From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

Christians recognize that the beauty of nature points us to the Ultimate Reality beyond. Beauty is vital to our experience of God in worship as well. For those who come from low-church traditions, there is an appreciation for the way that beauty is expressed in the language of scripture, in the words of a homily, or in the power of music. For those from a highchurch tradition, beauty can be openly celebrated. 

It is also important theologically. Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted the first seven volumes of his 16-volume systematic theology to theological aesthetics. In one of the most famous lines in the whole set, he wrote: “Before the beautiful – no, not really before but within the beautiful – the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.” Whether we come from a high-church or a lowchurch tradition, all Christians value beauty. 

At the same time, different interpretations of the second commandment in the Ten Commandments have led both Jews and Christians to impose some limits on art. Second Temple Jews beginning in the second century BCE and continuing into the second century CE only permitted geometrical designs. However, in subsequent centuries they covered the floors of their synagogues with beautiful mosaics that even included the zodiac. 

Christians are no different. From Tertullian’s stern perspective in On Idolatry to the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries and on to the Reformers’ reactions to art in Catholic churches, Christians have regulated artistic limits. Those earlier disagreements among Christians are still vividly evident. A churchgoer can see and experience the contrasting theologies by walking into a simple but beautiful New England Congregational church and then into an elaborate and vaulting Catholic basilica. The former has a horizontal axis, the latter a vertical axis. The former encourages abstract contemplation through its simplicity, the latter reflection through visual media. Beauty is in both, but its expression varies. 

The complicated role of aesthetics in Christianity is not unique in the history of ideas. Plato celebrated beauty as the greatest good in the Symposium, yet warned against poetry as a form of attractive deception in Republic. Specialists in Plato have struggled to explain the philosopher’s different stances, just as Christians have strained to formulate an aesthetics that extends beyond confessional lines. 

This issue of Reflections is intended to help us think through the value of art and beauty in various venues of faith in the 21st century and see its many applications. The essays take a measure of the role of art and music in a local church. They challenge us to reflect on the power and use of poetry not only for personal edification but for use in worship. They analyze the understanding of beauty in Kant, von Balthasar, and Jonathan Edwards. And they engage with the architectural significance of modern church structures. I hope that you find these essays as helpful and encouraging as I have. 

Beauty provokes awe and wonder in us. Though we admire the creativity and skill of the artists, this beauty and creativity is really a reflection of the perfection and creative powers of God. Beauty enables us to experience the Creator God who exists beyond space and time of the sense-perceptible world we inhabit, whether we experience that beauty through our eyes, our ears, or multiple senses. Johann Sebastian Bach was right to sign his cantatas ad majorem Dei gloriam, not only to express his intent in composing each choral work, but to capture our reaction to the experience of hearing it. 

I want to say a special word of appreciation for the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, whose partnership allows us to engage the dynamics of faith and the arts in remarkable ways every day. This Reflections issue is infused with its presence. My thanks go to ISM Director Martin Jean for financial support that allows us to provide color art reproduction throughout this Spring issue.