How Art Contributes to Faith: The Ecstatic Draw of Beauty

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a four-part series by Jim McCullough that will look at the ways in which art contributes to faith

 

Theological aesthetics as a discipline seeks to uncover and scrutinize the connections between the knowledge of God and sensory experience, including those experiences associated with the arts. Aidan Nichols succinctly defines the discipline as exploring ‘the part played by the senses – with their associated powers of memory and imagination – in the awareness of God.’ [1] Timothy Gorringe puts it as a question: ‘How does art contribute to faith?’ [2] It is this particular aspect of theological aesthetics that this series focuses upon. [3]

Newcomers and seasoned practitioners of theological aesthetics may benefit from a kind of mapping of different accents and emphases found among those currently writing on art and religion. This series will identify and describe four contemporary approaches to the question of how art (inclusive of all forms) contributes to faith, with particular reference to recent publications, several of which by authors associated with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA).

Overarching, this series presupposes that art does contribute to faith. The question, then, is how. It is this question that this series aims to address.

The Ecstatic Draw of Beauty

Traditionally, three dimensions of experience have been seen as natural ‘bridges’ to the divine and in Christian theology came to be seen as attributes of God: truth, goodness and beauty. This is standard Platonic theology, and has had a presence in Christian thought since the 2nd century AD. Within this tradition, beauty is seen as having an erotic [4] appeal of drawing one up-out of one’s self toward another, or toward the Other. The experience of beauty is, potentially at least, ecstatic – a word derived from the Greek ekstasis referring to the experience of being up-out of one’s self.

A recent book that addresses this perspective on beauty and its place in Christian theology is L. Clifton Edwards’ Creation’s Beauty as Revelation. Edwards (PhD ITIA) argues for the transcendental nature of beauty as an attribute of God and how beauty can therefore draw one toward the divine:

…an experience of … perceptual beauty could orient one to God’s nature: that is, by focusing our attention on what is perceptually desirable, valuable, and interesting for its own sake, we would also be orienting ourselves to what is ultimately most desirable, valuable, and interesting for its own sake, namely God. [5]

Edwards’ primary focus is on natural beauty, with tangential reference to artistic beauty. Edwards’ work revives natural theology as distilled into what he prefers to call “creational theology”, which focuses on the ecstatic quality of beauty:

Beauty is an aspect of this structured reality that could reveal something about God, if, as Henry Vaughan says, we ‘would hear/The world read’ to us. And this beauty of the world is a structured reality present not only in the objective world that we see around us, but also within us – within the structure of our subjective experiencing of that world. In other words, we could say that beauty is a combined objective-subjective phenomenon, bridging the gap between the (objective) structure of the would outside of us and the (subjective) realities and meanings that obtain within us. [5]

Effectively accessing and responding to beauty, according to Edwards, requires an expansion of our prosaic, work-a-day relation with the world. This is advanced as we develop what Edwards calls ‘symbolic epistemic practices’ [xiii], which involve an openness to analogies between the experience of the world and the Being of God, as well as a heightened trust in the imagination to make such connections.

photo-1472784538157-a7cb071ed3afIn his book Beauty Awakening Belief, Jon Sweeney explores for a general readership the structure and significance of Gothic cathedral architecture and how the ‘pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, pointed windows and towering ceilings’ conspire to draw the occupant up toward God. Likewise, Richard Harries articulates persuasively the theme of the relationship ‘between the beauty we experience in nature, in the arts, in a genuinely good person and in God; and that which tantalizes, beckons and calls us in beauty has its origins in God himself.’ [6]

Whenever beauty is posited as integral to both human experience and relationship with God, the notoriously thorny matter of defining beauty assumes center stage. Both Edwards and Harries cite the classical criteria of wholeness, harmony and radiance. Edwards appeals to recent philosophical work such as Michael Nicholson’s, who proposes ‘objective beauty-constituents: symmetry or balance, wholeness or integrity, radiance and intensity.’ [7] Appealing to an ‘objective’ status of beauty, however, raises hackles from some philosophical and theological interest groups, which requires advocates to provide arguments against such objections.

Books such as these ask us to make theological sense of the experience of beauty – those experiences when we are stopped in our tracks, find ourselves lost for words and leave us emoting in spite of our best efforts to remain calm and rational. Beauty is returned to a place of priority in theological reflection and formulation, attributed to the Being of God along with holiness, righteousness, love and justice, and thereby bridging what we experience in creation and art and what we can experience in God.

 


[1] Aidan Nichols, A Key to Balthasar (Eerdmans, 2001), 13.
[2] T.J. Gorringe, Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art (Yale University Press, 2011), 14.
[3] Also included within the purview of theological aesthetics would be matters of the relationship between doctrine and the arts, the meaning of making, the relationship between substance and style, and so forth.
[4] Eros here not being reduced to the merely sensual but referring to a desire for that which is attractive, including the Divine.
[5] L. Clifton Edwards, Creation’s Beauty as Revelation: Toward a Creational Theology of Natural Beauty (Pickwick Publications, 2014), 69.[6] Jon M. Sweeney, Beauty Awakening Belief (SPCK, 2009), 56. Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God (Mowbray, 1993), 6.
[7] Edwards 55.

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