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Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340
Review Essay Von Balthasar as Transmodernist: Recent Works on Theological Aesthetics
Bychkov, Oleg V., and James Fodor, eds. Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar. Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination and the Arts, eds. Trevor Hart et al. Aldershot, England and Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. Pp. xxxiv + 238 + 15 illustrations. $99.95 cloth. Forte, Bruno. The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics. Trans. David Glenday and Paul McPartlan. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. Pp. viii + 121. $30.00 paper. Murphy, Michael P. A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar, Postmodernism, and the Catholic Imagination. American Academy of Religion Academy Series, ed. Kimberly Rae Connor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv + 210. $74.00 cloth. *
ans Urs von Balthasar’s interdisciplinary trilogy—The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics—has been a watershed event in the twentieth century for the disciplines of theology, philosophy, and aesthetics. Certainly we could mention other aﬀected disciplines of study, but for the current task, these three will suﬃce. Von Balthasar’s work has now moved into its second stage of reception—the ﬁrst stage being its translation followed by introductory summaries—and more and more scholars seek to apply his theoretical framework to the actual task of doing theology, philosophy, or aesthetics. Although the third stage—criticism and
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Kierkegaard. contribution of theological thought to the understanding and experience of beauty” (viii). the text necessarily limits itself to a series of introductions. which accounts for its subtitle: it does indeed move toward a theology of aesthetics rather than toward an actual presentation of one in its fullness. Dostoevsky. his brief but piercing chapters focus in on particular thinkers. 10. as a point of departure. 27) [“Late have I loved you. his project of reinvigorating the relationship between theology and aesthetics animates much of Forte’s book. and poetry. If beauty attracts love. While von Balthasar takes up but one chapter. the inﬁnite is revealed via the ﬁnite. and Evdokimov). pulchritude tam antique et tam nova” (Bk. The ﬁrst six chapters cover individual thinkers (Augustine. In his opening chapter. Ch. These three stages can serve as an organizing principle for examining three recent works on aesthetics. part application—establishes a ﬁrm and important groundwork for further reﬂection. Forte’s stated purpose is “to examine the deep. with the ﬁnal three chapters presenting reﬂections on music. and his The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics—which is part introduction. even though not always obvious. beauty is like synecdoche: the whole is communicated via the part. it does not discuss aesthetics in the abstract. there are some anticipatory forays being developed. For him. or. the whole of God’s love is communicated through the Cross. nor does it discuss aesthetics solely from the limited perspective of a particular discipline such as philosophy or literature. Aquinas. then we can easily understand why we are attracted to beauty—our subjective response of pleasure is caused . Although each chapter is about twelve pages. It is a solid introduction to diﬀerent approaches to beauty from a theological context. Forte reads Augustine as a theologian who spent his entire life pursuing the relationship between God and beauty. cinema. the latter looks at two thinkers who tower over medieval theology: Augustine and Aquinas. von Balthasar ﬁgures prominently either as an integral component to the development of a particular thesis. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 333 correctives—is most probably several decades away.D. there is a surprising depth within them that many writers cannot attain in twice as many pages. and taking up a very familiar passage from Augustine’s Confessions—“Sero te amavi. Archbishop Bruno Forte’s background in theology allows for an insightful commentary on aesthetics. and as such. and God is love as well as beauty. Not intended to be a survey of theology or even of aesthetics. For example. In each. O beauty so ancient and so new”]—Forte explores the implications of deﬁning God as beauty. Still. von Balthasar.
who. it is a ﬁne overview.334 D. arriving at a common ground between the two thinkers. is a form of divine synecdoche. In the novelist’s focus on Good Friday—images of violence in his work—Dostoevsky shows that the only path to God is through the Cross. Because beauty cannot be manifested in this world without a conscious choice. In his discussion of Dostoevsky. a beautiful object is in harmony with itself. Forte shows how Augustine describes the qualities of beauty in reference to their source. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 by the objective presence of beauty. Dostoevsky’s characters are given the freedom to choose between nihilism and redemption as “the way of the cross will always remain the way to freedom and beauty” (51). God. inheriting this tradition of synecdoche. The chapter on Paul Evdokimov examines the role of Eastern Christianity and beauty as revealed through icons. once again. and poetry. he brings readers only to the threshold of applying his thesis rather than actually putting it into practice. However. In his chapter on Aquinas. Thus. Forte contrasts the personalism of Augustine with the rationalism of Aquinas. As a reﬂective introduction to theological aesthetics. * . and radiance that is so familiar to readers of this journal.. Once again. writes his trilogy on the idea that the whole is revealed through the part. for a book subtitled Toward a Theology of Aesthetics. in harmony with the Whole. because he writes in broad strokes. Beauty. Forte relies upon Jacques Maritain and Umberto Eco. Modernism’s loss of God has occurred through a loss of a sense of beauty. readers should not be dissatisﬁed with having been taken to the threshold and abandoned (e. In the next chapter. which. Each of the ﬁrst six chapters follows a similar trajectory. Forte identiﬁes the various threats to beauty. cinema. the chapter on poetry provides a poem without commentary) but should instead see the book as an opportunity for further development. proportion. In applying his schema of synecdoche. for von Balthasar. Forte adds in Aquinas’ discussion of analogy and truth: when we respond to beauty. as well as the tripartite description of integrity. The concluding three chapters of the book speculate about music. Kierkegaard is described as a transitional ﬁgure leading to von Balthasar. truth and goodness disappear. the most pernicious being nihilism.g. and in turn. we take in the object as it is (as opposed to how we wish it would be) and the Whole is conveyed in the fragment via the act of ideation. is the most important of the transcendentals because without it.
Murphy. but also examining it in light of postmodernism. all the while respecting and generally upholding von Balthasar’s claims. Murphy’s book is a rich. His A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar. Murphy states that “the main purpose of this study. It is an interesting conversation between a discipline that attacks the very existence of meaning and a theologian who claims that all meaning is mediated through the Cross. and what makes his work so powerful is his insistence upon applying the conceptual framework of postmodernism to von Balthasar. and because Murphy avoids literary jargon that obfuscates rather than reveals. Postmodernism. and many secondary sources are annotated in the footnotes. After establishing the historical and methodological contexts of his study. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 335 The second stage of the reception of von Balthasar’s work lies in the application of his thesis. he sets out to deﬁne the phrase “Catholic Imagination. . placing von Balthasar’s thought not only within its historical and theological contexts. is to suggest creative and credible options for religious critics” (5). and postmodernists alike. Murphy does introduce more postmodern terms and methods throughout the book as he explicates texts. and the Catholic Imagination represents a true development in applying theological aesthetics to literary criticism. there is a thorough bibliography. There have been recent studies about the so-called “Catholic Imagination. making generous use of the ﬁfteen volumes of the trilogy as well as many of von Balthasar’s other works. Murphy begins his study with ﬁnding the intersection between theology and literature—narrative. his work can have a wide appeal. literary scholars. Murphy then applies von Balthasar’s approach to literature (Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” and David Lodge’s Therapy) and to ﬁlm (Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves). The result is a remarkable tour de force for theologians.” but very few of those works transcend their sociological context in order to present their ﬁndings systematically. and one would be hard pressed to ﬁnd a better critical theorist than Michael P. and philosophers consciously recreates von Balthasar’s own interdisciplinarity (“intellectual pluralism”). then. In addition. Although the deﬁnitions of postmodernism in the introduction are not comprehensive.” As one might expect from the title. In his opening chapter (a convincing apologia for religious criticism).D. literary critics. Murphy is in full control of the vocabulary of postmodern literary criticism. The ensuing conversation among theologians. he locates the most reliable deﬁnition in the work of von Balthasar. interdisciplinary explication of the trilogy.
The second chapter provides biographical information on von Balthasar as well as a summary of the main points of his trilogy. This chapter does not explain von Balthasar’s aesthetics (other works have already done the work of the ﬁrst stage of reception). Because postmodernism (and here. Murphy uses Derrida) denies religious truth. but the advantage to his methodology is that readers can see the continuous conversation among the various disciplines. and stylistic pluralism. and in his mind. Murphy examines the transcendental of beauty in light of Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry and the tripartite division of beauty into integrity. not only because the Jesuits actively engaged modernism. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 Some readers might prefer that Murphy separate his chapters on theology and literary analysis rather than employ his technique of utilizing frequent section breaks. Murphy locates von Balthasar’s use of interdisciplinarity in the Enlightenment. but it does present three themes that Murphy ﬁnds essential in von Balthasar’s work: concentricity (revisiting the same themes through diﬀerent perspectives). What accounts for the uniqueness of Murphy’s approach is his insistence that he does theological exploration and aesthetics simultaneously. proportion. Murphy decides to pursue postmodernism as a kind of negative theology. Chapter Three (titled “Sacred Arrangements”) contains a discussion of hierarchy and a theological reading of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation. the failure to do so has led to the many incomplete works on the Catholic Imagination.336 D.” Postmodernism—either through nihilism or through relativism—has overzealously collapsed all qualities of natural justice (the basis for hierarchies) into hegemonies created by the will to power. but also because the Spiritual Exercises aided von Balthasar’s intellectual vision of understanding the aesthetic signiﬁcance of identifying and seeing the Cross as the center of human history. and Flannery O’Connor. William Everson. parallels Murphy’s use of theology with postmodernism. To the extent that truth cannot contradict truth. Murphy seeks to ﬁnd the common ground between the theological claim that the Cross is the center and fulﬁllment of human history and the postmodern claims that all history is a construct of one power structure dominating another. He also makes the important point that Ignatian spirituality plays a vital role in his subject’s approach. all the while weaving in interpretations of Pablo Neruda. which. . of course. The methodology allows Murphy the luxury of placing the tropes of postmodernism at the service of the theological aesthetics of von Balthasar. music. Walker Percy. and radiance.
Rather than reinforcing inscription as an expression of a powerseeking hegemony. Chapter Four examines theological aesthetics in cinema. and Murphy’s analysis is most penetrating when it examines the movie in this light. we participate in a dialectical drama with God. Murphy rightly identiﬁes “inter-subjectivity” and “indeterminacy” as preoccupations in postmodernism. The movie also allows for an extended discussion of the analogia entis. His reading of O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” is perceptive. dovetailing with the theological discussion of Aquinas and von Balthasar. Taken as a whole. In his discussion of von Trier. Murphy out-postmoderns the postmoderns in recontextualizing literary terms as categories for doing theological aesthetics. the chapter is insightful. Murphy writes about the Catholic Imagination through the language of postmodernism. For example. God. and readers are invited to visualize the process as something like a leader conducting an orchestra. In allowing ourselves to be moved by God on the stage of our lives. Perhaps if Murphy had given readers a more extended summary of . Murphy takes up the structure of von Balthasar’s ﬁve-volume Theo-Drama as a sure guide for interpreting the dramatic arts. It is not a manipulation of power structures. As this dialectic is fresh and new for each person—and yet the same God initiates it—there is an inter-subjectivity to Theo-Drama. The chapter concludes with an ingenious reading of the work of director Lars von Trier. In a sense. calls us back to Himself.D. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 337 He is quite successful at integrating the two disciplines of theology and literary criticism into his methodology. Murphy points out the theologically obvious: in TheoDrama. Set in Calvinist Scotland. a major point of diﬀerence between Catholics and Protestants. especially when he points out the defects in the Protestant theological imagination. and he does so in a manner that recognizes the complexity and contribution of postmodernism. having inscripted His image upon us. postmodernists often speak about inscription: One is inscripted upon by an Other. Here. the movie portrays a dialectic between Protestant and Catholic theological imaginations. but an expression of love. as well as an indeterminacy because the Spirit responds diﬀerently to each person. the rhetorical strategy of interlacing theological background with cinematic criticism does not work as well as it does for ﬁction—the interruptions detract readers from an understanding of the ﬁlm. Breaking the Waves was not without controversy when it appeared. and he uses these terms in an eﬀort to transform categories of literary criticism. however.
or postmodernism like Murphy. By now. Through René Girard. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 the movie. One can hope that the process will be reciprocated by postmodernists themselves. This chapter takes up the ways in which people choose to order their lives. Judith Butler. the collection suggests many correctives to von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics. most notably those involving his perceived misunderstanding of the Protestant theological and aesthetic traditions. readers are familiar with and comfortable with Murphy’s methodology. Murphy interweaves theology. albeit with a von Balthasarian telos. This chapter is perhaps the most integrated of the ﬁve—after each digression on postmodernism. Søren Kirkegaard (whom Lodge explicitly evokes in the novel). * The fullness of the third stage—the critical and corrective stage—of the reception of von Balthasar is still in the future. Bychkov uses the language of philosophy to speak about aesthetics rather than theology like Forte. he allows what is good and true (and therefore beautiful as well) to work on him. philosophy. but engaged . Such is the nature of academic conferences (though readers should note that this volume is not merely the proceedings from the conferences. His insistence upon using postmodern terminology within a Christian framework is one of the main strengths of the work. there is a consequent pluralism—which the editors have encouraged—in this volume that is absent in Forte and Murphy. and literary criticism. essays developed from presentations at international conferences in 2004 and 2006. Murphy shows how Lodge’s character Laurence Passmore gives up on modern consumerist culture and embraces—or rather. Murphy refuses to reduce the arguments and tenets of postmodernism to mere straw: in his openness to truth. admirably fulﬁlling his earlier intention that von Balthasar’s simultaneous interdisciplinary approach ought to be imitated by all critics and theologians. Murphy conscientiously applies that postmodern critique to the novel. The ﬁnal chapter is an extended analysis of David Lodge’s Therapy. Throughout the chapter.338 D. but there are anticipatory arguments present in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar. Because there are many diﬀerent aesthetic traditions. the organization of the subsections would be smoother. “turns” toward—the transcendent. In his introduction. and Martin Buber. but he is to be commended for including it in his work. Edited by Oleg Bychkov and James Fodor.
Because the book is a collection of essays. and Anglican traditions allows for extended discussions of ﬁgures not in Forte or Murphy. is one of Murphy’s close readers and advisors. For example. . Tillich. James Fodor’s “ ‘Alien Beauty’: Parabolic Judgment and the Witness of Faith” examines the parables of Jesus in light of Stanley Hauerwas. The special attention given to Reformed. focusing upon the aesthetics of philosophers such as Aristotle or Duns Scotus. Lutheran.” are concerned with pointing out deﬁciencies in von Balthasar’s understanding of Protestant aesthetics. In addition. the former focuses upon Scotus in Hopkins. and while each essay oﬀers its own insights. and certainly more critical of von Balthasar than either Forte or Murphy. such as Richard Vilandesau’s “The Beauty of the Cross. Garcia-Rivera. there is some overlap among the three books reviewed here: Aquinas and von Balthasar are the only thinkers who ﬁgure prominently in each. Paul Ricoeur and various followers of von Balthasar. The conversation amongst the essays is as interesting as it is complex.D. while the latter examines Hopkins’s place in the canon of English poets. Other contributions. where von Balthasar parts ways with Protestant theological aesthetics (as does Murphy in his discussion of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves). Another essay. and beauty. however. preaching.” which focuses on the theologian’s Ignatian spirituality. and illustrations as a means of pointing out the convergences between von Balthasar. Iris Murdoch. and Alejandro Garcia-Rivera has an essay in Bychkov. there is a lack of the interconnectedness that one ﬁnds in a monograph. For example.” combines von Balthasar. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 339 revisions of presentations). some essays in this collection seek a reconciliation between the two aesthetic traditions. there is no one single narrative thread. Bernadette Waterman Ward and James Kerr present two excellent essays on von Balthasar’s treatment of Hopkins. as one would expect with a stronger emphasis on Protestantism. the Catholic Imagination is less of a concern. Also. Most of the essays. can be said to be inspired by von Balthasar. such as Lee Barrett’s “Von Balthasar and Protestant Aesthetics. there is Ben Quash’s “Hans Urs von Balthasar’s ‘Theatre of the World’: The Aesthetic of a Dramatics. Yet this volume is also more dialogic than the other two volumes. such as Barth and Tillich. Von Balthasar sees Protestantism’s reliance upon the Word over the analogia entis (the analogy of being) and with emotion over intellect as liabilities rather than as assets. There are even some essays which do not mention von Balthasar at all.
The impact of von Balthasar’s encyclopedic oeuvre will be felt for many years to come. Critics who want to gain an understanding of the history of theological aesthetics would do well to read Forte. and those who are interested in doing so from the context of religious pluralism would do well to read Bychkov and Fodor. those who want do the work of literary criticism on their knees will ﬁnd Murphy’s text to be the best preparation. However.340 D. . The application of his methodology to various disciplines is still to be done (one recalls the 1980’s when every literary work was subjected to a deconstructionist reading. There. is a living entity. for Péguy as well as for von Balthasar. Tradition. and the task is exciting for the future of religious criticism. the wish is for the same to be done through a von Balthasarian lens). the groundwork for von Balthazarian transmodernism has been laid. Kearney / Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 332–340 The poet Charles Péguy once remarked that the water at the bottom of the well was newer than the water at the top of the well. something that is to be addressed anew in every age.
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