Symposium Introduction

You’re likely to know—because and to the extent that you browse recent publications, peruse conference programs, and read with near liturgical repetition the symposia on offer at Syndicate Theology—that theological aesthetics is having something of a moment. You may know, too, that thinking about beauty is a fraught thing; it’s by no means clear, that is, that theology can receive beauty without also underwriting the deep damage it has caused. Might beauty be recovered from its concentration camps and its killing fields? That, at least, names the central speculative question of Natalie Carnes’s Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, whose purpose is to retrieve the grammar and syntax of Nyssen’s account of beauty for theology’s appropriation and use.


Retrievals imply absence. Where have Gregory and beauty been, then? Carnes’s first chapter is a story of origins—of Gregory’s first and beauty’s next, that is, both of whose lives after antiquity Carnes traces through a richly detailed historiography. Balthasar, along with other ressourcement thinkers and their intellectual descendants, receives the laurel for stoking a pyre of contemporary interest in both Nyssen studies and theological aesthetics; and it’s within these flames, Carnes explains, that her work is forged. Next she considers a complex of questions that attend any and every theological aesthetics: what is beauty? which are its kinds? what work does the aesthetic do for the theological? A second chapter applies Gregory’s grammar of the beautiful to the impasses that plague (post)modern aesthetic discourse. Beauty has more to do with fittingness than with function, Carnes thinks Gregory thought, and more with grace’s excess than with disinterest.

But to so construe beauty isn’t to think away the problems that bedevil it. No, problems like beauty’s intimate though curious relation to privilege and affluence, on the one hand, and to ugliness and poverty on the other—these all remain. It’s within these difficulties that Chapter Three threads a Christological aesthetic, woven here with fabric from Gregory’s sermons, his theological treatises, and recent exchanges in ordinary language philosophy. Carnes discerns a kenotic pattern within Gregory’s rhetoric: the God who is wealth becomes for us poor that we might delight in true Beauty, and this by learning to love the poor and ugly beautifully and as beautiful. A fourth chapter on the Spirit’s manifestation of beauty in the world makes plain the trinitarian logic of Beauty. There Carnes confects a Spirit-laced phenomenology of beauty inspired by Macrina and seasoned by philosophical bits from Arthur Danto, Jean-Luc Marion, and Kaja Silverman. Just as the Spirit consummates and adorns the love of the Father and the Son, so too those who suffer Love’s wounds learn to delight in beauties both sublime and bloody. And these wounds transfigured are no different, Carnes concludes in her elegantly wrought epilogue, than the glories that will be ours and Christ’s in saecula saeculorum.

Carnes’s respondents receive Beauty gratefully and variously. William Dyrness worries about whether and if Carnes has taken seriously enough the difficulties attending a retrieval of Gregory or, for that matter, any pre-modern theologian. How ought theologians, postmodern and postcritical as they inevitably are, to despoil the Platonists? Stephanie Gehring wants to know if the account of beauty Carnes learns from Gregory is thick enough to admit of the cross and, assuming so (as she does), how that description might go. Focus on the aesthetics of the cross stimulates Vigen Guroian’s response, too, which sees in Carnes’s work something very like the figure Dostoevsky cuts in The Idiot; Carnes, like both Prince Myshkin and Dostoevsky himself, refuses to remove from view the festering wounds that together discipline and constitute a Christian aesthetic. Sarah Maples thinks the line on doing theology in the shadows set down by Gregory and picked up by Carnes the right one to take; it’s one she thinks illumines the art of shadow-workers like William Congdon and Georges Rouault. That the panel responses severally and collectively disclose a deeply held commitment to beauty’s rehabilitation—the very thing Beauty prescribes—stands witness to the generative character of Carnes’s thought.

I’m tempted to say that the theological world into which Carnes’s Beauty breaks is one that needed it. The blaze of interest in both Gregory of Nyssa and beauty couldn’t, it would sometimes seem, burn any hotter. But that Beauty stands happily at the nexus of that rage doesn’t mean the theological world needed it. Carnes wouldn’t like this language; she’d prefer, I suspect, that her work be evaluated in the aesthetic terms she and Gregory recommend. Beauty, like the Beautiful, is both fitting and gratuitous—fitting because its studied synthesis tightly braids prominent patterns of thought previously unattached; and gratuitous because the intellectual delights its excesses yield are many. All this reflects what Gregory has taught Carnes and in turn, I think, what Carnes wants to teach us. Carnes’s book is an object lesson in how to do theology that’s historically informed and critically clear-eyed. But mostly it’s a lesson in doing theology beautifully.


William Dyrness

Sarah Maple

Vigen Guroian

Stephanie Gehring

About the Author

Natalie Carnes is Assistant Professor of Theology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.



Despoiling the Platonists

NATALIE CARNES HAS WRITTEN a remarkable book. She has carefully and lovingly brought Gregory of Nyssa—and indeed his distinguished family—to life, and succeeded in putting them in conversation with critical discussions of beauty over the last few centuries. In the process she has shown that the impasse created by a modern focus on “use” on the one hand, and on “disinterested contemplation” on the other, has been nicely answered by Gregory’s description of beauty as fittingness and as gratuity. She contrasts Gregory’s ability to discover a deepening of the creature’s beauty in the higher beauty of God, with the modern sense that objects refuse reference either to spirituality or the transcendent.

But rather than making further comments on the richness of Gregory’s thought and the sensitivity of Carnes’ appropriation of this, I want to problematize her easy assumption that Gregory provides wisdom that 21st century persons may appropriate. David Jasper in his blurb praises Carnes for portraying Gregory as a “theologian for our time, at once modern and post-modern”. In an important sense she succeeds admirably in this—more on this below, but in another sense there is something incoherent about the claim that a 4th century theologian speaks a contemporary language. It is this incoherence that I want, briefly, to tease out.

Reading Gregory recalls Peter Brown’s observation in his classic biography of Augustine of Hippo, that in Augustine’s day (which was also Gregory’s) Neo-Platonism was the default world-view—much like, he suggests, a belief in Evolution might be assumed today.1 This truth highlights the remarkable achievement of Gregory in his use and adaptation of the Platonic philosophical tradition. Carnes notes that in the 350s in Athens “Christians and pagans studied rhetoric and philosophy together” (7). As the Roman Empire declined, the religious core of classical culture had died a natural death, but its philosophical heritage survived. As Alan Cameron has argued, “there never was a serous break in the devotion of Christian members of the Eastern elite to Greek grammatical rhetorical, and even philosophical culture.”2 For Gregory this tradition was mediated, Carnes claims, through the Alexandrian Christianity of Origen. Through him Gregory (along with his famous brother Basil), inherited Plato’s negative theology and his apophatic impulses; though large portions of Plato, especially from the Phaedrus, Gregory adopted directly (7).

But Carnes makes clear that Gregory did more than simply copy Plato. Indeed, in the supple hands of Gregory, this heritage provided a carrier that offered fresh insights into the Christian Gospel. As she notes Gregory’s understanding of God—for “beauty names God” she reminds us—took his reflections on beauty to places that Plato could not go. She argues “Gregory’s doctrine of God opened up possibilities for beauty unavailable to someone with otherwise similar philosophical commitments about beauty” (44). Similarly where Plato had no place for fleshly mortal women in the rise to beauty, Gregory can foreground the bodily beauty of his sister Macrina rhetorically represented as an opening to the beauty of God. Here, Carnes notes, “the narrative of Gregory’s stories does not proceed as a Platonic narrative should” (67).

There is a large school of thought that would claim this appropriation of Platonism by Christianity was disastrous for that tradition, bequeathing tensions that still trouble the Christian soul.3 As a Reformed theologian I am sympathetic with this complaint. But I also recognize the problem with this common lament: Fourth century Asia minor was not like my setting in 21st century California, where one has multiple philosophical options to choose from, so that a more biblically attuned thinker might have chosen a more appropriate framework. As Peter Brown reminds us, Neo-Platonism was the primary option on offer. I think in fact one might make almost the opposite claim: Gregory and his contemporaries, in their rewriting of Plato (and Plotinus), actually saved Plato for Christianity—much like Dante would do with Virgil a thousand years later. That is to say these 4th c. Fathers and Mothers interpreted Plato in a form that was not only consistent with the revelation of Christ, but one that would become enormously fruitful for the subsequent development of Christian culture. One cannot imagine the flowering of monastic spirituality, or of the medieval mystics apart from the Christian Platonism of Gregory—as Carnes generous use of Denys Turner makes clear. One might even claim that the current re-appropriation of these medieval traditions would be unthinkable apart from the philosophical resources that Gregory has mobilized and that Carnes has brought to light.

Of course every cultural and philosophical framework, even as it shapes and perhaps even enhances aspects of God’s creative and re-creative story, necessarily suppresses other parts. Surely Carnes knows this, but at times I wondered if the deep attachment she feels for Gregory inhibited her from pointing this out. One of the special strengths of Carnes treatment of Gregory is to show the reader how a neo-platonic spirituality in his hands actually enhances the importance of the body and heightens the role of senses—in a way that Plato himself was unable to do. Making use of Susan Harvey, Carnes shows how the focus on touch and smell is a direct result of the reality of incarnation and creation as God’s good gifts, something that was further developed in his rich view of the Eucharist. Carnes writes: “It seems that the body can participate in God in a way that the mind qua rationality cannot” (p. 233). Precisely. But reading this claim sparked for me the following question: what does this imply about the limits of Plato’s view of the world? What she might have pointed out is the way these same gifts—of touch, and taste, provided an opening by which the Platonic framework itself would eventually be undermined. Augustine gives some indication of this in the role that creation plays in his City of God; but it would take the recovery of Aristotle’s logic by Thomas Aquinas to further overhaul the philosophical framework that Christianity would thenceforth appropriate. Indeed it was this empirical turn that would open the way, in subsequent centuries, for the understanding of creation as one of the two books of God, something the Platonic tradition could not have imagined. Though Aristotle played no role in Gregory’s theology, and is mentioned only incidentally by Carnes, surely his focus on embodied virtue would have expanded Gregory’s notion of spiritual discipline.

In short one looks in vain in Carnes’ moving explication of Gregory for any critical appraisal of his Platonic framework. She does actually cite the critique of Kaja Silverman at one point. Silverman notes that the problem with the Logos (and Platonism) is not that it fails to name kinships and analogies, but that the analogies it identifies subordinates “our world” to “a higher one” thereby generating “hierarchical and nonreciprocal relationships” (193).4 But Carnes passes over this critique without comment. Toward the end of the book Carnes notices that Gregory’s later work builds on the dichotomy between the physical and spiritual and its trajectory of limited and limitless, but there is no mention of ways that this dichotomy, so persistent in subsequent Christian thinking, has hampered integration of the perceptual and the intelligible. Rather than a hierarchical dependence of the body on God—in which human activity exists only in and by divine activity (see p. 109), what if we saw creation as having its own space and time given by God, but not continuous with his own reality?

This is where the application of Gregory to our contemporary conversation falters. For we, in the West, live in a world indelibly marked by the Enlightenment and Romanticism. We are now, as Charles Taylor notes, buffered selves living in an immanent frame; we cannot go back to the world of porous selves that is evoked in Gregory. The notions of use and disinterested contemplation are not simply the result of new institutional arrangements in the art world; rather those arrangements themselves reflect deep-seated changes in the way we relate to the world, changes that are, in part, a reflection of Judeo-Christian views of the person and creation that animated Gregory. This means that we necessarily are working with different metaphysical assumptions. In a recent reflection in the Christian Century, Amy Frykholm wonders whether the ancient patterns of faith and practice (like those of Gregory, though she does not reference him) can be authentically indwelt today. She muses: “I could pretend there was no such thing as the Enlightenment, try to reach back behind it and believe as my spiritual ancestors did, but that seems like an exercise in nostalgia.”5 Such an exercise in nostalgia risks accessing only an imagined Christianity.

For others who do not live in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the risks are, if anything, even greater. One of the great failures of the western missionary movement, at least in Asia, was to assume an unbreakable connection between Christianity and the Greco-Roman form of its intellectual heritage. As a result, Aloysius Pieris argues, the Christian mission has for most people meant a disembodiment. The missionary movement in India, Pieris claims, never succeeded in breaking the Greco-Roman pot in which Christianity arrived.6 Not only has this meant that Christianity remained a foreign import, but the potential gifts of that Indian heritage have not been pressed into service in expanding our corporate vision of the renewing work of Christ.

Still it would be unfair to leave matters here. Natalie Carnes is to be thanked for daring to open a conversation with the modern secularization of beauty, and she uncovers resources that conversation desperately needs. And here Carnes joins a chorus of other contemporary voices busy with a retrieval of this philosophical tradition.7 What accounts for the contemporary attraction of this ancient tradition? While this is not the place, and this writer is not the person, to address all the complexities involved in this question, I would propose one central reason. To replace Plato with Darwin—procession with evolution, if we follow Peter Brown’s suggestion, is clearly to reduce the scope of human imagining. It is to focus on the what and how, while obstructing, even refusing, the why, and, in the process, eliminating the mystery and wonder that Gregory’s framework sparked. As a metaphor the higher life still attracts us. It is always true that humans want to move beyond the ordinary in their lives, to grow and, yes, to rise to other levels of insight. Ladders and upward paths are everywhere in contemporary culture from the art of Juan Miró or M. C. Escher to the internet games like Temple Run that our children play. The question these pose is whether there is anything that can lift us, any ladder we can climb, anything that is worth living and perhaps even dying for. Gregory’s writings portray a God into whose life of beauty we can be drawn and where we can flourish. As he writes in his commentary on the Song of Solomon:

This explains why the Word who raises up the fallen, calls out through the windows of the church and says “rise up!”…She [who hears this command] is empowered by the Word. She rises up. She moves forward. She is brought close. She becomes a beauty.8

Gregory convinces us that our life, as Augustine put it, is a journey of the affections, that is meant to lead us to our true homeland who is God; that life, as Dante claimed, is not a race to death but a pilgrimage to God. This of course is the message of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, not of Plato or the Greek heritage, but in Gregory’s hands, that heritage added a splendor which still attracts the hardest secular thinker on beauty, even if the attraction is one of metaphor rather than metaphysics. For the latter, I would argue, we need to look to other guides and other traditions for help. And these we dare not overlook. For, just as Gregory found in 4th century Neo-Platonism, these can provide carriers that will expand our Christian imagination.

  1. Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). P. 98. Cf. The Neo-Platonic doctrine of ‘procession’ outwards and ‘turning’ inwards…”is as basic to the thought of the age of Augustine as is the idea of Evolution to our own age.”

  2. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 7.

  3. One example chosen almost at random is Colin Gunton’s last book Act and Being: Towards a Theology of Divine Attributes (Eerdmans, 2002).

  4. Beauty, p. 193. She is referencing Silverman’s Flesh of my Flesh (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 1. Interestingly Silverman makes this same critique of Christianity, but surely that is the Platonic tinged Christianity of Gregory.

  5. “My struggles with the Creed: Believe it or not”, Christian Century, February 4, 2015, p. 27.

  6. Pieris, A Liberation Theology for Asia (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988). ), Pp. 52, 53.

  7. One only need mention the widespread appeal of the patristic voices, first brought to light by the Ressourcement movement in the Catholic Church of the last century, and more recently by adherents of the New Monasticism, and theologians of Radical Orthodoxy, among others.

  8. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, 161, 163 in Carnes, Beauty, p. 238.

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    On Loving Plato and (yet!) Loving the Body


    One of the wonderful things about writing a book is that it draws you into conversations you would not otherwise have had. I am grateful to the reviewers for these conversations, by which I have clarified and extended my thought. I hope others find these discussions similarly fruitful.

    What is striking about the four essays as a group is that they model two different ways of engaging a work: the critical assessment and the conversational extension. William Dyrness and Stephanie Gehring follow the former, as Dyrness raises worries about Gregory’s Platonism and Gehring presses a question about the beauty of the cross. Their critical-appreciative appraisals invite conversation about the theological and philosophical commitments of Beauty. Are they defensible, compelling, and generative? Can they do the work they propose to do? In the first two replies, I lay out my case for affirming they are and they can.

    Vigen Guroian and Sarah Maple follow the second model. Guroian engages Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot to extend the conversation about beauty’s intimacy with ugliness, and Maple’s précis of Beauty draws comparisons with visual artist William Congdon. Maple and Guroian thus exemplify an importantly different form of response—one no less challenging in its own way. Any theology of beauty worth its salt should hold up in conversation with particular arts and artists. Guroian and Maple test Beauty to see if the theology it proposes is up to the task. In what follows, I offer what I hope is a persuasive case that it is. I begin this conversation with Dyrness before moving on to Gehring, Guroian, and Maple.

    A Reply to Dyrness: On Loving Plato and (yet!) Loving the Body

    William Dyrness worries about claiming a “4th century theologian” can “[speak] a contemporary language.” He does not mean by this—how could he?—that contemporary theologians ought to refrain from drawing ancient ones into current conversations. That move would mystify the entire vocation of a theologian, who must assume that texts from far-off times and places (not least Scripture) can nevertheless speak into the present. In a sympathetic moment, Dyrness himself even affirms that Gregory and his theological ilk “actually saved Plato for Christianity” and cultivated an “enormously fruitful” line of thought and culture that continued flowering years after Nyssen’s own time. Dyrness’s concern, then, is not to push out the long dead from modern theologizing. His concern is that I do not mark enough distance from them. And still more specifically: that I do not mark enough distance from Gregory’s Platonism.

    I do not agree with the pervasive attitude that Plato is the Great Bogeyman of theology, nor am I persuaded by the caricature of him as unequivocally anti-body, anti-poetry, and anti-divine immanence. He is too plural and interesting a writer to support such flat polarities.1. (And perhaps this is part of the problem, especially in theology: Plato is not read as a writer but as a thinker whose ideas can be yanked out of the richly rhetorical, storied texts in which they occur. We get the only Plato our reading strategies can encounter.) But I want to set that argument aside in order to focus on another, more general one—namely, the notion that theologians are polluted by the sins of the philosophies they engage.

    Reading Dyrness’s critique, I am struck both by how sensitively he attends to my descriptions of Gregory’s own transformation of Plato and yet how insistently (and vaguely!) he maintains that Plato is a problem. Dyrness’s deepest anxiety about Plato seems to be that his philosophy is anti-body, yet he levels that critique even while noting my use of Gregory succeeds in showing the opposite: “One of the special strengths of Carnes’s treatment of Gregory is to show the reader how a neo-platonic spirituality in his hands actually enhances the importance of the body and heightens the role of senses—in a way that Plato himself was unable to do.” I’m going to have to risk being pedantic here. How, then, and in what way, exactly, is the body a problem for my recovery of Gregory? Where is the theology of beauty anti-body?

    There is a more concrete way to articulate a concern about residual, anti-body Platonism in Gregory’s theology. Hans Boersma has, in fact, articulated just such a critique in his review of Beauty for Modern Theology, where he describes what he sees as my under-appreciation of Gregory’s duality of physical and spiritual senses, a duality consummately expressed in the angelic, eschatological body.2 Both Boersma and Dyrness raise the specter of anti-embodiment they interpret as haunting the book, but they do so in slightly different ways. First, Boersma locates reserve about the body more specifically than Dyrness: in the eschatological body. (No surprise here. Boersma himself recently wrote a book on this very subject.) Second, whereas Boersma worries about Gregory’s discomfort with the body, Dyrness worries about Plato’s.

    One could, of course, understand Dyrness and Boersma as circling towards the same point. But I point out the different rhetorical forms of their arguments in order to bring us to what I take to be a central issue: how theologians engage their interlocutors. The truth is, I think there is textual evidence in Gregory’s corpus both for a robust affirmation of the body and for more reserve about the body—as I think there is both affirmation and renunciation in Plato’s attitude toward the body (though the two attitudes are differently balanced here). Gregory is a theologian with multiple, tangled strands of thought. In pulling some of these strands into contemporary theological conversation, my aim is not to offer a precise map of their entanglement in Gregory; it is to tug on those that can help weave the truest and loveliest theological tapestry.

    Let me illustrate my difference here from Dyrness. Dyrness writes that Gregory’s affirmation of the physical senses “provided an opening by which the Platonic framework itself would eventually be undermined.” Undermined is a striking image. It suggests a loss of integrity, a lack of sustainability. Rather than the image of undermining, I find it more helpful to think in terms of breaking open. I want to say Gregory does not undermine Platonic thought, so much as break it open to Christianity. That is, Gregory does not vitiate the integrity of Platonic thought; he identifies a new center that generates new criteria of integrity. For example, in resituating the definitive difference as not body and spirit or sensible and intellectual but God and not-God, Creator and creation, Gregory is re-fashioning Plato’s terms to open them up to a God radically and non-contrastively transcendent with the world. This method of breaking open philosophies so that they can illumine theological truths involves the hard work of pushing on, pulling apart, and turning over philosophical terms and concepts—terms like prosopon, hypostasis, and ousia—until they can do work for Christianity.3

    This way of proceeding theologically by re-forming a philosophical system from within—by opening it toward the God whom, however distortedly, the philosophy occasionally evokes—is one that mirrors God’s Incarnational reform of the human. Gregory opened up Plato’s philosophical world to speak of the Triune God as God broke open the self-enclosed humanity to image (and draw near) the divine. Dyrness’s phrase that Gregory “saves” Plato is an apt one.

    And one might say that in Beauty, I am trying to extend Gregory’s work of pushing, pulling, and re-working concepts to illumine theological truths. Dryness mentions Augustine several times in his response. One way to articulate what I am trying to do is work in the spirit of Gregory the way many other constructive theologians work in the spirit of Augustine, by interpreting his best insights for a new age. This is exactly the type of work commended by Charles Taylor, whom Dyrness marshals in his argument against exercises in “nostalgia.” (Is he claiming that Beauty is such an exercise? I am not clear.) In the last chapter of A Secular Age, Taylor points to “new itineraries” beyond purely buffered lives.4 One example he offers is Charles Péguy, about whom Taylor writes, “Creative renewal was only possible in action which by its very nature had to have a certain temporal depth. This kind of action had to draw on the forms which had been shaped in a deeper past, but not by a simple mechanical reproduction…rather by a creative re-application of the spirit of the tradition.”5 Retrieving past resources to go forward is not an exercise in nostalgia, for Taylor. It is a way of finding new paths.

    In this spirit of creative re-application, one need to be a Platonist to affirm the Nyssenian conception of beauty I advance any more than one needs to be a Platonist to affirm the ancient creeds or to affirm any number of the projects of the contemporary political Augustinians. I think it’s possible to be an aesthetic Nyssenian without adopting a Platonic metaphysics.

    But the way Dyrness expresses his anxiety makes me wonder if we have different understandings about what I am trying to do in Beauty, understandings which may speak to deeper differences about how we approach theological work. Dyrness’s essay seems haunted by a gnawing concern that there is a better philosophical system out of which to construct a theological home than Plato. He notes, for example, that we in modernity have many more philosophical options than Gregory did—options beyond Platonism.6 I think he wants to suggest Aristotle might be one such better interlocutor. I cannot answer such general anxiety. Perhaps there is a better a better system. I did not intend to write the definitive account of beauty that would make all writing about beauty cease. On the contrary, I hoped to aid in proliferating theological accounts of beauty, which rework terms and concepts from many different philosophies. This is what I see as the work of the theologian: breaking open philosophies to help illumine theological truths—and continuing to reinterpret that work for each new age. No doubt Aristotle has much to contribute to our understanding of beauty. I hope someone will one day write that book. As far as I’m concerned, we need all the compelling accounts of beauty we can get.

    1. In fact, Dyrness is not right that it is the “empirical turn” that “opens the way…for the understanding of creation as one of the two books of God, something the Platonic tradition could not have imagined.” The two-book theology arises internal to the Platonic tradition and well before the high medieval recovery of Aristotle. In his careful history of this theology, Peter Harrison argues that it is “the Platonists of the Alexandrian school” (especially Origen) who provide “interpretive strategies” that “lay at the foundation of the medieval ‘symbolist mentality’ of the middle ages, and was the sine qua non of the medieval image of the ‘book of nature.’” Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 15.

    2. A deeper discussion with Boersma would require, first, parsing more precisely what “eschatological” means and, second, evaluating what the fleshly body’s becoming a spiritual body means for the flesh. On the first, “eschatological” is a slippery category; there are different ways we can talk about an eschatological body. The spiritual body we are capable of becoming before the final things is not the same as the spiritual body we shall become after the general resurrection of the dead. As a spiritual body before these final things, the resurrected Jesus famously did eat. On the second, if we take as a guiding principle of Gregory’s eschatology his commitment to God being all in all, then even the flesh that melts into spirit can play a redemptive role—become, in Gregory’s words, a once-danger that is now a friend.

    3. I am suggesting something akin to the plunder-the-Egyptians approach. As Augustine once said, “[I]f those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use.” Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, II, chapter 40, section 60.

    4. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 745.

    5. Taylor, A Secular Age, 747.

    6. One might diagnose Dyrness’s anxiety as an expression of wanting and expecting more from philosophy than I do.

    • Avatar

      William Dyrness


      Further Response to Natalie Carnes

      Further Response to Natalie Carnes.

      My response to Carnes work was not intended to be a critique of her work, as she implied, so much as an extended reflection sparked by her fine work. I think I made clear my appreciation for both Gregory’s reinterpretation of Plato and Carnes’ sensitive description of this. My concern was to imagine how this might be put into conversation with our own very different cultural and philosophical situation.

      Nor were these reflections intended, again as she seems to think, a wholesale attack on Plato and his heritage. I also made clear in my initial response that I do not think that that philosopher is responsible for all subsequent deviations in Christian theology, though I confess to believing he has sparked a few. The fact that this long and rich tradition is still available to us is due in no small part to patristic theologians like Gregory and their medieval (and modern) heirs. But, I wanted to ask, how does Gregory speak to our very different context? How does he illumine this, and how might our assumptions interrogate, or throw fresh light on that heritage?

      Carnes is certainly not insensitive to the questions I am raising. Her first chapter offers a helpful summary of developments in aesthetics over the last 200 years, concluding with references to Balthasar, Maritain and Hart. She notes that her book is intended to build on their work to show that “Gregory of Nyssa can speak to beauty in modernity.” I’m sure that she is right about this. Much that she writes about Gregory helps me imagine how this might be so, and near the end she makes a compelling contrast between Gregory’s theoria that opens one up to the reality contemplated and Arthur Danto’s notion, which divides the intelligible from the material, reducing sight to the material. That clearly suggests the connection—Gregory and modernity—that interests me. I would press that point in two directions. One what assumptions about the world and its future funds Danto’s dichotomies? Two, how might it be possible for God’s purposes for a new creation centered in Christ rewrite that narrative? It is unfair to suggest she should have pursued these questions further; no book can accomplish everything. These are my questions; there is no reason why they should be hers. Meanwhile I continue to be immensely grateful for what she has done, and this fine book will be on the reading list for my theology of beauty seminar.

      March 14, 2016

    • Natalie Carnes

      Natalie Carnes


      Gregory in Modern Arts and Modernism

      Thank you for your follow-up comment, William (if I may? I hope you and Taylor will call me Natalie). I certainly don’t want take as a provocation to defensiveness what you intended as an invitation to further reflection. Forgive me if I have been churlish in interpreting your response.

      You ask for further reflection on how Gregory speaks to beauty in modernity. This is what I broadly attempt in _Beauty_. But I take by your example of Arthur Danto that you want more engagement with the arts in modernity. And it is quite true that I do not treat any modern artists (except literary ones). You may be happy to know that both Vigen Guroian and Sarah Maple have initiated further engagements with artists, so those will be forthcoming over the next few days.

      And perhaps you wondered not just how Gregory’s beauty might speak to modern art but also how it might speak to modernism. If this is your concern, I must say, it is lately one of mine as well. Shortly a symposium will be posted to Stanford’s Arcade Republic of Letters ( in which both Robert Pippin and I interpret sections from J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. I wrote about a Gregory’s vision of beauty and images can help interpret one of the stories in Costello. Pippin wrote about Coetzee’s play with Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s Lord Chandos letter, a signal piece of modernism. Reflecting on Gregory, Pippin, Coetzee, and Hoffmansthal together made me think about how Gregory might help us interpret modernism’s expressions of disappointment with the world and estrangement from the divine. I think my modern Gregory would insist that the gods modernism expresses estrangement from—the beautiful, immortal gods—are much diminished divines. He would think it salutary to give them up. Inasmuch as we ever thought they could satiate our appetite for the divine, our desires have been too weak. For the God Gregory loved was transcendent enough to be present in the ugly, suffering, disappointing crevices of our world. There is a way in which the atheism of much modernism resonates with the high theology of Gregory. This all would need to be fleshed out much more to be very persuasive, I imagine, but I wanted to respond to your kind invitation to reflect more on Gregory’s beauty in modernity. I do think there is interesting work to be done on how one with Gregory’s commitments could bear modernism’s lament into the world, in a more theological key.



Beautiful Sacrifice

“There is no moral authority like that of sacrifice.”
—Nadine Gordimer, Tanner Lectures, 19841

NATALIE CARNES TAKES ON an ambitious project in her first book: to recover beauty as a useful term for theology and philosophy, while taking seriously the critiques that have been leveled against it as a tool of oppression, a bourgeois construct, and an irredeemably vague term. Her central allies in this task are the theologian Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory’s sister Macrina, who was his teacher and mentor, but is known to us today only through his writings. The fact that Gregory is a fourth-century theologian is on the one hand a challenge, because his thought is not set in terms that correspond with recent debates about beauty. His distance from the twenty-first century, however, is also an opportunity: beauty’s story in philosophy and theology has been going on now for many centuries, and knowing the arc of that story puts our current positions in context. It reminds us that, for example, the condescending silence on beauty in much of the academy and the art establishment is brand new, historically speaking.

Carnes moves from her genealogies of beauty and of Gregory to an expansion of what she means by “fittingness” and “gratuity” as the markers of beauty. Here, she aims to do for beauty what Nicholas Wolterstorff “has done for the arts in disentangling them from disinterestedness [in Art in Action and in the essay he contributed to Theological Aesthetics After van Balthasar]” (58). Fittingness replaces functionality in her account of beauty, which leaves beauty flexible to pursue many different aims (a spoon used for eating can now be beautiful as well as a painting that hangs in a museum). Gratuity replaces disinterestedness, and one of the benefits is that gratuity leaves space for the perceiver and the perceiver’s desire, without turning beauty into a term of merely subjective approbation. To be beautiful, a thing must both be strikingly fitted to its aim, and it must be extravagant, given, gratuitous. Fittingness and gratuity are also consonant with the relational and feminist account of beauty Wendy Steiner proposes­ in Venus in Exile, though Carnes only briefly mentions that book.

From fittingness and gratuity, Carnes moves more deeply into Gregory’s theology of beauty and suffering, drawing on homilies in which, among other things, Gregory preaches (during a famine) on the importance of seeing the beauty of Christ’s face in the starving poor, and of responding with action and care. The Beauty Gregory proposes as one of the Names of God is neither classical beauty, nor certainly bourgeois beauty, nor the subjective liking sometimes meant by the word “beauty” today. Christ displays God’s glory by taking up need and suffering in an act of charity: this is what is beautiful. Carnes points out that this is both like and unlike Plato’s account of Love as the child of Need and Resource (160-61). A beauty characterized by fittingness and gratuity is promiscuous, in that it is open to any aim (including Nazi racial-purity aims), which is why Gregory’s theology is so important to Carnes: a beauty whose fittingness and gratuity are aimed at a movement of identification and care for material and spiritual poverty is no longer usable as a tool for bourgeois oppression.

If beauty is often hidden and shines out in unexpected places, how do we learn to see it? And is training into such beauty something available only to the privileged? This is the question Carnes pursues in her last chapter. She opposes Gregory’s (and Macrina’s) positions on beauty to Arthur Danto’s view of art as pure surface, and allies Gregory and Macrina with Jean-Luc Marion and Kaja Silverman as they attempt to develop accounts of selfhood based on love. In order to understand what Gregory means when he says that Beauty is a Name for God, we must train our spiritual senses “through attentive love to the neighbor and the afflicted and through the liturgy of the church” (xiv). If we want to see what Gregory calls Beauty, we must learn “to follow God,” which is “to imitate God’s love” (165).

It is a relief (to anyone who finds beauty powerful as a concept and a reality) to see its history so precisely, sympathetically, and yet unsentimentally traced out, and to see its critics met with such seriousness and grace. The discussion about beauty can be a philosophical and ethical morass, in which it is easy to lose track, not only of how to say what one means, but of what one means in the first place. This book is sensitive to the horrifying ways in which beauty has been misused (“beauty has a history that calls for sackcloth and ashes” (xii)), and it is articulate in developing, if not a definition, then categories for beauty (fittingness and gratuity). Most difficult of all, it provides an argument for how fittingness and gratuity can both describe a position like Gregory of Nyssa’s, in which beauty is one of the names for God, and describe the ways in which beauty can be used as part of the rhetoric that motivates genocide. I will be referring people to this book’s lucid, compellingly written accounts of beauty and of Gregory.

In pressing Carnes further, I want to go all the way to the end of her book, to the first page of the epilogue, where she returns to a key question in the theology of beauty: in what sense may we, as Christians, rightly call the Cross beautiful? “The Cross,” Carnes writes, “is beautiful for Coetzee’s Joseph [in his novel Elizabeth Costello] and the apostle John because it testifies to the unyieldingly creative depths of a Love that will not be thwarted by death, torture, malice, envy, indifference, or fear. That is, the Cross is beautiful because Jesus rose from the dead” (251). She is arguing here that the cross is ugly to the disciple John, and to Mary the mother of Jesus, who are seeing it in the moment of its full horror as brutal torture and defeat; while to the apostle John, who sees it with hindsight, from beyond the Resurrection, it is more fully visible, and its beauty is recognizable. The horror of Jesus’ torture and death is undeniable, and would have been devastatingly present to those who watched it and loved him. But I do not want to locate Christ’s victory exclusively in the Resurrection, or to exclude the possibility that onlookers like John the disciple, or Mary Jesus’ mother, might even on Good Friday have recognized an overpowering beauty at work in the midst of the horror. One way we might describe this beauty is as the beauty of willing sacrifice.

To come at what I mean from a slightly different angle: where in Carnes’ account is there room for the centurion who stands at the Cross (on Good Friday, without any formation by the church) and says “Surely this was the Son of God”? In Matthew, this comes in response to an earthquake, but in Mark it is a response to “the way [Jesus] breathed his last” (15:39). This is not a rhetorical question; I think there is room, but I want to find out where. How does such spontaneous perception relate to Gregory’s account of human formation to become beauty-perceivers? It seems compatible with his anthropology, in which the Holy Spirit is the one who trains us and enables us to see. This usually happens through the church, but there could be exceptional cases like the centurion’s without damaging Gregory’s general argument.

In claiming that the beauty of the Cross is visible only from beyond the Resurrection, with hindsight and Christian formation, Carnes makes the perception of the beauty of the Cross an ending point, a place of arrival. Seeing the beauty of the cross is a place of arrival, in the sense that we see that beauty more and more deeply as we are remade in God’s image. And certainly Elizabeth Costello’s response of revulsion and horror at the Cross is real, and common, and makes sense. The Cross is horrifying. If we miss its horror we have not seen it. And yet—don’t we also want to say that even before the Resurrection, there is beauty in the willingness and freedom of Christ’s sacrifice? And don’t we want to make space for a recognition of the beauty of that sacrifice as a possible beginning point into Christian community and formation, in addition to being an ending point?

Nadine Gordimer, David Bentley Hart, and Simone Weil all help me think about the beauty of the Cross as a beginning point for Christian seeing. In 1984, Gordimer, speaking of writers and their choices to get (or not to get) involved in South African politics in ways that risked comfort and freedom and safety, wrote that “there is no moral authority like that of sacrifice.” Christ’s willing descent into suffering and death is a sacrifice with absolute moral authority.

Carnes draws on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, in which he argues that in order to be good news, the gospel must be peacefully persuasive, and that therefore, it depends upon beauty as a nonviolently persuasive form of rhetoric. If we put this together with Gordimer’s statement about the moral authority of sacrifice, we get the beauty of the Cross as an at least potentially recognizable beginning point in the persuasion of the gospel.

Simone Weil is a concrete historical example of someone to whom Christ’s unforced descent into suffering is beautiful even without reference to the Resurrection. In the notebook entries selected and collected after her death into Gravity and Grace, the title section describes the spiritual equivalent of physical gravity: the force which continually pulls us down, whatever we may intend, and from which we cannot escape no mater how great a moral effort we make. The only force in the universe that is capable of going against gravity is grace. And what marks grace for Weil is not, at first, that it moves up where gravity moves down. Rather, it is that it moves down willingly where gravity moves down under compulsion. It is Christ’s willing descent, a coming down without being forced to, that is the greatest victory for Weil, and that breaks gravity from within. And it is this willing descent that she finds more beautiful than anything else in the world. I think that Weil’s view is harmonious with the account Carnes gives of wounded and yet triumphant beauty. Is it?

  1. Nadine Gordimer, “The Essential Gesture: Writers and Responsibility,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of Michigan, October 12, 1984.

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    The Foreshadow of the Cross

    Stephanie Gehring’s essay builds toward a profoundly important question for theological aesthetics: Can a sacrifice be beautiful? Gehring points to a constellation of luminaries—Nadine Gordimer, David Bentley Hart, and Simone Weil—to suggest that it can. She does so to push gently against my claim in the epilogue that the cross absent resurrection is nothing but ugly. Does this claim betray my own insistence on the intimacy of beauty and ugliness? Or as Gehring asks: “[D]on’t we also want to say that even before the Resurrection, there is beauty in the willingness and freedom of Christ’s sacrifice?”

    I am grateful to Gehring for this question, for it gives me the opportunity to nuance my words in the epilogue. In short, yes; I do want to affirm that the cross is beautiful “before” the resurrection. Temporality is not the category I want to invoke in contrasting cross and resurrection, as if the cross’s beauty emerges in a strictly chronological pattern: first ugly cross, then resurrection, then beautiful cross. I want to say, rather, that to the extent the cross is beautiful, it is beautiful as an image of the resurrection.

    I mean by this claim that the cross is beautiful as an image of the love that will not be thwarted by violence. Put under the pressure of torture, exposure, and death, Christ is yet undetermined by them. His love retains its character of love, even unto death, without mimicking violence or absorbing fear. The cross is an image of love that travels all the way through death.

    I take it this is what the doctrine of divine impassibility affirms: that God is love, always love. God’s love is not diminished by any of the forces that would act upon it because divine love answers only its own internal necessity as love. This is the Love who submits to violence without becoming violent in return. Suffering violence rather than employing it, divine love is present in worldly weakness rather than worldly strength. And to the extent that the cross presents a love that retains its character of love even under pressure of extreme violence, I want to claim it as an image of resurrection. It is an image of love that will not be thwarted by death. On the cross, Love remains alive in a way that even death cannot destroy. In this way, cross foreshadows resurrection.

    I think Gehring intuits this way that cross images resurrection when she describes the cross as beautiful because it is free, unforced, nonviolent. Certainly her interlocutors intuit this connection, and Weil’s way of putting it is characteristically lovely: Grace is the undoing of gravity, not because it forces upward in contrast to gravity’s downward thrust, but because it is willing descent. Grace is free and undetermined by any other force, even in the most violent circumstances. The unforced descent is already an image of unbroken love, even when the body is broken.

    Theologically, the claim that the cross images the resurrection should not be too surprising. After all, both are taken up into the eternal life of God. Understanding the cross-resurrection relation, then, primarily through created temporality is not quite right. The same eternal God who dies is the same eternal God who rises, and both the death and the resurrection truly reveal that God to us. In a similar way, both Christ’s cross and resurrection each image the general resurrection from the dead, in which death will ultimately be defeated by the love that does not cease nor change. Cross and resurrection foreshadow the triumph of love by showing that the worst sin cannot destroy it.

    So, the cross is beautiful because it foreshadows both the beauty of Christ’s resurrection and the day when love will be all in all. Cross beauty is indexed to resurrection beauty. But what if there had been no resurrection? What could we say of the beauty of the cross then?

    If Christ did not rise from the dead, then we above all are to be pitied. For if we crucified Love Itself, and Love did not rise again out of death, then it is not Love who holds all creation in existence. Love is not the grain of the universe; chance or chaos or death is. That Love would submit to violence rather than become violent speaks not to the day when love might be all in all but to false hope. Loving submission to violence becomes a way to swindle people out of life, to teach them that their lives are not worth fighting for. It is this picture of the cross, I imagine, that energizes so much atheist and agnostic critique of Christianity.

    The other option is only slightly less dispiriting: That perhaps the problem is not that Love failed to conquer death but that the one who died is not Love itself. Perhaps Christ is not the divine Love who sustains the universe. And in that case, the beauty of the cross can be salvaged only by hoping for Love that will come, will retain its character as love even unto death, and death will be defeated by it. In other words, the cross can be beautiful only in the way other sacrifices are beautiful, with the hope of some other vindication of Love, some other eschatological undoing of violence.1

    Sacrifice can be beautiful, in other words, precisely because it follows Christ’s sacrifice in imaging the resurrection defeat of death by love. A sacrifice is beautiful because it discloses the freedom of love even in conditions of unfreedom. But if we knew such freedom to be a lie—that Love had ultimately lost the contest of the Cross, then sacrifice would seem to participate in the necrophilia that many see as the character of Christianity. I think, for example, of Ta-Nehisi Coates shrinking from the movies of nonviolent civil rights activists, who “seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists who bombed them… The world, the real one, was civilization secured and ruled by savage means.”2 In such a world, Coates is drawn less to the movies of civil rights activists suffering nonviolently for justice than to Malcolm X’s eye-for-an-eye approach because the latter, at least, affirms the sanctity of the black body.

    In sum, if the cross does not deliver the resurrection it seems to foretell, then Christ’s love is just a singular event, an anomaly in a chaotic universe, and it is all the more horrifying that humanity destroyed such love. At best we are still hoping for a savior.

    But my attempt to communicate this way that cross beauty is indexed to resurrection beauty in the epilogue misleads in part because I invoked John and Mary—who of all people could see resurrection when they saw the cross that Friday. Perhaps a better example of transformation would have been Peter, or any of the other disciples who fled. John and Mary, even in their grief, stayed with the one they loved. They are those most likely to have seen the cross as an image of resurrection.

    The other person likely to have seen an image of the resurrection in the cross is the centurion. Gehring wants to know what Gregory’s account of theological transformation could say about such “spontaneous perception” as the centurion’s. It is an important question because it is not entirely anomalous: His sudden conversion is echoed later in the apostle Paul’s miraculous sighting of the resurrected Christ. What can I say except to invoke the old ecclesial maxim that we are bound to the sacraments but God is not? God can work gradually or suddenly in a person’s life, giving her eyes to see in a miraculous moment or through a miraculous process of transformation.

    As for what exactly the centurion, John and Mary saw that day, I cannot say. But their faithfulness to Christ as he was dying suggests that they, like Job, could look into the deep violence and cruelty of the universe while continuing to say, “I know that my redeemer lives.” More than any of the others, John, Mary, and the centurion must have had eyes to see the foreshadow of the resurrection cast by the cross, even on that dark day of the crucifixion.

    1. Without it, we have a tragic world. To return to the theme of Platonism from the conversation with Dyrness: Plato is often accused of cultivating indifference to the body, but he himself never stops turning over the scene where Socrates’s body was destroyed.

    2. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 32.

    • Avatar

      Stephanie Gehring


      Is Violence Bad?

      Your point about time is very well-taken — of course, when the Cross and the Resurrection and everything Christ did are part of the things of God, it makes no sense at all to think of them in terms of created temporality.  And if chronology doesn’t separate the Cross and Resurrection, then it begins to make much less sense to speak of them as separate at all. Your application of impassibility to Christ’s suffering is compelling, too: that God is impassible in Christ in the sense that none of this horror changes God’s nature as love, at all. (I haven’t heard that version before. Is that because I haven’t read enough early church material? Is it all there in Irenaeus?)

      And the old church maxim about God working outside of sacraments — yes, again. That feels to me like the only reasonable response to the centurion, which affirms our own bound-ness by sacraments and catechesis, but affirms God’s being bound only by Godself.

      What I find myself chewing on most in your response, though, is the connection you make between nonviolence and necrophilia. This idea was in your book too, but Coates’ description of the nonviolent civil rights protesters brings it home so starkly that I am seeing it with new clarity. The question is not so much “Isn’t following a nonviolent beauty a fool’s errand, lovely but pointless?” The question, instead, is “If you love the men who sic dogs on your children, aren’t you actually loving evil?”

      This makes me think of Nietzsche, Weil, and David Bentley Hart. Hart’s opening claim in The Beauty of the Infinite is that the gospel must be nonviolent communication, because any violent communication cannot be good news. Weil, an entirely different kind of thinker, shares his basic assumption: that violence is always bad. Nothing good is violent. The worst heresy out there, for Weil, is to call God violent.

      Nietzsche, of course (whose ideas Weil hated and whom Hart dismisses as having “atrocious taste”), sees things very much the opposite way around. Loving death (and its outgrowth, weakness) is the ultimate evil. We should love life. Life is unequivocal; of course it is violent. It must eat. And it is strong and glories in its strength.

      Clearly you’re not proposing a Nietzschean view of the gospel, but the way you talk about the Resurrection makes me wonder whether there is a third way forward between Weil/Hart and Nietzsche, that affirms God’s love as beautiful and victorious, and as the ultimate love of life. And I wonder where you stand with respect to Hart’s claim that beauty is central to the gospel because the gospel can’t be good news unless it is nonviolent persuasion. Some of my fellow doctoral students find that much less compelling than Weil and Hart do. What do you think?



    • Natalie Carnes

      Natalie Carnes


      What we mean by violence

      Thanks, Stephanie. That’s an excellent question. Part of what’s at stake, of course, is what one means by “violence.” Sometimes Gregory uses quite violent metaphors to describe what conversion means—for example, the metaphor of “wounding” that is so central to my fourth chapter. What distinguishes this “violence,” though, is that it is the violence of love1My husband Matthew Whelan, a scholar of Oscar Romero, tells me the phrase “the violence of love” names an anthology of Romero’s writings. And perhaps it is not surprising that he has also recently been named a martyr.[/footbote]—the violence, that is, of wrenching us away from the sin that destroys us. It’s violence in the way an addict’s withdrawal symptoms are illness. So my brief answer is that the gospel must be nonviolent in the sense that God’s ways are not distorted by sin. But that nonviolence might not be best expressed with the description of persuasion that Hart likes. Think of Paul on the road to Damascus. He was struck blind by the revelation of God. On one level, that is an incredibly violent picture of conversion. On the other, that “violence” ends Paul’s career of persecution.

      And, just to be clear, I do not see the civil rights activists as necrophilic, any more than I see the ancient martyrs so. But that is because I see in them glimmers of the resurrection love the faithful see in the Cross.



The Riddle of Beauty

Some Thoughts about Dostoevsky’s The Idiot along the Lines of Natalie Carnes’s Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa

IN THE IDIOT, Dostoevsky’s most unsettling novel, the protagonist Prince Myshkin is drawn to beauty, and several times comments on beauty or is reported by others to have expressed an opinion about it. This should not be surprising, if, indeed, Dostoevsky was at all true to his stated intention in writing the book, which was to portray “the perfectly beautiful man.” What can be puzzling is that the Prince seems to contradict himself about beauty.

Early in the novel at the Epanchin family home, Lizaveta Epanchin, the mother of three eligible daughters, asks Myshkin to offer his impressions of the youngest named Aglaya. The Prince responds, “You’re an extraordinary beauty, Aglaya Ivanovna. You’re so good-looking that one is afraid to look at you.” Significantly, he also adds, “Beauty is difficult to judge; I’m not prepared yet. Beauty is a riddle (p. 77).”

Later in the novel, not one but two characters mention that Prince Myshkin has been heard to say that, “beauty will save the world.” Aglaya Epanchin confronts Myshkin with this declaration, and also the young radical Ippolit Terentyev, who is dying of consumption.

Impatient with Myshkin’s idealism and tentativeness about marriage, Aglaya flings the Prince’s words about beauty back at him before a dinner party announcing their engagement. She exclaims: ”Listen once and for all . . . , if you start talking about something like capital punishment, or the economic situation in Russia, or that ‘beauty will save the world’ . . . I’ll certainly be glad and laugh very much, but . . . I’m warning you ahead of time: don’t let me set eyes on you afterwards (p. 526).”

This rhymes with Myshkin’s earlier confession that Aglaya is “an extraordinary beauty.” But not entirely, since on that occasion, he also confesses that he is not ‘prepared” to speak about beauty definitively. “Beauty is a riddle,” he says. Yet if beauty is a riddle, how can Myshkin be so sure that beauty will save the world? If the beauty he has in mind is that of a woman, how can he be taken seriously? Aglaya certainly does not. She scoffs at the notion, for she takes Myshkin to mean beauty in just such terms.

The dying Ippolit Terentyev hungers for salvation, but despairs of it because the empirical knowledge in which he places his entire trust supports no such possibility. Ippolit believes that Christ exists, and even describes Christ as “a great and priceless being.” (p. 408). He does not, however, believe in Christ as his redeemer; he does not believe in the Resurrection. Christ could not save himself; how could he have saved the world?

Nonetheless, Ippolit is unable to let go of the possibility of salvation. And though it is not said outright, the reader may surmise that at some deeply intuitive level Ippolit recognizes that the beauty Myshkin says can save the world is not the beauty of a woman, such as the one Myshkin loves, or any other merely earthly being, but the Christ of Christian faith whom he, Ippolit, cannot bring himself to embrace. Ippolit tauntingly, but with a shade of pathos, asks Myshkin:

Is it true, Prince, that you once said ‘beauty’ would save the world? Gentlemen, . . . the prince insists that beauty would save the world. And I insist that he has such playful thoughts because he’s in love now. Gentlemen, the prince is in love ; as soon as he came in today, I was convinced of it. Don’t blush Prince, or I’ll feel sorry for you. What beauty will save the world? Kolya told me what you said . . . Are you a zealous Christian ? Kolya says you call yourself a Christian (p. 382).

Thus, Ippolit dismisses the thought that the beauty of a woman can save the world. He calls this notion a playful thought. Yet he also suspects that Myshkin has something else in mind that would have to do with Christ. This beauty has revealed itself most powerfully to the eyes of faith in the most unlikely of places, in the crucified Body of Christ on the Cross. “Are you a zealous Christian? Kolya says you call yourself a Christian,” Ippolit presses. We hear more about this in a speech he delivers to a group of friends soon after confronting Myshkin about the redemptive power of beauty. I will turn to this in a moment.

But before doing so, we must discuss another woman in the novel to whom Myshkin is attracted and finds beautiful, and to whose fate his own is tragically bound up. The woman is Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov. An uncorrupted Nature might have left her beauty untouched by anything ugly. Nastasya, however, is a wounded and scarred being, an afflicted soul, tormented and driven “mad” by the sexual abuse she endured as a child at the hands of the conscienceless Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, whose paramour she becomes in her adult years as she enters society.

Myshkin happens upon a photograph of Nastaysa in the office of General Epanchin’s secretary, Ganya Ivolgin; and the Prince cannot take his eyes off of it. Ganya asks him “So you are attracted to such a woman, Prince?” And Myshkin replies: “An astonishing face! . . . It’s a gay face, but she has suffered terribly, eh. It speaks in her eyes . . . It’s a proud face, terribly proud, and I don’t know whether she’s kind or not. Ah, if only she were kind! Everything would be saved” (p. 36).

Later that day, Myshkin encounters the portrait again. On this occasion, the narrator leads the reader into the Prince’s inner thoughts.

It was as if he wanted to unriddle something hidden in that face which had also struck him earlier. The earlier impression had scarcely left him, and now it was as if he were hastening to verify something. That face, extraordinary for its beauty, and for something else, now struck him still more. There seemed to be a boundless pride and contempt, almost hatred, in that face, and at the same time something trusting, something surprisingly simple-hearted; the contrast even seemed to awaken some sort of compassion as one looked at those features. That dazzling beauty was unbearable, the beauty of the pale face, the nearly hollow cheeks and burning eyes — strange beauty. (pp. 79-80)

We are given to understand that Myshkin’s own affliction — his epilepsy – has made him a kindred soul to Natalya. Only he among the principal characters of the novel is able to see into and appreciate the complex mixture of beauty and ugliness in this fascinating woman’s face, that “strange beauty.” And as the story unfolds, the reader starts to realize that Myshkin and Nastasya both yearn for a place and a time out of time and place where all the agony and ugliness is gone and only peace and beauty remain. In this yearning lays their singular nobility and also the seeds of their mutual tragedy, as such a yearning runs up against the hard realities of a decadent Petersburg society.

With the help of her muse St. Gregory of Nyssa, Natalie Carnes explores and tries to make sense of how beauty in this world is inevitably mixed with ugliness. By ugliness I take her to mean not merely that which is physically unattractive, but even more important, the inner wounds and torments that cruelty, violence, and deprivation bring upon human beings and a fallen creation. “Beauty is rarely found far from ugliness,” Carnes writes, “and any search for an ugly-free beauty on this side of eternity bristles with the danger of self-deception and class-enclosure” (p. 130). She explains further:

It is not that finding beauty apart from ugliness is impossible (perhaps one can imagine our exquisitely functional cup), but that the greater and the more profound the beauty, the greater the ugliness in which it is implicated, for the profoundest beauties participate in the eschatological Beauty, which is to say, the One who is Beauty Crucified. (Carnes, p. 162)

It seems to me that a similar insight prompted Dostoevsky to write The Idiot. Or, perhaps, more accurate, the outcome of his effort to depict the “perfectly beautiful man” ran up against the hard truth that no such man, or woman” is possible – or believable – either in real life or, for that matter, in fiction; only the Crucified One is perfectly beautiful. Yet without knowledge of or belief in the Resurrection, the image of the dying man on the cross or in the grave is ugly and terrifying. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem (whose dates are almost identical with St. Gregory) wrote: “I confess the Cross because I know of the Resurrection.” Carnes says something similar when she submits: “The Cross is beautiful because Jesus rose from the dead. It is beautiful as the first fruits of the resurrection.. . . The Cross absent the resurrection – the cross Mary and John saw – is nothing but horrifying” (251).

In a sinful and fallen world, even the sweetest and most beautiful peach or pear has rot. Beauty is indeed inevitably mixed with ugliness. When early in the novel, Myshkin announces that beauty is a riddle, he hardly knows what he is saying. Nevertheless, he is hovering over this truth and honing in on it. And he runs right into the riddle when he sees for the first time the portrait of the strangely beautiful Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov, and later meets her in the flesh.

There is another picture that belongs to the novel that is related to the discussion above. During a brief stop in Basel, on their way to Geneva during August of 1867, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna Grigoryevna visited the city’s art museum in which Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) was displayed. Anna Grigoryevna left two accounts of this visit that suggest the purposes Dostoevsky may have had in mind for including the painting in his novel. She reports that Dostoevsky was so gripped by the painting that he perched on a chair, and stared at it for a long time, much to her distress, as she feared her husband would be caught and fined. Dead Christ in the Tomb depicts a newly deceased Christ laid out in a casket. The painting is life-size, nearly six feet long and just ten inches high. Christ’s body is emaciated, blue and swollen, riddled with the bloody wounds that were inflicted upon the man. His eyes are partially open, but they show death and not life in their glassy and lusterless appearance. It is everything a traditional Byzantine or Russian icon of Christ is not. And by all evidence that fact struck deeply at Dostoevsky’s religious imagination.

In the novel, a copy of the painting hangs over a doorway in the dark and eerily morbid family home of Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, Nastasya’s suitor who in the end murders her with a knife. What if Jesus remained the corpse in Holbein’s picture, much as in the last scene of the novel Nastasya’s body lays, beginning to rot, in Rogozhin’s bed, the smell of the decay only camouflaged by bottles of disinfectant? Or, in other words, what if there were no divinity in Christ and there was no Resurrection? That terrifying hypothesis surely lies just beneath the surface of Myshkin’s response to Rogozhin, “I like looking at that painting.” Rogozhin announces. “At that painting!” Myshkin answers. “ A man could even lose his faith from that painting” (p.218). According to Anna Grigoryevna, these are the exact words Dostoevsky uttered when he first set eyes on the Holbein

Ippolit describes his own reaction to the Holbein in his speech mentioned above. The embittered young rebel who protests the absurdity of life and his own imminent death, demonstrates far greater insight into the Christian faith than virtually anyone else in the novel, excepting, perhaps, Myshkin himself. Ippolit is undoubtedly aware of the rules of iconographic art and the theology that supports those rules. And this is perfectly plausible for a Russian of the mid-nineteenth century. In spite of his rebellion and incipient nihilism, in traditional fashion, Ippolit keeps an icon in his room lighted with a lamp.

What strikes Ippolit most about the painting is that it does not convey in any perceptible way the reality of the Resurrection or the divinity in Christ. And for that reason, there is no beauty in it. “It seems to me,” he comments to his audience, “that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross or taken down from the cross, as still having a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him even in his most horrible suffering . . . I know that in the first centuries the Christian Church already established that Christ suffered not in appearance but in reality and that on the cross his body, therefore, was fully and completely subject to the laws of nature. . . . But, strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, one cannot help asking oneself . . . [that had] those who believed in him . . . seen a corpse like that (and it was bound to be exactly like that), how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect” (p. 407)?

Ironically, for all the presumed realism (or naturalism) of the Holbein painting, the photograph of the real Nastasya is nearer to the truth of existence. The twistedness and ugliness that cruelty has engendered in her cannot hide beneath her physical beauty. Nor can the ugliness cover up her beauty, both inner and outer. The Holbein, however, which would be true to life, deceives by the absence within it of a vision of the Resurrection and the divine glory. In Ippolit the painting arouses dreadful dreams and hallucinations of a monstrous Nature that consumes life and all its beauty. In Rogozhin it arouses the murderous will to destroy a beauty that he cannot possess.

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    Arts of Paradox

    Anyone who has worked on beauty or theological aesthetics has seen the famous quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world.” You can even buy a t-shirt or coffee mug with those words emblazoned like a motto. But, as Vigen Guroian displays, the sentence serves The Idiot in a more interesting way than the world of Dostoevsky merch might suggest. The claim that beauty will save the world is not a tribute to blind optimism, nor a Romantic rally-cry for art, nor an “inspirational” thought for life. Rather, that sentence labors as a complex refrain through a difficult book. It traces divergent, seemingly conflicting accounts of beauty. I want to pick up on two loose ends Guroian offers us in Dostoevsky’s beauty of paradox to ask what sense we can make of a beauty that rejects suffering, on the one hand, and an avowedly unbeautiful Christ image, on the other.

    Guroian offers a different kind of engagement with Beauty than either Dyrness or Gehring. Rather than simply assess or critique, Guroian draws the book into conversation with literary artist Fyodor Dostoevsky to hear the resonances between the expositional theology of Beauty and the story of The Idiot. Guroian sees a rhyming between the two in their exploration of the intimacy of nearness and affliction, particularly through the wounded beauty of the Crucified One.

    From Guroian’s narration, I glean that two of The Idiot’s main characters, Myschkin and Natalya, exemplify the paradigm of wounded beauty. (I’ll have to rely on his account here, for I am not yet a student of The Idiot—though Guroian has convinced me to become one.) They are, after all, both beautiful and scarred. But I found myself wondering about those two instances in the book that are described either as beautiful or as scarred, but not both: Aglaya, the woman who is only beautiful and not also wounded; and Hans Holbein’s image of dead Christ, which seems only wounded and not beautiful. Can Beauty offer a compelling account of these extremes? Can it make sense of the beauty of Aglaya and also offer an avenue of aesthetic approach to Holbein’s Dead Christ? I think, with an assist from J.M. Coetzee, it can.

    Aglaya is the woman Myshkin describes as so beautiful that one can hardly bear to look at her. To look at her is “fearful.” His words suggest an affinity with the beauty of the Father, the naked divinity no human can look upon and live. But that is not the final word Guroian gives us on Aglaya’s beauty. In Aglaya’s speech at her engagement dinner, she warns him off discussing the politics of suffering in the same breath she warns him off discussing beauty saving the world. Aglaya is a beauty who holds herself apart from the world, aloof from its pain and suffering. She seems to me not to echo the beauty of the Father so much as the beauty of a god of diminished transcendence—an idol. Hers is a beauty that will not be polluted by intimacy with the difficulties of the world. It is a beauty that transcends the world by contrasting with it. This is not a beauty that could save the world, for it resists contact with those in need of saving.

    So can one call Aglaya beautiful? Only in a highly circumscribed sense. In my second chapter I attempt to explain how something can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time, as the object under question is judged according to different criteria that illumine how fitting the object is, and therefore how gratuitously it exceeds the standards of fittingness. In a world of suffering, the contexts of fittingness for a beauty like Aglaya’s, which holds itself apart from suffering, are at worst distorted, at best narrow. To find her beautiful is to speak limitedly or perversely.

    If Aglaya is the beauty without wounding, the Hans Holbein’s image Dead Christ in a Tomb (1520) is the wounding without beauty. The painting holds a dark place both in the story of The Idiot—it hangs in a murderer’s house—and in Dostoevky’s life. Guroian quotes Myshkin echoing Dostoevsky’s own reaction to seeing the image: “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” The painting also wreaks disaster in the story, “deceiv[ing] by the absence within it of a vision of the Resurrection and the divine glory.” (We return to a theme from the discussion with Gehring.) Guroian explains the chaos the painting wreaks, “In Ippolit the painting arouses dreadful dreams and hallucinations of a monstrous Nature that consumes life and all its beauty. In Rogozhin it arouses the murderous will to destroy a beauty that he cannot possess.”

    Holbein painted the image after seeing Matthias Grünewald’s equally gruesome image of Christ on the Isenheim altarpiece (1512-16). These two images are paired, not just in history but in literature, too. In J.M. Coetzee’s story “The Humanities in Africa,” Holbein’s and Grünewald’s images are together matched against Antonio da Correggio’s Madonna Nursing (1520).1 The paintings represent the antagonistic aesthetic position of the two sisters of the story. Correggio’s tender scene of mother and child emblemizes the humanistic beauty Elizabeth Costello wants to defend. Holbein’s and Grünewald’s dead and dying Christ images represent the extreme version of Sister Bridget’s position, which Sister Bridget describes as art for ordinary people and Elizabeth describes as Gothic ugliness.

    As in The Idiot, the Holbein, together with the Grünewald, looses presences that haunt “The Humanities in Africa.” But the presence in the Coetzee story serves not to vitiate faith in either God or in the beauty of the human. Rather, the polarized paintings haunt the story in ways that undo the opposition of the two sisters. The pursuit of humanistic beauty in one image of Christ leads to the grotesque and dying. The encounter with a kind of crucifixion—suffering, dying, and death—reveals gaiety and the affirmation of life. The images of supposedly competing aesthetics, that is, lead to one another. Holbein, in this story, is understood under the same dynamic of beauty and ugliness, presence and absence found in Natalya, Myshkin, and even Christ himself—the fairest of humans who had neither form nor majesty.2

    Holbein’s Dead Christ can assume such different roles in these two stories because, I think, it is undetermined as an image. In this way, it is importantly different from the icon with which Guroian contrasts it. How the icon’s meaning is more determinative is a subject for a different essay. Here it is worth briefly noting the different roles and histories of the image in the West and the East. The theology that vindicated images in Christianity and underpins the theology of the icon was lost to the West for centuries. Instead, images were justified in the West as “books for the illiterate.” They were justified as pointing to, embroidering, and calling to mind texts. Many of the images produced in the West were in illuminated manuscripts or on altars. In this way, images were placed near the words of Scripture and liturgy, which interpreted them. If Dead Christ were made, as some supposed, as a predella for an altar, then it would be inevitably bound to the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. To declaim “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” while gazing at that image—to eat in hope the body of Christ offered over that image—is to see in Dead Christ an image of the darkest corners of the universe, where despair seems total, as that which Christ has overcome. That is, the painting itself need not tip its hat to the life that will raise that corpse to new life if its setting already interprets it as taken up into that moment of resurrection.

    However, Western paintings, as I have mentioned, can be stripped of context in a way icons cannot—not without ceasing to be icons, anyway. And the way the Holbein shows up in The Idiot, it is not as a predella. It is as a painting in the home of a man who acts as if flesh is all. And Dostoevsky encounters it in a world he interprets as thoroughly materialist. In such a world, in such a home, is it any wonder the painting is interpreted as a final word on Christ—a death that rejects the possibility of any further event or deeper meaning?

    And here we are back to the helpfulness of fittingness and gratuity as elastic categories that can help us communicate an object’s beauty and ugliness. They can help us describe how a beautiful woman can also be sorely lacking in beauty, and how an image of Gothic ugliness can also be revelatory of divine beauty.

    1. J. M. Coetzee, “Lesson 5: The Humanities in Africa” 116-55, Elizabeth Costello (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003). An earlier version appeared as “Die Menschenwisenschaften in Afrika”/ “The Humanities in Africa” (Siemens Stiftung: Munich, 2001). I treat the role of these images more extensively in an upcoming forum for Republics of Letters.

    2. Both these claims about Christ are antiphons for Psalm 45, one culled directly from the Psalm itself (Christ as the fairest) and the other, the antiphon for Holy Week, taken from Isaiah 53. Then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) preached on this juxtaposition of verses. “The Feeling of Things, The Contemplation of Beauty.” Message of His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Rimini (24-30 August 2002). Available at http:/C:/dev/home/

Sarah Maple


Beauty’s Object, Form, and Subject

CARNES STATES THAT ONE of the most important features of the terms “fittingness” and “gratuity” is their elasticity (xii). This however, has the potential to leave beauty vulnerable to oppression, even violence, yet it also positively leaves “room for catechesis into alternate descriptions of beauty” (xiii). In order to engage Gregory’s perception of beauty, which challenges assimilations to cruelty and sloth, Carnes notes that a lifelong process of training is required to engage every sense of our body and spirit. Beauty itself “requires cultivating relationships of love with our neighbor, and that includes our membership in a community named the church” (xiii). This already gives beauty the identity of a form of resistance, namely against sin, and towards the cultivation of virtue.

Carnes approaches the practical application of beauty perceived in the modern age first through a discussion of a ‘theological rehabilitation of beauty.’ While this subtitle is used within the publication, I believe it also encompasses the entirety of Carnes’ efforts.

As Carnes approaches each of the issues within her chapters, fittingness and gratitude, poverty, and subjectivity, she also specifically focuses the theological rehabilitation of beauty in the most recent century through Jacques Maritain’s ‘object’ of the image of beauty, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s ‘form’ of the image. She also considers the contemporary work of David Bentley Hart surrounding the notion of ‘ordered beauty.’ In this section, Carnes emphasizes that “beauty is the transcendental that manifests being” (40) and that “‘Art’ is the result of the mystery of being” (39). Yet to understand the practicalities of the application and harvesting of beauty within the arts, Carnes cites Wendy Steiner who directs the need to re-establish a vision almost “oracular.” The rehabilitation of beauty, then, demands an awareness “different from that of a critic, an art historian, and aesthetician, or an arts practitioner”1 (36). Beauty today requires the anticipation of a deeper revelation: one on a truly human level. Carnes believes this theological rehabilitation through object, form, and order is the best-endeavored route toward beauty, and her considerations for each chapter pair beautifully with this study.

In the first, it is prescribed that each object must be considered for its own fittingness and gratuity as it relates ontologically and through the height of creation: humanity and Christ. Carnes’ study of poverty relates fittingly with form, particularly focused on the poverty of the human form taken on by Christ at the Incarnation. Then, subjectivity, through the study of fittingness and gratuity of an object, is ordered toward beauty.

Fittingness and gratuity: Object

Carnes presents the significance of beauty in fittingness and gratuity by reframing it inside of Gregory’s doctrine of God. As the internal relation of beauty’s fittingness and gratuity becomes like a ladder in the individual person, Carnes makes use of Gregory’s language of ‘ladder’ that describes the mutual ascent to Beauty and to God, still in mind that “no created thing can claim to be fitting for God” (xiii).

Considering the object of artistic works in measurable terms of fittingness and gratuity, Carnes supports the notion from Maritain and Nichols that “crafts” do not possess the same intelligibility as fine arts. This intelligibility (of fine arts), as Nichols says, have “an intelligibility which exceeds that of a mere thing”2 (37) and its intelligibility comes from the artist’s creative intuition that animates the making – making fine arts a “more important – kind of beauty than crafts” (37). Yet in both fine arts and in crafts, “beauty” is similarly carried through both by the artists “careful attention to the object that he makes” (37).

Carnes emphasizes Maritain’s notion of the fine arts attending to representations of beauty that is finite, which “entails the much more human activity of attending carefully to the object right in front of one’s eyes” (38). Yet, considering the representation or non-representation of an object, philosopher Etienne Gilson considers the notion of ‘imitation of beauty’ by noting that, “painting is abstract by nature, for it abstracts from one of the dimensions of our space; and in another aspect it is inevitably conventional in the sense that, if its aim is imitation, only lines, curves and colors are at its disposal for the representation of solids.”3

Such a notion as the inherent abstraction within the creative arts further opens considerations of the object to further qualifications of ‘fittingness and gratuity.’ Rather than an object physically present before the artist, and replicated in artistic form, in his artistic career William Congdon became most concerned with the ‘object of the image’ that rises up and is transforms within the artist. This is similar to the aesthetic of painter Georges Rouault, after whom Maritain was inspired to write Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Both Congdon and Rouault believed in the need for the artist’s sincerity, specifically to the image inside of themselves. For them, the aim of painting was first for it to became an ‘image of the artist,’ or rather, the transforming object inside of the artist as person.

From Maritain, as Carnes says, understanding beauty comes from understanding the right relationship between art and craft. In such a way, there remains a superiority of intelligibility in fine art; superior by its revelation of imaginative, intellectual and invisible realities. This superior revelation was further enhanced in Congdon’s thought by an artist’s integration into the life of Christ, which incorporated a ‘new dimension of beauty’ by incorporating the transfigurative image of Christ within the work.

Congdon’s aesthetic did not focus only on that object physically in the artist’s vision, but also that which is not in front of his sight. Such invisible realities, once again, would open a further analysis into Carnes’ categories of fittingness and gratuity, and a ladder progression, specifically through an orientation concerning Christ. In collaboration with Carnes’ collective thought on fittingness and gratuity, I believe this specific approach to the ‘object’ of beauty in art opens a way for a deeper level of truly human encounter.

Poverty: Form

Carnes then uses the subject of Christology to “consider beauty and poverty in light of the one who emptied himself of glory to take on the form of a bondservant” (xiv). Here, she also combats the notion of beauty as bourgeois: a notion that she claims has kept beauty in academic exile for much of the 20th century. Beauty, however, has still been within the conversation of modern art and philosophy through realities like horror and ugliness. But the difficulties of reality are also where Gregory’s beauty and theological language was formed. As Carnes says, “it is a beauty that, while not reducible to ugliness or horror, cannot be found apart from them” (xiv).

Carnes then uses Balthasar’s notion of ‘form’ that contains parallels from Aquinas’ aesthetic criteria. The true, the good, and the beautiful are revealed through Christ, who is the form of God. And, she cites, “through form [that] the lightning-bolt of eternal beauty flash[es]”4 (38). Yet Christ, who assumes poverty and the human form, is also the boundless, undefinable Godhead. Considering the deeper level of truly human encounter in art, first in the relationship between the artist and Christ, it is ‘through the form of the human (person’s) body that the lightning-bolt of eternal beauty flashes.’ Through the artist’s human form, beauty is able to flourish, and flourish through their creative expressions. For artist William Congdon, the incorporation of Christ within his works led to an ordered but boundless sense within his aesthetic, and Rodolfo Balzarotti labeled such a venture as a ‘metaphysic of seeing.’5 This is similar to Carnes’ emphasis through Wendy Steiner, in establishing a vision or way of seeing that is grounded in prayer or anticipates enigmatic, authoritative weight.

Particularly, by establishing the nature of “gift” at the foundation of the person and the human body, one’s ability to see beauty rightly becomes both ordered and boundless.

Subjectivity: Ordered Beauty

The ability for a person to perceive beauty rightly, as Carnes writes, is Gregory’s question of “how the Holy Spirit makes us the kind of people who can see beauty rightly” (xiv). Beauty, and thus the perception for it, incorporates hidden dimensions beyond immediate visibility. Here, Carnes also makes clear that bourgeois training is not the right way to draw near to beauty, namely because of the love and significance of woundedness and self-knowledge necessary in developing perception of beauty. Carnes follows Gregory’s study to locate the “organ of beauty’s perception,” and sourcing it beyond the imagination or artistic training, finds the answer in “the entire anthropology of the human” (xiv).

The order of beauty, then, must be found through the truly human, and further trained through virtuous experiences in attentive love to neighbor, the afflicted, and in the liturgy of the church (xiv). This also requires a re-examination of the origins of perception, which Carnes explores through a pneumatological approach, and also requires a recovery of the origins of humanity. Both of these approaches to recovering an adequate perception of beauty are given their foundation in Christ, ordering the telos of beauty while focusing on the entire anthropology of the human.

In recovering an adequate perception of beauty, a theological rehabilitation of beauty, Carnes notes the need for a continued refinement of perception. Beauty reveals the importance of the beauty of theology and the theology of beauty, it bridges ancient and modern, the practical and theoretical, secular and religious, universally. Because from its foundation it takes-on many forms, it is the vision within the person that must be changed.

The question at stake is conducting a perception of beauty founded in Christ. David L. Schindler questions if Christology can be concerned with aesthetics.6 As Christians, the transformative effects of the Person of Christ not only open the way to Salvation, but offer a transfigured perception of all of reality. Dr. Natalie Carnes brilliantly describes the re-orientation of such human perception not only to beauty, but through the Beautiful One.

She states that, “our problem with perception is not just a problem of sorrow and sin; it is a problem at the very heart of life itself” (138). At the very heart of life, then, it appears critical to understand the effects of the Incarnate within the overall conversation of beauty and aesthetics.

If Christ brings with himself the key for our phenomenological memory to recall the invisible and eternal nature of humankind, what could this possibly mean to a whole realm of criticism concerning “visual” and ephemeral aesthetics? As a theologian and artist, I seek to understand beauty through a creativity of “gift” and a vision of “mercy.” Carnes pertinently asks what I have found to be the most satisfying question in this pursuit: “what would it mean to see radical gratuity?” (249)

What Natalie Carnes instigates and delivers here is a profound direction of “hope.” She radically proposes that neither proportion, unity, and clarity, nor woundedness wholly determine beauty. Rather, it is the crucified and resurrected Christ in whom the measure of beauty goes beyond both creation and fall. Taking-up both the creation and fall within himself, the glory of Christ measures the appropriate outpouring.7 Carnes asserts that this “eschatological orientation” is imperative to perceiving beauty, the glorified Christ, and ourselves. While proportion and harmony participate in the revelation of God, Carnes also believes that beauties which disclose the woundedness of Christ are “especially profound beauties” (252), though our ability to perceive their “fittingness and gratuity” will not be possible until we assume our resurrected bodies.

Until then, we are left with the task of finding the beauty of the image of God within the sufferings of humankind – assured of the glory of the invisible. Carnes echoes Gregory in saying that the best theologian assembles the shadow of Truth. Here and now, she proclaims, there is a reality that does not fully yield to sight – we are in waiting for the shadowless world.

This eternal beauty, given to the world in the reality of the Cross, “testifies to the unyielding creative depths of a Love that will not be thwarted by death, torture, malice, envy, indifference, or fear” (251). Yet, understandably, apart from the resurrection, the Cross itself is foreboding. As Carnes notes, however, the ultimate location of Beauty is the boundless, outpouring gift of the eschatologically glorified Christ.

  1. Steiner, “Aesthetics and Art History,” 160.

  2. Nichols, Redeeming Beauty, 137.

  3. Gilson, Forms & Substances in the Arts, 114.

  4. Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 19, 29, 32.

  5. Balzarotti, “William Congdon: Action Painting and the Impossible Iconography of the Christian Mystery,” 716.

  6. D.L. Schindler, “Is Truth Ugly? Moralism and the Convertibility of Being and Love,” Communio: International Catholic Review, Issue 27 (Winter 2000).

  7. Artist Heather Hansen appropriately discusses her artistic expressions as “emptying gestures.”

  • Natalie Carnes

    Natalie Carnes


    The Threat of Iconoclasm

    Sarah Maple reads Beauty sympathetically as she, like Guroian, draws it into conversation with a particular artist. But where Guroian turns to the Orthodox literary giant Dostoevsky, Maple commends us to the Catholic visual artist William Congdon. There is another difference between the two essays. Where Guroian’s analysis primarily treats Dostoevsky’s art, Maple’s treats—not exactly Congdon’s art, but— Congdon’s theoretical reflection on the process of making art. Central to her reflection is Congdon’s description of the “object of art” that arises in the artist.

    What is interesting about Congdon’s “object of art” is that it resonates with what intellectual historian Alain Besançon has found in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. And even more fascinating: Besançon interprets those writings as evidence that Gregory is an iconoclast. What could it mean to charge my beauty-lover Gregory or the image-maker Congdon with iconoclasm? Their “iconoclasm,” I want to suggest, does not betray their commitments to beauty, art, or images; it demonstrates the complexity of fidelity to images. That is, there is something about loving images (and loving beauty) that invites a response akin to iconoclasm. Of course, I cannot argue all of this here in this short response, but I’ll try to point the way I want to go with a few thoughts.

    Congdon’s “object of art” is what arises within to transform the artist. Before it becomes art, the artwork first exists as “an image of the artist,” the “transforming object inside of the artist as person.” When that object is Christ in Christself, there are particular possibilities for transfiguration. Through the artist’s human form, Maple tells us, beauty is able to flourish.

    Witness the similarity to Besançon’s Gregory, whom Besançon represents with a single, extended passage in On the Making of the Human. In the quotation, Gregory affirms the pre-eminence divine beauty has and commends spirit above formless, artless matter. (Note: “matter” is not equivalent here to the body, which is en-formed.) Besançon glosses the quotation: “If an artist takes this text to heart, he will judge that what matters is not making—since making presupposes a certain conversion of matter—but rather turning toward the source of beauty. Hence, the true work of art will be the internal attitude the artist takes, the pure will to art, which he will exemplify in his person.”

    This “internal attitude” of the artist seems resonant with Congdon’s “object of art.” But Besançon goes on to describe the deleterious effects of prizing this internal attitude: “And to make the new state of his soul—the unique work of art—public, he will produce manifestations of it, which may be acts of hatred, or acts of destruction, or acts of parody, of anything that this not this internal attitude—that is, of what is vulgarly, ‘hylically,’ considered a work of art.”

    And then the rhetoric really ramps up. “To get rid of the work of art in order to better sculpt the internal statue, and to that end, to smash every external statue, every past and present work of art, to hold art in contempt in order to glorify the artist: such is one of the movements of art that began with Dada and Duchamp. To burn a canvas, to tear it to pieces, to soil it with excrement, to take the most violently sadistic attitude toward painting, and then to surround the object thus obtained with the utmost attention, jealously…can be easily explained. What the artist fabricates and then protects is a visible and verifiably authentic manifestation of an internal, invisible posture, an aspiration or attachment to the divine source of beauty.” That, my theological friends, is how you get from loving divine beauty to smearing shit in under a page. It’s rather impressive, no?

    But I want to take Besançon’s central point seriously—not because I think his analysis impugns either Gregory of Nyssa or William Congdon as unredeemable iconoclasts. I think it does something more interesting. It points to an ambivalence at the heart of art, images, and beauty. They all push towards various versions of transcendence, and in that transcendence, they call themselves into question. To the extent visual art yields or illumines invisible realities, it calls into question the significance of itself as a visible reality. As images yield an imaged that is more than their material reality (more than wood and paint), they call their own value into question relative to the imaged. As beauty entails a gratuity that pushes beyond any given instance of beauty, it puts the significance of that instance of beauty into question. Insofar as artworks, images, and instances of beauty all mediate more than they are in themselves, they can communicate an ambivalence about their own worth that must be negotiated. They make iconoclasm a possibility, a threat that can only be eradicated by denying the object as art, image, or instance of beauty. Ironically, it is because art, images, and beauty can do such astounding work in mediating realities to us that iconoclasm can become a question. It can be difficult to know how to be faithful to art, images, and beautiful things because they are dual-natured.

    How, then, do we negotiate this ongoing threat of iconoclasm? We turn to the one Congdon identified as the supremely transfigurative “object of art”—Christ. For Christ is also Image, the Image who insists on the ongoing significance of the flesh and blood even while mediating to us the Invisible God. Christ is, moreover, the Image who definitively reveals God under the conditions of iconoclasm, as the broken Image on the Cross. More on that in my next book.

    • Sarah Maple

      Sarah Maple


      The Threat of Egotism

      Carnes suggests that the “iconoclasm” of Gregory and William Congdon means that they do not betray their own commitments and loyalty to beauty, art, or image. In fact, perhaps it does speak to the diversity and breadth of their loyalty to all three, and to what I propose is perhaps their joint loyalty to the ‘One Image.’

      In agreement with Carnes, the only way to avoid iconoclasm is first to remain profoundly and increasingly in love with Love itself. With further consideration to the example of this in the life of artist William Congdon, I would like to answer two concerns of mine with the suggestions of Besançon’s thought that do not resonate with Congdon’s own. First, that there is need for a balanced understanding of spirit and material, and second, that the glorification of the artist has no place in the true ‘object of art.’


      Balancing Spirit and Material

      While the preeminence of divine beauty must be firmly held, the shape which matter is formed into also requires merciful consideration. This leaves room for the spirit, but also requires acknowledging the importance of the material. While the conversion of the artist—increasingly in orientation to God and beauty—is most integral, the importance of the artist’s work is unmistakable, and the balance is crucial.

      For Congdon, the goal of art is for the artist to discover themself, and ultimately to come into the knowledge of art’s object: Christ. Within this search, the artist is able to generate authentic images which increasingly refine them in their self-knowledge, as well as in virtue. Within art, John Paul II called this increasing concern for the “human” the “imperishable aesthetic” (Letter to Artists, §9). The artist, body and soul, is the place where virtue is refined, and its outworking may be encountered on canvas.

      More loosely understood, the ‘object of art’ is the possible combination of the influential image observed from the material world that is transformed inside of the artist as it is combined with their own knowing realities. The combination of the image of Christ transformed inside of the artist is paramount for Congdon, and its subsequent outworking onto canvas is essential for the artist to measure their self-knowledge and growth.

      This, however, does not take away from Besançon’s thought that the “true work of art will be the internal attitude the artist takes […] which will exemplify in his person.” In addition to Congdon’s thoughtful concern for the balance of interior refinement and material outworking, such interior refinement as Besançon alludes to is also found within what John Paul II names as the “imperishable aesthetic.”


      The Glorification of the Artist.

      It is, however, my belief that the glorification of the artist can occur when the focus of an artistic work is considered too narrowly. To avoid this, one would not so much focus on a singular artistic work as an output from a singular moment in the life of the artist, but instead focus on the artistic work in the context of the artist’s entire body of work and, more importantly, focus on the work through the development of the artist as a person. This last sentiment coincides further with Jacques Maritain’s notion of ‘art as the virtue of man,’ which contradicts the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ and further supports John Paul II’s notion of the imperishable aesthetic.

      The fear, however, of getting rid of works of art, as is given in the example of Dada, is also hazardous. Yet, perhaps this glorification of the artist is so thoroughly wrapped in egotism that we see no redemption in smearing excrement.

      Congdon, who never fully abandoned realism, though his pieces became increasingly abstract, also turned away from the glorification of himself as artist. Rather, the communion he sought from his surrounding community was their recognition of his own interior realities as he continued to verify his works as authentic manifestations of his deep invisible realities. These, he believed in the latter half of this life, were oriented to the divine source of beauty.

      Egotism, however, was what he believed to be the source of ruin of authenticity, and it was up to the artist themself to ask for forgiveness and reconcile themself to truth. Coming away from my studies on William Congdon, I have also had to step away from broad, general art historical critique and become open to mercifully reconsidering the person as the central cause and measure for artistic creativity. In this, it has been important to analyze his confessional moments of inauthenticity and authenticity alongside his works.

      Some of Congdon’s pieces do have a kind of fecal appearance, and these are mostly concerned with his crucifixions. Yet studied under further consideration, they are a gracious combination of his meditation on the unworthiness of man and the singularity of his action painting technique. They are also what can be considered his greatest meditation of self-gift. In the continued purification of Congdon’s interior vision, his minimalistic and increasingly abstract out-workings can be seen as a testament to the absence of material images in favor of his hope in the one resurrected Image.

      Iconoclasm, within our hearts and own interior realities, teams with issues of egotism. To explore this and the lengths to which Congdon disapproves of egotism in an effort to preserve and cultivate beauty, we would need much more space than we have at present. It is, in fact, the crux of my last few years of writing.

      The promulgation of educational moments through works of culture is of persistent study, but review of conversional strength and virtuous growth within the artist allows us a window into the original experiences of humanity before the Fall, and in light of it. In doing so, this notion further affirms Carnes’ claim that beauty’s gratuity requires negotiation.

      On this Holy Saturday, I find it appropriate to promote Carnes’ Beauty alongside Congdon’s joint publication The Sabbath of History, whose visual meditations are paired with Joseph Ratzinger’s thoughts on Holy Week, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Both provide an oracular space that dispels the fears surrounding notions of darkness and absence, when considered relationally to beauty.