Common amongst the many ‘proofs’ proposed for the existence of God is an appeal to what are known as the Transcendentals or ‘properties of being’, particularly Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. These are considered to be objective realities that can be known by humankind and reveal something of a reality beyond ourselves. In this post, I would like to take a look at Beauty, particularly the way in which it is communicated to us, and how much it can communicate to us of reality.
Beauty, despite being considered here as an objective property, is possibly the transcendental most subject to relativism, given the highly personal way in which it is often experienced. Yet I would argue that it can be a valuable and reliable communicator of reality. The reason that our reception of this reality can lead to such divergence of opinion is because it is probably the most direct of all the transcendentals, in that it is usually experienced through (but not limited to) the senses, and this direct personal encounter can and does lead to an overly subjective interpretation.
I think there is something in the nature of our experience of Beauty that is deeply symbolic, in the sense that these experiences act as signs – though they are indeed the point of contact and encounter with a greater reality, they do this by pointing beyond themselves. Craig Koester, in his book Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, discusses the nature of symbols, and their inherent resistance to straightforward interpretation:
‘The lines between true and false interpretations of an image or action are not always sharply defined, however, which complicates the interpretive task. Philip Weelwright has observed that many symbols have “a bright focussed centre of meaning together with a penumbra of vagueness that is intrinsically ineradicable; which is to say, the vagueness could not be dispelled without distorting the original meaning.” Often the ambiguity is created by the plethora of associations evoked by an image or action. The associations may come from other portions of the narrative, from the reader’s particular cultural background, or from the broad field of life experience. Some of these associations will seem appropriate in the literary context, others will appear inappropriate, and there will still be others that are indeterminate and cannot clearly be included or excluded. Their influence may be felt rather than seen; they whisper instead of speaking.’
Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (2003), p.26, Fortress Press.
Though Koester is talking specifically about the use of symbols in literature, the general point still stands – namely that symbols do contain a ‘bright focussed centre of meaning together with a penumbra of vagueness’ and any attempt to remove the vagueness will distort the meaning at the centre. This can be related to our encounters with Beauty, in that after experiencing a profound sense of transcendent beauty, we are hard pressed to isolate exactly what it was that struck us, and as we attempt to do so, we lose the very essence we are trying to communicate.
Despite our experience of Beauty being so elusive though, few would deny that it does have a deep and lasting impact, communicating something indescribable yet extremely powerful and, most importantly, real. Hans urs von Balthasar has argued that in fact Beauty is God’s most compelling means of awakening us to His presence, and that our contemporary loss of a sense of the beautiful is a great factor in our loss of the sense of the divine. In his Revelation and the Beautiful, he posits that
‘Everywhere there should be a correspondence between object and subject; the external harmony must correspond to a subjective need and both give rise to a new harmony of a higher order; subjectivity, with its feeling and imagination, must free itself in an objective work, in which it rediscovers itself in the course of which…there may be as much self-discovery as experience of another.’
Courtesy of payingattentiontothesky.com
What von Balthasar is trying to articulate here is that we have a need for our subjective experience to be placed in a wider, objective framework in order to give it meaning, but that we need a personal I-Thou communication of this objectivity to be able to apprehend it fully. Paradoxically, this way in which we are brought into an encounter with objective reality must, by the very nature of the I-Thou relationship, be subjective. It is the subjective nature of our experience of Beauty then, that necessitates it take place through symbols – things and events that express truth and meaning through the medium of imaginative encounter. Many of Jesus’ parables use earthly symbols (bread, water, light, seeds, etc) to communicate divine truth in a similar way.
We can understand how all this can be the case in terms of a general revelation through the natural world, and such experience of Beauty is common to all humanity. But how is that the truth of God’s revelation in Christ can be so communicated? What is it that is beautiful about this revelation, and how is divine reality revealed via that beauty? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when Cardinal, sent a message to the Communion and Liberation meeting at Rimini in August 2002, in which he contended that, rather than being a ‘flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism’, it is the beauty of the saints, and preeminently of Christ, that is the greatest apology for the Christian faith. He shows that the Beautiful is revealed in the suffering Christ precisely as the Beauty of Truth:
‘In the Passion of Christ the Greek aesthetic that deserves admiration for its perceived contact with the Divine but which remained inexpressible for it, in Christ’s passion is not removed but overcome. The experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism. The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way. However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end”; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence. Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that truth, and not falsehood, is the real aspiration of the world. It is not the false that is “true”, but indeed, the Truth.’
We see here a relationship between not just Beauty and Truth, but Beauty, Truth and Love. Christ is beautiful to us because he embodies pure love – the sort of love that loves to the very end and is willing to lay down His life for his friends (c.f.; John 13:1; 15:13). We see this lived out in the Passion of Christ and it strikes us at our very core, as being both profoundly beautiful and constitutive of an unfathomable love that is directed towards us – one that we can scarcely begin to believe. It is then in this subjective experience of Beauty and Love combined that we realise we are being confronted with a reality that represents the very truth of life – that Love is the great Truth underpinning all reality.
So it is that I believe Beauty, albeit sometimes through experiences that are hard to elucidate and cannot be reduced to a series of propositions or formulae, is a powerful means of revelation. It bypasses our speculative faculties, going straight to the heart of our being, and yet in doing so can communicate to us truths that both confirm and enhance our existing knowledge, or even awaken us to things that we could not have known by rational processes alone, yet do not contradict reason, even complementing it. It is therefore an aspect of our common existence that drastically needs to be recovered, so that we may rouse our souls from the sleep imposed upon them by our culture, setting them free to meet and know their God.