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New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology
By Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Seldom do concerns that we think of as aesthetic occupy the center of attention in Christian life and thought. Whereas one can talk about the ethics of Jesus or the eschatology of Paul, one cannot sensibly talk about Jesus' aesthetics or Paul's theory of taste. Although Christian theologians have reflected on beauty as well as on goodness, truth, and holiness, it is in fact beauty that they have most often slighted. The church, for its part, has made extensive use of the arts without making any consistent effort to understand what is distinctive about artistic contributions to worship and the Christian life.
It would nevertheless be a mistake to assume that aesthetics must be inconsequential for Christian piety and theology simply because aesthetic factors often receive minimal attention in themselves. Theologians increasingly recognize that aesthetic experience is a pervasive factor in our sense of the sacred, in our delight in creation (both human and divine), and in our moral imagination of good and evil. Theologians today are ever more aware, however, that aesthetics must be attentive to context. In relation to worship, many call for a practical church aesthetics that can respond to cultural diversity while respecting and renewing traditions—becoming, thereby, at once more inclusive and more discerning.
One's conception of the relevance of aesthetics to theology naturally depends on one's conception of aesthetics in general. It was not until the eighteenth century that the term "aesthetics" gained currency. Coined by Alexander Baumgarten (who had in mind the Greek aisthetika, meaning "perceptibles"), the word was picked up by Kant, who both modified its meaning and gave the term wider circulation. Although aesthetics was initially tied to the notion of a science of sensory knowledge and taste, it soon came to be understood more broadly as theoretical reflection on matters pertaining to the arts, beauty, and whatever else attracts attention by virtue of formal, sensory, and expressive qualities. Theological aesthetics in particular is concerned with three principal spheres: feeling and imagination (or taste, broadly conceived); beauty; and artistry (especially when linked to spirituality).
Aesthetics borders on a number of other fields, into which it regularly crosses. When aesthetics aims to shed light on traits evident in specific works of art, it contributes to practical criticism. When it focuses on features of a given art form such as literature or painting, it merges with such disciplines as literary theory and art theory. When it concentrates on questions of representation, meaning, structure, and interpretation, it converges with hermeneutics, linguistics, and semiotics. Studies of relationships between taste and class establish links between aesthetics and sociology. Inquiries into conditions of creativity, expression, and response join aesthetics with psychology. Aesthetic analyses of gesture and stylized action are pertinent to ritual studies and liturgics, while attempts to discern the moral import of artworks are obviously tied in with ethics. Studies that contemplate the ways in which art and beauty and other aesthetic phenomena can embody insight or reveal truth are allied with epistemology, often via theories of metaphor, symbol, and narrative. Finally, when thinkers try to discover how aesthetic factors play a role in relationships between self, others, world, and God, aesthetics becomes explicitly theological.
Regardless of these cross-disciplinary connections, most modern (as opposed to postmodern) theorists emphasized that aesthetics proper has a realm to itself. Beauty, they affirmed, is to be valued simply for its own sake. The "aesthetic attitude," according to such formalists, is attentive to sensory, expressive, and formal qualities alone. An aesthetic response to a Gothic Cathedral will delight in its harmonious proportions, the upward sweep of its columns and pointed arches, the elusive luster of its mysterious light, the formal integrity of the whole—yet will ignore the architecture's specifically religious and political aims.
The purism of such an approach to aesthetics was shared even by some theorists who focused on aesthetic expression or meaning rather than form per se. Thus, according to theorists such as Benedetto Croce and Susanne Langer, feelings and intuitions that are expressed or symbolized aesthetically are preconceptual or nondiscursive, and thus utterly different in kind from the actual feelings, commitments, and understandings found in theology and religious practice.
One virtue of such modernist theories of art is that they refuse to reduce aesthetics to politics or morality or piety. What such theories cannot do is account satisfactorily for how aesthetic creation and response reflect and affect the rest of life, morality, and thought. They therefore fail to discern much of what is valuable in art—not only overtly religious art such as Chartres's Cathedral and Bach's Mass in B Minor, but also such morally involving works as Rembrandt's late self-portraits, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych, and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Modernist theory likewise misses much of the variety and meaning of art within ritual and society outside the world of Western "high art."
Because of this inadequacy in mainstream modernist aesthetics, rival theories have now appeared that argue in favor of "anti-aesthetics," "paraesthetics," or "neo-aesthetics." Whether or not they choose to label themselves "postmodern," all of these theories attempt to rethink (and in some cases to discard) the sharp modernist distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic, between judgments of taste and judgments of other kinds—social, moral, intellectual. Thus the newer theories emphasize the intrinsic impurity of aesthetic production and response. Uncovering the often intricate and hidden ways in which aesthetic acts and artifacts function within cultural systems, they show how artistic judgments and products can either underwrite or undercut values associated with class, gender, race, and religion. Simultaneously, many recent theories call attention to the fictive element in all our images of self, society, and reality. They depict the arts as conspicuous examples of modes of imagination, fabrication, figuration, and emplotment that are at work in virtually every sphere of life and thought, from the activity of dreaming to the writing of history.
Various emphases and possibilities within modern and postmodern philosophical aesthetics extend into the theological sphere. In the first place it can be said that even formalist aesthetics, which reacts partly against the perennial impulse to impose religious and moral criteria onto aesthetic creation and evaluation, is nonetheless compatible with some kinds of theological aesthetics. Since beauty has over the centuries been taken to be one of the transcendental names of God, a beautiful sensuous form per se can be looked on as at once intrinsically good and a shadow or imprint of divinity. Even Kant declares that the beautiful, precisely as a good in itself, is a symbol of the morally good. Analogously, Karl Barth sees the beautiful as a symbol of the religiously good. The music of Mozart in particular seems to him to constitute a perfect world unto itself—harmoniously ordered, blessedly comic, and hence also a veritable parable of the Kingdom of God. Again, Hans Küng has observed that the intrinsic aesthetic rightness of an artistic landscape provides a foretaste of eschatological fulfillment. In a related vein Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued that aesthetic delight is part of the shalom, or peaceable flourishing, that faith looks for in seeking the kingdom of God. In the same spirit liberation theologians such as Dorothee Soelle maintain that a desirable social order necessarily includes the freedom of aesthetic creation and the joy of aesthetic response, which are part of knowing and loving God.
The idea that beauty has a kind of divine right to exist has in point of fact been held by Christian thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Jonathan Edwards, and Étienne Gilson. In this regard what is innovative about postmodern theologies is the degree to which the beauty they celebrate is of a kind that is perceptible to the senses. Whereas the whole neo-Platonic tradition within Christian thought has viewed our delight in sensory beauty as but an inferior though necessary step toward appreciating the higher realm of intellectual and spiritual beauty, the tendency in postmodern theology is to interpret the doctrines of creation and Incarnation as affirming the holy communion of the spiritual and the material.
In view of the relative autonomy and freedom of aesthetic creation, modern and postmodern theologians often look on aesthetic creativity as an important feature of humanity's having been made in the image of God. Jacques Maritain, for example, holds that creative intuition and production in some sense continue the work of divine creation. And Nicolas Berdyaev stresses how the artist exercises freedom in such a way as to go beyond all mere imitation to strive after beauty that is as yet unseen, and unforeseen even by God.
Related to theologies of beauty and creativity are theologies of artistic expression and revelation. For instance, the influential theology of culture developed by Paul Tillich finds implicit religious significance even in art that is overtly secular. According to Tillich, works such as Picasso's Guernica can express, through tensions that shatter complacency, a radical concern for what is ultimate—for the inexhaustible ground of being and meaningful existence, which traditionally is called God. Theologians influenced by Heidegger and Gadamer likewise look to art and poetry as a special unveiling (and mysterious concealing) of otherwise inarticulate truth. Alternatively, they may view art as potentially sacramental in its sensuous embodiment of what transcends intellectual sense.
More recently, theologians of art have come to see that some art is much moreironic or genuinely playful than is suggested by talk of ultimate concern, revelation, and truth. Moreover, even in the creation and experience of art at its most serious level, it seems possible that selves and communities are typically rather fragmented and unstable, characterized as much by penultimate concerns as by a concern for what is ultimate. Particularly when theologians are attentive to deconstructionist ideas, they may suspect that art can be errant and incoherent in ways far more subtle and pervasive than thinkers since the time of Plato have recognized (or feared). Do beauty and unity really encompass the goals and effects of art? Is the self really capable of integrity? Is religion? In raising such questions, theological aesthetics has begun to take more extensive account of formal fragmentation and expressive negation in both art and religion. For some theologians this also means taking seriously the possibility of a tragic or at least tragicomic theology for which redemption is literally incomprehensible (though perhaps still affirmable).
There is, in any event, a growing theological recognition that aesthetic experience and insight—whether positive or negative—cannot fully be absorbed or contained in the medium of theological concepts. That is to say, the meaning and insight embodied in (or evoked by) artistic expressions and representations are never entirely separable from the style and medium of expression. Art does not merely mirror. It reconfigures and reconstructs in ways not strictly replicated by other modes of making and meaning.
Yet as theologians have realized more and more, the language of art (in the broadest sense) is native to religion and so requires theological attention. Christian ideas and practices are unavoidably rooted in aesthetically rich forms: myth, metaphor, parable, song, ritual, image, edifice. With regard to scriptures, moreover, it is now clearer than ever that literary strategies are intrinsic to the biblical texts and their religious import.
Biblical scholars today thus join forces with scholars of religion and literature, who for some decades have argued that religious reflection depends on the artistic cultivation of language and imagination, just as literary art in turn taps religious experience and thought. Meanwhile, scholars in related areas have taken pains to demonstrate the religious involvements of such arts as drama, dance, music, painting, architecture, and film.
Because many such inquiries have dealt with modern culture, they have been able to show that in our own time religious questions and affirmations continue to be interwoven in, and reinterpreted by, the work of artists: from Stravinsky and Messiaen to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt; from Kandinsky and Mondrian to Barnett Newman and Anselm Kiefer; from T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden to Walker Percy and Alice Walker. Furthermore, several interpreters of art and religion have analyzed popular film and television, detecting a resurgence and reshaping of religious themes, whether in horror movies, science fiction, or more realistic genres. Thus on many levels one observes the continuing interanimation of art and religion, or aesthetics and theology.
What all of this suggests is not, of course, that everything aesthetic is especiallyreligious or that everything religious is especially aesthetic. It suggests, rather, that religion lives and thrives partly by means of aesthetic forms and that any reflection on Christian belief and practice in particular must therefore take aesthetic media into consideration. Such is the testimony, certainly, of Hans Urs von Balthasar's multivolume work The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, and it is a basic assumption of most theologians now engaged in aesthetics.
It may be that aesthetics as a theological enterprise has just begun to come into its own. It seems probable that theologians will increasingly care about the constructive and subversive powers of artistry, about popular arts as well as elite, about styles of life and thought as well as styles of art, about the role of "tastes" in the formation and evaluation of religious identities and differences, and about the aesthetic values of the natural world as well as those of human culture. Finally, with the renewal of studies in spirituality, theology is likely to ponder anew the ways in which aesthetic disciplines and sensitivities contribute to spiritual life and an awareness of God.
FRANK BURCH BROWNCHAPTER 2
Agnosticism is the intellectual disinclination to assert or deny truth claims without compelling evidence. More narrowly defined, it is the disinclination to assert or deny statements regarding the existence and nature of God. The adoption of agnosticism as a general intellectual orientation is motivated by the conviction that there is insufficient evidence for steadfast cognitive commitments. Like philosophical skepticism, agnosticism is less a doctrine than a refusal to be doctrinaire. As regards the existence of God, agnosticism is the position that shuns both the theistic claim that God exists and the atheistic claim that there is no God.
The word "agnosticism" was coined in 1869 by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. A staunch defender of Darwinism, Huxley made agnosticism central to his conception of scientific rationality. In an 1889 essay, "Agnosticism and Christianity," he wrote: "It is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and, in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism." Clearly Huxley's conception of agnosticism was of the broader sort, because he identified it closely with a general prescription governing rational beliefs; this maxim is now commonly called "the evidentialist principle" and is associated especially with the empiricist philosophy of John Locke. Huxley inferred from his prescription that belief in God's existence is not rationally assertible. Another Darwinian, Herbert Spencer, expressly associated agnosticism with the unknowability of basic facts about God.
Excerpted from New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology by Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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