Aesthetics make for enthralling lens on theology
BookThe Beauty of Jesus Christ: Filling out a Scheme of St Augustine, by Gerald O'Collins (Oxford University Press, 2020)
By Dorothy Lee
The first book I ever read in theology by Gerald O’Collins was in the 1970s – Foundations of Theology. It was one of the reasons I decided to go on and study theology. Since then, I have read other books of his and enjoyed them and profited by them. So it was no hardship for me to sit down and read his latest volume. And I was not disappointed.
The Beauty of Jesus Christ begins, as you might expect, with a general outline of beauty and its place in theology. O’Collins speaks of three dimensions in theological thinking (using ideas from Hans Urs von Balthasar): the logical, which is concerned with truth; the ethical, which is devoted to goodness; and the aesthetic, which explores the realm of beauty.
This book enunciates its Christology through the lens of beauty, that third aspect of theology which in recent centuries has played a minor role (if at all) in the theology of the West.
Yet these three aspects – truth, goodness and beauty – are profoundly inter-related. Beauty itself has the capacity, says O’Collins, to play a key role in relation to the other two. So while, on the one hand, beauty is in a sense of gratuitous, freely given, the very opposite of pragmatism, it can also, on the other hand, be an effective way of arousing spiritual desire, the longing for God. It can itself draw us towards God and thus, by implication, lead us to truth and the living out of goodness.
The main argument of the book is grounded in Augustine (as the sub-title makes plain), who speaks of Jesus Christ as “beautiful in heaven”, “beautiful on earth”, “beautiful in his miracles and in inviting life”; and beautiful in his death on the cross, his entombment and his resurrection.
What O’Collins does is to expand theologically Augustine’s statements, developing and extending them, point by point, showing how deeply illuminating they are and how capable of capturing the deepest levels of Christian theology and spirituality.
There are eight chapters that follow the first chapter, dealing with Christ’s pre-existence, his incarnation, his childhood and hidden life, his miracles, his encounters with individuals, his crucifixion, his descent to the dead and his resurrection.
The chapters explore beauty in each dimension of Jesus’ identity and redemptive work, using Scripture as the main dialogue partner. O’Collins, as we know from his previous writings, shows a great sensitivity to the biblical text and awareness of the exegetical issues involved in its interpretation.
O’Collins is thus aware that the language of beauty is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture. Instead he explores beauty through biblical images such as light and glory, which contain a profound sense of the beautiful. In the story of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic tradition, for example, Peter exclaims: “It is good for us to be here!” (Mark 9:5) The adjective kalos means good in the sense of “beautiful”: Jesus bathed in the beauty of the uncreated light, reveals his own sublime identity and the exquisite destiny of believers.
It is much stranger and more challenging to think of the beauty of the cross: that image of sadistic torture and death, the ultimate symbol of shame and loss of honour in the ancient world. Yet, for Augustine and for O’Collins, the cross helps redefine what beauty really is. In it we discover a major aspect of the beauty of Christ: beauty may indeed be found even in suffering, especially when that suffering is for others.
The Beauty of Jesus Christ also has other dialogue partners, beginning with Patristic writers (Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius), moving into the mediaeval period (Thomas Aquinas) and thence into modern theology, East as well as West. These reflect O’Collins’ own breadth of understanding.
The book is complemented by another dialogue partner, entirely appropriate to the subject matter and a much less frequent interlocutor among theologians: those involved in the arts. O’Collins moves between music (e.g. Palestrina), novels (Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot) and poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins). These have the capacity to achieve what theology, with a focus only on truth and goodness, cannot: the essential place of the aesthetic in Christian understanding. The arts have the capacity to articulate the beauty of Jesus Christ in affective and transforming ways.
There are many attractive features of this book: its lucidity and succinctness (so much packed into so small a space), the ease of its prose, and its careful and sophisticated attention to the Bible. These points could also be made of other publications by Gerald O’Collins. But in this book the subject matter of aesthetics in theology and spirituality is prominent: an all-too-needed perspective in a church whose worship often lacks any sense of beauty or mystery. Emphasising the beauty of Jesus Christ in every aspect of his life may assist in overturning the superficial banality of much public worship.
It is also pleasing that the material aspects of the book share in the beauty of its subject matter. This is a small but attractive volume. On the front cover is a lovely painting of Mary embracing the crucified Christ which comes from the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in Rome and is painted by another Jesuit, Marko Rupnik.
I said at the beginning that I was not disappointed in reading The Beauty of Jesus Christ. That was an understatement. I found it enthralling and at times deeply moving. I am grateful to Gerald O’Collins for filling in this gap in our apprehension of Christ and for using Augustine’s insights so creatively as he sets out on this luminous path.
The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee is Stewart Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity.