as endowed with value and meaning.[2]

In the ebb and flow of everyday life, beauty (especially natural beauty) seems to provoke an openness to the existence of God in a way that causality or morality do not. Even dogged skeptics suddenly begin to sound like Hudson River School artists when encountering the beautiful.[3]

However, in a recent essay, Edward T. Oakes worries that the ambient ugliness and titillating banalities of modern culture have deadened our capacity to rightly respond to reality and therefore that the allure of beauty will cease to have any apologetic function. “If apologetics first depends on getting the unbeliever (or half believer) to see the beauty of God’s creative and redemptive artfulness,” Oakes writes, “how can that happen in the contemporary setting…”[4] Citing Jacques Barzun, Oakes pushes the point that the ironic postmodern spirit is toxic to appreciation of the beautiful:

Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits even for a minute, it justifies itself and there’s an end of it…The Interesting has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, and the Moving. [But] if modern man’s most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, [if it] is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fair grounds, then the conception of Art as an all important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways–art as a sense-tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support.[5]

If Oakes and Barzun are right (which they are), then we cannot continue to celebrate a toxically ironic approach to the world of the senses and still expect beauty of have a tiny foot in the door of the heart of unbelievers. Beauty has already been thoroughly attacked as utterly subjective or irredeemably political, yet it has escaped the worst of these attacks and continues to provoke wonder and delight. But it is not inconceivable that this too, will fade (or already has), and we will be left with a culture whose natural state is of the perpetual tourist, with a skeptical eye that is not hungry for the beautiful. Hans Urs von Balthasar understood rightly that the heart of one who is utterly deadened to the allure of beauty would be a rocky place in which the seed of the Gospel would struggle to find purchase:

No explanation can help him who does not see the beauty [of revelation]; no proof of the existence of God can help him who cannot see what is manifest to the world; no apologetic can be any use to him for whom the truth that radiates from the center of theology is not evident.[6]

May we all continue to cultivate, in ourselves and others, ears that can hear the call of beauty.

Philip Tallon (PhD, University of St Andrews) is the Director of Student Ministries at Christ Church UMC in Memphis, TN. He is also the author of The Poetics of Eviland the co-editor of The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. His Twitter handle is @philiptallon.

Image Credit: Wikipedia


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol III, 3, The Doctrine of Creation, trans. G. W. Bromiley and R. J. Ehrlich (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960), 297-8.

[2] Anthony O’Hear, After Progress (Bloomsbury, 1999). Cited by Peter Williams.

[3] E.g., in “Essay on American Scenery,” Thomas Cole writes, “Amid [these scenes of nature] the consequent associations are of God the creator–they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into contemplation of eternal things.” (Cited in James F. Cooper, Knights of the Brush [NY: Hudson Hills Press, 1999], 45.)

[4] Edward T. Oakes, “The Apologetics of Beauty,” in The Beauty of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 216

[5] Ibid., 216-7.

[6] Ibid., 212.

Author

  • Philip Tallon (PhD, St Andrews) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, where he is an Instructor in the Honors College and Chair of Apologetics. He is the author of The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016) and The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2012). He has an essay on “The Theistic Argument from Beauty and Play” in Two Dozen or so Arguments for God (Oxford, forthcoming).

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3 Comments

  1. says: Cole Matson

    Thanks, Phil! One of our tasks as artists is to make things that are beautiful, while not merely replicating old forms. For example, one can say that the work of Renaissance (or Hudson River School) painters was beautiful, so we should paint in the same style to bring back beauty. However, that approach can seem like a rejection of growth and development in art.

    What are some examples of beauty that you see in contemporary art (whether visual art, music, film, etc.)?

    I think of the mosaics of Marko Rupnik, movies such as Of Gods and Men and The Last Unicorn and Tree of Life, the film scores of Howard Shore and James Newton Howard, books like The Lord of the Rings, and plays like The World Over and War Horse.

    I find it interesting that, for me, beauty is usually tied to a narrative. I find visual art very difficult to engage, and devour film scores while finding it very difficult to listen to contemporary orchestral music composed for concert halls. Anyone else have this experience?

  2. says: Phil Tallon

    Hey Cole,

    Thanks for the comment. I like all the mentioned artists & work. Rupnik was new to me, but I’m glad to learn of his work.

    There is, of course, plenty of work that still strives for the beautiful. I’m fond of Amy Bennett’s paintings, Mumford & Sons music, & Frank Gehry’s architecture. These are all artists aiming earnestly for beauty while continuing to innovate in terms of the form of its expression.

    1. says: Cole Matson

      Thanks for the names! I think we can get a bit narrow-minded in considering beauty to only be present in more “fine” arts, and so we don’t always see the beauty in popular culture. (For example, I just saw Thor 2, and the visual spectacle of Asgard and the heavens are definitely beautiful, and one of the attractions of the Thor films for me.)

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