Impersonal Beauty

December 31, 2013

benozzo gozzoli_processionofthemagi-detail

Simone Weil is most known for her writings on suffering, namely the capacity of affliction to dehumanize and make a person a thing (“If anyone wants to make himself invisible, there is no surer way than to become poor.”) Thus, our attention toward the unseen, as the Good Samaritan saw a human in the beaten thing on the side of the road, is the surest path toward rejecting the illusory imagination through which we secure ourselves in the world.

Yet, there is another path — the apprehension of beauty — and this is just as important for Weil’s philosophy. Like affliction, genuine beauty draws us outside of ourselves (the false, illusory self) toward something which we cannot consume, cannot eat, to use Weil’s favorite illustration. We must remain hungry in the face of beauty, or else the beauty is corrupted in our compulsive desire to possess. We must allow the beautiful to remain as it is, apart from us. This is also Weil’s way of expressing pure friendship. We want to absorb the other into ourselves, destroying the other as such; friendship allows the other to exist fully, regardless of whether “I” exist — indeed, as if “I” do not exist.

None of this is actually possible — humanly possible. We are not actually able to love the poor, the despised, the ugly, the stupid. It is a miracle from beyond human possibility. It is grace. On this, both Weil and Barth are in agreement: love is not a possibility, love is a miracle.

The bad artist asserts herself in her art. Art is a means of self-expression. It exhibits the pathos of the individual. Good art — beautiful art — is a forgetting of oneself. In this forgetting, we find ourselves anew, but this cannot be our object — it is unknown, because it is given by grace. We cannot manufacture beauty. We do not create it; it creates us. The artist expresses beauty, not directly but indirectly. It is not possible for the artist to pursue beauty; she must be attentive in the void and let beauty find her. In this way, beauty is not personal expression but impersonal expression.

Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Lucian Stone, in their wonderfully clear survey of Weil’s philosophical theology, illuminate this point further:

To understand how a beautiful thing is impersonal, we must consider Weil’s identification of five sub-traits of impersonality in aesthetics. First, there is duration. “One does not grow tired of beauty,” whereas “one does grow tired of what is pleasing, of what only flatters the senses,” Weil claims. The beautiful is something one can attend to for hours; anything that falls short of this (such as the statues in the Luxembourg, for her) is unendurable and demands either that we look away, or that we eliminate the offense. Second, there is purity: beauty does give a “pure pleasure,” a pleasure absolutely distinct from the one that arises from and encourages consumption. This is why real beauty ‘captivates the flesh” and stills the child in us “in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.” So while the beautiful is a “carnal attraction,” it “keeps us at a distance” and demands that we renounce our falsifying imaginations. Third, there is the element of infinity. That is, there can be no comparisons in the realm of absolute beauty; to think in terms of “better” or “worse” or any matter of degree suggests that the work is not truly beautiful, for the beautiful is the incarnation of God in matter. Fourth, there must be no element of flattery, for there can be no elevation of the ego in attending to the beautiful. Finally, as we have seen already, impersonality implies universality. …for Weil, the Gregorian chant epitomizes the beautiful, perhaps surprisingly because of its “share of monotony.” This beautiful monotony, as opposed to a mechanical monotony of factory work or of the clock, finds its model in the “perfect regularity of the sky’s revolutions that permits the rhythm of agricultural work, the only work that puts us directly in contact with the universe.”

[Simone Weil and Theology (T&T Clark, 2013), pp. 146-147. The quotations are taken from Weil’s Lectures on Philosophy, p. 184, and Gravity and Grace, pp. 148-149 and pp. 131-132]

In addition to Gregorian chant, Weil points to J. S. Bach, Romanesque architecture, Byzantine iconography, Sophocles’ Antigone, Homer’s Iliad, among other examples.

When she speaks of “impersonal” beauty, Weil can give the impression of something mundane or boring. It is almost as if the peculiar is lost amidst the universal. But in fact, according to Weil, the peculiar is lost when it is isolated from the universal. Evil isolates the particular from the universals of goodness, beauty, and truth. As such, it becomes mundane and boring, exhaustible as are all finite things. Here are the Stones once again, in one of my favorite passages:

Real goodness…is “an unfathomable marvel” that is too often desecrated at the hands of novelists and artists who render it cliché and portray evil as sensational and mysterious. We “envelop [the truth of the Good] in a fog in which, as in all fiction, values are reversed, so that evil is attractive and good is tedious,” when in fact, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.” This is because the forms and manifestations of baseness are finite, for they issue from the finite (i.e., from us). We cannot, as Weil has said, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. So, the artist, if she is to create something that can be called “beautiful” or “good,” must take on “the transparency of a window pane” to allow the light of the divine to shine through.

[Ibid., pp. 84-85. The quotations are from Weil’s Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, p. 162, 160, and Waiting for God, p. 77]

Hopefully that should entice you to read more of Simone Weil. To be sure, I wrestle with Weil. She is not for everyone. She is probably a Gnostic. Her intensity is extreme. She is also the purest philosophical mind that I have ever read.

Who Can Be Saved?

December 30, 2013

Who Can Be Saved

I am half-way through Terrance Tiessen’s 500-page tome, Who Can Be Saved? (IVP Academic, 2004). I was waiting to write a short review about it, until after completing it, but Kevin DeYoung published a post this morning defending exclusivism. This is the belief that a conscious, explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Those who were unfortunate enough to live before the reach of missionary expansion, the millions who have never heard the gospel, are out of luck. For a strict, old-school Calvinist, this is sometimes defended as evidence of their reprobation. Not kidding. Unless the unevangelized person receives a miraculous vision or communication of some sort, they are damned for eternity.

Given that this is such a momentous claim, I want more than just an inference from some proof texts, which are invariably directed at those who are confronted with the gospel (as in Jn 14.6, DeYoung’s proof text, or in Rom 10.14-21, the locus classicus). We need some rather explicit scriptural instruction. And if Tiessen’s work has demonstrated anything, this explicit scriptural teaching is far from forthcoming. A closer look at the biblical attestations about salvation are actually rather varied, and even exclusivists admit as much when they consider the Old Testament saints, both before the Abrahamic covenant and thereafter, and the righteous among the other nations.

Tiessen argues for a new taxonomy, beyond the standard categories of (1) exclusivist, (2) inclusivist, and (3) pluralist. Depending upon the theologian, inclusivism can be articulated as affirming other religions, viewed as God-ordained instruments in awakening the unevangelized to faith, even if Christianity is privileged (contra pluralism) as the only complete manifestation of God’s revelation. Other inclusivists would reject this approach, including Tiessen himself. So he argues instead for “accessibilism” — all persons in all times and all places have access to sufficient revelation, through which the Holy Spirit can utilize to quicken the hearts of man. I won’t give Tiessen’s manifold approach to defending this thesis — you will have to read the book.

Tiessen is himself a Calvinist, and he dedicates a whole chapter to defending monergism, which is a straightforward account of particular election and efficient grace that would make Sproul or Packer proud. (I really don’t have a problem with this, despite my Barthian leanings.) This has some strategic advantage, because the most zealous defenders of exclusivism today are among the “new Calvinists” such as Mohler, Piper, DeYoung, et al., though it is certainly widely held among other evangelicals. The revision of the Southern Baptist Faith & Message, in 2000, added the line, “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” This was directed, of course, at inclusivism of any sort.

My only quibble with Tiessen’s book is how it is organized. It follows a question-based format for each chapter: Who needs to be saved? Whom is God trying to save? To whom does God reveal himself? By what standard are people judged? Why should we send missionaries? and so forth. This gives the book the feel of an apologetics handbook, whereas I would much prefer a more linear progression through the appropriate dogmatic loci. As a result of Tiessen’s approach, you will find yourself needing to jump forward and backward for further elucidation of, say, certain biblical passages. However, this is a minor complaint on my part, and I am sure that many others will appreciate the question-based format.

This is an easy-to-read book, directed at a fairly broad audience of evangelicals. Technical terms are kept to a minimum or thoroughly defined (e.g., monergism), so it is a good book to recommend to your Christian friends who are struggling (as we should) with this question.

Looking Back!

December 27, 2013


As we come to the close of another year in God’s grace, it is time to review the content of this blog. This is surely one of the most varied of all my blogging years. Many thanks to my readers and those random visitors from Google searches! By the way, if you would like to subscribe to the blog, alongside other blogs, I recommend as a feed reader.

Here is a recap of 2013:

Gender and Theology series

1. Introduction

2. Serene Jones and Feminist Theory

3. Karl Barth on Man and Woman

4. Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

5. Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry (Charlotte von Kirschbaum)

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Doctrine of God

The Self-Imposed Suffering of God

Barth and the “Fellowship” in the Trinity

Subordination in God, modal not personal


Charles Finney – the fount of all our ills

J. W. Nevin – the antidote

Thoughts on Pietism

Evangelical Issues

Hearing Her Voice

One Advantage of the Scots Confession

The Worldview Culprit

Maturity and Protestant Options

Historical Adam and Biblical Inspiration

Beyond Chicago – finding a better evangelical hermeneutic

Mark Noll on Why Young Earth is Suicidal

ECO Presbyterian

Denomination Update

ECO Theology

The New Confessional Protestants

Prayers or Death Knell?


Balthasar and Sacred Architecture

Rosaria Butterfield

Roman Catholic Predictions

Barth and Philosophy

Schweitzer on Bach as “objective art”

Human Sacrifice in Norse Religion

The Confidence of Rome

Keller on Common Grace

Apologetics Overkill

Nimmo on Schleiermacher

Consistent Radical Feminism

Oh Dear!

Review: Liberation by James Cone

John Webster video lectures

Post-Protestant? A Response

Calvin’s Luther Moment

Calvin on the Sacraments

19th Century German Theology

Hiking with Barth

Is Christ Offensive? (On Kierkegaard)

Schleiermacher and Barth

The Torment of Beauty (Simone Weil)

Roger Scruton on Postmodernism

Marian Faith (Francesca Murphy)

“Love On”?

John Leith Audio Lectures

MLK on Creative Nonconformity

John Frame’s Odd Criticism of Barth

Erotic Ascent in Plato’s Symposium

The Anti-Art of 20th Century Art


Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks”

Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill, “How Great Thou Art”

George Jones, Requiescat in Pace

Holly Williams, “Drinkin'”

Whiskey Myers, “Ballad of a Southern Man”

Whiskey Myers, “Virginia”

The Creative Freedom of Early Country Music

Lindi Ortega at the Dakota Tavern

Bach’s Ricercare à 6

Julie Roberts, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray”

The Gaslight Anthem, “Handwritten”

Diotima's Children

An alternative title to this post could be, “Why existentialism and postmodernism ruined everything,” but that’s a bit grandiose. This is from Frederick Beiser, an authority on German Idealism, talking about his book, Diotima’s Children: German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford, 2009):

The aporias of the present is that there really is no aesthetic criticism anymore, and that there are really no standards about art. Anything goes, and anything is good or excellent “in its own kind”. We got here because some aestheticians and philosophers took the avant-garde too seriously, and held that even snow shovels, urinals and soup cans can be works of art. I think that the avant-garde was making all kinds of interesting and valid points; but one it was not making is that these kinds of things are works of art. They were not intended to be works of art but, for all kinds of complicated philosophical social and political reasons, works of anti-art. There really are standards of criticism, and there really are rules of art, even though people shudder at the very thought of them. You only have to listen to film critics and book critics to see that they apply all kinds of standards, like the need for verisimilitude, the need for unity in variety, for coherence, for capturing the interest of the reader. You only have to talk to artists to see that they work according to rules, and that they know all too well that they can employ only certain means to achieve the ends they want. The question is to spell out these standards, and to make clear these rules, and that means first knowing what an aesthetic standard and an aesthetic rule means. The whole issue has to be re-thought, and to re-think we have to go back more to the past, when there was a lot more thinking about these issues.

One of the reasons standards and rules have been so undermined is because of the doctrine, common since Kant, that taste is only a matter of subjective pleasure, and that it has nothing to do with the object itself. This Kantian doctrine, which appears perfectly explicitly in the first paragraph of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, has been decisive in turning people away from criticism because there is no need to look at the object itself, to look at its qualities, to determine what is good or bad. Kant wanted universal aesthetic judgments, of course, but he could hardly guarantee them because there was no reason one could give for them. There was nothing about the object itself that made it pleasant or unpleasant to look at. We might as well look at snow shovels and urinals.

The reason why I like Diotima’s children — the aesthetic rationalists of the eighteenth century — is because they stress the importance about something in the object itself that makes it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant to look at. They all defined aesthetic pleasure in terms of the perception of perfection, intuitio perfectionis, where perfection meant something like unity-in-multiplicity, a formal structural feature of an object, what we also call harmony or beauty. They did not deny that there is a subjective component to aesthetic experience in the feeling of pleasure; but they believed that there is also an objective component, that they judgment rests on a perception of this perfection in the object.

I think that there is something to this doctrine, and that we do well to revive it. Oddly, one of its tacit proponents, though explicit opponents, is Hume himself. When Hume insists that taste is a matter of delicacy, that it is a matter of having a sensitivity to features of an object itself, he is very close to the rationalist doctrine. Hume was really a covert objectivist (or partial one) about aesthetic pleasure because that pleasure had to be based on the sensitivity to features in the object. It was only having that sensitivity that allowed some people to be good critics. As soon as we explain what is involved in that sensitivity we get something along the lines of the rationalist’s intuitio perfectionis.

This is part of a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Beiser. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. If you are interested in this subject, Beiser expresses thoughts similar to Roger Scruton in his documentary on art for the BBC.

Note: The book, Diotima’s Children, is not available from Amazon for some strange reason. In addition to Barnes & Noble, you can get it through the publisher, OUP.

Diotima bust

I have thoroughly enjoyed Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2009 [1994]). He has also translated Republic, Timaeus, Gorgias, Phaedrus, and others, plus works from Euripides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plutarch, Plotinus, et alia. He conveys a charm and wit that I have not found in other translators — though I’ll leave it to the experts in Attic Greek to judge — and his annotations are often humorous. His introductory essay to Symposium, which should be read only after reading the dialog itself, is a fine probing of the text: appropriately cautious yet confident in his vast knowledge of Plato’s corpus.

Socrates’ speech about ἔρως is a retelling of insights given to him by Diotima, a female philosopher and seer. The argument is full of twists and turns, not easy to reconstruct. Plato is figuring how ἔρως — érōs, trans. “love” — remains continuous throughout the person’s ascent to the highest form of love, which is love of absolute beauty, not merely particular instances here below. We begin with the ἔρως felt toward a particular object of our desires, as in our desire for sexual consummation with a beautiful person. There is a lack within ourselves, which is why Love cannot be identified with the absolute (or God) according to Plato — since God does not lack anything. The precise nature of this lack is a bit obscure. Love (ἔρως) is not pursuing beauty for the sake of beauty per se but for the sake of happiness, which Plato elsewhere (Republic most famously) connects with absolute Goodness. Yet, what makes us happy? In Symposium, Plato connects our ἔρως with our desire for immortality, which compels us to procreate and thereby extend ourselves. Likewise, we want to “possess” the objects of our desire because we want the true object — happiness — to endure forever. So, this is why philosophy is better than sex (!) because we can “procreate” that which never perishes: virtue or goodness. Thus, Socrates rejects the sexual advances of his attractive male students, because he wants to procreate wisdom with them, thereby bringing them to a higher stage of eternal beatitude.

The “erotic” is never denigrated. Sexual desire and its consummation participate in the beauty that leads us to absolute beauty or goodness. The erotic impulse is not to be rejected or repressed but transferred to a greater and more expansive apprehension of beauty. At least, that is how Waterfield interprets it:

The temptation to talk about the ascent in terms of sublimation of erotic impulses has proved too strong for some post-Freudian commentators, but it is entirely inappropriate. Diotima is not talking about the unconscious repression of instinctive energy, but the conscious transcendence of it. Whatever precisely Freud meant by the term ‘sublimation’ (he changed his mind a number of times about it), it seems to involve a blockage of the erotic impulse; in Diotima’s speech, on the other hand, érōs is never blocked, even though it may be transferred on to different objects. Even here there is a difference between Plato and Freud: the new objects of érōs in Freudian sublimation are less satisfactory than the objects the person really desires; for Diotima, however, the further up the ladder of love one ascends, the more fulfilling the objects are. Finally, although it is clear that the passion of érōs is preserved throughout the ascent, it is not clear that the sexual element is, except as a metaphor (as in Eryximachus’ speech); for Freud, however, sublimated desires remained essentially sexual. [p. xxxi]

So, the “sexual element” is important at the early stages of our apprehension of beauty and desire for happiness, though it is not clear whether this persists — once our “eros” is directed toward the purer and enduring beauty of absolute goodness. Given that Plato elsewhere conceives of material reality as a lower “impression” of the eternal “forms,” it seems that Plato’s ideal is a transcendence beyond all sexual desire, even if he does not denigrate its importance in one’s ascent. The problem with an “erotic impulse” that never matures, remaining at the lower level of particular goods, is that it wants to unite with transience, instead of using this impulse to lead beyond transience.


Image: A bust of Diotima at the University of Western Australia. Click to enlarge.


I am reading through the opening chapter of John Frame’s recently published Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Some have described it as his “magnum opus,” though it appears to be just a distillation of his four-volume Lordship series. It features the obligatory forward by J. I. Packer, the evangelical equivalent of a papal imprimatur or nihil obstat. John Frame is not my cup of tea. Anyone who writes with such bulk must justify the bulk with imaginative prose and wonder-inducing insights. Frame does neither.

Anyway, I was struck by his odd criticism of Barth’s definition of theology:

Theologians often prefer very long definitions. One of Karl Barth’s definitions of theology is an example:

“Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s work—science learning in the school of the Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science labouring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word of God.” [Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 49-50]

Here Barth tries to bring a large amount of theological content into his definition. This attempt is understandable, since every theologian wants his concept of theology to be governed by the content of theology. So he tries to show how the very definition of theology reflects the nature of the gospel, the content of Scripture, the preeminence of Christ, the nature of redemption, and so on.

I think this is a mistake. In his Semantics of Biblical Language, James Barr warned biblical scholars of the fallacy of supposing that the meanings of biblical terms were loaded with theological content. The meaning of Scripture comes not from its individual terms, but from its sentences, paragraphs, books, and larger units. For example, the word created, just by itself, out of all context, teaches us nothing. But “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) teaches us a great deal. “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16) teaches us even more. The same warning is appropriate for theologians. Certainly our theological methods and conclusions must be derived from God’s revelation. But our definition of the word theology need not recapitulate those conclusions, though it must certainly be consistent with its conclusions. That is, the definition of theology cannot be a condensation of all the content of the Scriptures. Yet it must describe an activity that the Scriptures warrant. [pp. 4-5]

Frame then goes on to expound his own definition of theology: “the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” (p. 8). As for the above passage, how on earth does Barr’s criticism apply to Barth’s definition? I am basically familiar with Barr’s criticism of Barth in general, and Barth’s exegesis in particular, but how is Frame connecting this to Barth’s definition of theology?

He’s not. It’s just bizarre. Barth is defining theology, not biblical terms like δίκαιος (“righteousness”) and then weighting them with greater theological content than the text allows (which is Barr’s criticism of nearly every theologian!).

Moreover, how is Frame’s definition of theology superior? And what’s the point of all of this, besides appearing to be pedantic?

So, I found this section exceedingly curious.


December 18, 2013

Alright, final papers and exams are finally over! Per usual, I neglect the blog during such moments of intense creative output — also known as procrastination. Sadly, I am far more creative in the final 24-hour period of a deadline, truly brilliant even, but this is a gift conducive toward short essays, not books or anything substantive. I’ll have to hone my skills over a longer period of time. I need a taskmaster…or a pretty assistant like Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Whichever, preferably the latter.

During my breaks from solving the world’s existential problems, I discovered a band that all the kids have already discovered — The Gaslight Anthem. They have a great sense for what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like. Joyful and life-affirming. The lead singer has a fantastic voice too. Here is a sample:

You should also check-out “Here Comes My Man,” which proves once-and-for-all that Elisha Cuthbert should be in every music video. Another favorite, “Bring It On” is a good example of their overall punk-meets-Springsteen sound. They are from New Jersey after all.