Via Pulchritudinis: The Way of Beauty, Pathway towards the Truth and the Good, part 1

Section II has a part 3 “The Way of Beauty, Pathway towards the Truth and the Good.” Helping us here is the Swiss theologian who wrote of beauty, and the human experience of finding God in it. First up, the document and a very lengthy footnote and commentary from Professor von Bathasar:

In proposing a theological aesthetic, von Balthasar sought to open the horizons of thought to the meditation and contemplation of the beauty of God, of the mystery of Christ in whom he reveals Himself. In the introduction to the first volume of his major work, The Glory of the Lord, the theologian speaks of “what for us will be the first,” beauty, and explains its value compared with the good which “has lost its power of attraction,” and where “the proofs of truth have lost their conclusive character.” [*]

The footnote I’ve reproduced here. I’m going to interrupt to insert commentary from six decades after its first publication. Picking my spots, I’ve chosen the points where the document framers gave us the figure […]. Insert any of your commentary at the end.

* Cf. H. Urs von Balthasar, Herrlichkeit: Eine theologishe Ästhetik, I: Schau der Gestalt, 1961: “Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. […]

I think this rings true. Strangely enough for some church minds, I’ve seen more of an appreciation for beauty in many of the sciences, astronomy in particular. After Fr von Balthasar penned this, think of the iconic image of earthrise over the moon’s horizon from Apollo 8. Remember Buzz Aldrin’s description of “magnificent desolation” as he viewed the lunar surface, able to be awed in a harsh landscape of gray and black? What doesn’t get quoted as often were his first two words that preceded this phrase: “Beautiful, beautiful!” Most notably, consider all the views from space telescopes, starting with the Hubble of the 1990s. These views, colorized for scientific study, have inspired a new generation of young astronomers.

In contrast, the Church has been stained literally by “its own avarice and sadness.” In trying to hold on in a new age, we’ve tried to maintain institutional clarity. Sadly (literally) respect, authority, and moral leadership have slipped away.

We can be sure that whoever sneers at her 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. […]

Even in one significant ecclesiological priority, we’ve placed “accurate” linguistics above elegance in translation of liturgy documents. In effect, church leaders who have aspired–at least in name–to beauty through clarity have gifted us with clunky parallels from Latin. In many circles, creativity and improvisation are disparaged. Yet those are often the places where artists tap into the inspiration of God.

In my last parish, there was the inspiration to commission an artist to craft a crucifix for the renovated church. Elsewhere in art news, a friend related the use of an art poster for a shrine to Mary with the Italian text of the art show still in view. Sometimes, even our coopting of beauty is based on the virtues of living room decor.

In a world without beauty—even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it—in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. […]

And that’s not to say there aren’t elements in human society that have taken the ball of ugliness and run farther afield. Most of us can’t control the felling of a rain forest or the indulgences of shock in art. But neither do we advocate very often for the creation and use of good art in our homes, workplaces, or our parish buildings.

In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency.” English translation taken from The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics, I. Seeing the Form,Edinburgh 1982, pp. 18-19.

Full agreement here.

Another 20th century figure, this time from Russia:

For different reasons, Solzhenitsyn noted with prophetic accent in his Discourse for the Nobel Prize for Literature: “So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Good and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth. If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Good are crushed, cut down, not allowed through, then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three.” [A. Solzhenitsyn, Discours pour le Prix Nobel, in Œuvres, t. IX, YMCA Press, Vermont-Paris 1981, p. 9]

A significant thought for today, perhaps. Some would advocate for the ends justifying the means. Putting off the immediate Good in exchange for a future hope. I can understand the lure. Perhaps some people even acknowledge that the human race needs to look more to the long game. But there are too many pitfalls in getting from here to there. We settle for immediate evil too quickly–the offenses against life from conception to natural death, the indulgence for war, and our more banal instincts to cheat and steal. Truth is likewise bullied, and many of us convince ourselves of the lies we tell.

In all this, does beauty have a chance to push up through muck and wreckage?

The full document is here.

Image: the rose window at Notre Dame in Paris, By Zachi Evenor based on File:North rose window of Notre-Dame de Paris, Aug 2010.jpg by Julie Anne Workman – CC BY-SA 2.0,

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Art, evangelization, Via Pulchritudinis. Bookmark the permalink.

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