Christian TraditionsPhilosophyRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Sublime and the Sacred, Part I

What the New Evangelization Can Learn from the Aesthetics of Burke, Kant, and Mallick

“Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are–of immeasurable stature…to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens…here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would not have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small.”

—G.K. Chesterton1

“Beauty,” Roger Scruton writes, “can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed.”2 The sovereignty of the beautiful, to paraphrase Iris Murdoch, is a medium by which the seeker experiences, directly or indirectly, the divine life. Yet the observer requires the necessary cognitive framework by which to see beauty; this requires the right encounter. David Bentley Hart says, “the beautiful can be encountered—sometimes shatteringly.”3 This encounter I explore as a tool for the Roman Catholic Church’s New Evangelization.

The Fulton Sheen of the internet, Father Robert Barron, says that the first step in his seven keys for the New Evangelization is to “Lead with the beautiful”—it is “less threatening” since beginning with doctrine and morality “make people defensive,” and Catholic Christianity is “a beautiful religion.”4 Elsewhere, he utilizes Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945), where the character Charles Ryder first visits Brideshead manor and is “overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program”—which over the years is “drawing him back again and again.”5 Charles is first enraptured by the beauty of the house, then he comes to know the goodness of the people there, and finally sees the truth behind it all: “Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer.” Barron notes, “Waugh’s narrative is meant simply to highlight a rhythm that obtains, I would argue, in effective evangelization. The best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good, and finally, to the true.”6

When living in an age of relativism (“Who are you to tell me how to behave or what to believe?” or “How can you be so arrogant as to think that you should impose your thought patterns on me?”), one ought to begin with

the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the Parthenon or Chartres Cathedral or Picasso’s “Guernica”; just read The Divine Comedy or Hamlet or The Wasteland; just watch Mother Teresa’s sisters working in the slums of Calcutta or Rory McIlroy’s golf swing or the movements of a ballet dancer. All of these work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally, to share. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the great advocates of the aesthetic approach to religion, said that the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on [a] mission.7

Waugh’s method seems to provide a plausible game plan to preach the gospel by first proclaiming the sovereignty of the Christian faith’s beauty: Barron’s own “Catholicism” series,8 with its ecstatic, haunting music and sublime scenery, offers an invitation to see that (paraphrasing Keats)9 the Gospel beauty is the Gospel truth, and that is all we know and need to know about the Church Militant (i.e. the Church on earth). Others have used aesthetic work to intrigue the observer. For example, in What is Marriage? authors Girgis, Anderson, and Prof. George begin with Edmund Spencer’s “Epithalamion” to illustrate the conjugal vision of marriage as a comprehensive union, and even end it by poetically noting the “awe-inspiring” conjugal act that “unites generation to generation as one blood, and man to woman as one flesh.”10 Beauty can have, as the author Sherif Girgis saw, persuasive efficacy by rightly channeling one’s aesthetic intuitions.

Fr. Barron is a Thomist, so he appeals to the tradition of Plato and Plotinus that influenced the Patristics, and thus, St. Aquinas. According to this view, Scruton explains, beauty is an ultimate value and end-in-itself, comparable to truth and goodness that justify the rational inclinations of our souls in the self-conscious final causality of the human intellect:

Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful…made explicit already in the Enneads of Plotinus, that truth, beauty, and goodness are attributes of the deity, ways in which the divine unity makes itself known to the human soul…Aquinas regarded truth, goodness and unity as ‘transcendentals’—features of reality possessed by all things, since they are aspects of being, ways in which the supreme gift of being is made manifest to the understanding.11

While beauty is a transcendental, nevertheless, the relativist’s question is only pushed back a step—what is to prevent someone from merely admiring the beauty of artifacts and nature from a subjectivist point of view, or at least one devoid of a clear Sensus Divinitatis? Even the antitheist Christopher Hitchens was apparently “quite content” merely “to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals” while refusing the conversion of Charles Ryder.12 Waugh’s method might be unintentionally preemptively prevented and seen to be anachronistic by the very postmodernist subjectivism—and its twin cult of ugliness in contemporary architecture and modern art (an oxymoron, really)—that Barron rightfully tries to refute. The very aesthetic relativism, saying all tastes are equal and thus by definition levelling all tastes into saying they are equally worthless, pervades the art world and popular culture. “When each year the Turner prize,” Scruton poses, “is awarded to yet another bundle of facetious ephemera, is this not proof that there are no standards, that fashion alone dictates who will and who will not be rewarded, and that it is pointless to look for objective principles of taste or a public conception of the beautiful?”13 Kitsch runs amuck and the once prisoners of art criticism now run the joint. The nihilism derived from Marcel Duchamp’s “signature” signatured urinal and John Cage’s near four minutes of silent profundity is the prevailing orthodoxy. And when one takes away beauty, one takes away its enrapture to truth and goodness. Balthasar even noted that since “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.”14 It seems no coincidence that the rise of western secularism and the dictatorship of moral relativism in popular culture have arisen at the same time as modern art and the ugly architecture whereby ‘form follows function’. Art sought beauty as Jean Valjean sought Marius, yet unlike Valjean, it left beauty (thanks to Duchamp’s followers) in the pissoirs of Paris. Since mediums through which the human desire for the transcendent is expressed because “the shifting forces of material, psychological, and cultural circumstances” are endlessly variable, Hart notes, “the quest for beauty can lose its way in barren defiles of kitsch or preciosity or decadence.”15

A lesson I have found is from the recent exchange in these pages between Hart and online natural law theorists (e.g. Edward Feser) on the contemporary persuasiveness of natural law theory. Hart makes the point that, R.R. Reno summarizes, “the renovation of our moral reasoning will require the renewal of our metaphysical imaginations.”16 Likewise, the renovation of our aesthetic reasoning requires a renewal in our aesthetic imaginations, which are shaped by our aesthetic experiences. That requires knowledge about how we encounter, and ought to encounter the beautiful. Such a renewal can be found by exploring the most intense encounter with the beautiful (i.e. the sublime) in the 18th century works of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

The word “beautiful” can be used in two senses: in the first sense (and what I have been using above) ‘beauty’ is meant in the Neo-Platonist description of the quality of a thing’s participation in the beautiful, while in the second sense ‘beauty’ can be used “to denote a particular kind of grace and charm by which we may be enraptured.” Edmund Burke, in his 1756 treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful, described the second sense: an encounter between subject and object. “To understand beauty,” Scruton writes, “we must gain some sense of the variety of our responses to the things in which we discern it.” And on this point, “Burke discerned two radically distinct responses to beauty in general, and to natural beauty in particular: one originating in love, the other in fear”:17 the latter being the most intense psychological encounter with beauty possible (an encounter which Burke called the sublime).

Burke found himself one of the few philosophers writing on beauty when it was a somewhat neglected subject. Elsewhere Scruton recounts, “Edmund Burke (On the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1750), was to provide the concepts from which Kant invented the philosophical discipline of aesthetics.”18 Under the influences of Lord Shaftesbury and Locke, Burke took an empiricist approach to the understanding of our experience of beauty and sublimity. Hence Burke’s aesthetical account is largely psychological, “an enquiry into the working of the human mind when faced with an aesthetic experience.”19 This psychological account begins with inquiring into sensations of pain and pleasure, and how they are brought together in the feeling of the sublime. For example, Burke says the sublime is “an irresistible force” beyond beauty, which encompasses all and compels terror in all who behold it.20 Whatever object excites “the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible…is a source of the sublime.”21 The pains that threaten our self-preservation, the events like birth and death which focus our attention from the comforts of the mundane, or the aspects of the natural world which compel in a person the Fear of the Lord, is a source of the sublime. It is, in other words, fear and awe. The sublime is the all-encompassing and compelling terror in all who behold it, enrapturing the observer into a religious mode of being in an encounter with something completely other.

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Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel is a current undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, studying philosophy, creative writing, and literature. He aspires to be a philosopher and a writer. Ryan is a Christian believer. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, 'I am a Roman Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a Burkean in politics.'

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