More on taste…

I’ m going to try and bring in some updates on some of the books I’ve been working through and I think I’ll start with the most excellent book on taste/aesthetics I’ve been reading (Good Taste, Bad Taste, & Christian Taste), about which I’ve posted earlier. As with all my comments, these are not final descriptions, but interim attempts to summarize and interact with some of the material I’ve read.

Today I worked through the chapter seeking to develop a positive theology of taste, largely through interaction with Augustine. The chapter explores the link between love and beauty, between religion and art. Augustine is a useful starting place because of his vision of God as beauty – so much so that “The very order, disposition, beauty, change, and motion of the world and of all visible things silently proclaim that it could only have been made by God, the ineffably and invisibly great and the ineffably and invisble beautiful.” This idea has some links to Neo-Platonism, to be sure, but also can be linked to Wis 13:5 (Apocrypha for us Protestants!).

Nevertheless, Augustine is deeply ambivalent about beauty and art, as this beauty is intrinsically deficient (only God is fully and completely beautiful) and attracts us through concupiscence, through inappropriate love. Augustine lives in a kind of tension – sometimes wishing for all music to be banished from church, yet allowing for some chanting (more like recitation), still fearing that if the music is more moving than the words, it would be sin. [I hear intense echoes here of discussions that continue to this day!]. Augustine also rejects idle tales, the false emotions of the theater, and so on.

It is out of this complexity that Brown seeks to move forward. He notes that Augustine does sometimes sense a link between spiritual senses and the physical (especially in vision); he speculates that in heaven our eyes will see with enhanced power to see the invisible directly. Augustine’s praise of “the beauty and utility of the creation” is highlighted (in a lengthy and lovely quote, which I will not produce here). From here, Brown moves to a discussion of the mutual indwelling of body and spirit as the basis for an embodied spirituality and an embodied aesthetic. The physical senses can be spiritual senses, which means there is space for art (in a quasi-sacramental reality).

Augustine’s notion of loving the neighbor in God is the final piece of preparation. We cannot really love others; we use them  (uti) for some larger purpose, the enjoyment (frui) of God. Only God can be truly loved. Though Augustine later seems to have discarded this terminology, it does remind us that love can be inappropriate. Love can be misdirected (idolatrous), it can be disproportionate or unbalanced, it can be self-serving and even misidentified. This last explains how an agnostic can do a moral and good thing (e.g., giving to refugees) without recognizing it for the kind of good it should be. It requires conversion to see that as loving “in God.” Brown argues (convincingly to me) that Augustine’s notion of use is not applicable even to objects because works of art have personal and other dimensions.

In light of all this (and I know this has been long, but I’ m trying to capture at least the high points), Brown suggests a number of ways in which art might be related to God so that we are enjoying it “in God.” Here goes (and he gives a number of specific illustrations):

  1. Dedication to God (e.g., Bach’s sola Dei gloria)
  2. Addressed to God (e.g., Psalms)
  3. Consecrated to God (as in a building and its architecture)
  4. Received on behalf of God (e.g., hearing a tune which summons us to praise)
  5. Shared with God (enjoying creation just as God has called it good)
  6. Received from God (e.g., nature and its beauty)
  7. God becomes present in it (transcendence) – which is unpacked in four kinds of transcendence (negative, radical, proximate and immanent)

In his conclusion, Brown notes that not all art serves God directly. In fact, because it can distort and delude, it may not even serve God indirectly.Yet there are significant ways in which art can be “in God.”

Obviously, this is a pathetically thin summary of some detailed explorations (and the examples, including an extended one about Benjamin Britten’s hearing of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) are helpful. The next chapter moves on to quality and Kitsch, which could be interesting. In the meantime, I need to wrap this one up.

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