Arts and Culture

Works of Art in Relation to Ultimate Beauty

by Father Robert Lauder

Tenth in a series

In recent years I have been thinking of God as ultimate Beauty, the source of all other beauty. When I studied undergraduate philosophy as a seminarian, I learned that God was ultimate Truth, the ultimate Good, unlimited Being and ultimate Beauty but somehow that image of God as Beauty was to a great extent displaced by God as Truth and God as the Good. God as ultimate Beauty and all beauty being a sign of God’s presence has only recently become one of images that I frequently use when I think of God.

I am not certain why beauty has become so important in relation to how I think about God but I suspect that one reason is related to two philosophy courses that I teach at St. John’s University: Philosophy and Literature (subtitled Meaning, Mystery and Metaphysics in the Catholic Novel) and Philosophy and Film. In both courses the mystery of God is at the center of everything we read or view and everything we discuss in class. I am trying not only to help students to read great Catholic literature and to experience great films that deal with the human mystery but also to see these works of art in relation to the Divine Mystery Who is ultimate Beauty.

When I first began to teach these courses I stressed the presence of God in the content of the particular work of art, whether it was a novel or a film. This would be the answer to the question, “What is the film or novel about?” I thought of the plot as being the main way that the beauty of the film mirrored Divine Beauty. Now I try to call the attention of the students to the presence of God as Beauty in what might be called the form and shape of the work of art. Put simply, I try to call the attention of the students to whether the work of art is or is not well done. If it is well done, then the beauty of that work mirrors the beauty of God, is a finite reflection of God as Beauty.

Everything that I have written so far can be explained and defended by philosophy, by human reason without any reference to Christian faith. If we look at the presence of beauty from the perspective of religious faith and theology then the importance of beauty becomes even more evident. The Risen Lord and His Spirit are present everywhere. Even art, for example novels and films, which do not seem to be in any obvious sense religious, can, through their beauty, open readers and viewers to the mystery of God, to Ultimate Beauty. Because of the presence of the Risen Lord and His Spirit the encounter with beauty may lead not merely to an intellectual experience but even to an encounter with God.[hr]
The story of every person’s life looked at from the most profound perspective involves an interaction between two freedoms, ours and God’s.
The Drama of Beauty
Beauty has been on my mind recently because of the chapter in Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95) on the theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Fittingly, Father Gallagher subtitles the chapter he devotes to Balthasar “the drama of beauty.” Father Gallagher points out that though Balthasar initially agreed with the theological approach that used the human person as the starting point of theology, he ultimately rejected that approach because he believed that it did not give sufficient emphasis to the God of revelation reaching out to us through His Son.

Commenting on Balthasar’s approach to Christian revelation, Father Gallagher writes the following:

“The early volumes of Balthasar’s work deal with the perception of God’s beauty; a second phase goes on to explore the drama of our freedom in answering God’s call. These two moments – of recognition and response – are central to the experience of faith as he understands it. Moving away from the intellectualism of the scholastic tradition, he looks to aesthetics, or the encounter with overwhelming beauty, as the model for recognizing God’s love in Christ. Then distancing himself from the cold moralism of previous theology, he looks to the tradition of theatre that represents faith as the interaction of two freedoms (God’s and ours). Christianity, he insists, is not primarily ‘a communication of knowledge’ but a revelation of ‘God’s action,’ continuing the biblical drama between God and humanity…” (p. 53)

Just about everything in Balthasar’s theology appeals to me and I confess that I find it inspiring. That we are called to respond to overwhelming beauty is mind-boggling. God desires our response, our involvement in a great drama, not merely a great drama but the great drama.

The story of every person’s life looked at from the most profound perspective involves an interaction between two freedoms, ours and God’s. The initiative is taken by God. How we respond determines how we live and how we die.[hr]
Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.