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