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    Painting by Diego Rivera, Woman at the Well

    Start with Beauty

    Hans Urs von Balthasar knew it is not by reason that we begin to know what real truth is, but only by being enraptured and entranced by the divine.

    By Ben Quash and Joy Clarkson

    August 23, 2022
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    • TR

      Words, like these, can also be beautiful. Wonderful piece. Thank you. The priest at our beautiful historic church once said “these stained glass windows speak to people in ways I can never reach them.” Beauty can truly make God accessible.

    • Simon Bardone

      I love it!!! Beauty has to be our "first word."

    “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness. She will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past, whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

    —Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form

    Professor Ben Quash holds the chair of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London, and is the director of the Visual Commentary on Scripture, a project he runs in collaboration with the National Gallery in London. In this conversation, Plough’s Joy Clarkson speaks with Professor Quash about visual art, scripture, and the twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

    Joy Clarkson: Give a sense what you spend your days doing and researching.

    Ben Quash: I direct a big project called The Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is about four years into its work. We stage online exhibitions which are forms of reflection, commentary, and conversation with a biblical text, all of them engaging with three works of art. Our wildly ambitious aim is to cover the whole of scripture. So far we have something approaching 300 exhibitions online, which is about 900 works of art in high resolution, and contributors from all over the world who curate these little exhibitions. At the moment I spend most of my days commissioning and editing those commentaries. I’m really interested in how scripture comes alive in art and the kind of hermeneutical questions that go along with that. What it is to interpret scripture and to read scripture as a conversation partner with contemporary life and contemporary art?

    It is interesting to think about exploring the whole of scripture in this way. Leviticus, for instance, with all its difficult, troubling, and mundane bits, has moments that are quite illuminative.

    One of the things I’ve become more aware of is that in practice, many different Christian traditions work with a canon within a canon. That includes some very biblically oriented Christian traditions like Evangelicalism. In terms of the regular preaching ministry they have, they often tend to work with quite a small number of texts. As someone who is ordained in the Church of England, the project has brought me up against texts I actually didn’t know. It has made me realize how much there is to be discovered and gained from going off the beaten track of the three rounds of yearly readings that I’m used to hearing. It is really exciting to discover parts of scripture that very often get bypassed.

    During the Reformation, many thinkers were concerned that an overemphasis on images and statues might encourage a kind of idolatry that distracted Christians from the Word of God. However, it seems that for you this project on visual art has led you into a very intense encounter with scripture itself.

    I think it’s true to say that in recent decades, visual art is emerging as a new lingua franca. Images have become something that people – especially younger generations – use to communicate with each other often without words at all. This is, of course, hugely accelerated by social media and particularly those platforms that lead with images. Another phenomenon to consider is the rise of modern contemporary art galleries as major cultural landmarks and destinations. Many people, when they go to a city, one of the first things they do is to go and see the contemporary or modern art museum. This has all happened, really, in the last few decades and it is fascinating to me.

    For those traditions that have not usually had a relationship with images, particularly Protestant traditions, the missional imperative to proclaim the gospel in every language has always been present and strong. If visual languages have become some of the most used and shared languages of the contemporary world, there’s a new imperative to engage and to communicate the gospel in that language, alongside all the other ones. We’ve seen a new alignment of traditionally iconoclastic traditions embracing visual art or at least taking it seriously. This is why we are getting as much interest in the project from Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, as from Catholics and Orthodox who have always used visual art.

    Painting by Diego Rivera, Woman at the Well

    Diego Rivera, Woman at the Well, oil on canvas, 1913

    One of the tensions with proclaiming the gospel through the visual art is that so much of the art world now focuses on art that is abstract and nonrepresentational. How have you dealt with this aspect of visual art, especially when you’re focusing on this engagement between text and image?

    One of our key principles is that we don’t want our curators to choose only works of art that are, in some sense, Christian or biblical works of art. Some of the most successful exhibitions have been ones where the works of art that the curators have chosen have had no prior relationship with the biblical text at all. The artists may have no knowledge of or interest in Christianity. I think that the theological account I want to give is that we all inhabit one world, a world that derives its coherence and beauty from the one Creator who made it. It’s a world that hangs together.

    You could describe it as a confidence in the oneness of the world. Our desire to let things come into conversation anticipates that they will be able to speak to each other. Not because anyone intended certain things by them necessarily, but because they share a world. It’s a world that has a congruence and interconnectedness that we don’t have to give to it, but that we can try to discover. In that way, art that is asking questions about any aspect of the world can come into conversation with scripture. Our project is seeing what happens when we let art and scripture talk to each other.

    That’s beautiful. Part of taking art seriously is that you begin to take the world more seriously as a place that discloses God, God’s grace, God’s beauty, God’s goodness. Didactic art lacks a little bit of faith. It lacks the belief that, actually, if you open up the world, if you look at beauty, you will find God there. This relates to your research on Hans Urs von Balthasar. Tell us about him.

    Balthasar was born in 1905. He was a German-speaking Swiss Roman Catholic brought up in an aristocratic but also very devout family. He was a gifted pianist and was exposed to all kinds of literature and visual art. In fact, he’s been described as one of the last great polymaths. As a young man, he entered the Jesuit order. Initially, he was trained in a place near Lyons in France and then later near Munich in a place called Pullach.

    He very quickly discovered that he intensely disliked the form that Roman Catholic theology took when it was taught in seminaries. He felt that it was an arid desert, something that was desiccated. This was partially due to the inheritance of Neo-Scholastic theology which was, in a way, a magnificent achievement of systematic theology, where propositions are set up in vast edifices, all interconnected, and where there is an answer to everything within the system. Balthasar, however, felt that this way of doing theology missed the vibrant life of Christianity, the sense that it was an organic, living tradition and that it involved dynamic relationships with Christ and with the saints and so on. One of the things that he wanted to recover was the richness and warmth he detected in the writings of the early Church, ways of doing theology which were less systematized, often more homiletical and rich in biblical imagery. He sat in seminary with earplugs in, blocking out the lecturer and reading the Church Fathers. Two of his earliest works were books on early Church theologians, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor.

    Shortly after the Second World War began, he moved back to Switzerland to become chaplain to the University of Basel, a largely Protestant Swiss city. That was the university where one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, was teaching. Balthasar was hugely impressed by Barth. It was said that Balthasar carried the latest volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics around with him like he was a cat carrying a kitten. Balthasar lectured on Barth, and Barth used to attend the lectures, which is a great thing to try and imagine. Barth said that Balthasar understood him better than he understood himself.

    If you want to understand Balthasar, you need to understand several things. First of all, there is this patristic influence in his writings, a continual engagement with the Church Fathers. This was very much a part of the wider movement in Catholicism in the early twentieth century called ressourcement, which desired to return to the patristic sources of Christianity and which actually opened Christianity up to more engagement with modernity. Second, there is this encounter with Barth. Barth shared Balthasar’s sense that God is not merely a system or doctrine but a God who acts in history. Then there is the Ignatian tradition of the Jesuit order in which he was originally trained. Anyone who has ever done the Ignatian spiritual exercises knows that they are very dramatic. You immerse yourself in the Gospels through meditation on scripture. You enter the story; you become a character. Finally, there was his friendship with a woman mystic called Adrienne von Speyr. After she converted to Roman Catholicism, he became her spiritual director. During this time, she had a whole series of very intense visions, which Balthasar recorded and regarded as marks of sanctity. He increasingly refers to her visions in the theological work that he’s doing. That, too, is highly dramatic. The story of his relationship with Adrienne is full of this sense of an entry into the drama of God within the world that they both experienced.

    All of this, I think, explains his theology. It is profoundly concerned with springing off the page, dragging you into it. He wants to enrapture you. That’s the language he uses. Revelation is rapture. Not in the modern sense of the Left Behind novels, but in the sense that you are caught up into something when you encounter God in revelation and in the world. That’s as much an aesthetic experience as anything else.

    What does he mean by that word “drama”?

    The ultimate drama for him is the eschatological one. His early doctoral work was all about the idea of the eschaton in the German imagination, which he published as a book called Apocalypse of the German Soul. He’s looking at secular versions of apocalypse that emerge in German philosophical thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For him, the eschatological horizon is the horizon of what he calls theo-drama, the drama of humanity and of the whole creation with God. The drama of life is how we prepare ourselves for the consummation of all things. That involves the discovery of who you are and who you’re meant to be, but also participation in the dynamics of Christ’s sacrifice and triumph.

    One of the more uncomfortable parts about his theology is his strong emphasis on submitting to the will of God for you, often mediated by the Church. That can lead to some quite heavy-handed language about obedience and submission, some of which is quite heavily gendered. The Christian is constructed by Balthasar as female in relation to a God who often sounds very male. This has not been one of the more celebrated aspects of his legacy, but it is certainly there. You can’t really avoid it in Balthasar, and I think it’s important to understanding him. He wants to say that sacrifice is at the heart of the theo-drama.

    But the way he most fundamentally explores and interprets that sacrifice is as love. The dynamic of sacrifice is conceived as an extraordinary divine generosity in which we are invited to participate. I think there is something to be gained from bearing with his sometimes rather rebarbative language about obedience and sacrifice in order to get to that vision of love and generosity, which is at the heart of so much of his thought.

    Tell us a little bit about his thinking around beauty.

    His masterwork is a fifteen-volume response to Immanuel Kant’s critiques, which were Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Aesthetic Judgment. What Balthasar does is reverse the order of Kant’s critiques: The Glory of the Lord is about beauty or aesthetics, Theo-Drama is about goodness or acting well, and Theo-Logic is about truth and reason. In doing this he’s saying that you ought not to approach truth as though it were something that could be discerned with pure and emotionless tools of the intellect, and then move on to ask, in the light of those rational principles, how to act, and finally think a little bit about aesthetics. Instead, he suggests that it is only by having been involved, having been caught up, enraptured, entranced by the divine life, that you can begin to know what real truth is, because real truth is disclosed only in participation; real truth is the dynamic of sacrifice and generosity and love. Of course, reason has a role, but you can only begin to join in the drama if you are first enticed into it, drawn in. He puts it this way: beauty has to be our “first word.” But this isn’t just superficial beauty. This isn’t just sensory pleasure, because with real beauty our sense of beauty is broken and reconstituted by Christ, as is our sense of what truth and goodness are.

    Revelation doesn’t just confirm what we already thought or felt. It challenges and reconfigures it. A lot of what Balthasar explores in the Glory of the Lord is the challenge to our preexisting conceptions of beauty. Not the complete denial of them, but challenging them, building on them toward something that we may initially never have thought of as beautiful. The consummate form of that beauty is the form of Christ on the cross, who is disfigured but in this disfigured state is the perfect expression of love. There is nothing more beautiful than that love. The summons of love through the cross means that we are drawn by something that requires an aesthetic response, but in being drawn, our aesthetic responses of themselves undergo a huge change. That will then be a lens through which we see everything else.

    I am struck by the way this beauty orients us around itself and points us in the same direction. I think beginning with beauty, and allowing ourselves to be oriented around the same beautiful thing, is sometimes a better way of beginning the journey with others toward what is good and true in our contentious times.

    I couldn’t agree more. Even the word “truth” is polarizing at the moment in our world, in a way that is alarming. In my experience, both pastorally in ministry and pedagogically in teaching in university, one of the best ways to establish relationships in which there can then be a shared pursuit of truth is to first let people meet in encounters with art where there is not an immediate right or wrong answer. They learn about each other and share things that then become a relational framework for the exploration of truth. As a society, we need more of that.


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    Contributed By a portrait of Ben Quash Ben Quash

    Professor Ben Quash holds the chair of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London, and is the director of the Visual Commentary on Scripture, a project he runs in collaboration with the National Gallery in London.

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    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Clarkson

    Joy Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

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