Toward a Christological Aesthetics: A Paper Proposal

Yesterday I found out (rather late) that I will be presenting a paper at the regional AAR meeting on March 1-2 in Baltimore, Maryland. I will be going with a couple friends from PTS, including WTM. Below is my paper topic and abstract. Any feedback you have to offer is always appreciated.



Title: “A Pre-Appearance of the Truth”: Toward a Christological Aesthetics

Virtually all written work in the rapidly growing field of theological aesthetics remains grounded either in the first or third articles of the creed, that is, either in the Father who creates and preserves or in the Spirit who re-creates and energizes. A properly developed theological aesthetics must attend to the dogmatic claim that the person and work of Jesus Christ forms the center of Christian theology. Hence, contrary to most theological aesthetics which find their grounding in who God is in se—e.g., God’s beauty, perfections, creativity—a truly dogmatic theological aesthetics must find its primary starting-point in who God is pro nobis. We may appropriately identify this perspective on beauty as a christological aesthetics. Such an aesthetics reflects upon the categories of art and beauty in light of the corporal and temporal reality of the Son of God.

This paper will consist of four major sections. The first will be a brief critical engagement with certain missteps in contemporary theological aesthetics, epitomized by the work of David Bentley Hart. The second section will explicate the doctrine of justification in light of the theology of Eberhard Jüngel as the key to the person and work of Christ, according to which justification is a two-fold ontological event: (1) an objective christological event of reconciliation extra nos and (2) a subjective existential event of interruption and reunion. The third part will sketch an aesthetics rooted in this two-fold event in which beauty, theologically understood, is a “pre-appearance of the truth” (Jüngel) that is both anamnestic and proleptic. In other words, beauty forces the beholder to look back upon the christological reconciliation and forward to the eschatological reunion of beauty and truth. In distinction from the event of justification, beauty does not fashion ontologically new persons; rather, it functions as an iconic “pre-appearance” of justification’s ontological work.

The final section of the paper will offer some reflections on how a christological aesthetics rather than a creational aesthetics would advance the conversation in fruitful ways. These reflections will briefly comment on the ability of a christological aesthetics (1) to develop an aesthetics of the “death of God” in Jesus, (2) to situate the beauty of creation within the doctrine of reconciliation, and (3) to establish a more fully trinitarian aesthetic in which the beauty of God and the beauty of the world are united in the event of Jesus Christ. Finally, I will offer a few remarks regarding the relation between theological aesthetics and natural theology, with the purpose of articulating how a christological aesthetics might benefit both theology and philosophy in their respective treatments of art and beauty.

Contemporary theological aesthetics generally connect the exploration of beauty to the Father or the Spirit, without giving aesthetics a properly christocentric orientation. This paper aims to develop a christological aesthetics in which the person and work of Christ provide the starting-point. The first section critically engages some recent attempts to develop a theological aesthetics. The second section explores the doctrine of justification as “the heart of the Christian faith” (Jüngel) in terms of its christological and existential dimensions. The third section constructs the basic contours of a christological aesthetics as both anamnesis and prolepsis. Beauty is the “pre-appearance” of the truth, which does not fashion ontologically new persons, but rather functions as an iconic “pre-appearance” of justification’s ontological work. In the fourth and final section, the paper offers several reflections on the ways a christological aesthetics would benefit the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, and natural theology.


WTM said…
I foresee a potential PTS takeover of the regional AAR-MAR...
dw said…
Now this I'd like to read. Slowly.

kim fabricius said…
Hi David.

Sounds very promising. Starting with the second article is almost a Duh! as far as I am concerned for a properly doxological aesthetics. I think the only area that you should explore that you haven't explicitly mentioned is the theologia crucis. The Fourth Gospel is particularly salient here, as the doxological moment for John is the crucifixion of Jesus. Such an angle will also go to make a theological aesthetics appropriately both counter-intuitive (cf. Isaiah 53:2-3) and counter-cultural (cf. the health and beauty industry). Of course the Spirit, creation, and sanctification too cannot be ignored and should issue from your Christological point of departure (cf. II Corinthians 4:6 and 3:17-18).

With every good wish in your project.

Halden said…
I certainly look forward to seeing the finished product of this, David. Glad to see you're finally getting to do some writing on aesthetics.

I do have one question about Hart. What is the substance of your critique going to be? If you're trying to lump him into those that derive their aesthetics from the Father or the Spirit (or the analogia entis perhaps?) I think you'll need to be careful to give a close reading of his book as it is imbued with quite a rich Christology (whether we agree with it or not). I wonder what you would make of this statement of his:

"the Son is himself, in a sense, the ontological analogy between God and creation, the Word that comprises and permits endlessly many words, the infinite measure who allows all the measures and proportions of creation to speak of God, as instances of his glory; but as a man he is this analogy in the form of a dramatic action that resores the measure that has been forsaken." (p. 325)

In the surrounding pages Hart unpacks a very Balthasarian and Irenaen understanding of Salvation as recapitulation that seems very Christocentric and even seems to define the analogy between God and the world Christologically.

None of this is to dispute your point that much of Christian aesthetics is not Christologically grounded. Indeed Patrick Sherry's Spirit and Beauty is an obvious example of the tendency you describe. I just wonder if Hart is the proper target, and if I were writing the paper I'd be worried that I'd have to devote so much time to a sustained reading of Hart to substantiate that claim that I in turn wouldn't have enough room to do the constructive Christological work that you're aiming at.
Shane said…
Congratulations David!

But I'm confused. what is the difference between aesthetics and theological aesthetics? Are they distinguished by their subject matter? By their method? By their aims? By their conclusions?

Why should theological aesthetics be christologically grounded?

I'm not trying to ask leading questions. I really have no idea.

D.W. Congdon said…
Kim: You're absolutely right, and I would be quite remiss to ignore what you have just mentioned. Thanks for pointing those out.

Halden: I think you're right about Hart, and I actually don't know if that critique will make it into the paper. I was really only going to focus on what I feel is a creational aesthetics operating in his thinking. I think this comes out in his discussion of analogy. The analogy is ontological and established in the creation of the world (which is ontologically connected to God without serious disruption); the analogy is not principally found in the incarnate Son of God, at least not in the historical actualization of the analogy in the person of Jesus Christ (as opposed to an abstract Logos). In any case, I will probably avoid Hart altogether and skip directly to my constructive argument. I will check out Sherry. If you know of literature that would help substantiate my argument, I would love to know -- since your reading in this area is far vaster than my own.

Shane: Good questions. In a nutshell, I would say that this is directly related to our broader debate on the relation between philosophy and theology. Aesthetics as a philosophical discipline is concerned with the category of beauty as we can naturally apprehend and analyze it. Theological aesthetics concerns beauty as defined by the reality and being of God; that is, beauty as we must understand it in light of the gospel.

The reason aesthetics should be christologically grounded is simply because we only know God as God has revealed Godself to us in Jesus Christ; this includes the perfections and acts of God. So the "beauty of God" must be understood in light of Christ. But this also goes for our theological understanding of creation. We understand true humanity only as we encounter it in Jesus of Nazareth. We understand the true nature of creation only in light of the biblical witness to the new creation. And as I intend to argue, we understand the nature of beauty along these same lines.

I know I didn't answer all your questions, but I'd be happy to if you'd like to clarify some of your thoughts. I realize we probably are not going to see eye-to-eye on the relation between philosophy and theology, but if I can clarify what I mean for you in any way, I'd be happy to do so.
Shane said…
A host of questions present themselves, but I will limit myself to two:

1. What will be the relation between the beauty the atheist humanist extolls and the beauty of the theologian? Are they exactly the same thing, completely different things, or different but related things? If different but related explain in what sense they are related.

2. Must I be a Christian to appreciate theological beauty?

The first question is an ontological one because about the relation between God, the beautiful, and a beautiful thing. The second is basically epistemological and covers the same ground we have been arguing about just a while ago. I just want to see if your answer to this question follows your answers to your previous question or if you see some difference.

Halden said…
Here's one other question that your proposal brings to mind for me. If beauty is as pre-appearence of truth as you're contending, how do you see both as related to the good? It seems you're dealing with two of the transcendentals here, but I would think that all three would have to be configured in relation to each other in a satisfactory way. Von Balthasar is obviously the one thinker this century who has really pursued that out with rigor.