Beauty and the glory of

The truth of God takes form for us in the world. This form, according to Balthasar, is self-disclosing and enrapturing, and the conditions for the perception of this form (which is the Gestalt Christi) are given with and in it. We are not to pick it apart with tools derived from elsewhere, making it so much an object of our inquiry that we are never confronted and shaped by it; never its objects.

Balthasar's approach to the question of God's self-disclosure is contemplative as opposed to critical; it is concrete rather than abstract. Much of Balthasar's work in the first volume of The Glory of the Lord is concerned with the notion of the light of faith, with the way of perceiving its object which is peculiar to faith. The biblical writers, Paul and John at least, speak of faith, not simply in terms of modifications of the believers' own self-understanding, but as a particular mode of apprehending and entering into relationship with the object of faith: God in Christ. In polemical terms this brings Balthasar into sharp conflict with all those who have turned away from contemplation of the object of theological reflection, God in his self-revelation, to a consideration of the conditions of human subjectivity and the manner of our apprehension of that revelation. And this distinguishes his approach as much from Bultmann's program of existential interpretation as from Catholic transcendental theology. What Balthasar particularly singles out in Bultmann is the combination of critical historical study with an anthropological reduction of faith to the moment of decision. For Balthasar, Bultmann's demythologization and reductive explanations of the origins of mythological concepts in the biblical texts, together with his existential interpretation of those texts, both serve equally to dispel the object of faith, leaving only an existential moralism.10 And there is a recurring polemic throughout Balthasar's writings against those who choose reductive explanations, historical, psychological or whatever, and thereby fail to do justice to the object of their study.11 It is in defense of this concentration on the object in The Glory of the Lord that we find Balthasar deploying analogy in a characteristic way. He turns to analogies from the world of aesthetic appreciation to demonstrate that in artistic terms, too, the object of perception has priority. For Balthasar, to perceive beauty is to perceive the manner of manifestation of a thing as it reveals its being, its reality. To be sure, where a work of art is concerned, we may profit from an understanding of its constituent parts, of the influences and circumstances of the artist, of preliminary sketches and of contemporary developments in the medium; but none of that will of itself bring understanding unless it enables us to see the work as a whole, to perceive, as Hopkins would have said, its "inscape."12 Understanding of this kind comes with practised contemplation, a cultivation of one's appreciation.

On another front, Balthasar rejects, quite justifiably, the charge that such a concern with form and beauty is Platonist. It is not that he wishes to penetrate behind the appearances of things to the enduring, eternal ideas of which they are manifestations only. He refuses to denigrate the differentiated diversity of material things, for they are capable of a mediation that is almost sacramental in character, enabling one to see the luminosity or "splendor" of being in a way that would be impossible in abstraction from actual, finite particulars. He will not accept any version of the view that "the material is the dispensable shell, and can be left behind by those with advanced spiritual vision once they have penetrated to the pure spiritual core."13 On the contrary, as Kevin Mongrain summarizes the matter, Balthasar believes "every particular finite reality can be a communication of spirit and the absolute truth of being."14 Cultivation of the capacity to perceive artistic beauty is analogous to the contemplative discipline of the saints, who act as a model for our own reception of the form that comes to us (volumes 2 and 3 of The Glory of the Lord are given over to studies of saints and contemplative theologians, clerical and lay). Such saints rekindle in an all too functionalist world our sense of the graciousness of things as they give themselves for our beholding. Balthasar's debt here is again to Ignatius, whose Spiritual Exercises he conducted some hundred times, to the Society of Jesus and to his own Johannes-Gemeinschaft; above all to Adrienne, "who showed the way in which Ignatius is fulfilled by John, and therewith laid the basis for most of what I have published since 1940. Her work and mine are neither psychologically nor philologically to be separated: two halves of a single whole, which has at its center a unique foundation."15 The work and insights of contemplative sanctity stand over against those Western theological and philosophical developments (largely postReformation, says Balthasar)16 that have lost sight of the sacramental revelation-figure in which the divine glory is seen.17 Theology of such a kind can listen only to the echoes of the divine word in its own self-consciousness; it loses its power to attract and to convince; it ceases to be concrete and concerns itself with the abstract, that which is perceived as the condition of the possibility of any perception at all. By contrast, the example of the saints - and, indeed, of Balthasar's theological aesthetics as a whole (influenced as it is by Adrienne) - recalls us to the nurture of our perception and understanding in the face of God's glory.

In the concluding volumes of The Glory of the Lord (on the Old and New Covenants) it becomes clear that for Balthasar all worldly forms, words and thoughts -those of the Old Testament included - are measured by that which they exist to serve: the Christological deus dixit (God has spoken) which is presented to us in the underlying unity of the scriptural Gestalt. It is largely to Barth that Balthasar owes this vision of a comprehensive biblical theology. The biblical Word - the Word of grace and promise - has its own unique Gestalt or form, in which human words and concepts are given their true sense as they are pressed into the service of the "new" creation in Christ. No demythologization of the New Testament is required by this, but rather a discovery of how all myths have been rescued and transformed in the witness of the Word to itself.

Thus far, the outline of the analogical framework (with its maior dissimilitudo) is apparent. Beauty is not strictly the same thing as glory. The "glorious" form of Christ is marred as well as beautiful. But contemplative perception of the beautiful nevertheless finds itself preserved as an analogue of our infinitely rich contemplation of God's glory, which only the approach of that glory (reinforcing its sovereign distinctiveness and freedom by its very approach) makes possible.

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