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date: 19 April 2019

Aesthetics and the Arts in Relation to Natural Theology

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the significance of aesthetics and the arts to natural theology, first discussing ways that natural theology can circumvent the evident religiosity of certain kinds of art. It then situates scholarship in the arts and aesthetics in relation to different approaches to natural theology, and concludes by considering a newly expanded understanding of natural theology and its relation to alternative approaches to aesthetics and the arts.

Keywords: aesthetics, art, natural theology, religiosity


If one were to imagine a map showing the various regions that natural theology typically wants to explore, one could visualize philosophy and science as sizeable continents. That is because, traditionally, what is ‘natural’ about natural theology is, first, its reliance on reason and our natural human capacities; and, secondly, its attention to nature. By contrast, aesthetics and the arts might be relatively hard to locate. We need to see why that is so—and why it can be important, nonetheless, to include art and aesthetics in natural theology. After considering, in general terms, some of the possible obstacles, especially related to method, we will look at areas in which scholarship in the arts and aesthetics converges with, and participates in, natural theology. The chapter concludes by considering a newly expanded understanding of natural theology and its relation to alternative approaches to aesthetics and the arts.


A great deal of art is located in the part of culture that is explicitly religious—to such an extent that it is hard to imagine a religion without artistic symbolism and expression of some sort. Music, painting, poetry, and architecture, for example, are often found in the immediate service of faith and under the influence of ‘revealed theology’ in a way that natural science and philosophy are not, at least since the Middle Ages. This active artistic involvement in religion is one thing that can make theological reflection on the arts (p. 524) both inviting and rewarding. But it can also make for complications for a natural theology of the arts, if one accepts a traditional notion of natural theology as providing ‘support for religious beliefs by starting from premises that neither are nor presuppose any religious beliefs’ (Alston 1991: 289).

One way around this difficulty is essentially to deny that it is an issue. In particular, one might argue that what is theologically relevant (or not) about works of art is much the same whether or not they wear a religious label. Accordingly, one could regard all forms of art and beauty as at least implicitly religious, as some theologians do who see beauty as transcendental or who see all art as expressing ultimate concern. Or one could take the stance of Christian theologians who do not consider any form of human artistry as such, or any earthly beauty, to be inherently ‘religious’ in a positive sense, but who say that Christian reflection on music or on beauty in general can discern patterns and secular parables conducive to faith when seen in the right light.

For now, we need to note why this way of getting around the religious commitments of some art, while not uncommon, is not entirely problem-free. On the one hand, suppose one claims that art in general is religious, or at least implicitly so. While that allows one to discover religious meaning in secular art, it also makes it difficult to explain why some enjoyable art, despite being aesthetically satisfying, seems no more religious, really, than skate-boarding or ski-jumping, both of which have well-attested aesthetic appeal. It also becomes difficult to explain the opposite phenomenon: why, for instance, people who are otherwise ‘unbelievers’ often seek out what they identify as spiritual forms of art—such as remarkable church buildings and liturgical music—precisely because they perceive them as having a special depth or a kind of beauty unavailable in much other art, and transcending words and religious doctrine (Wuthnow 2001). And if, alternatively, one is using the eyes of faith to look at art or beauty in general, that could seem unsatisfactory for the ‘apologetic’ purposes of natural theology because it would typically involve looking for analogies or patterns that it seems only a Christian would see as theologically significant anyway.

A second way for natural theology to circumvent the evident religiosity of certain kinds of art is not to deny that the overtly religious commitments of art can sometimes make a difference to both religion and art but to make a methodological choice to begin by provisionally removing or ‘bracketing’ any religious markers and by focussing on features common to all art. Again this approach, while rewarding, is not without its limitations, especially when taken as an all-encompassing method. How secular does the starting point need to be in order to be safe for natural theology? And how typical even of secular art is this kind of neutrality? What is one to do about the now well-documented fact that a great many modern and contemporary artists, even in the ostensibly secular avant-garde movements of the previous century, have had hidden but definite metaphysical and spiritual aims for their art (Lipsey 1988)?

All of this suggests that it can be problematical for a natural theology of the arts to rely exclusively on either of two assumptions: either that all art or beauty is basically the same in its relevance to theology or that the difference between secular and religious art is so clear and sharp as to necessitate screening out religious art altogether for the purposes of natural theology.

(p. 525) Beyond such issues, there is the consideration that, whereas natural theology has traditionally claimed to rely on reason, nothing seems less bound to rationality and argument than beauty and artistic imagination. Accordingly, if one is to reflect on art and on natural beauty in a reasonable way, one needs to draw on a discipline designed to allow one to reckon philosophically with such things as beauty, sublimity, taste, creative expression, and imagination. In turn, that means using reason partly to see its relationship to what lies beyond reason. That takes natural theology into the field of aesthetics.

Art and Aesthetics on the Map of Natural Theology

For a considerable period of time, natural theology has been regarded as forbidden or alien terrain from various points of view (see McGrath 2008). Criticisms have come from Barthian neo-orthodoxy and, more recently, radical orthodoxy, and varieties of post-liberal or postmodern theology. Depending on which of these standpoints is adopted, natural theology may be viewed as inherently too liberal or romantic, too secular or unchristian, too rationalist or metaphysical, too empiricist—or simply too apologetic, and thus too willing to employ whatever cultural norms and philosophies are prevalent in a given era. Implicit in these often mutually conflicting critiques of natural theology are various views of reason and revelation, of nature and grace, ‘Christ and culture’, religion and science, and so forth. That gives us all the more reason to note that natural theology takes many forms (Pailin 1995; McGrath 2008). Some of those forms are newly emerging, including ones that might be acceptable to some theologians otherwise critical. In view of this variety, the following discussion situates scholarship in the arts and aesthetics in relation to different approaches to natural theology. This endeavour is necessarily tentative, not only because the scope is broad but also because not all scholars whose work is relevant make use of the concept of natural theology per se.

Area 1: The Search for Evidence of God or Transcendence in Experience and Culture

Natural theology is perhaps best known for endeavouring to use reason, unaided by revelation, to provide proofs of, or at least evidence for, the existence of God. Such an approach, which has fallen into disfavour, survives today mainly as modified in various forms of apologetics and philosophical theology that are less concerned with proof than with plausibility and intuitive appeal (Migliore 2004: 354–69; McGrath 2008). That is (p. 526) where our first area of shared interest with aesthetics can be located. And here we begin with theological reflection that follows, but extends in new directions, the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who did not see his own work as focussed on natural theology but as concerned centrally with the beauty of revelation. Richard Viladesau (1999) builds on Balthasar's theological aesthetics and on a rich tradition of thought, both ancient and modern, that sees beauty as a transcendental: that is, as an attribute, in some degree, of everything that so much as exists. Viladesau affirms and develops such a transcendental philosophy and theology of beauty (though not only that, since he acknowledges that beauty in relation to art and criticism does not function simply as a transcendental). The connection with natural theology becomes explicit where Viladesau's analysis claims to be based on aesthetic experience, or the experience of beauty, prior to any religious and theological uses of it—experience that he argues nonetheless supports the judgement of God's existence (1999: 105). Viladesau describes beauty, in a transcendental sense, as the intrinsic relation of intelligible form, truth, and virtue to joy, and specifically to the enjoyment of something's lovability and intrinsic worth. As a transcendental, beauty analogically has its source and goal in God. The experience of beauty, for us, is felt as both a sense of fullness and a longing for a total affirmation of the joy of existence. The condition for the possibility of this experience of beauty, Viladesau argues, is implicitly the ultimate beauty of infinite, divine bliss (1999: 138).

In a similar way, but with respect to the particulars of art rather than the qualities of beauty, Justus George Lawler examines the basic building blocks of poetic language. Employing a ‘micropoetics’, he wants to demonstrate the ways in which these core elements of poetic language function as miniature ‘structures of transcendence’, whether or not one assents formally and consciously to a theological understanding of the world. Invoking Heidegger's idea of the poet as shepherd of being, Lawler describes how, on an analogy with music, the figural patterns of a poem communicate something through, over, and beyond the merely lexical statement: a kind of ‘central poem’ in which all lesser poems find their ultimate meaning. The tropes of poetry, not just metaphor and simile but a whole cornucopia from chiasm to enjambment, provide in some sense true names for the mystery of being and the mystery of beauty situated in a ‘paralogical realm’ (Lawler 1979: 6–7). This sense of things, which Lawler finds even in poetry of John Donne, but more explicitly in Gerard Manley Hopkins, is one he thinks is at the root of Catholic traditions, Eastern and Western (1979: 91), in contrast to most Protestant traditions.

Lawler's way of going about suggesting the meaning of poetic meaning as something transcendent anticipates the work of the literary and cultural critic George Steiner. Like Lawler, Steiner concentrates on the language of literature but believes its secrets are somehow made especially manifest in the mystery of music. Just as Lawler speaks of meaning sacramentally—as present through, over, and beyond the microcosm of poetic figuration—so Steiner, although Jewish, uses the Christian language of sacramental real presence, but in the plural, in his book Real Presences (1989). ‘The meanings of the meaning of music transcend’, he writes, without feeling he can specify the nature of that transcendence with metaphysical or theological certainty. Music ‘has long been, it continues (p. 527) to be, the unwritten theology of those who lack or reject any formal creed. Or to put it reciprocally: for many human beings, religion has been the music which they believe in.’ Even though for the literalist, the truth-functions of Christianity such as transubstantiation and resurrection are ‘narratives of verity’, they also carry over into the inexplicability of mythical narration (1989: 229). Steiner is not shy of paradox, referring to the density of God's absence, and the edge of presence in that absence. While there is no way to refute deconstruction on its own terms, Steiner says, he repeatedly presents us with language and music as testimony to an excess of presence (similar to what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur would call a ‘surplus of meaning’). Steiner's rhetoric reaches wide, claiming that no ‘serious’ writer, composer, and painter has ever really doubted for long that the work of art has a bearing on good and evil, on the enhancement or diminution of humanity (1989: 145). Steiner does pay special attention to certain works of religious art, especially Dante's Divine Comedy. What Steiner says, however, is intended to apply in many ways to all ‘serious’ art. Published as Grammars of Creation (2001), his Gifford lectures in natural theology continue themes already begun in Real Presences. Both works use hints of theology to interpret art, and major works of art to hint at theology, even while putting Jewish and Christian thought in tension and dialogue. While Steiner's work fits best with the form of natural theology that looks for support and evidence (no longer proofs) of transcendence in the phenomena of ‘secular’ art and culture, it shows more than a little affinity with the correlational theology we will consider later.

As the tentative character of Steiner's metaphysical speculation suggests, metaphysics has fallen on hard times. Yet some thinkers have gone ahead to develop a kind of metaphysical natural theology in which beauty and aesthetic creativity play an integral role. For this purpose, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) has remained an ongoing resource. Whitehead's speculative metaphysics was not metaphysics in the older, foundational sense. Attending to experience at many levels, Whitehead was aware of the limitations as well as the possibilities of language and multiple modes of thought (Whitehead 1929, 1938; Brown 1983). Whitehead found inspiration in the Romantics for their refusal to accept a mechanistic view of nature, their respect for feeling as in part cognitive, and their sense of beauty and imagination as not simply self-contained but as perpetually open to new possibility. That, when combined with the deep influence of Plato, shaped his sense of the possible resources of his own metaphysics, which would, however, strive to be broadly empirical in its rationality, and which in its exposition was highly technical.

Consistent with the idea that for Whitehead creativity is a new transcendental (Fetz 1990), William Dean's theological aesthetic, based on Whitehead, emphasizes how process itself has an aesthetic character of ‘coming to’ that takes place by way of contrast between past and present, and involves creativity and anticipation, while allowing for an element of play (Dean 1972). God is the ground of novelty, and the experience of the ‘lure’ of beauty is in a fundamental way an experience of God (or vice versa). Edward Farley, in constructing his more wide-ranging theological aesthetic, makes much of Whitehead as one of the few modern philosophers whose vision of reality is at the same time a vision of beauty, which is both the harmonious synthesis of oppositions and the (p. 528) intense quality of experience that accompanies it (Farley 2001: 24–5). For Farley as well as for Whitehead, truth without beauty loses its interest. Marjorie Suchocki writes in the spirit of Whitehead: ‘God's feeling, judgment, and love of the world are for the sake of integrating the world into God's own nature as the final adventure of things in a harmony that continuously surpasses itself, and this is beauty’ (Suchocki 1995: 75). More phenomenological in approach, F. David Martin's Art and the Religious Experience (1972) combines insights from Whitehead and Heidegger to describe aesthetic experience in the various arts as luring us into participation with the religious dimension of experience. None of these studies, in spite of adventuring into metaphysics, make any claim to rest on absolute foundations. Indeed, they share with postmodernism a chastened awareness of the inevitable inadequacy of any conceptual scheme and of the ambiguity in all thought and representation. At the same time, as one can see, they tend to work with broad notions such as ‘the religious’ and ‘the aesthetic’ and to have a relatively undifferentiated concept of beauty or creativity.

Area 2: Nature and the Cosmos Interpreted Theologically and Aesthetically

Whereas the first kind of natural theology is concerned with looking to our experience of the world and culture for persuasive evidence of, or pointers towards, God's existence or transcendent reality, a second kind of natural theology looks to nature itself, and the order of the cosmos, for such signs or evidence. The classic argument from nature's design has often appealed, at least implicitly, to a sense of the beauty of the created order. In that way the argument has been aesthetic. After all, the design of the world would seem less wondrous, less divine, if it were devoid of beauty. When Augustine and medieval Christians under his influence referred to the biblical Book of Wisdom, and its assertion that God has made all things according to the measure, number, and weight (Wisdom 11:20), they partly had creation's beauty in mind. In their thinking, number and mathematics were not divorced from the other qualities of beauty, such as its harmony and luminosity.

That older vision of a natural theological aesthetic, combining mathematics, cosmology, and theology, was incorporated into the very design of Gothic architecture (von Simson 1956; Ball 2008). And just as the Gothic cathedral can be described as incorporating an astonishingly comprehensive aesthetic theology of nature and the cosmos, so does the theology of Dante's ‘cathedral in poetry’, the Divine Comedy, which Dante daringly invites us to regard as a kind of scripture (Hawkins 1999). In moving down into, and up out of, the grotesque horrors of hell, through the hopeful pains of purgatory, into the heavenly spheres and on to the outer Empyrean and the beatific vision in heaven, Dante begins by following reason, in the form of Virgil, prompted by grace and further (p. 529) informed and later transcended by faith. A theologian of nature will notice how, in Dante, images drawn from daily life, and similes calling to mind the creatures of this very world, continue to the end. Even in the final canto of the Paradiso, where Dante finds himself paradoxically beyond space and time, there are references to seeds and blossoms, clouds and snow, as well as to a recollection of an infant suckling at his mother's breast, and a memory of how it feels to wake from a dream. In this sacramental universe, the pilgrim Dante who had lost his way mid-life, having earlier lost his beloved Beatrice in death, is called to respond to the higher love that Beatrice now embodies in paradise. And still the love she evokes and transforms retains colours hinting of eros, however purified and heightened. It is by looking into the eyes of Beatrice in heaven that Dante first sees, reflected, the eternal beauty of God (Paradiso: Canto 18). And colours, so earthly in connotation, persist in the bright essence of that divine light, even in the joyful ultimate vision: a different colour for each circle of triune light. One of those circles ‘in its very color’ is painted with our human likeness, and each of the three circles is reflected by the other, ‘as rainbow is by rainbow’, the natural wonder of rainbows suffusing this most exalted vision of the love that moves the sun and the other stars (Paradiso, Canto 34). Here, in the poetry's aesthetics, one has a theology of the cosmos, a theology of nature, love, and beauty, combined with a theology of revelation. A natural theology in the sense of incorporating a theology of nature, The Divine Comedy is certainly not natural theology in the sense of making do without the aid of revelation. At the same time, what that revelation means is itself seen in a new light; Dante's mimesis of Scripture is simultaneously poiesis, a new act of making that is also a making new.

There are artistic theologies of nature that stay closer to the ground, even if the ground is often mountainous. Barbara Novak in a major study has shown convincingly that American landscape painting of the nineteenth century was in some sense painted theology, reflecting devoutly on nature as God's ‘second scripture’. The Hudson River School, the American Luminists, and their successors found divine truths in both the microscopic details of South American flowers and in the grandeur of mountains and most of all in the immanence of God's moods symbolized by light. Thus these landscape painters could ‘remind the nation of divine benevolence and of a chosen destiny by keeping before their eyes the mountains, trees, forests, and lakes which revealed the word in each shining image’ (Novak 2007: 14).

One has the sense that a certain naive quality to the theology of nature persisted longer in America than in Europe, although the aesthetic side was repressed in pragmatism and the industrial revolution. Natural theology reappeared in a wilder and less orthodox form in the natural religious aesthetics of John Muir and the environmental movement, and again in various eclectic forms of eco-spirituality. The work of a theology of nature is still being carried out in significant ways in American artistic and literary terms, different in tone and spirit from either science in the usual sense or formal theology. American essayists and poets such as Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Belden Lane, and Mary Oliver do not, however, simply infuse a sense of wonder into their often scientifically informed scrutiny of nature and landscapes. Their images, narratives, and metaphors, compared with those of the nineteenth-century (p. 530) Transcendentalists, differ in reflecting also on the grotesque in nature, the horrible suffering of creatures, and the sheer weirdness of God's ways with the world, sometimes less sublime than appalling.

Christianity is perhaps rightly accused of largely disenchanting the world of nature in favour of a divine preoccupation with humanity and history. A recovery of an appropriately religious sense of relationship to nature may rely in part on aesthetics as well as on eco-theology and science. That, at least, is the conviction underlying Alejandro Garćia-Rivera's Garden of God (2009), which blends the cosmology of Teilhard de Chardin with theological aesthetics indebted especially to Balthasar. By contrast, one might observe, the quasi-disappearance of God in the a/theology of postmodernism has been accompanied there by the virtual death of nature, corresponding to the retreat from nature that Suzie Gablik sees in much modern and postmodern art (1995). There is a pronounced tendency in postmodern discourse for everything (even embodiment) to become cultural construction or a kind of writing. As David Bentley Hart has pointed out, the postmodern sublime is simply the immensity of the unrepresentable and the excess of indeterminacy (Hart 2003: 66–7).

Area 3: Open Inquiry into the Nature of Religion in its Cultural Expressions

With that reflection on the turn to culture, we are again reminded that religion itself inhabits human culture even when envisioning nature. That brings us to a third kind of natural theology: philosophical theology or philosophy of religion that is free to approach the arts and aesthetic experience in relation to multiple religions without a sense of obligation to a specific theology or religious tradition. In this connection, James Alfred Martin's Beauty and Holiness: The Dialogue between Aesthetics and Religion (1990) provides a groundwork with its historical overview of how religions, philosophers, and theologians have pursued questions of the relationship between beauty and holiness.

The classic modern study in this area is Gerardus van der Leeuw's Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (1963). The bulk of the study provides a detailed phenomenological description of arts in many eras and contexts, cultural and religious. Van der Leeuw argues that the arts and religion began in a state of primordial unity, after which each art later achieved its own integrity and autonomy, as did religion. Although that process resulted in tension and rivalry, we can discern within each art—dance, drama, literature, pictorial arts, architecture, and music—a trajectory that reaches through conflict towards mutual dependence and unity with religion. Van der Leeuw's Christian theological position becomes explicit in his concluding theological aesthetic. In this aspect, his approach resembles Christian approaches we will encounter later. Here he employs the doctrines of the Incarnation and divine grace to point to the miracle by which the opposition between religion and art is overcome, eschatologically, and (p. 531) partially in history. Everything of the essence of art considered as such relates to the Holy only by analogy, he says. And yet van der Leeuw can also say that holiness and beauty are already co-present in a primordial way, even if holiness is never exhausted by beauty. Their unity pre-exists, awaiting revelation.

Earle Coleman likewise explores what he calls the ‘bonds’ between art and religion in Creativity and Spirituality (1998). Although he does not see all art as religious, he does sees all religion as having artistic features. And certain artworks, he emphasizes, are indeed mediations, ‘avatars’ or ‘incarnations’ that yoke the human and the divine. Coleman takes the stance that, when we speak of art, we are referring to something that originates with humans, rather than with God, and that is always penultimate. Yet Coleman identifies common denominators between art and religion, or between the aesthetic and the spiritual: total response, unique emotions, a sense of self and union, beauty, receptivity, and creativity. Coleman's study exhibits a special sensitivity to Eastern religions as well as Western.

Similar in range is Thomas Martland's Religion as Art (1981). Martland understands religion and art as counterparts in the creation of the very frames of perception and meaning by which human beings interpret life and experience. Using speech-act theory and the cultural anthropology of Clifford Geertz, he stresses that both art and religion actually create the experience they interpret, rather than simply making some kind of meaning or beauty out of prior experience. With every major work of art, as in every religious movement, there is innovation beyond anything anticipated.

Brent Plate pushes further in postmodern directions (2005) by meditating on the work of Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin, who assists in rethinking religion through the arts. There is no question here of treating art as something essentially the same from era to era or as a culturally detached object of contemplation; on the contrary, in the modern era—the era of mechanical reproduction—the individual work loses its aura, according to Benjamin. That aura, if it continues (albeit diminished), is passed into the control of the masses who have access to reproductions. It is the work of art, not the artwork, that counts, and today the work of art tends to explode tradition and continuity. Beauty does not suffice, given its identification with the unity of form and content, and its dependence on cultural interpretations of symmetry and harmony. Lament becomes the true form of speech, linked to death and inexpressibility. The breaking point of the lines and limits of history is the site of the origins of art, which at this juncture can be a mode of repairing the world. Benjamin rejects the sheer ambiguity of a totally atheological aesthetics and yet, exhibiting his sympathies with Marxism, he focusses on the religious significance of the very material of the media of art. Plate argues that for Benjamin the sense perceptions of the masses create a new community, and that the awaited Messiah is none other than the aesthetic community potentially created in this way (Plate 2005: 139–40).

Plate sees connections between Benjamin's aesthetics and the a/theological aesthetics proposed by Mark C. Taylor in Disfiguration (1992). Yet Taylor would have us give up altogether on ‘theoaesthetics’ and, accordingly, on any hope of Utopia and any dream of salvation. If we are to ‘think the unthinkable Other … it is necessary to unthink all we (p. 532) have thought with the name “God”, as well as to give up on what Nietzsche describes as the “shadows of God” ’ (Taylor 1992: 317, 318). For this demanding task, Taylor looks to developments in modern and postmodern art and architecture, including the disaster-laden and desert-like canvases of Anselm Kiefer. If for other interpreters such as Brown (1989) the tone of Kiefer is still capable of generating something like awe amidst the ruins, and the kind of existential question that a theologian like Paul Tillich finds fundamentally ‘religious’, that is not true for Taylor, who leaves no discernible room for reverence or a residual sense of the holy.

Area 4: Creative Christian Interpretation of the World and Culture

We have come to a border where natural theology in any traditional sense usually ends. In fact, we probably reached that border some time back, having in one way already crossed it from the beginning simply by including art and aesthetics as a source and potential means of natural theology. Up to now, the discussion has considered theological or religious aesthetics, and theories of art, in areas related to three different kinds of natural theology: (1) the search for evidence of God or of transcendence in culture and experience; (2) theological reflection on nature and the cosmos, partly as mediated through culture; and (3) interpretation of the nature of religion(s) and culture, where that has bracketed, either initially or completely, a reliance on religious authority and revelation. We conclude by considering: (4) those approaches that remove the brackets by undertaking natural theology overall on the basis of the Christian tradition.

One way of describing this fourth approach is to say that it intends to look at beauty, culture, and the arts through the eyes of faith, in a manner parallel to the way Dante's poetic theology looked at nature and the cosmos. This is what McGrath advocates in his proposed reformation of natural theology (2008), which is intended, in part, to allow Christianity a more capacious understanding of its implications by interpreting culture and the world as a whole. McGrath casts his net very widely indeed, however. And were we to explore this area fully, we might soon be considering most theological treatments of aesthetics and the arts. That would take us from Augustine to Jonathan Edwards, on to Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth, and then to Jean-Luc Marion and so forth. For our purposes, however, we will be selecting only from thinkers whose theologies are most invested in art and beauty as part of culture and human experience broadly speaking (including the experience of nature). This excludes those whose focus is primarily on the beauty of revelation or of Christian truth, in the manner of Balthasar and Hart (2003). Because of the historical meanings of the term natural theology, moreover, it is important here that faith, in this sense, retain an openness to discovery. For this reason it would be confusing to include Radical Orthodox approaches, to the extent they are (p. 533) represented by John Milbank's assertion that ‘either the entire Christian narrative tells us how things truly are, or it does not. If it does, we have no other access to how things truly are, nor any additional means of determining the question’ (1997: 141). It seems fair to say that, in spirit, and almost certainly in the intent, Milbank's approach goes against the grain of natural theology.

If faith is seeking understanding by means of theology, which very few would dispute, it must be open to seeing new things, or to seeing the same things differently. That seems a minimal requirement for natural theology. Anthony Monti, citing Moltmann, adopts this premise in his Natural Theology of the Arts (2003). Like Moltmann, Monti also sees a range of possibilities for natural theology. Monti draws deftly on a wide range of artistry and aesthetics in order to show that art does expand our understanding of faith. Art can also be a persuasive means of drawing outsiders into the Christian hermeneutical circle and, ultimately, a way of providing imaginative glimpses of truth that can only fully be envisioned eschatologically, and in Christian terms. Monti ends with the hope that the experience of art can lead finally to intuitive apprehension of the triune God who is self-revealed in Christ (2003: 169). Whether such an explicitly Christian and Trinitarian theology really emerges ‘naturally’ from the largely secular arts he discusses seems open to question, but Monti works with a complex notion of art that creates a sense of multiple possible connections with faith.

Jeremy Begbie, who speaks for himself elsewhere in this Handbook, likewise teases out figures and signs from art, particularly music. He is cautious about the risk that art will encroach on exclusively Christian claims. In approaching a theology of music and creation, for instance, he declares that Christ himself ‘provides the first and supreme benchmark for any theology of creation that dares call itself Christian’ (Begbie 2007: 189). This is not so confining as it might sound at first. In undertaking what we might call a phenomenology of music and time, Begbie examines, among other things, those musical structures that create tension and that delay gratification but in a deeply satisfying way that allows eventually for a special feeling of resolution, of promise leading to fulfillment. This ‘prefiguring of resolution in music’ can, Begbie says, ‘provide a way of exploring the prefiguring of the eschaton in the coming of Christ and the giving of his Spirit’. According to Begbie, this musical sense of time is something that theology can miss when it settles for crudely linear models of time. Thus, musical art offers something fresh to theology. In this veiled and figurative manner, music becomes a resource for exploring particular doctrinal areas. Indeed, this may be one way in which ‘music, under the grace of God, appears to have been involved in the very salvific processes of which we have been speaking, in the life, worship and witness of Christians’ (Begbie 2000: 127). Begbie ties such musical effects closely to grace and the Christian community. In contrast, Albert Blackwell's probing study The Sacred in Music (1999) rather freely employs Christian sacramental language to discuss music without insisting on a close Christological link, and invokes the ancient Greek Pythagorean metaphysics of music and proportion in order to help discern manifestations of transcendence in musical harmony. More ambiguously, James Herbert (2008), influenced by the theology of Jean-Luc Marion, studies the divine and mundane in Western art and music in a postmodern (p. 534) theology of art that highlights the paradoxical and apophatic manner in which works of art and music establish a relation between the divine and human that is necessarily distant even when in proximity to the sacramental.

Paul Tillich's theology of culture is explicitly Christian but also aware of ambiguities and tensions. There is always some risk that the very name Tillich, like the name Barth, will trigger a chain of assumptions that trade on stereotypes untrue to the dialectical complexity of either theologian's work taken as a whole. Although Tillich's theology of culture has been examined in detail may times, Re Manning (2005) has recently been of special help in a study that emphasizes the importance of Tillich's early work, his genuine although secondary affinities with Barth, his conflicted but enduring connection with Romantic theology, and his fruitfullness when placed in dialogue with postmodern theology.

In this context what is needed is to highlight features of Tillich's work that draw together our focal issues in a new way. With Tillich our fourth kind of natural theology, which proceeds from a basis in the Christian tradition, uses a method of correlation in which the analysis of the cultural situation, including the arts, is allowed a distinctive and prominent voice to which theology responds. Tillich tries not to impose theological categories on culture in a heteronomous way but to allow the core religious questions to emerge from the cultural situation.

According to Tillich, religion has no choice but to take cultural form, even though no cultural expression of religion is final or ultimate. While religion has its own specific modes of cultural expression, including works of church architecture, what is far more important theologically, from Tillich's point of view, is the religious dimension that comes to expression in virtually all spheres of culture, and in our day, secular art in particular. Works of art express the ultimate concern of human existence, a concern that is at the root of religion, more immediately and directly than other forms of culture. While less reflective than science or philosophy, art's creativity and symbolism is revelatory in character, since genuine symbols participate in the reality to which they point. In this general sense all art is religious; yet some styles of art serve a religious function in each era more fully than others. In modernity, naturalism and impressionism, for example, reacted against idealism and romanticism, but in a way that tended to settle for self-sufficient finitude instead of breaking through to the eternal, as Tillich puts it, and to the ‘unconditioned content of reality which lies beyond the antithesis of subject and object’. Things were different with German expressionism, whose dissolution of natural forms and often harshly expressive colours evoked the ‘Abyss of being’ (Tillich 1932: 86–7).

The artistic expression of the question of meaning, which is correlated with theology's answer, takes precedence over beauty in Tillich's analysis. It is nonetheless significant that Tillich testifies how, when serving as a chaplain in the First World War, he looked at reproductions of the great paintings of the ages, published in magazines. When the war ended, he hurried to a museum in Berlin to see Botticelli's Madonna with Singing Angels. There he gazed up in ‘a state approaching ecstasy’. In the beauty of the painting, he says, there was ‘Beauty itself,’ the experience of which affected his whole life and gave him ‘the (p. 535) keys for the interpretation of human existence’. Tillich compares this experience to what is usually called religious revelation, although he acknowledges it could not match the moments in which prophets have been grasped with the power of the divine presence (Tillich 1987: 235). For both the prophet and for the beholder of art (in this case), however, the encounter opens up depths experienced ‘in no other way’. Since Tillich acknowledges that this particular experience was never repeated, this could hardly be equated with the usual ways in which art expresses religion by expressing ultimate concern. Yet even here Tillich is interested in the power of art to express some aspect of that which concerns us ultimately, in and through aesthetic form. In this account Tillich is perhaps exceptionally unguarded but also exceptionally revealing.

If Tillich seems to allow the very forms of art to shape and colour a vision of both existence and its questions, would that not affect how theology's answers would ‘look’ and ‘sound’? And affect how even the questions might be heard the next time? That would especially be true if one registered how fully culture, including the arts, is an integral part of religion itself and yet speaks in multiple voices, not all consonant with one another (Brown 1989). Culture and the religious situation would then be understood pluralistically, as would theology itself. Certain forms of art might then be seen and heard as ‘doing’ theology in ways the theologian too easily misses and cannot articulate fully in the conceptual discourse usual for theology. There might also be an opportunity to acknowledge even more clearly than Tillich himself does the importance to religion itself of allowing space for protest and critique from the ‘other’, and the value of uncommitted free play, where the imagination, for a while, lets even ultimate concerns undergo transformation into sheer possibility.

This is just what certain other theologians of art have feared, of course: that a mutually critical method of correlation would allow art and culture to reshape, somehow, the image and sound, the look and feel, of the substance of faith. Some theologians would, with reason, point out that humans can ask the wrong questions even from the depths of their being, or be confused, or might simply quit looking for depth in a postmodern cultural situation. Then what is a method of correlation to do? Perhaps one function of religion, rightly conceived, is to create the very understandings it needs, the way a radically innovative work of music can do.

Even if that is to some extent true, however, there is also a cultural situation, and a human agent, and neither is purely passive. It remains the case that the mutual interaction between message and form occurs inevitably the moment theology opens its mouth to speak. By the same token, art does not speak in a religious and theological vacuum when theology attends to culture, especially in the form of art: Tillich in company with Botticelli, Schleiermacher (1988) with Handel's Messiah, Barth with Mozart, Steiner with Dante, Hart with Bach, Monti with Beethoven, Begbie with musical time transformed. It is not that a religious, let alone ‘Christian’, experience of such art is inevitable. One can enjoy such artistry without it. But the possibility is there, depending on what one hears in the music, and what ‘action’ art is allowed to take, since the meaning of art is not simply a function of passive contemplation but also of its interaction with its context and its whole milieu (Wolterstorff 1980; Brown 1989, 2000).

(p. 536) This point can easily be missed in modern aesthetics, with its tendency to isolate art. But it can also be missed in the pre-modern traditions of thought, which many theologians are now eager to retrieve. Although the ‘Great Tradition’ in aesthetics allows us to see beauty and goodness and truth as interrelated and ultimately unified in God (Bychkov 2010), it has historically privileged moral, spiritual, and intellectual beauty—which can leave the arts on a low rung on the spiritual ladder. And since the transcendentals are mutually convertible, that pre-modern way of thinking about beauty in relation to truth has trouble acknowledging what modern aesthetics actually has insisted on: the intimate way in which form shapes meaning, so that medium and message, in aesthetics, are never fully separable. The truth as expressed beautifully or powerfully in art is never just the same as before, or vice versa.

The non-identity (yet integral connection) between some truth as intuited aesthetically and the corresponding truth as articulated theologically makes a difference to how one interprets theological affirmations of art, and not just Tillich's (Dillenberger 1986: 224–49). It is well known that Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics claimed for Mozart a special place in theology. He believed Mozart knew something about creation in its total goodness that no other theologians or philosophers—or indeed musicians—either know or can express as Mozart did. In Mozart's music, Barth says, light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. Indeed, this music provides ‘clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and No, as though oriented to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master.’ In the era of the devastating Lisbon earthquake, which so troubled theologians, ‘Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves [God]’ (Barth 1960: 297–9).

Not to be outdone, theologian David Bentley Hart, in one of the few passages of his theological aesthetics in which he discusses art, declares: ‘Bach is the greatest of Christian theologians’; that is because ‘no one as compellingly demonstrates that the infinite is beauty and that beauty is infinite. It is in Bach's music, as nowhere else, that the potential boundlessness of thematic development becomes manifest’ (Hart 2003: 286–7).

Allowing for an element of hyperbole in both Barth and Hart, one notices that they go so far as to use the language of ‘proof’ and ‘demonstration’ for music, along with acknowledging such music as ‘manifestation’ of theologically vital realities that transcend reason. Clearly both Barth and Hart believe that, in using words as theologians, they can contribute something to the interpretation of such music, and can bring something new to light in the process. The theologian need not merely listen, and point, speechlessly. Yet, unless Barth and Hart are prepared to say that we can dispense with Mozart or Bach once the theologian is finished—something Tillich never says of Botticelli or even Van Gogh—we are free to conclude that the theologian's words, whatever they may add logically and conceptually, will not, and cannot, exhaust what the art makes manifest and ‘incarnates’. In ongoing dialogue, the aesthetic and metaphorical join with the conceptual and verbal forms of theology, but not simply with one voice—as though singing in absolutely seamless harmony—but often in counterpoint and polyphony.

(p. 537) When a theological truth is embodied or expressed aesthetically in human culture, the very expression of it is invariably a transformation, which is potentially both a veiling and a new revealing. What is special about artistic expression is that aesthetically felt thoughts and artistically imagined feelings give body, inner meaning, and possibly ineffable satisfaction or enjoyment (if not final resolution) to what is important about the truths of theology to begin with (Brown 1989). A natural theology that is serious about the very nature of aesthetic experience and its potential religious and Christian significance has every reason to attend to the arts specifically, and in all their diversity. This ranges from the ‘free’ beauty (often playful) of pure forms to the fully engaged protests and outcries of tragic and absurdist art. Such art—perhaps paradoxically—can not only disrupt theological responses when they are too easy but also prepare for the kind of ecstatic and revelatory experience afforded to Tillich by Botticelli's Madonna with Singing Angels.


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