Graduate Theological Society

June 23, 2006

A response to the Seeing the Form, intro

Filed under: Von Balthasar — graduatetheology @ 2:47 pm

            In taking up the question of theology and aesthetics we face a question that – no matter what the current fashion or exigencies of academic theology – remains an “untimely” one, as von Balthasar rightly says (untimely, perhaps, precisely insofar as it stands as au courant in contemporary speech), and will remain so as long as we discourse in the traditions of now matter how post a modernity. Those Christian centuries which “masterfully knew how to read the natural world’s language of forms” were those who possessed a theology of creation that granted the possibility of “seeing the form.” Such, at least, is one implication of von Balthasar’s pages before us today: insofar as the book of nature has gone out of print, we shall be hard pressed to undertake a theology of contemplation and imagination oriented toward the pulchritude of Being.

                  For it is being, the being of God folded into the world, the mystery of the supernatural in the kosmos, that we have to do with here. And as such our discourse is automatically, insofar as we are going to be von Balthasar’s followers, a question – a subversive question – not of any aesthetic theology, the question of the work of art, but instead the splendor of the forms, of all forms inasmuch as they participate in the triune God and are ennobled in the transfiguration of the incarnation: rather therefore it is a theological aesthetics, a theory of vision and imagination determined by its object. It is a question not of poiesis (and I daresay, not of repetition), but of pathos – of undergoing, of being given, of a transfiguration. As someone somewhere once said, a question of a God that transforms, not a God that dazzles. 

            In reading Seeing the Form  – in already echoing the rhetorical folds of this work before us, in inscribing my own palimpsest on von Balthasar’s page – we have perhaps our task already delivered to us: adumbrated at least, broached, glimpsed. For if von Balthasar’s witness is to be attested to, we have at least this fact: if Augustine’s genius was to think seriously and profoundly caritas, the love of God that is God Godself (if therefore, not incidentally, he was first a theologian of the Holy Spirit), von Balthasar’s is to think pulchrum, the beauty of God that is God Godself. We do well, then, to ask ourselves accordingly how this inquiry will be conducted in the upcoming year. The following represents one attempt to understand the task of our collective discourse in theological aesthetics, in a series of propositions offered in the hope that we may find some clarity of vision in these months for the stumbling steps of Christian theology.


§ 1. If with the Fathers we regard beauty as a transcendental and do theology accordingly, if then theology is marked by the congruence of subject-matter and method, the category of the aesthetic becomes an ineluctable component of theology’s task.

            § 2. Being by nature participates in God’s form and its form is beauty; the theological question of ontology is therefore one of “working from the whole to the parts” (theology as queen of the sciences).

            § 3. “The beautiful brings with it a self-evidence that en-lightens without mediation.” Theology’s task then brings with it its own beginning and demonstration insofar as it is adequate to its object.

            § 4. God’s beauty is revealed in the Christ event and salvation history, the Incarnation representing the perfection of being. Theology is therefore a theory of rapture, a discourse of God’s ekstasis whereby God’s glory is inscribed in being and humanity is elevated to God.


§ 5. If theology’s object is the beautiful, then theology is first vision, a certain kind of seeing that with spiritual eyes beholds the form. It is necessarily then askesis, participating already in God and the site of the Spirit’s poiesis.

            § 6. Theology is the discourse of the ascent to God in contemplation: the eschatological vision that already participates in God’s life and future. The aesthetic raises therefore the question of the moment.

            § 7. If the form of divine revelation is salvation-history, then theology is anamnetic and therefore the discourse of faith in Christ borne by the Spirit. It accordingly participates in the sophiological retrospective in which the life of Jesus is transfigured in the eucharistic memory.

            § 8. Theology is the speech of eros whereby humanity’s venturing forth to God is configured as a theory of vision: it becomes a habitus inasmuch as human discourse is folded into God’s revelation and only thereby made proportionate to its object.


§ 9. A theological aesthetics as proportionate to its object and participatory in it is finally a pneumatology. The site of theology’s talk is the happy exchange between God and humanity in the incarnation whereby the Spirit is given for the transformation of vision and the coming to speech of the beauty of the form.

            § 10. Theological aesthetics poses the question of the natural and the supernatural: inasmuch as beauty participates already and analogically in God’s splendor, the supernatural is at home in the natural and inhabits it. Creation itself is made the bride of Christ in grace’s inhabitation, which is to say, in the outpouring of the Spirit.

            § 11. The ennobling of creation according to the archetype of Christ by the Creator Spirit whereby beauty in the world is both presence and sign, whereby form reveals the truth and goodness of being, determines theology’s “secularity.”

            § 12. A theological aesthetics as the poiesis of the Spirit configures the union of the subjective and objective ekstases of God and humanity: it is therefore a theory of rapture: the habitus of transformed vision and deified imagination.



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