Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Beauty and the Barthians

John Milbank was already post-postmodern in the early Nineties:
Christianity... recognizes no original violence.  It construes the infinite not as chaos, but as a harmonic peace which is yet beyond the circumscribing power of any totalizing reason.  Peace no longer depends upon the reduction to the self-identical, but is the sociality of harmonious difference [i.e. Trinity].  Violence, by contrast, is always a secondary willed intrusion upon this possible infinite order (which is actual for God).  Such a Christian logic is not deconstructible by modern secular reason; rather, it is Christianity which exposes the non-necessity of supposing, like the Nietzscheans, that difference, non-totalization and indeterminacy of meaning necessarilyimply arbitrariness and violence.  To suppose that they do is merely to subscribe to a particular encoding of reality.  Christianity, by contrast, is the coding of transcendental difference as peace...   theology alone remains the discourse of non-mastery.
Since it was written, that paragraph from the beginning of Theology and Social Theory has taken on special importance, because it contains the essence of David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite.  Hart, I expect, would admit as much.  But his project, in distinction from Milbank's, was to take just this insight and give it exquisite aesthetic form.  Beauty, after all, is that chief witness to the aboriginal peace of the Trinity, what Jonathan Edwards called "primary beauty."

In his contributions to The Beauty of God (which stems from the Wheaton 2006 Theology Conference), Jeremy Begbie acknowledges a strong debt to Hart, but expresses puzzlement that Hart could be so dismissive of Barth.  Hart is dismissive because he understands, as should we all, that a full-fledged Barthian theological aesthetics is impossible.  I don't say that lightly.  Some of my best friends are Barthians (well into their Barthian Ph.D's), so I have to be careful.  But I'm relatively confident that such a statement will not offend them, but that they will simply agree, perhaps even adding, with a smile, "Nor desirable."

Perhaps even the "primary beauty" of Jonathan Edwards was too much for Barth, who insisted that beauty in God is merely parenthetical... "not a leading concept.  Not even in passing can we make it a primary motif" (CD II.i. 641).  Barth feared aestheticism in theology.  But Balthasar, who wrote his entire theology for Barth, began with a repudiation of aestheticism, and went on to show that a Christocentric understanding of beauty is not only desirable, but can steal the theological show.  In the words of Richard Viladeseu, "Balthasar sees Protestant theology's [specifically Barth's] rejection of aesthetics as the result of its refusal of the analogy of being..." (30).  Conversely, Balthasar's affirmation of aesthetics is a result of his embrace of the analogy of being, as it is with Hart.   The analogia entis is not a section in Hart's book (as index cherry-pickers might assume) - it is the book.  Hart successfully clears himself of the exact accusations that a Barthian might deploy (e.g. the analogy posits an alternate path to God), and then makes of the analogy a spearhead for his engagement with postmodern thought, and a glittering Christocentric keystone for his Dogmatica Minora.

To use a familiar analogy, Barth managed - like some kind of theological superhero - to keep the entire train of liberal Protestantism from careening off the cliff, manfully ripping the tracks from the ground.  Thank God he did that.  He's a hero.  But in lifting those tracks, he pulled a muscle, and walked forever with a limp.  He was shaped by the grizzly incident, and was overly attuned to certain abuses.  He was fearful of the dangers of Protestant aestheticism, as we can imagine any of us would be if we had to write a Barmen Declaration.  Barth was right about so much, but not about the analogy of being, and, consequently, not about beauty.  "The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again," said Mark Twain.  "But he won't sit upon a cold stove lid, either."