A Theology of Beauty: A Seminar

Jean-François Millet "The Gleaners" (1857)

Bill Dyrness and I are co-teaching a seminar on beauty this term. It's a privilege and a pleasure to be doing this together. The seminar includes both doctoral and masters students, and our hope is to expose them to the tradition of theological reflection on beauty within Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant communities. It is of course a contested tradition and a contested construal of beauty, so the course should more properly called Theologies rather than Theology of beauty. This makes for lively conversations and the need to tread carefully in this vast, and vastly complicated, territory.

When people talk about beauty, what exactly do they mean? Where do they get their ideas about beauty? In what way is their understanding of beauty native or contested in the tradition which they occupy? What do they hope beauty will achieve? Is the chief concern the relation of beauty to God, beauty to nature, beauty to the arts, beauty to social and cultural life, beauty to the pious/spiritual life? Is the primary interest theological or philosophical or otherwise? How has beauty been conscripted for good or for ill? How has it been used to serve the wellbeing of society or to exclude, abuse and distort particular members of society?

These are some of the questions that we have explored in the seminar. There are plenty more like them. I'm including elements from our syllabus below, in case anybody would like to join us at Fuller to explore these things next time around.


In his address to the Pontifical Academies in 2004, Pope John Paul II suggested the path of beauty “as the best way for the Christian faith and the culture of our time to meet, besides being a valuable instrument for the formation of the young generations.” This seminar will read and analyze theologies of beauty that have been proposed in the various Christian traditions. The approach will be both historical and theological, which is another way of saying that writers on beauty will be considered within their historical context and that theological themes will be analyzed in relation to these historical and cultural contexts. The goal will be to encourage students to find their theological home with respect to beauty and, in these terms, develop a constructive theology of beauty that will engage the contemporary imagination.

Week One: Plato’s “Symposium” http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html, (you can start half way through with Socrates’ speech) and Aristotle’s “Poetics” http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html

Week Two: Natalie Carnes. Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (Cascade: 2014) Recommended: Plotinus “Enneads”; Augustine, Confessions (Book IX “Memory”)

Week Three: Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty (Oakwood, 2012) Recommended: Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (Yale, 1986)

Week Four: Belden Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformation Spirituality (Oxford, 2011) pp. 1-46. Wolterstorff, Nicholas, “Beyond Beauty and the Aesthetic in the Engagement of Religion and Art,” in Theological Aesthetics after Von Balthasar, edited by Oleg V. Bychkov and James Fodor (Canterbury: Aldershot, 2008), pp. 119-34. Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980), ch. 4. Recommended: Dyrness, Poetic Theology, ch. 6 and 7. 

Week Five: Cecilia González-Andrieu, Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty (Baylor, 2012). Recommended: “Letter to Artists” John Paul II; John Milbank et. al Theological Perspectives on Art and Beauty (Trinity, 2003).

Week Six: Hans urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1, “Seeing the Form” (Crossroad, 1983-91): “Introduction: chapters 1-7” (pg. 17-127, in the Ignatius Press edition).

Week Seven: Lauren Winner “The Art Patron” and Barbara Nicolosi, “The Artist,” from David Taylor, For the Beauty of the Church (Baker, 2010) W. David O. Taylor, “Spirit and Beauty: A Reappraisal,” Christian Scholars Review 44.1 (Fall 2014): 45-59. Jeremy Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” in The Beauty of God (IVP Academic: 2007), ch. 2. Recommended: Dyrness, “Aesthetics of Church” Poetic Theology, Ch. 8.

Week Eight: Josef Sorett, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (OUP: 2016). Recommended: Malcolm Guite, Faith Hope and Poetry (Ashgate, 2010); Wolterstorff, Art in Action (or Art Rethought).

Week Nine: Wolterstorff, Ch. 19 “What Happened to Beauty” in Art Rethought (Oxford, 2015). Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw, “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31 (1972): 165-80 (A classic article.) Jerome Stolnitz, “‘Beauty’: Some Stages in the History of an Idea,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22, no. 2 (1961): 185-204. Jeremy Begbie, “Created Beauty,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (IVP Academic: 2007), 19-44 Recommended: Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford, 2009). Donald Kuspit, The Abuse of Beauty (Open Court, 2003). Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (1999).

Week Ten: Michelle Voss Roberts, Taste of the Divine: Hindu and Christian Theologies of Emotion (Fordham, 2014). Great interfaith exploration. Recommended: Dyrness, Senses of Devotion: Interfaith Aesthetics in Buddhist and Muslim Communities (Cascade, 2013).

Raphael "The School of Athens" (1509-1511)


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