Before I continue my reasoning, it would be helpful to describe where we have been. Especially considering the excellent comments that have been made to my original post on this topic.
In “The Lost Countenance,” I made an argument for the return to beauty in theology – and I argued that beauty is unnecessary, and therefore necessary to theology. This is what we might call the “excessive” quality of beauty, which shatters the bounds of utility. I ought to stress now that my prime combatant in that essay was utility – not science, not in the sense of logos. “Science” in the sense that it is used today is another matter, and I admit my continued reserve about it – at least because I have rarely seen any of them well integrated into theology. That is, I am ambivalent about how the Enlightenment myth of a neutral rational mind is helpful to theology’s (and philosophy’s!) peculiar logic.
The second essay, “What is Beauty? (A Beginning),” attempted to outline the very beginnings of a definition of beauty. I followed Balthasar’s way of thinking, which begins with what we might call the experience of beauty (in his case, the “subjective evidence,” which includes the “light of faith”). This is an almost ordinary manner to approach beauty – at least in the modern age, since it so strongly involves the personal experience of the individual in order to describe beauty’s contours. But my point was to stress these facets until they broke down, and to leave us with the sense that we had not quite gotten to beauty. Balthasar’s own work indicates the need for form (the objective) even when discussing “subjective evidence,” and he is indeed accused of relying too heavily on God and forgetting about human interaction. That is, he is accused of being too objective. My own essay does not take that accusation up (I find it hard to support), so much as it asks again whether the incomprehensibility of the form (God) has made beauty impossible to incorporate into theology. Thus, the essay ends with an ambivalent assessment of Balthasar’s legacy – at least as he is currently received.
It is even, it its way, ambivalent about my own position – that is, we must be wary when describing beauty only as “more than” or “excess” or “non-utlity.” That is a non-answer.
I will now attempt a different attitude about beauty, in the form of a more concerted dialogue with Balthasar. This is my first attempt to describe what I think needs clarification in Balthasar, if not correction. So please consider this as the first act of independence of an insignificant student who has, until now, rested happily in Balthasar’s shadow. I will assuredly display the grooming of my mentor even in this attempt to finger possible problems in his legacy.
And I may be entirely wrong about what I say next.
In my last essay, I indicated that Balthasar was right and was wrong. He was correct to gauge the current status of theology: a discipline that had become – especially in his context – a soulless machine convinced of its self-autonomy as a member of the modern academy. But Balthasar’s return to beauty has not yet, not quite, or perhaps not at all reinvigorated theology to its roots. This is, in part, because systematic institutional problems cannot be solved even with an intellectual correction. This is also because Balthasar himself has been received with deep confusion and, increasingly, animosity. It is fair to ask whether Balthasar is misunderstood, or whether there is something more happening – a deep problem in his theology. I tend to think he is mostly misunderstood, but I do think – more and more – that there is also a flaw in his non-system system.
I know it is not quite all this, but I think at least for now that he was wrong one key element of the past: Thomas Aquinas.
Balthasar preferred Bonaventure over Aquinas, and it was his mistake to give Bonaventure the status as the more aesthetic theologian. It is true that Bonaventure is intensively aesthetic, particularly in his most famous theological works, the Itinerarium, the Tree of Life, and the Life of St. Francis. Conformity to the image of Christ, even unto bearing the stigmata as Francis did, is a central facet of Bonaventure’s thinking. But it was Thomas Aquinas who first lifted beauty to sit with the transcendentals as a full and universal quality of all being. This insight, so fundamental to Balthasar, is Aquinas’s achievement – not Bonaventure’s. (VB works hard to argue otherwise, and the historical evidence is inconclusive at best.)
I must openly wonder what this means.
Aquinas says that beauty has proportion, integrity, and claritas (clarity/luminosity). There is a fascinating passage in the Summa Theologica:
Species or beauty has a likeness to the property of the Son. For beauty includes three conditions, “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.
– Prima Pars, Question 39, Article 8
First, Aquinas explains that we can associate beauty with the Son. Second, beauty has to do with perfection, harmony (as of parts or seemliness – even fittingness), and “brightness.” These are all qualities Aquinas says may be associated with the Second Person of the Trinity. And these are all points of central importance to Balthasar: Christ is the Beautiful, who is most perfect, in whom all the forms of the world are gathered and synthesized, and who fills the world with his luminous glory. If I am permitted make these connections without the lengthy footnotes necessary to explain the 800 years distinguishing the two men, I can at least argue for a fundamental theological consonance.
Again, I must wonder what this means. I admit I have barely intuited an answer.
It means – I think – that beauty must be associated more strongly with form, more strongly even than Balthasar has it. Or rather, we must interpret him as always referring back to the Form which is Christ. And when Balthasar presses theology to its outermost reaches, exploding all its categories (even the ones he invents!) on the cross, we must ask if he has done right by his own thinking – for now Christ is the formless form. This is more radical than the analogia entis, and we are right to ask what that can possibly be.
Formless form? Is this a paradox like Cyril of Alexandria’s great achievements – the suffering of the impassible God – or is this nonsense?
I admit I do not know.
But I know that beauty can be known, and even measured. It has “rightness” (for VB, Richtig) and we can judge this rightness even as it judges us. This makes beauty intelligible, and perhaps my task must be to associate beauty and truth with all the strength Balthasar argues in Theo-Logic, but without the perilous confusions of the Drama (interesting as it is).
Even in my own experience of Mozart’s Requiem, I was always too quick to associate it with darkness and agony. That was, I admit, how I met the music. But I really loved it not because it was one of the few real instances in which I could finally feel the full depths of my personal agony – which is what I thought caused my love – but because the whole work stood as a reminder not only of pain, but of hope and truth. We cannot love pain. (The formless form, the speechless terror: as when we really bother to imagine the Holocaust.) We can love what is good and true. Beauty brings us to the truth and allows us to delight in it.
Perhaps beauty is perfection. The perfection of the creature is of course for it to seek and attain its highest good and end, but isn’t that perfection for the Christian known in glorification? Indeed, perfection is the glorification of the body – and, as Augustine argues, beauty will inhere in the glorified body as a quality (De Civ. Dei xxii, 19).
I do not wish to destroy the link between beauty and mystery, as that is a part of its wondrous quality. But this mystery is not simply the impossible-to-know, or a blank stare. Beauty is claritas – and, yes, this can mean simple brightness, but it can also mean luminous – as if it were beauty that gave goodness and truth their superb and most perfect fascination (instead of simple, cold interest).
Is that what beauty is? Or can I, like Balthasar, only despair in describing it?