Amid the expanding bustle between theology and the arts, the topic of beauty seems to be ever more attractive. Among theologians it is proving especially popular. Many are questioning what Edward Farley calls the eighteenth century’s “relocation of beauty from an external property to a human sensibility”, insisting that this third transcendental imbues the very fabric of the created world. Indeed, many will want to claim it belongs to the nature and character of the Creator. So we find Augustine’s and Aquinas’ writings on beauty being re-opened, and von Balthasar’s sumptuous aesthetics appearing as an ever more fashionable research topic. And would-be theologians of the arts are only too keen to join the rush and challenge beauty’s long neglect.
What fewer are willing to probe, however, is the notion that the arts should be regarded as necessarily intertwined with beauty. In many of the circles I move in, eyebrows rapidly elevate if one dares even to question the link. To be passionate about beauty is surely to be passionate about the arts, and vice versa. After all, it will be said, for many outside the Church the connection will seem very obvious.
But perhaps this is one of the places where some cautious questioning is needed, and in at least two respects.
First, few will deny that some kind of beauty is a desirable feature in a piece of art, and it may indeed be possible to give this conviction strong theological backing. But I am less than convinced that the presence of, or aspiration towards beauty is a necessary condition for something to qualify as “art”, and even less convinced that the arts are to be distinguished from other cultural activities and products by their investment in beauty. Can we really do justice to the sheer range and variety of the arts in this way? If we allow discussions to be magnetized too quickly around questions of beauty, have we not foreclosed too much too early?
Second, I have often been puzzled by the way in which some of us in the theology-arts conversations readily adopt the language of beauty but with relatively little sustained attention to what it might all have to do with the particular self-disclosure of the Christian God. Here Barth and von Balthasar, in their very different ways, can act as impressive sentinels for those who dare to enter the beguiling land of beauty. Many of the grand theologies of beauty come to us entwined with elaborate ontologies whose lineaments are often not only highly elaborate and nuanced, but whose relation to the concrete life, death and resurrection of Jesus, is – to put it no stronger for the moment – rather less than obvious. If we want to say that beauty is characterized by, say, proportion and congruence of parts, brightness or radiance, perfection or integrity, and provoking pleasure when contemplated – a fairly standard list of requirements – then is it not incumbent on us to pull every one of these elements through the narrative of the triune God’s immersion in our time and space in Jesus Christ, and thereby have our vision of beauty-for-the-arts re-shaped accordingly? Theologically, why would we want to do anything else?
Jeremy Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor in Theology at Duke Divinity School and founding Director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. He teaches systematic, specializing in the interface between theology and the arts. Previously he has been Associate Principal at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and Honorary Professor at the University of St Andrews. A professionally trained and active musician, his particular research interest is the interplay between music and theology, and his publications include Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker/SPCK 2007) and Music, Modernity, and God (OUP, forthcoming, 2014).