Beauty II: Theological Aesthetics Part Deux (Completing Balthasar)

Completing Balthasar: Garcia-Rivera and Community of the Beautiful

In developing the foundation of aesthetics, Balthasar leads us to rapture and ecstasy, beholding the splendor within the form.  But what becomes of reason? Can we be enraptured of a form which deceives us? Since all that glitters is not indeed gold, we find ourselves at the nexus of faith and reason, just as, Garcia-Rivera reminds us, Dante found himself as Virgil (classical virtue and reason) led him to the gates of Paradise, at which point he needed a more capable guide, the beautiful Beatrice (faith, with a loveliness spoken of by her beauty). Without a faculty of some sort of discerning what is the True, we are left merely with the experience of beauty, which is as far as, say, John Dewey (Art as Experience) can take us. Garcia-Rivera claims this is a weakness in Balthasar, despite our indebtedness to his rehabilitation of the pre-scholastic faith experience and the role of beauty. To remedy this, Garcia-Rivera argues that we must move beyond “the Form” to make use of the resources of the theory of signs, following American Pragmatists Charles Saunders Pierce and Josiah Royce in particular. The “radical objectivity of a theological aesthetics”[1] and a more clear understanding of the relation between faith and reason, Garcia-Rivera claims, can be our reward.

Garcia’s solution to the problem of objectivity in aesthetics rests on the successive construction of the “Community of the True,” “Community of the Good,” and finally, the “Community of the Beautiful.” This follows Balthasar’s inspiration to model his “tryptich” of Aesthetics – Theo-Drama – Theologic on both the philosophical Good-True-Beautiful and Jesus’ declaration in John 14:6 that “I am the way, the truth and the life” (beautiful, true and good respectively, possibly anyway).  Once aesthetics becomes grounded in a Community of the Beautiful, it is the life of the body of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, which governs the revelation of beauty, thus lending an interpretive stability, while yet remaining open to continuing revelation, through aesthetics, of ultimate Being in our world of being(s) (and of becoming).

Garcia-Rivera begins his construction of the Community of the True with the Scholastic response to the medieval problem of universals, realism and in particular, nominalism. Universals are what Balthasar described as transcendentals, which we perceive in our aesthetic comprehension of particular, the world of being, in which we otherwise live and move and breathe and have our being. These “transcendentals cannot be confined to any group of individuals. They surpass (transcendere) all limits”[2] Garcia-Rivera reminds us. While modernity is largely an exercise in nominalism (in Lewis Agonistes,[3] Markos describes Four Horsemen of modernity as Darwin, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, all of whom argue that we project transcendentals “from below” or our experience, rather than seeing our experience, as did Plato, as partial and incomplete manifestations of ultimate and transcendent Being; “logocentrism” is the term Markos uses to describe the transcendental orientation, noting that Christ is the ultimate act of logos-giving, being the Word spoken by God to us), he pints us to the American Pragmatist logician Charles S. Pierce as a guide to using Ockham, Scotus and Kant to address this loss of belief in universals.


While Ockham and Kant largely fell on the side of nominalism (Ockham’s Razor, “do not multiply entities without cause Garcia-Rivera translates as “get to the point” owing to the “great Franciscan medieval philosopher eschew[ing] interminable scholastic speculation;”[4] aka “keep it simple”), Duns Scotus recognized a third entity besides those of simply what we perceive and the mind with which we perceive it. Limiting reality to just those two, our perceptions and the mental concepts we supply to interpret those perceptions, nominalists denied the world of objective truth, or universals. But Scotus claimed that in so doing, we forget the world of “Common Nature,” or “the formal distinction.” Just as there are universal rules of logic, so are there universals related to our common, human nature. This Common Nature applies in the world or particulars and percepts, as well as manifests itself in our mind and the world of concepts. Thus, Scotus resurrects metaphysics, as the tertium quid binding together the observable world and that of our concepts, ens reale and ens rationis.  Scotus parallels Balthasar in how he relies on the notion of difference (difference, and similarity, between particulars giving rise to the problem of universals), as Balthasar relies on the difference between Creator and created at the heart of his aesthetics.

Peirce took Scotus’ insight as foundational to his theory of signs, in which he posited the study of the sign as the way to bring Mind and Nature back into harmony, to prove that “Being is intrinsically logical.”[5] Being is thus propositional, it proposes relations between different particulars; it is therefore itself also relational, as in its operation in the world of particulars (home field advantage otherwise to nominalists, for whom any mind-supplied concepts are otherwise ungrounded), “Being brings into relation what can be compared or contrasted.”[6] For Peirce, reality thus becomes triadic, with “the sign” as intermediary, an interpetant, between the particular and the concept, that which is represented (the signified) and that which represents (the signifier).  While volumes may, and have, been written on this complex relationship, here it suffices our purposes to move forward; that Pierce’s theory of signs, otherwise characterized as “objective idealism” is established is of great use for understanding Balthasar, as explicated, one might say brilliantly, by Garcia-Rivera! As Garcia-Rivera notes, “if Von Balthasar’s aesthetics is a matter of “seeing the form,” then Pierce’s logic is a matter of seeing the invisible universal in the visible sign.”[7] Garcia-Rivera notes that Pierce distanced himself from later figures in American Pragmatism school claiming him as inspiration, in particular William James whose psychological investigations of the fixation of belief completely missed Peirce’s transcendental point; thus, Peirce suggested the separate term pragmaticism to describe his approach.

Extending Peirce’s insights from the reality of stable, universal interpretation, a “Community of the True,” to ethics and the “Community of the Good” is Josiah Royce. Called onto the philosophy faculty at Harvard by William James, Royce spent his 34 years on the faculty there (1882 – 1916) deeply influenced by Pierce’s philosophy and by Pierce (1839-1914, life, not faculty position) himself. After Royce’s The World and the Individual garnered the comment from Peirce that Royce should study logic more closely, Royce (whom Peirce otherwise dubbed “America’s Plato” for his thorough philosophical idealism) did so and produced, twelve to thirteen years later, works such as Principles of Logic (1912) and his masterpiece, The Problem of Christianity (1913) which focused on ethics and solving the problem of evil. While Royce effectively operated from Aristotle’s perspective that “Being is Good,”[8] Peirce’s comments to Royce led Royce to more closely investigate the relational nature of Being. Royce will be seen to provide a stepping stone to aesthetics, though he does not quite achieve it himself. In his development of more complex, nuanced polyadic relations (beyond Pierce’s bivalent theory of signs, which itself is trivalent in effect), Royce discusses mystical experience, or “negative theology.” As such negative theology aims to pair opposites,[9] symmetric pairs with each member the opposite of the other, resulting in a sense of one being higher, the other lower. Garcia-Rivera[10] claims this to be a fundamental aesthetic experience, known in semiotics circles as “foregrounding.”

Royce develops his “Community of the Good” in considering how the problem of evil may affect the operation of signs. To do so, he first needed to extend the concept of Being. In his World and the Individual, Royce described three conceptions of Being that have existed throughout the history of philosophy, then added a fourth conception that will parallel in important regards the thought of Balthasar. The first conception of Being is that of Realism, a sharp distinction between particulars and universals, the existence and the essence, of Being, and between our perceptions of reality and our conception of it, paralleling Ockham’s Razor.[11]

The second conception of Being, the practice of Mysticism, Royce claims is purely empirical. Mystics seek to delve deeper within experience to find an “immediate,” a place “from which there is no beyond, [offering] the peace of the pure immediate.”[12] Garcia-Rivera (hereafter referred to as “G-R”) relates this to the “Reality, that is the soul” of Hindu doctrine (noting the irony of the term “doctrine” in the mystical Hindu context) described by the phrase “That art Thou, That is the World That is the Absolute.”[13] But this approach dissolves any sense of “difference” which might otherwise inform us of Reality, all becomes One in “essence” (G-0R notes that “essence” is actually jettisoned for the sake of experience here). Royce thus condemns thus “rails against a conception of Being as “ineffable immediate fact which quenches ideas.””[14]

The third conception of Being is primarily conceptual, akin to Mathematics; Royce calls it Critical Rationalism. Reality here is that which conforms to the rules of validity, much as a system of mathematical postulates must be consistent. Intuiting actual, existent Being is difficult here, as this approach is grounded, as it were, more in the world of logical abstractions than to any senses and empirical evidence.

Royce develops his view of Being on the back and on the insufficiencies of the first three, especially that of Critical Rationalism. Where Critical Rationalism single-mindedly focuses on our ideas, Royce calls for rehabilitating an ancient version of truth, that of correspondence of ideas with objects. Correspondence theory thus gains insight into the deeper nature of reality, though Royce holds that it is our volitions as well as our ideas that involved. Royce states,

“Every idea is as much a volitional process as it is an intellectual process … Volition is as manifest in counting objects as in singing tunes, in conceiving physical laws as in directing the destinies of nations, in laboratory productions as in artistic productions, in contemplating as in fighting.”[15]

The import of this, Royce clarifies by continuing

“The embodied purpose, the internal meaning, of the instant’s act, is thus a conditione sine qua non for all external meaning and for all truth. What we are now inquiring is simply how an internal meaning can be linked to an external meaning, how a volition can also possess truth, how the purpose of the instant can express the nature of an object other than the instant’s purpose.”[16]

But it is in the logic that Royce develops that his conception of Being gives way most directly to the “Community of the Good.”  Where Peirce had a triadic logic, that of sign, signifier and signified, Royce interjects a social component, a community into which individuals with differences are drawn. Loyalty is a key concept for Royce, as it facilitates the interpretation of a mind other than one’s own to another. For the Christian Royce, this act of interpretation is guided by the “Logos-Spirit,” the Interpreter for the community.  This interpretation is a redemptive activity, as it reconciles the ugly fact of evil by interpreting signs according to a standard, “interpretation performed in the garden of good and evil” as G-R would say. Evil is thus reconciled, disorder and chaos are governed by the telos of the Spirit. For G-R’s initial example of conflicting Anglo- and Latin- views of religion concerning redemption and cosmic order, this is directly relevant. The redemption offered by the Interpreter and Community offers teleology where evil had caused a disteleology.

Royce’s Community of the Good thus extends Pierce’s theory of the sign to include ethics.  Preoccupied primarily with the empirical and philosophical problem of evil in the world, Royce develops his own moral choice mechanism. Quoting,

“If the being of the world involves interpretation, then the interpretation of evil will not amount to showing that it is only an apparent evil. It will involve that for which the person suffering evil would appear as a reconciling element in his life.”[17]

Thus, the “reconciling element in [the sufferer’s] life” would is the community, guided by the Logos-Spirit. The mechanism by which the individual reconciles himself to this community, the moral mechanism, Royce thus describes,

“the consciousness of every moment of moral choice involves, also, a consciousness – a confession, if you will – of the presence in the chooser of that which he himself regards as evil. He not only coldly knows, he includes, he possesses, he is beset with some evil motive; and, nevertheless, he conquers it. This is involved in the very formal definition of a moral act.”[18]

The Community of the Beautiful only now remains.  G-R draws on the implied aesthetic in Royce’s logic, that of pairings of opposites and the implied preference for one. It is not merely a moral preference.  Royce’s conception of Being, requiring a correspondence between the conceptual reality of the Critical Rationalist version of Being and the empirical, experiential world, when applied to the notion that Reality includes Beauty, implies that we ought to be able to discern, to see the correspondence, of this Beauty.  This addressed the problem of deceptive Beauty (we should be able to truly discern), and also provides a mechanism of discernment that was never quite made explicit in Balthasar.  The problem remains that some things may appear beautiful (G-R gives the example of a perfectly manicured military exercise from the Nazi regime), without partaking in, exhibiting, actual, real Beauty. It is at this juncture that the Community of the Beautiful, much like that of the Communities of the True and the Good, aids discernment.  G-R’s logic is similar to that developed in previous cases, though he additionally draws on the concept of “difference” (vital to Pierce et. al. as well as Balthasar), and an observation from the field semiotics. Semiotician Jan Mukarovsky has observed how in poetry that some part of the background may be elevated, “lifted up,” to give it relatively more value. G-R equates this aspect of (aesthetic) privileging with Balthasar’s “seeing the Form.” It also derives from spiritual disciplines developed by Ignatius of Loyola and the constellation of Ancient Church Fathers Balthasar have brought back into conversation, disciplines that provide ultimate answers to the question “what moves the human heart?” G-R develops the argument to the point where he declares that

“The order of the universe lies mainly in the poetic aesthetics of foregrounding than in the rational design of some giant clock.”[19]

Balthasar et. al., the Beautiful and the Human: Hart and de Lubac

Leaving Garcia-Rivera and his development of the Community of the Beautiful behind,

itself invaluable addition to the works of Balthasar and the entire post-Neo-Scholastic movement, ressourcement, and its recovery of the rich tradition of all phases of church history, we take a brief look at the capabilities of this essentially aesthetic approach to the contemporary world. David Bentley Hart’s analysis of the role of Beauty vis-à-vis modernity will begin our discussion, then we will conclude by examining some thoughts on handling atheism, both Western and Eastern, by Balthasar’s contemporary, Henri de Lubac.

A more recent perspective on the case of beauty in the face of (post-)modernity is offered by David Bentley Hart, whose dissertation-turned-book, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth contrasts the beauty of the gospel narrative with  games of power (and its critique), or violence, which preoccupies so much of current, Continental in particular, philosophy.  Citing the critique of power from Nietzsche onwards, Hart holds against that tradition, the critique of the “grammar of violence inscribed upon the foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric” the Christian narrative, one “that claims that within history a way of reconciliation has been opened up that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.”[20]

Hart allies beauty with truth, “beauty as inseparable from truth, as a measure of what theology may call true,”[21] and grounds beauty in Christ, “Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire.”[22] In a world of conflicting and coercive narratives, beauty becomes the ultimate determinant in the case for faith, as he calls on Christian rhetoric to

“the task of framing an account of how its own rhetoric may be conceived as the peaceful offer of a peaceful evangel, and not as – of necessity – a practice of persuasion for persuasion’s sake, violence, coercion at its most enchanting. Such an account must inevitably make an appeal to beauty.”[23]

Beauty comes from the particularity of the Christian message, against the account of history one sees “encountered first in various schools of pagan metaphysics, and encounters again in the thought of Nietzsche and his heirs.”[24]  Metaphysics ultimately represents a Stoic emptiness, and Hart advises that the simple gospel narrative will be telling:

“Hence the title of this essay: a defense of the suasive loveliness of Christian rhetroic, as the coincidence without contradiction of beauty and peace, can be undertaken according to the opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful.”

Hart otherwise humbly states that

“the field of theological aesthetics is overshadowed by the towering achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose immense theological trilogy – in its successive stages of an aesthetics, a dramatics and a logic – genuinely inaugurates a new kind of theological discourse … my particular concerns in this project somewhat differ from his, but it would be quite appropriate were this essay to read as a kind of extended marginalium on some page of Balthasar’s work.”[25]

While Hart spends the first third of his book contrasting theology with (secular) philosophy (the latter being profoundly indebted to the former, as he notes), de Lubac continues Balthasar’s program of a transcendental anthropology, a study of Being and of man, replacing the sterile, abstract philosophical system of metaphysics.  Of particular interest is how (Balthasar discusses, in his book on Lubac) Lubac advises that the aesthetics-led theology address the humanisms of bot the West and East.

Western Atheism centers on Nietzsche for Lubac (as it does for Hart).  Nietzsche ultimately derives in an important sense from Marx and Feuerbach, for whom God exists on concept only (in our consciousness), where he must die and be replaced by man. In God’s place is then found Nietzsche’s self-absorbed metaphysics, the “eternal return” which leads only back to himself, and thus to death and despair. This egoism of Nietzsche Lubac calls a “European Buddhism,” like an enlightened disciple of Buddha, liberated from the Samsara of existence, but not reaching a Nirvana apart from the world. He has only his own existence to cling to, ultimately leaving him to a death of which he is afraid and thus to despair.

Nietzsche is opposed by the (transcendentals-aware) figure of Socrates, but it is in battling with figures like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky that Nietzsche’s atheistic insufficiency becomes exposed. Even granting that Kierkegaard was correct in his subjective railing against Hegel, Lubac begins, Nietzsche must yet face to problem that Hegel may have in some sense been correct in his understanding of the empirical implications of spirituality, however understood by Hegel, and redeemed by some new understanding. To this question, Balthasar mentions how Dostoevsky had his own intended five-volume work on atheism (in fact originally intended to be titled “Atheism”), including The Idiot, The Devils, and The Grand Inquisitor. Lubac, observes Balthasar, refused to simply accept characters as analogs of Christ, instead preferring more nuanced views including both psychology and metaphysics.[26] Between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, dueling prophets as Balthasar describes, Lubac considered the scientism and “godless humanity”[27] of August Comte to be pivotal. Comte’s three stages of philosophy – theology, metaphysics then science/positivism  – puts to death “the essential question” of humanity, a question that is most effectively answered by aesthetic theology.

Lubac’s analysis of Eastern atheism is also instructive. Just as Nietzsche, in his quest to become superhuman and god himself, is ultimately alone, so is the Buddhist left without a true Thou, and in a dreamlike state of unreality. Genuine incarnation is an impossibility, and in its narcissism, so is love impossible. Ultimately, Buddhism is an atheism consistent with that of Schopenhauer, who admired it while desiring to “demolish “the absurd and revolting theism” of the Bible.”[28] While Easter religions exult in visions of an incarnational deity descending into existence, it is all illusory and without any historic foundation. Mystical figures such as Amida in its heaven, its begetting of the feminine figure of Kwannon in Japan, and in whichever form it spreads throughout other Eastern religions (Krishna is the Hindu incarnation, though with only the slightest of historical evidence). Ultimately, efforts to equate Christianity to these religious understandings fail, since figures such as AMida make claims to simply be “impersonal Absolute” and “the problem of all non-Christian mysticism: identity” plagues Eastern religion.[29] Against this, Balthasar points to Lubac’s work in Catholicisme, and the hope that “yet the omnipresent grace of Christ can be effective in an objectively inadequate way of salvation,”[30] concluding that “Only the self-revealing personal God guarantees the eternal worth of the human person.”[31]


Balthasar, and his comrades of the ressourcement, including those concerned with recovering the wisdom and disciplines of the Ancient Church today such as Hart, have provided a compelling argument for the primacy of aesthetics in Christian theology. Garcia-Rivera provided a compelling case for augmenting Balthasar’s mystical tendencies with the grounding of the Holy-Spirit guided Church. It might be observed that this move is not quite so foreign to Balthasar and friends, as they helped pioneer a recovery of the practices and awareness of the Spirit-guided Church, albeit one that had seemingly been lost for a few centuries if not millenia.

[1] Garcia Rivera, Community of the Beautiful, 90.

[2] Ibid., 94.

[3] Louis Markos, Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2003).

[4] Ibid., 97.

[5] Ibid., 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid, 121.

[9] Discussions of binaries such as mind/body, Enlightenment/Romanticism that Derrida, in his thinking on differance, comes to mind, though little of that may actually be understood beyond that supplied by wikipedia by this author currently; curious that MS Word does not want to recognize the term “wikipedia;” “wiki” seems ok, curiously.

[10] One is grateful, at this point of completing the assignment, of such a nice long name to pad word count and achieve progress towards achieving the mystical yet universally required experience of “page 27.”

[11] One wonders whether Ockham himself was bearded, or simply preferred that everyone else did not, or at least kept thei-rs well-trimmed.

[12] Garcia-Rivera, Community of the Beautiful, 127.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 128.

[15] Josiah Royce, The World and the Individual (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), 311. Cited in Garcia-Rivera, Community of the Beautiful, 131-132.

[16] Ibid.

[17] From Royce’s last Lectures in Metaphysics 1/15 quoted in Oppenheimer, Royce’s Mature Ethics, 153. Cited in G-R, Community, 134.

[18] Josiah Royce, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” in Studies of Good and Evil (New York: D. Appleton, 1898), 90. Cited in G-R, Community, 135.

[19] Garcia-Rivera, Community of the Beautiful, 169.

[20] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 2.

[21] Ibid., 3.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 29.

[26] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 53.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 56.

[29] Ibid., 58.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 59.

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