I’ve started the long trek through David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, a polemic/dogmatics against the Post-Modern mood of our era. One appreciative element in his introduction is how he scripts the narrative (though he dislikes the connotations of the word) as one of two cities. Depending on our vantage, when we look on Creation, we will see a theater of God’s Glory or a barren waste. Now, I am not talking at the level of the now or the visible, but of purpose and eschaton. A huge question of the book deals with the created world and what it is. Is it nothing but a violently conceived illusion, a means only to be transcended in a paradox of finitude? Or is this the good creation which the Lord brought into being through the Word, Jesus Christ?
I will report intermittently as I continue, but I wanted to stop at one point that struck me. One distinction in attitudes and suppositions is that of beauty and desire. Post-Modernity has struck at beauty as a synthetic violence forced upon others, an order that is inherently oppressive. Beauty is the realm of the elite, those who are capable of building empires and cultures. This is just a rouse for others to continue the dialectic of their own attempts of bringing order to chaos. According to the Bible, this is in line with how God created, but Post-Modernity sees this as a violent seizure of what, inherently, cannot be seized. I am speaking in a lot of broad-strokes.
The vicious deconstruction and demolition by Post-Modernity is not something to be utterly rejected. Christ is the unassailable Word, but all other idolatrous words spoken against will collapse. The project of Apollo, which is the project of speculative philosophy and culture fabrication, won’t stand up against his brother god. Dionysus’ madness is an onslaught upon the shaky pillars of the Apollonian Temple. But thanks be to God that Christ is both True Wisdom and True Joy, overcoming all pagan conceptions with a deeper music and a richer wine.
And it’s for this reason that I ask, in defense of Beauty, if desire and appetite is mere fancy, subjective appreciation, and constituted only by belly and hunger? By this I’m asking: is Beauty an objective Outsider who seizes us, or is it internally generated lust for the passive object before it?
The reality, as I’d see it, is a qualified yes. Beauty is a Person, an objective movement that seizes us, whose imprint can knock us over. Yet, this is not inherent in fallen and sinful man. We have a belly-god who directs us to slobber and lurch. Both points are true, but not because of a Post-Modern deconstruction. Instead, Post-Modernism has shown how the Apollonian temple of refined taste is nothing more than dressed up and masqueraded hunger. Feurbach’s critique, that all talk of god is Human desire projected up, levels the land of all our attempts to reach up. We stumble in the dark looking for answers.
Our society’s embrace of Consumerism, becoming more and more comprehensive and internal, is an opportunistic embrace of the Fall. We are bombarded with images, advertisements, scenery, pornography, bloodshed, saccharine emotion etc. It is so overwhelming that our ability to taste changes as a result. It’s always been like this, but never at this level. Goebbels would die from glee in seeing the American Media-Complex.
We are recondition to think only in terms of buying, using, consuming. Man is only a complex beast of many hungers. Some are base (sex, food, drink), some are higher (family, fashion, sport) and some appeal to a synthetic climax of Humanity (spirit, god, ultimate concern). Tillich may have thought man is driven by an ultimate concern, an anxiety over death and destiny. Ad Men have flipped this in the guise of Oprah books.
While this is all true, it is only conditioned by the Fall. While Man’s attempt to universalize are, by nature, oppressive, this does not eradicate the reality of a true aesthetic. If God is the one whom we taste and see that He is good, the one who promises flowing rivers of milk and honey, then we are wrong to think man’s god is only the stomach.
In Biblical Typology, while the Land was fruitful and good to the Israelites, it pointed out to a fulfillment, which is revealed to be found in Christ. He is our bounty and our good, our portion and our plenty. And lest we be duped by our conditioning, He is God and is not able to be boxed. In finding Him and grabbing His robe, we are mastered. Desire is fulfilled in the Beauty He reveals.
Yet He comes as ugly and bloody. This is not contradictory, but rather, a paradoxical revelation. It is in sacrifice that we see the fullness of God. It is not emptiness as such, but seeing Christ, the Prince of Glory, take the shape of a servant, that sets our souls ablaze. Christ awakens us, allured by the honey-power of the Spirit, to reshape our twisted hearts around Him.
It’s not that Beauty is not real, He is. And we need Beauty Himself to teach us anew, reshaping our desires around what is true and what is good. This is true in the aesthetic, where we give glory to God in seeing the Creation worship Him. Whether it’s in the trees or the rocks, in a painting or music, we praise God for the shallow joy. This is not an endorsement for a particular culture, which is the Constantinian synthesis, Christ’s Church turned into an Apollonian Temple to demons. It is a wide and rejoicing evaluation. Whatever lifts our hearts and imaginations to the Lord Jesus, revealed in Scripture, ought to be received with praise.
But this sense of beauty also reaches over into the ethical and the true. The Fruits(!) of the Spirit are pleasing to God and to the heart renewed. We probably will never see this fully in this life, but when we rejoice to witness love, compassion, peace etc., we are appreciating the beauty of the good.
There are many other places this could be thought out and unrolled. But it is our work as God’s People to be mastered by Christ, to seek Him and rejoice in what He rejoices in. For God is the God of wine, salt, honey, breasts, hair, eyes, kittens, and so much more. To call this list vulgar is to deny a good creation. We live in a fall and our corrupted hearts twist these. Under the domain of Adam, even the fruits become rotten. Wisdom becomes deceit, peace becomes sloth, patience becomes indifference, faith becomes grasping, love becomes lust.
Let us taste Jesus, see that He is good, and live conformed to His life. He is the Lord of the Resurrection. He is the Light that opens eyes. He is Word that unstops ears. He is Bread and Wine that give us fullness. He is the Beautiful Lord. Amen.