beauty and the perfection of being

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On October 23, 2014, I presented a review of Dynamic Transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty from a Thomistic Perspective by my colleague, Alice Ramos.1

Before I begin, I’m reminded of a scene in Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam (1972). youtube

Allen: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?

Woman: Yes, it is.

Allen: What does it say to you?

Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.

Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?

Woman: Committing suicide.

Allen: What about Friday night?

Here in this exchange we see the desolation of not seeing dynamic beauty as a participation in the God who is Beauty Itself. The consequence is suicidal.

Two Alices

Not much more illustrates the ideas in Prof. Ramos’ book than knowing that there are two Alice Ramoses (Ramoi) in the world. One on the cover of Playboy magazine and one a professor of philosophy. One has given her body for the pursuit of perverted beauty and the other has given her mind for the pursuit of perfected beauty. There is so much at stake in getting the purpose of beauty right, especially in this postmodern age.

Beauty as Form and Splendor

I love Alice Ramos’ book and think you should read it. I’m going to focus my comments on chapter four “Beauty and the Perfection of Being.”

The thesis of the chapter is: “The purpose of this essay will be to show how a consideration of the beautiful and its features coincides with a discussion of first and second perfections in Aquinas, how such a consideration of perfection is related to the order of that universe in its static and dynamic dimensions, and how this order is a work of divine wisdom and beauty, requiring in its turn the cooperation of intellectual creatures.”2

God as Divine Artist is Beauty Itself and he creates beautiful things who have their beginning and end in him. The Triune God has created the marble and slowly with hammer and chisel breaks it into a beautiful statue. It’s beginning is beautiful and its end is beautiful. But it has to go through the breaking.

But let’s take a step back.

Beauty for Aquinas is the coinciding of form and splendor; harmony and brilliance; due proportion and radiance; as such, it is objective.

Beauty is objectively located at the intersection of the two intersecting moments of form and splendor. And the encounter of these is also characterized by the two moments of beholding and of being enraptured - beholding and being beheld.

Next, Let us define first and second perfections in Aquinas.

First perfection - a thing is perfect in its substance - in its creation.

Second perfection - a thing is perfect in its end.

The going out of God and the coming in toward God (the exitus and reditus) are all of God’s perfect activity and therefor participate in his beauty.

God as pure Act is these two perfections - he is the Alpha and Omega - the beginning and the end.

Part two - The part where this becomes dynamic beauty is in the entelechy. Ordination of the universe to the end is in the intellectual being who is grasped and grasps toward its perfect end in God.

Attaining second perfection - performance of beings proper operations toward greater degree of actuality.

This perfection is done by grace, by created actuation by uncreated Act.3

But here’s where I want to add the more to this really well done chapter.

I want more Jesus.

Our theology of Beauty is a theology of Glory but that also means then a theology of the Cross.

What we first encounter of God is manifestation - revelation - God’s active potent presence expressed - that presence express love by being present.

From today’s reading - Paul prays for the Ephesian church that they may come “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). And what we know of the love of Christ is that he has become broken for me. So beauty (Christian beauty) must understand that “Unless the grain of wheat falls and dies” (Jn 12:24), there is no actualized, perfected beauty.

I am convinced that beauty is the glory of God manifesting itself through created beauty, but through its being broke, cracked, and torn open. God as Beauty Itself converts us about his truth and goodness through beauty.

“In the experiences of extraordinary beauty — whether in nature or in art — we are able to grasp a phenomenon in its distinctiveness that otherwise remains veiled. What we encounter in such an experience is as overwhelming as a miracle, something we will never get over.”4

In this passage, Balthasar helps me understand that extraordinary beauty can overwhelm by its own power of being beautiful. The miracle of beauty can make a person never get over what they have just seen.

We first enter into relational trust (love) before or during which we learn the good and the true.5

“God does not come primarily as a teacher for us (“true”), as a useful “redeemer” for us (“good”), but to display and to radiate himself, the splendor of his eternal triune love in that ‘disinterestedness’ that true love has in common with true beauty.”6

He is saying here that the human encounter with the revelation of God is known through his radiating beauty glory.

It is the glory of the Lord manifested in the cloud of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night that convinces Israel to leave Egypt and head toward the promised land (Ex 13:17-22). It is the glory of the Lord that settles on Mount Sinai manifesting the potent, fiery presence of the Lord who gives the Law to Israel through Moses (Ex 19:16-20). It is the glory of the Lord that comes upon the first temple built by Solomon revealing God’s kingly dwelling in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 8:1-11). It is the glory of the Lord that rushes upon Mary who conceives in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit the Son of God incarnate (Lk 1:26-38). It is the glory of the Lord in his disfigured crucified state that after he breathes his last makes the earth quake and the temple curtain torn in two such that the veil between the world and the Holy of Holies reveals that the “glory of the Lord fills the whole earth” and the centurian representing the world believes “Truly this was the Son of God” (Mt 27:50-54). It is the glory of the Lord represented by tongues of fire that comes upon the apostles on the feast of Pentecost manifesting God’s dwelling presence with his Church (Acts 2:1-13). For von Balthasar, in the Old and New Testaments, it is the glory (beauty) of the Lord that manifests the Father’s potent presence in the world through the Son and Holy Spirit and reveals the goodness and truth about his love for the world. The Son of God did not just come to teach or to be useful, he came to reveal God’s love. That our perfection is in our end, through the cross of his grace.

Consider these two apples - which is more beautiful?

If we have a static view of beauty the whole apple; if we have Alice’s dynamic view - the answer is the second.

  1. Alice Ramos, Dynamic Transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty from a Thomistic Perspective (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2013).
  2. Ramos, Dynamic Transcendentals, 72.
  3. Matthew Lewis Sutton, “Mysterium Christi: The Christologies of Karl Rahner and Maurice de la Taille," International Journal of Systematic Theology, 10 (October 2008): 416-430.
  4. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, trans. D. C. Schindler (San Francsico: Ignatius Press, 2004), 52-53.
  5. Here we see the Bonaventure moment in Balthasar.
  6. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, My Work: In Retrospect, trans. Kenneth Batinovich and Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 80.