Beauty: Fragment on a Theme

I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher. I am simply a painter whose faith takes color, tone, and bearing from the Catholicism into which I was born.

But even a cat can look at a king. From my place—well beneath the box seats of beauty-minded theologians and theological esthetes—I wonder if Hans Urs von Balthasar’s legacy is as wholly salutary as it has become fashionable to believe. This is a risky confession, my brothers and my sisters. I know that. Still, it would be cowardly not to admit inkings that there might be a fly in the liniment. A lovely iridescent rainbow of a thing, but a fly nonetheless.

Puss in Boots. Illustrated by H.M. Brock. The Fairy Library (c.1910)
Puss in Boots. Illustrated by H.M. Brock. The Fairy Library (c.1910)

We thrill to Augustine’s luminous words: “Late have I loved thee, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.” But the Beauty addressed in the Confessions is met only in prayer. All else is sensible beauty, material gifts to the eye, the ear, the touch. Whether sensible beauty is revelatory, leading necessarily to God, is the cornerstone question buttressing contemporary romance with theological aesthetics. Acolytes of Hans Urs von Balthasar answer confidently in the affirmative.

My own lack of any requisite presumption of finality in the matter keeps me off the train. I can always catch it later at another station. But for now, my ticket stays in my pocket. Let me work around, perhaps obliquely, to some reasons as we go.

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“What will I do, O my love, if I cannot praise thee?” Augustine’s cry of the heart is profoundly personal, an enduring proclamation of the soul’s ache to adore. There is nothing here of the modern theologian who is, in the end—as Jean LecLercq, O.S.B. reminded in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God —“nothing more than a professor.”

Dom LecLercq reminds that, according to tradition until Abelard’s time, “theology is praise of God, and the theologian is one who speaks to God.” He quote Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century monk: “If you are a theologian you will pray in truth, and if you pray in truth, you are a theologian.”

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Balthasar was much influenced by Henri de Lubac, one of the most compelling theologians of his generation. Of any generation. The cardinal complimented his disciple in the guild by saying Balthasar had “restored beauty to its position as a transcendental.”

In mathematical circles, the number pi is also considered a transcendental. But few of us can speak the language of mathematics. The mysterious ebb and flow of the primes, like the behavior of imaginary numbers or the power of the Riemann zeta function, escapes not only our notice but our comprehension. Beauty—invariably conceived in terms of the arts—is our default category precisely because it is the easiest to grasp, speaking as it does to bodily sense perception. It has served in this insufficient capacity with increasing assurance since aesthetics hardened into a discipline under eighteenth century Prussian rigor. It was then that sensibility rose on hind legs to mimic sanctity and displace it as a cultural ambition.

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That shopworn word creativity sheds meaning whenever it is applied—misapplied—exclusively to the fine arts. Creative intuition informs every facet of human endeavor. It has done, since the discovery of fire. When can we stop talking about it?

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“An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.”

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920)

Ramanujan was a young, unschooled Indian clerk in the Madras Port Authority and a devout Hindu. Isolated from any mathematical tradition but possessed of a stunning aptitude for mathematics, he threw himself, unaided, into prime numbers. His genius cleared pathways through mathematical mazes in eventual, fruitful partnership with the great G.H. Hardy who brought Ramanujan to Cambridge.

Marcus du Sautoy’s comments on Ramanujan, “the mathematical mystic,” in The Music of the Primesare a useful corrective to aesthetic parochialism:

Mathematical creativity is difficult to understand at the best of times, but the way Ramanujan worked was always something of a mystery. He used to claim that his ideas were given him in his dreams by the goddess Namagiri . . . the Ramanujan’s family goddess . . . . For Ramanujan himself, she was the explanation for the flashes of insight that sparked his continuous stream of mathematical discoveries.

Before we can talk about beauty in any substantive way, we have to relinquish the fetish we have made of fine art. One fine starting place is Robert Kanigel’s 1991 biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity .

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Theoretical physicist Paul Dirac (d. 1984) famously gauged the validity of equations that were submitted to him by their “elegance.”

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Sometime in the 1990s, an epidemiologist writing in one of the science journals ( Nature Scientific American ? I was not taking notes.) called the AIDS virus an “exquisite” particle. That description lodged in memory precisely because,viewed as a morsel of creation, it was beautiful. Its beauty lay in the perfection of its design. It was consummately crafted to accomplish its goal: to kill.

That has stayed with me as a nagging reminder that terror, too, is revelatory. The conflation of theological necessity with beauty untempered, and unchastened, by fear strikes me as a subtle variant of aestheticism radiated by Christological language.

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[More later.]