1 Oct

Beauty and a hermeneutics of creation

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/01/21

David Bentley Hart on the goodness of beauty

“Writing of the theology of Bonaventure, regarding the analogy between the numerical proportions of worldly beauty and the unity of the Trinity, Hans Urs von Balthasar remarks that ‘this tendency of what is created to reveal the divine points back to the power of God the Word to express himself — and so it points back to the pleasure of the creator; and the Word itself points back to the relationship of expression within the Godhead, to the Father’s joy in begetting.’ Creation, as an ‘aesthetic’ expression of trinitarian love, is always already grace in the fullest sense: it is that ‘gracefulness’ that reveals the nature of divine ‘graciousness.’ Indeed, God’s affirmations of the goodness of his creation in the first chapter of Genesis can be taken as indicating first and foremost an aesthetic evaluation rather than a simply moral one; it is only with sin that the goodness of creation must be conceptually separated into solitary transcendental categories, and only with sin that creation is seen to possess a distinct ethical axis. One might almost say that the separable category of the moral is an intrusion upon the aesthetic joy that is the upwelling source of creaturely existence, as is a separate category of truth once the paradisal experience of divine love in the blameless beauty of creation is lost. Thomas Traherne writes, in his Centuries:

““Can you be Holy without accomplishing the end for which you are created? Can you be Divine unless you be Holy? Can you accomplish the end for which you were created, unless you be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours, and you were made to prize them according to their value: which is your office and duty, the end for which you were created, and the means whereby you enjoy. The end for which you were created, is that by prizing all that God hath done, you may enjoy yourself and Him in Blessedness.’ (1:12)


“‘To conceive aright and to enjoy the world, is to conceive the Holy Ghost, and to see his Love: which is the Mind of the Father. And this more pleaseth Him than many Worlds, could we create as fair and great as this. For when you are once acquainted with the world, you will find the goodness and wisdom of God so manifest therein, that it was impossible another, or better should be made. Which being made to be enjoyed, nothing can please or serve Him more, than the Soul that enjoys it. For the Soul doth accomplish the end of His desire in Creating it.’ (1:10)

“Hamann lamented the dire effects of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, in causing humanity to prefer speculative concepts over poetic enjoyment as the principal way of grasping the truth of things; for him, to a degree perhaps unparalleled in Christian thought, the true knowledge of God in creation — the true analogy — lay in a childlike rapture before the concrete and poetic creativity of God, in the task of translating the language of that creativity, and in the rearticulation of that language in poetic invention. In the experience of beauty, even now, we recover, in some measure and at some moments, this paradisal theme. Nicholas of Cusa remarks that eternal wisdom is tasted in everything savored, eternal pleasure felt in all things pleasurable, eternal beauty beheld in all that is beautiful, and eternal desire experienced in everything desired (Idiota de sapientia 1); he even claims that a man who sees a beautiful woman, and is agitated by the sight of her, gives glory thus to God and admires God’s infinite beauty (Excitationes 7). And Augustine says delight is the weight in the soul that causes it to tend toward or away from the love of God, according to how it orders the heart in regard to the beauty of God's creation (De musica 6.10.29). None of this is to say that the soul can gain access to an immediate intuition of the divine form in the fabric of creation, unclouded by sin, untroubled by the misery of earthly life; what is at issue is a hermeneutics of creation, a theological embrace of creation as a divine word precisely in its aesthetic excessiveness, its unforced beauty. Inasmuch as creation is not the overflow of some ungovernable perturbation of the divine substance, or a tenebrous collusion of ideal form and chaotic matter, but purely an expression of the superabundant joy and agape of the Trinity, joy and love are its only grammar and its only ground; one therefore must learn a certain orientation, a certain charity and a certain awe, and even a certain style of delectation to see in what sense creation tells of God and to grasp the nature of creation’s inmost (which is to say, most superficial) truth. Creation is a new emphasis in the divine dialect of triune love, whose full, perfect, and infinitely diverse expression is God’s eternal Word.

“This also means that the things of the senses cannot of themselves distract from God. All the things of earth, in being very good, declare God, and it is only by the mediation of their boundless display that the declaration of God may be heard and seen. In themselves they have no essences apart from the divine delight that crafts them: they are an array of proportions, an ordering or felicitous parataxis of semeia, and so have nothing in themselves by which they might divert attention from the God who gives them, no specific gravity, no weight apart from the weight of glory. Only a corrupt desire that longs to possess the things of the world as inert property, for violent or egoistic ends, so disorders the sensible world as to draw it away from the God that sensible reality properly declares; such a desire has not fallen prey to a lesser or impure beauty, but has rather lost sight of corporeal, material, and temporal beauty as beauty, and so has placed it in bondage.”

— from David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003)