Aesthetic Theology

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The History of Aesthetics in Theology

Aesthetics in Christian Theology has a curious dimension in that it starts before Christianity with Plato, who influenced much of early Christian thinking, and ends with the present era where Christian thinking in terms of its theology and practice (i.e. liturgy and church services) are in decline, and yet the aesthetics engendered by such thinking and practice, i.e. Christian historic art, architecture and music, enjoy an influence across all the spectrum of human life no matter what the belief or non-belief. To the present generation these are the aesthetics which seem to provide a direct contact with that subtle, inherent aspect of the human psyche which we call spirituality, complete with its power to sustain, uplift and, through its beauty and awe, provide a way to the divine through the concept of hope and fulfilment in a world where conflict and consumerism hold sway.

Vision of the divine lies at the core of aesthetics as does harmony and interplay of sound. In these visions lie not only truth and beauty but, through their presentation, the eschatological hope of something better to come. Who is not transported into another dimension by the art of Rubens, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, or the architecture of great medieval cathedrals or ruined abbeys, or the music of Palestrina or Bach, or re-enactments of medieval liturgy such as the Sarum Advent service?

In the early Patristic period, Augustine (354-430) maintained "All beautiful bodies express the same truth, for a body is far more beautiful in the fact that it is constituted out of parts ....... for the whole is perfected by the most orderly gathering of these parts - even though they are also beautiful". Pseudo-Dionysius (ca. 500) was a mystical theologian who synthesised Christian doctrine and Neo-Platonism (the concept that there is an essential eternal beauty, truth and oneness from which everything derives and to which everything is drawn, and that the arts can influence our behaviour and character). He was probably the most profound writer on aesthetics in the first millennium, so much so that many of his thoughts would have resonance in quantum physics with its theories of interconnectivity. To him God was "the one, the Good, the Beautiful". Beauty was "the cause of harmony, of sympathy, of community. Beauty unites all things, and is the source of all things. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty. The Beautiful is therefore the same as the Good, for everything looks to the Beautiful and the Good as the cause of being". From God, "the One, the Good, the Beautiful", derives the existence of everything, including all similarities and opposites, interrelationships, harmony and love - but one that does not obliterate identity, "the innate togetherness of everything. Hence, too, the intermingling of everything, the persistence of things, the unceasing emergence of things".

The first real change in the Church's view of aesthetics occurred in the early medieval period with the advent of the creeds, ca. 320-870. Increasingly the written word enshrining doctrine became dominant and started to control the use of aesthetics until, by 870, images were regarded as but "expressions of language accessible to the illiterate." Gradually God became described not in positive right hemisphere aesthetic terms but in negative left hemispherical language and logic, as in "incomprehensible and uncircumscribable, boundless, limitless, formless", Theodore of Studios.

With the Reformation further degradation of the mystical use of aesthetics was to occur. Faced with the excesses of the Roman Church in its use of images and relics, often worshipped in their own right the Puritans banned the use of images or complex music, while Zwingli and Calvin rejected all use of sacred images. Even Luther maintained that images were only to be tolerated. In response the Counter Reformation was to affirm the veneration of images and relics because they were but symbols of the originals, i.e. people were not really worshipping the actual images or relics. They were thinking of the origins of them. While the heavyweights of Protestant and Catholic were slugging it out over negative issues of doctrine and authority (my left hemisphere is better than your left hemisphere) there was a branch of western Christianity, however, which did keep alive a more balanced and positive left/right hemisphere approach. Mysticism. Teresa of Avilon draws on her seeing of paintings to experience states of wonder and majesty. "These two kinds of vision almost always come together". From seeing, to experiencing, finally to understanding through use of the intellect, the power, commands and love of God. John of the Cross (1542-91) equally integrates the two but with the caveat that it is a process. "God perfects man gradually according to his human nature, and proceeds from the lowest and most exterior to the highest and most interior", i.e. man must start first with listening to sermons, attending masses, penance, discipline, meditation and exercising "holy rigour" before God will grant "supernatural communications", i.e. visions, perfection of feelings and a sense of unity until spiritual communion with God is attained.

In the post Reformation period, although Kant (1724-1804) greatly influenced the Romanticists with his Critique of Judgement, Hegel (1770-1931) had a more practical insight into the arts and its actual relationship with society. He understood the difference between the truth of art and the truth of reason (i.e. what we now perceive as a qualitative difference between the 2 hemispheres). He realised that the growing complexity of civil and political life (think European conflict and Industrial Revolution) favoured left hemisphere practicalities and reason which he said universally dominated and regulated life through its demands for laws, duties and rights. Consequently the innocence of the artist (in evidence for him right back to his favourite Greek period) was for ever lost and, because reason now pervaded and influenced every facet of life, would never return. Even Art, which had spoken to the quality of life and was at one with the senses, had lost its original truth and life because it would now be viewed in a more analytical way. It is a rather bleak view yet one which is alive today as it was some 200 years ago.

In the twentieth century however, we see, at least to start with, the correlation of aesthetics and the transcendent. Bernard Haring, like Balthasar, thought that morality without a sense of beauty was joyless and lifeless, mere dull regulation, and went further to argue that beauty was as transcendent as truth, goodness and the unity of oneness. Paul Tillich found favour with the expressionist style of painting, which he considered had "the strongest affinity with religious art". He termed it "the ecstatic-spiritual type", capable of the "manifestation of ultimate reality". Many, however, considered that modern artists who termed themselves Christian in reality were often producing sentimental, pious and dull compositions.

In the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) there was a statement which could be regarded as expressing a view of aesthetics common in the second half of the century. It was to be analysed and controlled by the intellect as to what was acceptable. Similarly in music the thrust was to encourage congregational singing and indigenous forms of music. The result was an explosion of exceedingly dull folk masses, often with guitar accompaniment, the demise of choirs and a collapse in the use of the great Renaissance/Classical masses of Palestrina, Haydn and Mozart. The inevitable decline in the standard of music has only recently been halted by Pope Benedict. He believed that the liturgy was disintegrating and called for a new liturgical movement in which "whether it is Bach or Mozart that we hear in church, we have a sense in either case of what Gloria Dei, the Glory of God, means. The mystery of infinite beauty is there and enables us to experience the presence of God more truly and vividly than in many sermons". Brave and welcome words, but causing little sign of action - yet!.

The problem is that the Church has never been comfortable with the real power of aesthetics, let alone the concept of ecstasy which so often arises from mysticism, a bastion of aesthetic experience and expression. It is too independent, uncontrollable and seems to militate against the authority of the priests and the sacraments. This, with the depressive elements of war, terrorism, dictatorships and suffering have sought, by the end of the century, to diminish still further the concept of aesthetics in theological life. Coupled with an increase in analytical philosophy, a decrease in the influence of Christianity in life, (yet with an increase in fractioning of the Christian religion) aesthetics, especially as evidenced in its independent mystical form, is no longer a major influence but is now the servant of any who would care to use it to bolster their cause, their argument, or their latest fad. Faith has become the central issue, together with inclusive modern language, relevance to modern society and social awareness. The 'otherness', as experienced in aesthetics, has become but an interesting adjunct to belief. Consequently we now find many universities offering aesthetics as part of courses but inevitably they are all used to bolster certain theological standpoints. The word, i.e. the left hemisphere of logic, sequential order, analysis and language predominates.