Thursday, May 14, 2020

Barth on Beauty, A Nexus for Science and Theology (and More)

Last week I looked at beauty as a possible nexus for theology, philosophy, science, and art. But I mainly set out the problems. In this post, I set out a proposal, this one from theology. 

On the way there, I submit a few preliminary clarifications. The first is my definition: 

Beauty is rightness and telos. More specifically, the telos of beauty is the perception and formulation of rightness that provides a lure for theologians, philosophers, scientists, and artists.

Thus, beauty represents rightness. It arises for both theologians and scientists through rightly perceiving and theorizing about how their objects of study. It is thus a perception of truth. Beauty also provides a lure for study. In this sense, it offers telos. For theologians, it can be grasping God’s true nature, God’s creation, and our ethical life. For scientist, it is the rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, nature. When this perception is made, it is accompanied by a sense of completeness. So beauty is the draw for truth and goodness.

Plato noted the linguistic play between the noun kalos, beauty, and the verb kalleo, “call” or “lure.” Beauty calls out to us. Sometimes beauty has been described as a criterion for truth. Here I am emphasizing that it is beauty that makes the quest for truth interesting. Without beauty, there would be no personal interesting.

         

Consequently, beauty in this sense is telic—it moves us toward a telos. Beauty offers telos in that beauty is motivation, fulfillment, and direction. Beauty offers direction by luring theologians and scientists in their work. Theologians might even point to a glimpse of eschatological wholeness. Something beautiful points to the One who is Beauty. This teleological element of beauty is a component of the well-known insight that beauty pleases us. Though this pleasure has often been focused on the eyes, I submit that we receive beauty through a variety of faculties, and perhaps most importantly intellectually, or through the “eyes of the mind.” 


In some ways—but certainly with regional variations—theology, philosophy, science, and art seek truth of expression, whether it’s God’s, the world’s, or other forms. My definition of beauty therefore relates to both ontology and epistemology. Beauty exists outside of the knower. As well, it can be understood by the human mind. Both of these assertions are important. (Accordingly, I am committed to a critical realism, in which reality exists outside of the mind of the knower and yet the interests and limitations of the knower interact with what is known. I take this position to be the current consensus in the dialogue of theology and science.)


One main candidate for a theological articulation of beauty is Karl Barth's. Ultimately, he writes, God’s glory finds its expression as beauty. Barth sets glory as a locus of theological reflection within the divine attributes—which he prefers to call “Divine Perfections.” In fact, glory for Barth constitutes “the sum of the divine perfections" (Church Dogmatics II/1, trans. G.W. Bromiley [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957], 653. Hereafter “CD II/1”). Here, of course, Barth channels the deepest traditions of Reformed theology. 

In the midst of unfolding his theology of glory, Barth offers this definition for God’s beauty: To declare that God is beautiful is
To say that God has this superior force, this power of attraction, which speaks for itself, which wins and conquers, in the fact that He is beautiful, divinely beautiful …. God loves us as the One who is worthy of love as God. This is what we mean when we say that God is beautiful." Karl Barth, CD II/1, 651
Thus, for Barth, God’s worthiness for human love is the basis of God’s beauty. This divine perfection also draws us to God. Whereas there is a tendency in Hans Urs von Balthasar almost to equate beauty and glory, Barth subordinates it to God’s glory: “We shall not presume to try to interpret God’s glory from the point of view of His beauty, as if it were the essence of His glory" (CD II/1, 655).

Nonetheless, because he focuses on glory, he finds beauty within its lexical field: “We must now point to the purely philological fact that the significance of the world ‘glory’ and its Hebrew, Greek, Latin and even German equivalents, at least includes and expresses what we call beauty" (CD II/1, 653).

There will, however, be no easy connection of beautiful things within the world as demonstrably revealing God’s nature. Barth’s theology is marked by his aversion to “natural theology,” and this characteristic ultimately limits his contribution to the theology-science dialogue. This fact, however, need not stop Reformed theology, which has always maintained a robust theology of creation and therefore of God’s intelligible beauty in the glory of the natural world. (Here, by the way, I am simply using “nature” or “the natural world” as synonyms for “creation,” though the latter has a stronger theological history.)

Finally, Barth argues, for theologians and philosophers to do their work rightly, and for the human being to live with right ethics, they are living and working beautifully. Accordingly, the Reformed tradition calls theologians to pursue their work as the quest for beauty. And since beauty pleases us, this is a joyful task. 

In another post, I will reflect on the statements of scientists who describe their work as the pursuit of beauty. Similarly, Barth has spoken of theology as a “peculiarly beautiful science" (CD II/1, 656). With a perceptibly wry smile, he writes, 
“The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science" Karl Barth, (CD II/1, 656). 
The object of theologians’ study is the God of beauty and wonder. Therefore the form of theology ought to mirror the glory of its content. The glorious beams of this object of study—who is also Subject—infuses and illuminates theologians’ work.

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