In early May the members of SSM gathered at Willunga for their annual Colloquium. The subject of the Colloquium was Theological Perspectives on Beauty. It is a curious fact that beauty is one of those realities that insinuates itself into our lives so seamlessly, that while we feel somehow enlarged by its presence and diminished by its absence, it is, like many things so close to us, easier to identify than to describe. The addresses on beauty gave us the opportunity to do both.
There were two addresses each day over three days. The sessions consisted of members of the Society as well as members of the wider community who were interested in the topic. These included folk from Willunga, people who had travelled from Adelaide, and, on one occasion, the Rt. Rev’d. John Stead, Bishop of Willochra, the Visitor to the Society.
The addresses were wide-ranging in an attempt to explore some of the aspects of beauty. We commenced with the so-called tale of beauty; a narrative of the way in which beauty moves from being an external, objective quality to an interior quality of the human being so that it becomes not only possible but natural to declare that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ In the second address, an explicitly theological approach, we considered the theme of beauty in creation. We looked at Thomas Aquinas’ approach to beauty, predicated on his assumption of a congruity between the human mind and the natural world. A third address looked at Catholic and Protestant approaches to beauty in the works of two representative twentieth-century theologians: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth. We discovered how the Protestant approach to beauty has been distinguished by ambivalence: attracted by beauty, it has also been sensitive to its potential for danger and distraction. The Catholic approach approach has tended to be more trusting of the senses; an intuition reaching back to Thomas Aquinas, if not further. From Balthasar we learned that the ordering of the Beautiful, the Good and the True, was far from incidental. Beauty attracts us, this attraction stimulates us to act (this is the Good), and upon our actions we later reflect and this is the True. Interestingly this is the reverse of the order in which Kant put them. The fourth address moved away from an explicitly theological theme to the so-called ‘problem of taste.’ What do we mean when we speak of taste in beauty or in art? Is one person’s taste as good as another’s? Can our aesthetic taste be educated? Should it? The final day and the fifth address saw us considering the sublime. What is the sublime? What is its relationship to beauty? We noted how the sublime denoted, among other things, grandeur, and that it evoked in us a sense of awe, which, while not unpleasant, was an amalgam of complex feelings and responses. Was the sublime then some sort of code word for ‘God’? For some of the Romantic Poets the answer seems to have been a cautious and sometimes not-so-cautious Yes. We traced a little of this trajectory from the late eighteenth through to the early twentieth century. And finally, we returned to an explicitly theological theme for the final address as we came to consider how beauty informed the process of human self-transcendence in the process of redemption. In this case we were pondering how beauty is more than ‘skin deep’: the ways in which beauty manifests goodness, especially in the practice of virtue and in our ethical dealings with others. We noted that when we speak of a ‘beautiful person’ we are not necessarily making a comment on what touches our sensations or perceptions—aiesthetica—but something that seems to us to be intuitively true and is perhaps subsequently justified in our experience.
It was, as you may imagine, a serpentine path we travelled over those few days, not without its bumpy patches, but combined also with flashes of insight. Those who attended came away happy that they had spent the time having had the opportunity to reflect a little more deeply upon that sense of beauty in which they have always rejoiced. In that sense we probably learned nothing new, but we may have learned some reasons to support what we’ve already known long since to be true—that beauty is to be enjoyed.
Rev’d. Dr Phillip Tolliday