The Radiance of Christ and its Effect on Human Beings: Theological Aesthetics in St. Thomas and von Balthasar

Below I’ve included an excerpt from Aidan Nichols’ little book on Hans Urs von Balthasar.  One of the chapters in my dissertation will take up certain aspects of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and dramatics so as to attempt to give a fuller picture of Christian social justice and the Church’s vision for striving after it in circumstances of violence and oppression — a fuller one, at least, than many modern and postmodern depictions tend to offer, in my view.  For this reason, I’m borrowing the term “transmodern” to describe it.  Of course, to whatever extent this is achieved, it will be due to the thinkers I’m writing about rather than anything original to my own thought.

Descartes was in love with what he called ‘clear and distinct ideas’.  Balthasar’s concept of clarity, however, is taken from Thomas, for whom clarity – radiance – is one of the essential traits of the beautiful, along with proportion and integrity.  This is a very different sort of ‘brightness’.  The brightness of the beautiful is something that overwhelms us, impelling us and enabling us to enter further into the depths of being than the unaided intelligence can venture.  And whereas the Cartesian ‘idea’ is, in Scholastic terms, an intuited potential essence – something that may or may not be the case about the world, the Thomistic ‘radiance’ is expressed by a form actually enacting its own existence, its being-in-act. — p. 17

St. Thomas explains that Christ has radiance through being the Art of the Father, where the Word illuminates the mind that contemplates him.  He has proportion because he is the fullest likeness of the Father.  He has integrity because his form is the Father’s form.  And for Aquinas precisely those three qualities – radiance, proportion, integrity – are the hallmarks of the beautiful.  St. Thomas was speaking of the pre-existent Son, who is with the Father from all eternity.  Balthasar, by contrast, wants to apply pulchrum to the incarnate Son, precisely in his sensuous as well as intelligible form, a form that is well accommodated to our finitude so that we may grasp it.

Though [artworks] function within the analogical network of being whose indefinitely extended character . . . though they belong to immanent being – the realm of being that suitably proportioned to the human mind, they also participate in the transcendentals, and thus they have a relation to the transcendent, divine Being that is all creation’s source.  Aesthetic beauty, we can say, strives towards transcendental beauty, and this is a token of its spirituality.  Yet aesthetic beauty cannot spiritualize itself.  It is ordered to the delight of the embodied human mind of everyman or everywoman – toward the satisfaction of the imagination as earthed in this world.  It can, then, only receive a direction toward the transcendent, and do so, accordingly, from beyond itself.   The supreme, altogether unified, and yet interior experience the Romantics were looking for is not self-shaped.  Rather, it is shaped by a transcendent and supernatural form.  The subject of religious experience, the human self, can be, ought to be, and has been, re-formed by its transcendent object.  Human experience enters true synthesis through receiving an objective revealed form that brings it to fulfillment.  The self becomes re-formed divinely when it lets Christ’s archetypal experience form its own.  — p. 26-27

 

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