LEX LITURGIA, LEX AESTHETICA: THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS AND LITURGICAL THEOLOGY

 

“In every age and culture, the process of evangelism into faith is, at the same time, a process of being formed in a certain aesthetic—that is into certain patterned forms of perception.”[1] At first glance, this statement would seem to indicate that Don Saliers is purporting a kind of extreme religious aestheticism. When pietistic Evangelicals learn that Saliers is a liturgical theologian, then their fears will quickly be confirmed that liturgy itself is a “merely” aesthetic endeavor and has little to do with authentic Evangelical spirituality. Karl Barth shared this Evangelical concern for aestheticism. Barth explained that by saying that God is beautiful we must wonder whether we “bring the contemplation of God into suspicious proximity to that contemplation of the world which in the last resort is the self-contemplation of an urge for life which does not recognize its limits.”[2] Can a category as seemingly subjective as beauty actually carry the weight of a proper evangelical concern? Romantic aestheticism finally concludes itself in a nihilistic “art for art’s sake.” For Barth, this aestheticism and any other “ism” which would claim centrality in our theological contemplation (i.e. logism, moralism, intellectualism, etc.) is a reduction to idolatry.[3] This certainly cannot be an evangelical aesthetics. But this is not what Saliers intends at all.

Rather, Saliers is arguing that faith conversion is finally a change in perception. I have argued elsewhere that the primary category for evangelical and apologetic concerns is beauty, because beauty classically understood is the category of being related to the efficient cause of love. A beautiful thing is that which delights upon contemplation. If “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”, then an evangelical theology is one that causes a person to take delight in God. Therefore, an evangelical theology is one that displays the beauty of God as an object of contemplation. Saliers contends that this conversion will require a new kind of seeing. Evangelical conversion therefore requires the formation of Christian “taste”. In this essay, I will explore how liturgy as an aesthetic object can (re)form aesthetic taste towards the Beauty of God. Conversely, I will explore the ways in which theological aesthetics can ministerially critique liturgy. Because of the formational character of liturgy, liturgists and liturgical theologians have an obligation towards an aesthetic that will help participants “see” God. This mutually critiquing relationship, liturgy teaching appropriate aesthetics and aesthetics teaching appropriate liturgy, is a particular instance of the lex orandi, lex credendi debate: lex liturgia, lex aesthetica.

Ascending to Higher Beauty

Plato argued that beauty must be learnt by experiencing particular beautiful things. By seeing many of these beautiful things, a person begins to see similarities between the beautiful things and is able to see that these similarities are the result of a single concept of beauty which exists prior to the particulars. Beginning with more physical beauties, a person may begin to contemplate the beauty of ideas and knowledge and finally understand the concept of Beauty itself.[4] Given Plato’s instructions and the infinite nature of God, the proper starting place for understanding aesthetic criteria and formation into aesthetic judgment is particular physical things. Much of philosophical aesthetics begins with a discussion of art for this reason. Likewise, theological aesthetics will also begin with particular aesthetic objects. However, the primary starting point of this theological aesthetics is not religious fine art, although fine arts have their place in aesthetic formation and evangelism. Everything that I will say about the liturgy as an artistic medium could also be said of Christian fine art in abstraction. However, I begin with the Christian liturgy because it is the everyday communal artful action. Only an elite group of artists and critics encounter fine art on a regular basis, though Christians would do well to make artistic contemplation a regular activity. But every person who attends a worship service encounters the artful action of Christian liturgy.[5] This regular participation in liturgy as an aesthetic object serves as the particular beautiful things which serve to form aesthetic taste in Plato’s schema.

Following St. Augustine, Frank Burch Brown speaks of how encountering a beautiful object or event such as a sunset or a symphony orchestra performance causes a delight that cannot be satisfied.[6] Aesthetic enjoyment is the cause of greater desire. If Plato is correct, then subsequent experiences of beautiful objects will train the observer towards similarities. Observers might question what element of the choirs’ weaving polyphony and the preacher’s dancing cadence caused their delight. Once tasting this beautiful liturgy, participants will begin to desire the “water” which will cause them “to never thirst again”.[7] As Plato described, encounter with the beautiful object of Christian liturgy is drawn to contemplate beauty in the abstract and finally must find God as the ultimate source of beauty.

This Augustinian-Platonic conception of aesthetic formation seems significantly more peaceful and gradual than that described by Derrida. For Derrida the aesthetic object is like Paul’s blinding on the road to Damascus, it is a blinding that causes one to see. But Derrida’s ‘blinded seeing’ (my terminology) is not total blinding or total seeing, but nevertheless a radical conversion of seeing. The security of seeing is lost and “tears of insight” are gained. All of which makes the “love of God grow within”.[8] This derridian artistic conversion is not unlike Aidan Kavanagh’s description of the liturgy’s effect on participants. The liturgical conversion is “an adjustment in the assembly of participants to its being brought to the brink of chaos in the previous liturgical act.”[9] The liturgy changes the participants, and the participants likewise change the liturgy in the next performance because of their adjustment. Following Gadamer, David Tracy likewise recognizes the transformative character of engagement with art.

Rather the work of art encounters me with the surprise, impact, even shock of reality itself. In experiencing art, I recognize a truth I somehow know but know that I did not really know except through the experience of recognition of the essential compelled by the work of art. I am transformed by its truth when I return to the everyday, to the whole of what I ordinarily call reality, and discover new affinities, new sensibilities for the everyday.[10]

Both Tracy and Derrida conceive of the aesthetic object as radically converting the observer by its shear beauty, a conversion that opens one’s eyes to seeing in a new way. Although transformation can happen in this way (we often still refer to this kind of transformation as a “Damascus Road experience”), it is not our normal experience. Though Augustine recounts his conversion to Christianity as a single event in a garden, the single event can only be conceived of as the final event in a transformational process. This transformation is consistently referred to by Augustine as a reordering of loves. The rate at which this happens is important but not critical at this juncture. If the efficient cause of love is beauty as both Plato and Aquinas agree, then a reordering of loves amounts to a conversion of aesthetic taste. Prioritizing the love of God is a change in aesthetic perception to recognize God’s Beauty as ultimate beauty. As Brown summarizes,

(C)ertain kinds of neo-Platonism emphasize that the sensible beauty that one can apperceive through taste is analogous to the divine beauty that can be known through the intellect or religious affections; one’s love of the former can lead therefore to love of the latter, and aesthetic taste can in this way be transformed into its spiritual analogue.[11]

Here the Platonic schema of particular beautiful things leading to a conception of beauty in general and therefore God is made explicitly religious. Taste enables aesthetic perception which leads to love of divine beauty. Because this process depends upon aesthetic taste which some people are perceived to have and others are not, “taste” plays a significant role in what it means to be formed aesthetically. As Saliers argues, evangelism is closely tied to developing a certain aesthetic.

Avoiding Aestheticism and Idolatry

Properly formed aesthetic is called good taste. Conversely, if good taste is proper aesthetic appreciation, then bad taste is a failure to see the aesthetic well. But taste as I speak of it does not refer to culturally formed elitist criteria. Rather good taste refers to the ability to properly judge to what extent a particular existing thing participates in beauty, goodness, and truth. Brown suggests four forms of “sinful taste”, that is bad taste theologically understood.[12] First is idolatrous aestheticism. Brown says that aestheticism maintains a perfection achieved through expressing an “inner vision” rather than correspondence to a really existing reality. Popular in Romantic art, this is art for art’s sake. Art needs no reference to God and is therefore worshipped as its own absolute.

Second, the sin of philistinism is failing to take delight in God. Barth referred to taking God’s glory as “mere fact.” The philistine takes no delight in theological and artistic truth and therefore can take no joy in God’s truth and beauty. Barth said, “The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all.”[13] To truly apprehend God is find God beautiful. The philistine looks at the aesthetic and searches for its use. The doctrine of the Trinity, the rhythm of dance, and mystery of poetry are rendered obsolete for their uselessness. This is apparent in the constant inquiry into what art “means”.

Third, intolerant aesthetic elitism is the sin of pride. This indication of bad taste has often been the mark of good taste. The one well-steeped in aesthetic criteria is the most likely to dismiss “popular” art as mere kitsch. It may well be this popular art that avoids incommensurability with the “non-artist”. On the other hand, the fourth indication of bad taste is indifference to beauty. This indifference fails to distinguish between truthful and false representation. Like aestheticism, but for different reasons, evil and false representations can slip behind this “sinful taste” without aesthetic criteria to judge them.

Although each of these types of “sinful taste” is equally bad, the one that primarily concerns this work is the first, aestheticism. As I recognized in the introduction above, arguing for aesthetic formation as evangelism comes dangerously close to aestheticism. But evangelical theology is concerned primarily with reordering persons’ love towards God. Even as Barth warned of the dangers of aestheticism, he finally concluded that the final word in a proper doctrine of God must be that God is beautiful.[14] Therefore the most critical concern in theological aesthetics of this nature is aestheticism. As stated above, “art for art’s sake” or “liturgy for liturgy’s sake” are both properly called idolatry.

The key step in avoiding idolatry is a thorough grounding of all beauty in the beauty of God. More directly, all aesthetic appreciation must be contemplation of God. Brown speaks of the beauty of natural or created objects grounding in the ultimate Beauty of God. Classical Christian doctrine’s of Imago Dei or analogia entis support the view that created things participate in an infinitely less complete way in the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness of God. Likewise, liturgy as beautiful performance is grounded in the beauty of God.

Thus Beauty is distinguished from the merely pretty. Aestheticism which produces art for its own sake only describes the decorative and pretty. Beauty must refer also to what is good and true. Beautiful objects must point beyond themselves to real Beauty, the essence (or form) of Beauty. Medieval theologians borrowed this concept primarily from the Neoplatonists.[15] Neoplatonists thought that the extent to which a thing pointed beyond itself towards the form which it participated causes the particular to be perceived as beautiful (and good and true). Beauty was grounded in the forms. Medieval theologians drew on this concept to claim that beauty in particular existing things was due to their grounding in God, the Truly Beautiful. Something could be considered pretty without significant ontological grounding. But a beautiful thing was beautiful because it participated in God.

Like the medieval theologians, Gadamer too wanted to ground beauty in ontology, though not for theological reasons. He did so by drawing on the concept of symbol, a word often employed in sacramental theology. Gadamer explains that symbol was originally a token of remembrance between a guest and his or her host. The host would take an object from his or her home and break it, giving half to the guest. If a descendent of the guest were to meet the host some time later, he or she could bring the symbol and the two pieces could be fit together again. Therefore, symbol referred to “something in and through which we recognize something already known to us.”[16] Therefore, to speak of art or liturgy as symbol is not simply to say that the experience of liturgy “means” something else. Thus communion is not simply the recalling of a first century Passover meal or even a theatrical performance of a forthcoming heavenly banquet. Symbol refers to a broken piece of something larger. The liturgical event participates in the historical narrative of redemption in a real but incomplete way. Because it is only a piece of the reality of which it is a part, the liturgical act is always only a partial revealing of the truly Beautiful. Gadamer proposes that the symbolic always “rests upon an intricate interplay of showing and concealing.”[17] John Milbank proposes that seeing the beautiful is seeing the invisible in the visible. I take him to mean something like Gadamer’s hermeneutics of symbol.[18] For Milbank this may even include seeing the invisible as invisible, which is the heart of Christian mystery. Christian dogma names the mysterious as mysterious and contends that something is accomplished in doing so. Mystery is at the heart of sacrament. Naming bread and wine “body and blood” makes the mystery visible and yet still quite invisible. Nothing we see, eat, or smell in Christian liturgy looks, tastes, or smells like body and blood. In this sense the invisible is still invisible. In another real sense, these invisible are made visible in bread and wine. The bread and wine are a symbol in the sense that they participate in a “broken” way in Christ’s body and blood.[19] This grounding of the aesthetic object in a proper reference to God avoids idolatry. Only God can be identified with Beauty itself without qualification.

Therefore all proper speech about God is dependent on some form of analogy. Regardless of one’s acceptance of analogia entis or its rejection (Nein!) in favor of analogia fides, the role in theological speech is the same. Analogy opens up the possibility of speech about God without reducing God to a being like us. Analogy preserves the infinity of God and makes knowledge of God possible, avoiding univocity and equivocity. The use of analogy in theological and liturgical speech helps to distinguish the merely pretty from the beautiful. Pretty things may please the eye. But beautiful things point beyond themselves to the very reality of Beauty, God.

As David Bentley Hart has argued, the doctrine of analogy is the link between the Platonic conception of aesthetics and the doctrine of creation that must ground any Christian ontology. When creation is understood as a finite (and sinful) participation in the transcendental predicates of Being, then all creation can be expressed in terms of greater or lesser participation in God. This is the “principle” of analogy in all its various theological forms.[20]

This principle of analogy allows liturgical aesthetics to avoid aestheticism. Beautiful liturgical events are beautiful insofar as they point beyond themselves toward God. Christian liturgists and liturgical theologians must be attentive to the extent to which liturgy itself is the object of contemplation. Liturgy (and Christian fine arts) must cause observers to contemplate God rather than the liturgy.[21] Though the liturgy is the means of contemplation, God must be the object of contemplation. Like analogical speech, art and liturgy are always an approximation of truth that points beyond themselves to truth larger than themselves.

Thus the fruit of this extended treatment of idolatrous aestheticism and the principle of analogy is a liturgical theology which can be informed by aesthetic criteria without falling into aestheticism. Art and liturgy which avoid aestheticism have their proper grounding as symbol in the reality to which they themselves take part. The degree to which something participates in God, Beauty Itself, is the degree to which it is beautiful. A theological aesthetics must provide some principles, if not measures, by which participation in God and therefore the Beautiful can be recognized. This is the role of the conception of symbol proposed by Gadamer. However, liturgy is not beautiful only because it is symbol. Liturgists, like artists, must also consider aesthetic criteria if the liturgy will serve as a beautiful object that helps form aesthetic taste.



Theological Aesthetic Critique of Liturgy

Geoffrey Wainwright argues for the grammatical ambiguity of the Latin lex orandi, les credendi. As Wainwright argues, prayer and belief have a mutually critiquing interplay in which worship influences doctrine and doctrine influences belief.[22] Likewise, liturgy influences aesthetic formation and theological aesthetic criteria influences liturgy. I have said nothing more or less than Wainwright, only something more particular. A particular kind of theology, theological aesthetics, has a mutually critiquing interplay with a particular kind of prayer, liturgy. Lex liturgia, lex aesthetica is a particular form of lex orandi, lex credendi. Like the latter formula, the former formula must also be considered a proper principal for liturgical theology. However, aesthetics fails its role in liturgical critique if not a proper theological aesthetics. Thus it must be grounded in the Beauty and love of God according to the principle of analogy.

This principle of analogy provides the first theological aesthetic critique of liturgy. Liturgy as an aesthetic object must claim some kind of participation in God or collapse into aestheticism and idolatry. In other words, liturgy which attends to aesthetic concerns must be sacramental worship. Liturgical aesthetics must be a visible sign of the invisible Beauty of God.[23] Liturgy with no conception of participation and mediation of God cannot account for aesthetic concerns without already being clearly aestheticism, liturgical aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics.

Roman Catholic sacramentality extends the concept of mediation beyond the proper Sacraments to other sensible means. Of course Catholic thought insists that nothing is necessary but the Eucharist itself. But abundant aesthetic bells, incense, gesture, poetic language, music and grand architecture create a rich sensory awareness within the Mass. Though Catholic “Real Presence” is objectively so, these other sensory experiences serve to prepare the worshipper such that the Sacrament is efficacious.[24] This didactic use of aesthetic experiences cannot be the end for Catholic sacramentality, however. Because of the principle of analogy, all beautiful objects are such because of participation in divine beauty. The grand architecture is perceived as beautiful because God too is grand. Beautiful harmony is such because “all things work together for the good”, and so on.

Thus Puritan “liturgical aesthetics” make sense if one denies the principle of analogy as most Reformed theologians did.[25] Revelation (whether natural or special) as the only source of knowledge of God makes no room for liturgy made by persons as a legitimate source of divine knowledge. This liturgical theory is consistent with their conception of revelation. However, the theological error leads to an austerity that fails to take delight in God, a theological philistinism.

Sacramental theology, the conception that what happens in worship mediates and participates in God, requires that aesthetic concerns remain vital. God who is Beauty Itself is maligned by inattention to aesthetic criteria. To summarize several interdependent conclusions: God is Beautiful. Creation participates in God and God’s Beauty according to a principle of analogy. Sacramental worship therefore participates in God’s beauty as part of creation. Therefore, worship must be beautiful if it will participate in God well and form participants into a proper perception of God.

Beyond concerns regarding sacramentality, Christian liturgy must also account for aesthetic criteria. But aesthetic judgment is something that cannot be reduced to formulas. This fact makes it difficult to use beauty and aesthetics as a critical principle in the liturgy. Philosophical and theological aesthetics serve as resources to provide criteria for judging beauty in a particular thing. Though these criteria are not easily quantifiable, they can serve as diagnostic tools for assessing liturgical aesthetics. Without these criteria as a guide, worship may form participants into an aesthetic vision that is less then Christian orthodoxy.

Aquinas named three criteria which are relatively accepted in aesthetics universally: unity, harmony or proportion, and brightness.[26] Though these criteria have been adopted by philosophical aesthetics generally, they are theological categories for Aquinas. He explains the categories under the relations of the Trinity, attending to each regarding the Son. Beauty is a category that proceeds from God as it accords with God’s Being.

Christian liturgy attends to these aesthetic criteria regarding the liturgy’s internal cohesiveness and in relationship to the world which the liturgy portrays. If one attended only to the aesthetic qualities of the liturgy internal to itself, then this would amount to “liturgy for liturgy’s sake”. Internal aesthetics are necessary for the appeal of the senses to the liturgy itself, but the “truthfulness” of the liturgy to the outside world must also be attended to if Church and liturgy are in any way to be called “sacramental”. When Kavanagh refers to the sacramental he means that the Church is sacrament because it shows the World what it was meant to be.[27] Therefore, the liturgy should be an enactment of the world as it is meant to be. Therefore the aesthetic criteria help one judge the extent to which the Church’s liturgy points beyond itself towards a World rightly formed. The formal principle for a particular aesthetic genre is largely dependent upon socialized aesthetic preferences. However, the church’s liturgy and doctrine is largely a way of seeing, a worldview. Thus the formal principle is not something arbitrary or even socially formed. Liturgy and belief must make account for the world as it is experienced. The World therefore is the formal principle of Christian liturgy. However, it is not the World only, but the World as eschatologically oriented by the Church’s witness.

Taken as a whole, ‘fittingness’ describes the degree to which the theological or aesthetic point beyond themselves to the World well. Are the specific elements held in proper proportion such that each element is expressed to its proper intensity? Is the representation sufficiently rich such that it portrays seemingly disparate concepts with proper harmony or dissonance? Is the unity of the whole called into question by a significant concept’s overemphasis or omission? The concept of fittingness also takes into account the contextual appropriateness. Significant difference found between cultural expressions is simultaneously locally and universally conditioned. Though the aesthetic criteria below encompass localized definitions of unity, harmony, and brightness, the categories themselves are universal.

But this universality does not account for the way that a grand gothic cathedral would be inappropriate in a sub-Saharan African village. The expense of producing such a structure among financial poverty would be morally irresponsible. And the architecture would be misplaced among tribal ways of life. Thus attentiveness to particular localized taste is also necessary. So the aesthetic concept of ‘fittingness’ serves as a guide trans-culturally while considering cultural taste preferences.[28] Further parsing of the concept of ‘fittingness’ includes analysis of the individual aesthetic criteria. This provides guidelines for forming a beautiful liturgical witness.

Unity primarily concerns the coherence and completeness of the aesthetic object. As a theological principle, Aquinas derives this concept from the Son’s identical nature with the Father. Nicholas Wolterstorff explains that as an artistic criteria unity is based on the formal concept of unity inherent to particular art forms.[29] For example, this means that the medieval cathedral is unified by the formal conception of medieval architectural standards. When measuring the unity of a conception of the world’s reality the formal concept is reality itself. Therefore, unity of the Christian story or any other worldview will be the extent to which every area of reality is included in the conception.

For example, Christianity’s failure to convincingly account for or provide alternative visions for evolutionary theory has debatably been a lack of unity in contemporary Christian witness. Likewise, if a theory’s internal coherence broke down at significant points as Newtonian physics was known to do, then unity is lacking. Therefore as Christian liturgy performs the world, it must have a logic that makes internal sense and it must account well for the way the world is and should be if it is to be considered unified.

Practically speaking, Christian liturgy which uses the orthodox language of creation must give an account of modern evolutionary theories or it will appear to be fideistic to participants. Since liturgical formation is typically a process of ongoing engagement in worship, an account of creation language and evolutionary theories need not take place every week. But liturgically ignoring alternative accounts of the world which grasp the participants’ allegiances will lack aesthetic unity with reality as it is experienced. This will not be a simple Tillichian correlation or unthinking fideism. Liturgically this will require biblical preaching that explains the grammar of Christian faith found in the creeds. This is not to say that creation language should be explained away or deemphasized in light of modern science. But Christian liturgy must explain the imaginative language of the liturgical art without explaining it away.[30]

Proportion speaks of the relationship of one element to another. Aquinas speaks of proportion regarding Jesus as a perfect image of God. Proportion regards the degree to which the image reflects the imaged. Augustine explained proportion by lamenting the loss of single eyebrow from the human form. “Loss to the mere mass of the body is insignificant. But what a blow to Beauty!”[31] For example, liturgies which emphasize either mercy or judgment (or Oneness and Threeness) without the other are recognized as out of proportion. Likewise, harmony speaks of the beauty of varied elements when spoken of together, therefore holding such diverse concepts as mercy and judgment as mutually dependent. Contemporary Evangelical theologies often emphasize the grace and mercy displayed in sacrificial atonement without the ethical implications of incarnation. This results in a theological error with moral consequences, which effects the beauty of Christian witness. When each is given their proper place, Christian doctrine will proclaim forgiveness and also take up the social responsibility inherent to Christian faith. Outsiders will see that as a beautiful way of life.

Harmony also speaks of the richness of an account. A single musical note has unity, but it lacks the richness of harmony. The popular “Roman’s Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” approaches to faith serve as an example here. When an account is reduced to a single concept without the tensions of other “dissonant” concepts it lacks beauty. As Don Saliers says about praise without lamentation, a theology that lacks richness may turn out to be simply a cheap imitation.[32] Proportion and harmony within the Christian liturgy will attend to the relationship of liturgical elements. Does the liturgy emphasize visual, aural, and tactile elements appropriately? Besides these internal aesthetic questions are the questions of the liturgy’s fittingness with reality. Hymnody which is primarily dissonant or, conversely, contains only major chords with melodies in perfect triads fails to project the world of harmony and disharmony well.

Aquinas named the third criteria “brightness”. For Aquinas this follows from the Logos as the “light and splendor of the intellect”.[33] Wolterstorff identifies this criterion with what he calls “fittingness-intensities”.[34] By this he means the degree to which an aesthetic object achieves the character to which it is intended. If Christian liturgy enacts a redeeming story, then its “brightness” would be measured by the depth of the redemption enacted. Is every area of a person’s life redeemed including the physical, emotional, and spiritual parts? Is creation itself redeemed? Can social entities, artistic forms, and academic disciplines (to name just a few examples) be redeemed? Does redemption mean a complete break from that which held bondage (i.e. does the alcoholic ever return to the drink and if so does redemption even extend there)? If the redemption enacted in liturgy is one that only “saves” a person’s soul from eternal damnation while leaving there present lives unchanged then the “redemption” portrayed is insignificantly “bright”.

These aesthetic criteria serve simply as an alternative way of considering the multi-level tensions which Saliers contends are necessary for faithful liturgy. The tension between divine ethos and human pathos cannot be reduced from artistic expression and imagination. Christian liturgy is always “both God-attentive and thoroughly grounded in human life always found in specific social/cultural patterns.”[35] This kind of tension cannot be expressed with words alone. But the liturgical art can enact these tensions without reducing them. Thus liturgy as artful action can make intelligible the tension between the similarity and greater dissimilarity of Creator and creature. In other words, liturgy as art can speak analogically in a way that plain speech and secondary theology cannot. It seems that Saliers attention to tension is the struggle to maintain unity, proportion, and brightness well.

Conclusion

Evangelical formation is largely dependent on the dynamic relationship between liturgy and aesthetics. By experiencing particular beautiful objects, which occurs regularly in Christian liturgy, a person is formed into a particular way of seeing. This way of seeing opens the worshipper to an imaginative artful framework which is able to hold significant tensions together without reduction. Not only is liturgy able to do this, it should be considered the primary way of doing so. This is not based on a Romantic desire for beauty for its own sake. God’s being is a multi-layered reality which cannot be contained with simple words. Likewise, the drama of salvation history is multi-faceted and requires a new way of perceiving if the uninitiated will be able to apprehend. By experiencing the liturgy and its multi-layered realities, a participant is formed into an aesthetic perception of the world. This beautiful perception entices thirst that can only be quenched by God. Thus aesthetic perception causes a person to love God, as Beauty is love’s efficient cause.

However, idolatry is liturgy as the object of contemplation rather than the means of contemplating God. This aestheticism results from aesthetic concerns in liturgy without a proper doctrine of creation. Liturgical aesthetics without the principle of analogy cannot account for its role in evangelism or worship. Sacramental worship leads the worshipper to contemplation of God by aesthetic means. Sacramental worship employs symbol to make the invisible beauty of God visible in the artful action of liturgy. Symbol as employed by liturgy is not a simple this means that. Rather, symbol serves as the visible mediation of an invisible reality without fully exhausting the invisible. One might say, “There is more to it than that.” Eucharist is the “real presence” of Christ, but does not contain the presence of Christ. The principle of analogy allows speech about God and divine reality which participates substantially but inexhaustibly in the divine. This is artful speech.

Because liturgy is an artful performance of divine reality, aesthetic categories are helpful in critiquing liturgical action. The aesthetic criteria of unity, proportion, and ‘fittingness-intensity’ ensure that liturgical acts form participants in a truthful aesthetic perception. They do so based on there theological basis in the doctrine of God. Aesthetic criteria not founded in the doctrine of God are only the basis for the merely pretty. But liturgy which points toward the Beauty of God by attending to the aesthetic criteria formed theologically will form an aesthetic vision that avoids aestheticism and leads persons to “enjoy God forever.”





[1] Saliers, Worship as Theology, 195.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 651.

[3] Ibid., 655.

[4] Plato, Symposium, 210a-211a.

[5] I am careful here to distinguish between liturgy and what we often call “art”. The primary distinction for Saliers and others is the object of contemplation. Works of art are themselves the object of contemplation. However, the liturgy rightly performed uses aesthetic means to encourage the contemplation of God, not the liturgy. This distinction will return significantly in “Aestheticism and Idolatry” below. Cf. Saliers in Art, Theology and the Church, 188-9.

[6] Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, 97-100.

[7] Cf. John 4:13, NIV.

[8] These quotes and explanation of Derrida are from Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, 90-2.

[9] Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology, 74.

[10] Quoted in Theological Aesthetics:A Reader, ed. by Gesa Elsbeth Theissen, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 261-2.

[11] Brown, Religious Aesthetics, 146. The “certain kinds of neo-Platonism” to which Brown refers are Thomas Aquinas in particular and neo-Thomists in general. Though I have thus far referred only to “medieval theologians,” my argument follows Aquinas significantly as he is the medieval theologian par excellence. As Brown shows, the Platonic schema of ascending from experiencing particular beautiful things to beautiful ideas and finally Beauty/God in general is made explicitly Christian with Aquinas and the medieval theologians.

[12] Brown, Religious Aesthetics, 151-157. Also see a expansion on Brown in De Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation, 80-94.

[13] Barth, CD II/1, 658.

[14] Barth, CD II/1, 652.

[15] “Aesthetics,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 (http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved).

[16] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 31.

[17] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 33.

[18] Milbank, “Beauty and the Soul”, 2.

[19] Lathrop’s use of “broken symbol” is analogous to Gadamer’s symbol as two broken parts of a whole. For Lathrop, a symbols breaking opens it up to new meanings which it could not contain previous to the breaking. Its “meaning” is incomplete. For Gadamer, the “meaning” is equally opened by a kind of brokenness, the parts breaking from the whole.

[20] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 2003), 241-9. Cf. Brown, Religious Aesthetics, 123-4.

[21] Saliers, “Liturgical Aesthetics” in Arts, Theology, and the Church, 188-9.

[22] Wainwright, Doxology, 218-9.

[23] I intend here a faithful transposition of the classical definition of sacrament in theological aesthetic terms. Thus “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” is correlatively a “visible sign of the invisible Beauty of God.” Cf. Brown, Religious Aesthetics, 105.

[24] Brown, Religious Aesthetics, 124-5.

[25] One notable exception is the positive place for aesthetics and art for Jonathan Edwards. See Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 298-9; and Roland Dealattre, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.)

[26] Summa Theologica, I q. 39, a. 8.

[27] Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology, 42-3.

[28] Wolterstorff has an excellent discussion of the use of particular artistic elements in liturgical acts. He explains that what is fitting for worship in Pentecost may not be fitting for worship at Lent. Likewise, music that is fitting for one congregation’s conception of confession may not be fitting for another congregation’s conception of confession. In this sense ‘fittingness’ is intimately concerned with context. Art in Action, 184-7.

[29] Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 164-5.

[30] I think this will require admitting the socially-embedded nature of religious grammar while revealing the socially-embedded nature of modern scientific language. Presuppositional apologists argue that we must “admit that we stand in a particular tradition…and remind our interlocutor that he or she does too” (Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology and Apologetics” in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, 38.). Evangelism and therefore aesthetic formation must pay close attention to apologetics without being reduced to apologetics without remainder. Liturgists and preachers must do this kind of apologetic work without leaving the proper ethos of liturgy and worship. Liturgy is not primarily didactic.

[31] Civitas Dei, Bk. 11, Ch. 22.

[32] Saliers, Worship as Theology, 122-5.

[33] Summa Theologica, I q. 39, a. 8.

[34] Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 166-8.

[35] Saliers, Worship as Theology, 25.

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