November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 1, 2009
Let that be called beauty, the very perception of which pleases”1—as far as definitions of beauty go, one can hardly improve on this one by Thomas Aquinas. Not only does it do justice to our common experience of what we call beautiful, but it also resonates with the Genesis account of trees being created as both “good for food” and as “pleasing to the eye” (Gen. 2:9).2
Even so, I have to agree with Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco that, in terms of developing an adequate philosophy or theology of beauty, this definition merely serves “to introduce the problem, not to solve it.”3 What kinds of phenomena are supposed to be pleasing when (merely) perceived? What kind of pleasure do they give? Is beauty subjective or objective? And, crucially, is beauty something to be sought after and desired or distrusted and avoided? After all, the way Aquinas formulates his definition does not commit him either way—Eco even refers to it as “a sociological finding” and blames Jacques Maritain for turning what is merely an empirical observation into a dogmatic statement in Art and Scholasticism.4
Throughout history, Christian thought about the nature and role of beauty has been divided. On the one side, we have church father Tertullian who considered beauty—especially female beauty —to be an evil planted by the devil to seduce and distract us from higher things. On the other side, we have Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus who considered beauty a gift of the Spirit that enabled us to rise from earthly beauty to a higher divine reality. With subtle variations, both approaches are still prevalent among Christians today.
Looking beyond the Christian community to society at large, tensions around beauty have not disappeared. In fact, we are faced with a puzzling paradox touching the heart of our Western culture: beauty, it turns out, is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.
On the one hand, we are obsessed with it. Western consumer culture revolves around aesthetic choices—from daily decisions about fashion and design to the ongoing beautification of our homes and bodies. There is no lack of statistics detailing the staggering amounts of financial and other resources spent on cosmetic surgery, dieting products, fitness paraphernalia, and other body “improvement” commodities.
On the other hand, in the area to which people traditionally have turned to seek beauty, the world of art, beauty is conspicuously absent. Contemporary art, at least, is widely considered to be unappealing and unattractive. When people seek beauty, they do not tend to go to London’s Tate Gallery or New York’s MOMA.
This raises the question: why is our culture obsessed with beauty and why does contemporary art reject and despise it? And when we speak of beauty in the context of culture and the context of contemporary art, are we talking about the same thing? What kind of beauty is our culture craving and the art world spurning? Why, for instance, would an artist such as abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman proclaim that “the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty”?5
Let me first clarify an important issue: beauty in art is not the same as beauty in nature or in the world outside of art. A painting or poem is not the same kind of entity as what it depicts. Being neither a copy nor a mirror image, a work of art is rather an artistic rendering of a human experience of something.
This means that a painting of something beautiful is not, simply by definition, itself also beautiful. It can, for instance, be a poor work and turn something beautiful into something banal. Popular painter Thomas Kinkade’s garish colors and contrived compositions turn what in the hand of greater artists might be picturesque rural scenes into crass and sentimental clichés. We call it kitsch.
Nor is it true that a picture or poem of something ugly is therefore by definition ugly. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of piles of toxic industrial waste as featured in his film Manufactured Landscapes are beautiful, if indeed, unsettling, classical compositions. The reason for their being unsettling is precisely their ambiguity. Although unquestionably “beautiful” in the classical tradition of harmony and symmetry, these formal qualities clash dramatically with our background knowledge that the Western waste in the photographs is being sorted by destitute people with no other means of income, by people whose health will suffer as a result. This also gets to the heart of the dilemma of modern art: how to depict waste, violence, suffering, or brokenness without, on the one hand, beautifying the ugly nature of it or, on the other hand, failing the work of art as art. Is it, as social philosopher Theodore Adorno claims, barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz? Is it even possible to make art about events that are by their nature unspeakable? Put differently, how can art lament and critique what it represents while, at the same time, being true to itself qua art?
As the philosopher of art Susanne Langer has rightly pointed out, art is not mere self-expression. Instead, she proposes, it is the symbolic representation of human feeling and experience. It is, in philosopher of art’s Peter Kivy’s words, “expressive of” or, in Reformational philosopher’s Calvin Seerveld’s terminology, “allusive” or “suggestive” of what it represents. This means that we may still experience aesthetic pleasure—and thus, according to Aquinas’s definition, beauty—in the artistic skill with which the artist has been able to capture an experience in a sensuous construct. Yet the overall response to a work addressing human deprivation or degradation can and should not be one of pure pleasure and delight, but one mixed with shock, disgust, reflection, empathy, or repentance. And because these negative feelings cannot be divorced from the total experience of the work of art, it is no longer appropriate to characterize the overall aesthetic experience as an experience of beauty in a Thomistic sense. It does not “please” in being perceived, and it would be perverse or obscene if it did. Instead, we call such works “moving” or “evocative” or “powerful.”
Now for those wanting to hold on to the idea that beauty is the defining characteristic of all art, it is of course possible to extend the notion of beauty so as to include this wider range of emotional responses. For example, the French poet and surrealist theorist André Breton once declared that “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.”6 But for the moment, let’s take Aquinas’s definition of beauty at face value and, as our starting point, consider beauty as “that which pleases in perception,” thereby bracketing any experiences involving disgust or shock. This allows us to rephrase Newman’s claim thus: “the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy all representations that are perceived as pleasing.”
I suggest that at least two different though related reasons explain why modern art has eschewed the notion of beauty as providing visible pleasure. One reason has to do with the historical and political context in which modern art arose, and the other concerns the notions of beauty and perception themselves and touches the core of aesthetics.
The first reason has been well documented: following World War I and the evaporation of the optimistic spirit of the modern project in its aftermath, artists began to see beauty not only as an outdated relic of the bourgeois past but as an opiate to lull people into a false sense of security and acquiescence to the powers that be. Art, by contrast, was meant to shake people out of this complacency, to shock the establishment and create new modes of vision outside the realm of comforting and pleasing forms. Instead of serving as a pleasurable form of recreation, art was meant to be a wake-up call forcing us to see the world with different eyes. This was and continues to be a legitimate and important role of art.
A second reason, however, why modern art was reluctant to pursue beauty is related to the particular way in which modern science and philosophy have tended to conceive of visual perception. And this, as I will demonstrate, requires a fresh understanding of the very nature of aesthetic experience.
Perception Revisited: More than Meets the Eye
Since the Greeks, sight and vision have been regarded as the most important, the most reliable, and the noblest of the five senses. The Greeks believed that sight was not only the key sense for empirical observation, but that it also served as the main model for theoretical thought. This predilection for sight can be seen reflected in such expressions as “the mind’s eye,” “getting things in focus,” “the light of truth,” and so on. Moreover, since the time of the Greeks, theories of knowledge have relied heavily on ocular metaphors. Even the word “theory” is derived from the Greek theorein meaning “to see” or “to contemplate.”7 In line with modern desires for objectivity, sight has come to stand for the most detached of all senses, observing its object from a distance without becoming implicated in it. Sight qua sight precludes intimacy with that which is being perceived. As Sartre and others have pointed out, this makes vision—or “the gaze”—the sense which is most prone to objectifying the world and the other.
This detached notion of sight also affected the discipline of aesthetics (from aesthenomai—to see or to perceive) as it emerged in the eighteenth century. The founding father of the discipline, Alexander Baumgarten, launched his new “science of sensitive knowing” (scientia cognitionis sensitivae) as a science of the senses that was to be as rigorous a science as that developed by Descartes for the rational mind. This was an important development, picking up a vital Aristotelian tradition. Even so, despite Baumgarten’s emphasis on the importance of the senses, his notion of perception itself remained firmly framed within a Cartesian mind–body dualism.8 For him, as later for Kant, vision, as well as hearing, was primarily conceived as a mental operation. Whereas the lower senses of smell, taste, and touch were conceived as belonging to the bodily realm of instinctive needs and drives following natural laws, these so-called “higher” senses were considered to belong to the realm of freedom and imagination. This means that, notwithstanding Baumgarten’s genuine contributions to the understanding of art and poetry, his understanding of perception itself remained limited. As the pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman correctly points out, despite Baumgarten’s emphasis on sense-perception, he did not in fact take the body seriously.9
It was this disembodied, intellectual conception of sense-perception that also came to dominate modern notions of beauty—beauty came to be linked with vision as a form of detached seeing. Famously, Kant spoke of the appreciation of beauty as disinterested contemplation, and this description was merely the aesthetic parallel of the ideal of detached objectivity in cognition. In order to form a proper judgment of beauty, one’s contemplation of it needed to be free from any bodily appetites, free from positive feelings of pleasure or desire and negative feelings of fear or disgust. Just like the “higher” senses, judgments of beauty were considered to belong solely to the intellectual, mental realm and not to the realm of nature and the body. In order to reassess this disembodied conception of beauty, it is important to challenge the dualistic anthropology underlying both Descartes’s and Kant’s understanding of the senses— scripture does not suggest a split between a “lower” body and a “higher” mind. We are created as holistic beings, fully human and fully spiritual, both in our bodies and in our minds and souls. Such a holistic conception does not allow for the denigration of the so-called “lower” senses of touch, smell and taste. Instead, it invites us to broaden the notion of perception—and, by implication, the notion of beauty—beyond the merely visual so as to include these “bodily” senses.
In recent times, sight and vision have come under increasing scrutiny. In his Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought historian Martin Jay documents extensively how a wide range of influential French thinkers—from Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Bataille to Lacan, Levinas, and Irigaray—have begun to question vision’s privileged status in the history of Western philosophy and culture.10 Of all those thinkers, it was arguably psychiatrist and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who undertook the most comprehensive and probing interrogation of the very nature of perception as such; his Phenomenology of Perception is a sustained attempt to overcome the traditional subject-object and mind-body dichotomies by grounding the senses in the embodied subject’s reciprocal relation with the world. Instead of conceiving of perception as a “look” on the world from a static singular perspective—modelled on the one-eye camera—he sees it as a dynamic process, involving both focused attention and unfocused, peripheral vision. Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of perception concerns the entire person in her interaction with the world and with all the senses working together in synaesthetic harmony. As he writes in Sense and Nonsense:
My perception is [therefore] not a sum of visual, tactile and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once.11
In his essay on the French painter Cezanne, Merleau-Ponty comments that “a picture contains within itself even the smell of the landscape.”12 And reflecting on a wine glass, he says “the brittleness, hardness, transparency and crystal ring of glass all translate in a single manner of being.”13
In this overall dynamic, the sense of touch plays a foundational role. Although, with the exception of Aristotle, the “haptic” sense has often been neglected in the history of Western philosophy, it is currently receiving considerably more attention, both within and beyond philosophy. As biologists will tell us, all sense organs are specializations of skin tissue and therefore extensions of the tactile sense. Developmental psychologists tell us that at the moment of birth, a baby’s first sense is touch, followed by taste, smell, hearing, and sight. In the final stages of dying, this process is often reversed, leaving touch as the last means of connection with the world and with loved ones. For evolutionary biologists, this ontogeny of the individual organism mirrors the phylogeny of the human species as such. Building on the notion that, at root, all sensory experiences involve some form of tactility, Finnish architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa writes:
Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialized parts of our enveloping membrane [. . .] We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision. Our eyes stroke distant surfaces, contours and edges, and the unconscious tactile sensations determine the agreeableness or unpleasantness of the experience.14
Touch is the most intimate sense for connecting with the world and with each other, for good and for worse. When lovers embrace, touch prevails over sight. At the same time, precisely because of its close intimacy, touch is also most vulnerable to abuse by those crossing interpersonal boundaries and intruding private spaces. Unlike the eyes and ears, which can be closed or blocked at will, sensations felt by the skin cannot be avoided. Even in a space supposedly devoid of all external stimuli, we still feel temperature, humidity levels, and vibrations of air.
Touch, furthermore, is most closely connected with subconscious, affective experience. Philosopher of art Susanne Langer writes this about the sense of touch as experienced through our hands:
The human hand is a complex organ in which the distribution of sensory nerves and the extremely refined musculature coincide, as they do in our eyes and ears, to implement perception of form, location, size, weight, penetrability, mobility and many consequent values. Its measured movements and the coordinate orientation of its parts, which permit fingering of objects, make it capable of judging qualities of surfaces—rough, smooth, varied, patterned—and their characteristic ways of absorbing or reflecting heat, which give us information of temperature contrasts and gradients [. . .] The result is that we have not only a report of surfaces and edges, but of volume imbued with multimodal, often nameless qualities.15
To touch a substance without knowing its source can evoke strong responses. To feel something slimy, prickly, or furry without knowing or seeing what it belongs to creates severe anxieties about its origins and whether it might be safe or hygienic. Touch also forms the basis of a vast range of lingual metaphors indicating feelings and moods, even character. This allows us to refer to someone’s personality as tough, smooth, prickly, warm, cold, soft, slimy, slippery, and so on, and to be clearly heard in what we are trying to express. In summary, touch is a foundational sense, affecting all other senses as they participate in the synaesthetic dynamic of perception in the context of life as lived.
Aquinas on Beauty and Perception
What does all this mean for Aquinas’s conception of beauty as something “the very perception of which pleases”? Although there are references to beauty scattered throughout most of his works, Aquinas did not in fact develop a systematic theology of beauty as such, and it is therefore not always easy to reconstruct such a theology from his fragmented comments. At the same time, as historian and philosopher of aesthetics Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz points out, as a pupil of Albert the Great, Aquinas adopted a range of assumptions that would have been central to mainstream medieval thought on beauty (almost all of which, incidentally—and this applies to most theories of beauty before Hegel—primarily refer to beauty outside art). One commonly held notion in that overall framework was the acceptance that, in addition to sensuous, earthly, physical, or external beauty, there was also intellectual, internal, or spiritual beauty. However, whereas for most scholastic thinkers earthly beauty was seen merely as a pre-ambula to spiritual beauty, Aquinas valued earthly beauty for what it was and extended it only by analogy to spiritual beauty. Nevertheless, despite his higher view of earthly beauty, he still firmly associated earthly beauty with the “higher senses”:
The senses most active in cognition, that is, sight and hearing, while serving to reason, have a special association with beauty; for we speak of beautiful views or beautiful voices. But where objects of the other senses are involved, we do not use the word “beauty,” for we do not speak of beautiful tastes and smells.16
Notwithstanding Aquinas’s restricted range of senses involving the perception of beauty, his emphasis on the sensuous pleasure accompanying the perception of beauty contributed something new and valuable to the debate that is worth taking up and developing. After all, it is Aquinas’s notion of pleasure that gives grounds for connecting him to the Genesis passage about trees being created as “pleasing to the eye.” At the same time, the Hebrew author of Genesis can teach Aquinas a few things about a more full-blooded notion of sight and perception, one that is more akin to that proposed by Merleau-Ponty. As it turns out, the Hebrew term translated as “pleasing”—chamad—is much stronger than the rather insipid NIV translation suggests. Like the term avah in Genesis 3:6, chamad certainly connotes visual delight in something’s appearance, but not in the disinterested sense we have come to think of this after Kant. The term suggests a strong attraction and desire for the object—indeed, it is the same word translated as “coveting” (thy neighbors’ house and wife) in the Tenth Commandment (Ex. 20:17). Other positive occurrences are, for instance, Psalm 19:10, which refers to our desire (chamad) for God’s laws, and Psalm 132:13, which refers to God’s desire (avah) for Zion. In other words, the trees described as “pleasing to the eyes” were very likely being perceived not just as “pretty” but as ravishingly stunning and, paradoxically, possibly even painfully beautiful. And this will have included not only their visual surface qualities, but also the feel of their bark, the aroma of their blossoms, the gentle movement of their luminous leaves in a light breeze, the reflection of the sun on their branches and, not least, the promise of sweet taste evoked by the sight of juicy fruits ripe for the picking.
Perhaps, after all, Aquinas seems to capture something of this when elsewhere in the Summa he remarks that “it is part of the essence of beauty that the seeing, or cognition, of it satisfies a desire (quietetur appetitus).”17 For Aquinas, and Plato before him, such desire, or eros, was always connected with a longing for the good and the true. Although for Aquinas and Plato this meant a move away from physical reality to a higher mental or spiritual reality, for the author of Genesis there is no need for such a move. When God created trees “pleasing to the eyes” he pronounced these as “very good.” In other words, the beauty of the world as originally created was meant to be known and loved for what it was: magnificent rivers, breathtaking rock formations, and trees with their fragrance and promise of sweet fruit. This kind of aesthetic knowing echoes the biblical understanding of knowing as an intimate and dynamic engagement with what is being understood. The knowing of Sarah by Abraham is not merely an instance of but a paradigm for all knowing.18 In the same way that we come to know a thing or a person by an active and sustained engagement with them, so also do we come to know and love beauty through a multisensory and longstanding involvement with the perceived object. It is the kind of knowing that gives us a deep and ineffable appreciation of the goodness of God’s creation. It is the kind of intense delight that makes us grateful to be alive.
Although our culture does not find it easy to distinguish between desiring something and wanting to possess or consume it, they are not the same. We can be deeply and passionately attracted to something, whether a landscape, a manmade object, or a person, without needing to possess it. The desire to possess is, in the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas’s words, “the mark of the consumer rather than the lover: to want to own something is to be prepared to use it as a means to one’s own ends—even if only to prevent others from using it—while love, which values its objects for themselves, must find such a willingness unthinkable.”19 What became necessary after the fall, however, is that our desires in general needed to be channelled and disciplined by God’s word for just and righteous living: one is to desire one’s own wife and not the wife of one’s neighbor. Outside its larger normative context, beauty always risks pandering to self-indulgence and, as such, it will never satisfy. Indeed, beauty itself will suffer. It will lose its thrill and become commonplace.
In summary, I suggest that Aquinas’s formulation of beauty as that which pleases in perception can be read as a normative definition provided we (re-)interpret it in the following way: first, the notion of perception is to be understood as a dynamic, embodied, and synaesthetic relation with the world rather than a static, detached, and objectifying gaze. Second, the notion of pleasing is to refer to something attractive as evoking an intense desire rather than as being merely a pretty sight. And third, in order for beauty to satisfy this desire, it needs to be experienced in its lived context and to be connected with the good and the true. For the remainder of this essay, I will briefly sketch—and it is no more than that—some implications that this reshaped notion of beauty might have for the way beauty functions in our society, in contemporary art, and in theology.
Beauty in Life, Art, and Theology
How can this reconfigured, normative notion of beauty help us address and redress some of the issues around beauty in our society? At an obvious level, it is simple to see how our society’s conception of beauty differs from the one I suggest. The beauty admired and pursued in our society is predominantly one created for the distant and distancing eye, most notably the mechanical eye of the camera. As such, it lacks the experiential depth of lived perception. Rich and intense multisensory experiences of beauty—walks in nature or in cities, human relationships and celebrations—are shaped and staged so as to accommodate the perfect picture taken from the perfect angle. Celebrity culture has come to define human beauty as those bodies and faces that are most conducive to photographic reproduction in magazines and on screen. Thus, our experience of beauty is no longer the result of a personal, dynamic engagement with the world and each other but the product of a mechanized way of seeing, a way of seeing that is based on a narrow set of aesthetic conventions consolidated by endless multiplication. It is through this “unending rainfall of images” as Italo Calvino puts it, especially those of advertising, that we’ve increasingly come to want to possess what we see. We aspire to own what we admire and to use it for our own good.
Although this is, of course, not the whole picture of how beauty functions in our society, it does characterize a dominant trend in most of the Western world. In order to redress this infectious desire to possess, we need to nurture an alternative, holistic view of beauty, one that does justice to our lived experience and to the normative context in which beauty appears. An important way of doing that is by the production and distribution of alternative visions and images as has been the case throughout the history of art. So what can we say about the nature and place of beauty in the art of our time?
Modern and postmodern art have not been immune to the flattening effect of the mechanical eye. We can think, for instance, of the many signature buildings built by prize-winning architects over the last few decades, buildings aimed at maximum visual and photographic effect but disengaged from the other senses. As a result, these buildings have not tended to be good to live or work in. For Pallasmaa such architecture expresses both narcissism and nihilism: “Instead of reinforcing one’s body-centered and integrated experience of the world, nihilistic architecture disengages and isolates the body [. . .] The world becomes a hedonistic but meaningless visual journey.”20 More seriously, for Pallasmaa, such art and architecture weakens our capacity for genuine human connectedness and empathy: “The hegemonic eye seeks domination over all fields of cultural production, and it seems to weaken our capacity for empathy, compassion and participation with the world.”21 Instead, he wants to dig deeper and to reach beneath the surface of the seductive retinal eye candy of our consumer society.
Prior to the criticism of Pallasmaa, as we saw earlier, modernist painter Barnett Newman challenged the classical notion of beauty as sensuous outward forms by promoting the abstract expression of our inner life and emotions. Although Newman preferred to use the term “sublime” for his paintings, they may, with our revised concept of beauty, also be considered beautiful.
Art, it is often said, helps us see the world in new and fresh ways. This means that art can also help us to see new beauty in the world. It does what Shelley said of poetry, “it lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”22 By changing our ways of seeing, art also attunes us to new ways of seeing beauty. This even applies to works that do not, as such, represent joyful themes. In the aesthetic form of the lament, as opposed to a discursive treatise, we can glimpse traces of beauty through its representations of human violence and suffering. The beauty is in the sensitive capturing of the fine-grained and complex subtle nuances of feelings and moods that would otherwise remain hidden from the radar of consciousness. Such works may not possess what Lyotard calls “the solace of good forms,” which we usually associate with beautiful art, but they may nevertheless touch the heart, evoke compassion, and challenge complicity or complacency.
What, finally, might this reshaped notion of beauty have to tell us about beauty and the divine? Is there a privileged relationship between God and beauty?
There has always been a particular poignancy in the fact that Isaiah refers to the coming Messiah as “having no beauty to attract us to him” and possessing “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). In the light of the above reflections we might interpret this verse as a prophetic warning against any attraction to Christ that is based merely on his external appearance. This would have been in stark contrast to the worship of the Greek gods at Christ’s time, whose muscled bodies—the idols of their time—could be admired in their sculpted images throughout the cities. Contrary to popular and some scholarly opinion, not only does scripture deny the Son beauty in his appearance, it does not speak of beauty in the Father either. The term beauty occurs very rarely in the Bible, and when it does occur, it almost always applies to things, nature, and people. The idea that God would be beautiful in a predominantly visual sense does not sit easily with a Hebrew sensibility, and there seems to be no biblical grounds for building a theological doctrine of beauty as a transcendental or characteristic “property” of God.
Yet, in our contemporary worship experience the term beautiful often seems hard to avoid. This is because the intensity of the experience of earthly beauty—in the embodied, relational, and normative way that I have described—seems to parallel the intensity of the experience of prayerful adoration. This has been reflected in the hymns and poetry of Christians throughout the ages, not least in the mystic tradition, from such poetic references as “the beauty of his holiness” (1 Ch. 16:29 and Ps. 29:2) or “the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4) in the Hebrew Scriptures to contemporary worship songs such as Graham Kendrick’s “Come see the Beauty of the Lord.”
As I mentioned earlier, in contrast to the Greeks, for whom the contemplation of beauty was primarily ocular and static, beauty for the Hebrew was always dynamic and multi-sensory, involving not only the eyes and ears, but also touch, smell, and taste. Hebrew worship included music and architecture, the texture of garments, and the aromas of burnt offerings. Liturgically sensitive churches throughout history have honored this appeal to all the senses by incorporating such things as incense, fragrant flowers, scented candles, seasonal colors, dramatic enactments, processions, foot washings, and the stripping of the altar during Holy Week. The Eucharistic feast itself crucially involves many senses, echoing the psalmist’s invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8) while also anticipating Isaiah’s eschatological promise of “a banquet of the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Is. 25:6,7).23
Although not all liturgical actions and objects necessarily evoke an experience of beauty—some may evoke contrition or a sense of God’s judgment—those that do evoke beauty form an integral and indispensable dimension of worship. For Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, it is essential that we recapture this sense of God’s beauty—or “glory” (Herrlichkeit) as he comes to refer to it—as part of our faith experience. He claims that, for the last century, we have seriously neglected this aspect of faith in theology and have done so to our detriment: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at [beauty’s] name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”24 For von Balthasar, as it had been for Plato and Aquinas, the good and beauty are interdependently related: “in a world without beauty […] the good also loses its attractiveness […]”25
To connect beauty with the good and the good with beauty is one of the major challenges of our time. Only when the good can become attractive in a fully dynamic, sensuously embodied, and intimate relational sense can it once again become a real object of desire. And only then can beauty become not only, as with the French writer Stendhal, “a promise of happiness,” but also, as with Aquinas, the satisfaction of a desire.
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1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 27, art. 1, trans. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, Vol. II, Medieval Aesthetics (The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1970), 257. Latin text: pulchrum autem dicatur id cuius ipsa apprehensio placet. For a similar though slightly differently worded definition see Summa Theologica I, q. 5, art. 4: pulchra enim dicuntur, quae visa placent (We call beautiful things which give pleasure when they are seen).
2. All scripture references are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.
3. Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. Hugh Bredin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 128.
4. Ibid., 128. It should be noted that this interpretation of the status of Thomas’s definition under Queastio 5 is challenged by Francesca Aran Murphy in her Christ the Form of Beauty (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1995), 209, 210. Murphy argues that Eco hangs too much on the present passive plural use of the term dicuntur and claims that this grammatical use of the term is used throughout Thomas’s work as a common way of responding to the typically scholastic Quaestio.
5. Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Tiger’s Eye 1, no. 6 (Dec. 1948), 52.
6. Andre Breton, Nadja (New York, NY: The Grove Press,  1960), 160.
7. For an extensive accounts of the predominance of vision in western thought see David Michael Levin, ed., Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).
8. Alexander Baumgarten, “Kollegium Ueber die Aesthetik,” in Texte zur Grundlegung der Aesthetik, ed. Hans Rudolf Schweizer (Hamburg, Germany: Felix Meiner, 1983), 79.
9. Richard Schusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 263-267.
10. See Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century Thought (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).
11. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Film and the New Psychology,” in Sense and Non-Sense, by M. Merleau-Ponty (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 48.
12. Ibid., 318
13. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London, UK: Routledge, 1998), 319.
14. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2005), 10, 11, and 42.
15. Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. II (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 257, 258.
16. Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, 258. It may be pointed out that, whereas Augustine does make reference to the lower senses of smell and taste in his famous prayer to God as Beauty, he too nevertheless considered earthly beauty merely as a step on the ladder to spiritual beauty, which he proceeds to describe by means of analogies with earthly beauty: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! [. . .] You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” (Confessions, Book X, xxvii).
18. Other examples include Job 19:25 (Job saying “I know that my Redeemer lives”) and I Samuel 3:7 (“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord”).
19. Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 55.
20. Ibid., 22.
22. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1840).
23. For a recent publication on how to incorporate the five senses in private devotion and corporate worship see Anne Richards, ed., Sense Making Faith: Body, Spirit, Journey (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2008).
24. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press; UK: T&T Clark Limited, 1982), 18.
Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin
Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin lives and works as an independent scholar in Cambridge, UK. She previously taught philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. She is the coauthor of Art and Soul and is currently working on a new book.