Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Aesthetics of Tradition and the Styles of Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Aesthetics of Tradition and the Styles of Theology

Article excerpt

Hans Urs von Balthasar's impressive achievement in Herrlichkeit has led theologians to appreciate the value of aesthetics for theological interpretation. Balthasar's magnum opus draws on the category of beauty in order to contemplate God's divine life as beauty itself and the incarnation as the consummate revelation of finite beauty. The subplot of Herrlichkeit unfolds in an extended meditation on modernity's loss of a faithful sensibility for the beauty of the incarnate form, a reflection on the insidiousness of sin viewed through the lens of aesthetics. (1) The richness of Balthasar's multi volume work appears in a plethora of discrete studies that advance an accomplished argument for the divine glory as the plenitude of beauty, of which, he insists, modern theologians are as obliged to take account as the ancients.

Balthasar's work has since prompted interest in putting the category of beauty to theological service, even if not necessarily in the manner of his particular project. Richard Viladesau, for example, has proposed a transcendental argument that finds God's infinite beauty posited in the conditions for the possibility of beauty's finite apprehension. (2) Alejandro Garcia-Rivera has developed a Latino theological aesthetics that sees the beauty of a faith-filled community in its capacity to appreciate difference, including cultural difference, within the unity of God's redemptive order. (3) Mirjam-Christina Redeker has offered a theological aesthetics that understands itself as a perception theory of faith, keen to explain both the beautiful and truthful nuances of the human relation to God that the act of faith grasps. (4)

In the pages that follow, I would like to join the company of these aesthetical-theological interpreters, albeit in a much more limited and modest way, by bringing an aesthetical perspective to bear on the theological concept of tradition itself. A number of monographs on tradition have appeared in recent years, and none has parsed the notion of tradition by appeal to the category of aesthetics. (5) The advantage of such a perspective is that it will elucidate different kinds of Catholic sensibilities about the nature of doctrinal truth, clarify an aesthetic dimension to contemporary disagreement in the Church about the authentically Catholic, and provide understanding too about competing notions of the proper task of theology in our present ecclesial moment. We live in a time in which Catholic theology is polarized by traditionalist and progressive sensibilities that both rather facilely valorize their own approach to theology as though it were exclusively authentic. Indeed, I want to warn my readers at the outset that they will be tempted judgmentally to do just this in making their way through my account of the two Catholic aesthetics of tradition that are respectively associated with more conservative or more liberal approaches to theology, namely, the classical aesthetics of tradition and the developmental aesthetics of tradition. I, however, assume that both of these aesthetics present the "Catholically beautiful," as do the theological styles that serve these two aesthetics. My aim in this essay is irenic. Hence my goal is to cultivate a deeper appreciation of the range of the Catholically beautiful and, through it, to offer a more welcoming understanding of how theologians might represent it well, even when capturing its beauty from different perspectives.

Tradition and Aesthetics

Catholic belief has long held that the act of faith encounters God's revelation in Scripture and tradition, even if this particular way of conjunctively formulating the belief only appeared in the aftermath of the Reformation. According to the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Jesus Christ is the one source of the truth of the gospel message that was faithfully promulgated to the church by his apostles. Yet this saving "truth and rule [of conduct] are contained in written books and in unwritten traditions which were received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or else have come down to us, handed on, as it were, from the apostles themselves at the inspiration of the holy Spirit. …

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