Go Johnnies Go
For Shakespeare’s Birthday

Christ the Form of Beauty, by Francesca Murphy

As regular readers know, the author of this book is a theology professor at the University of Aberdeen, and a frequent contributor to conversations here. This is a published version of her doctoral dissertation, and that partly accounts for the fact that I didn’t understand a great deal of it. Not only didn’t, but couldn’t: I just don’t have the intellectual background required. What’s missing on my part is twofold, I think. As a dissertation, it naturally builds on the work of the big names in the field, and I have no more than a minimal acquaintance with most of them. And there’s a natural tendency in any discipline to develop a specialized terminology, with which I’m unfamiliar. I don’t want to call it a jargon, because that sounds pejorative, but I can’t help feeling that certain words and phrases have a meaning that I’m not getting. For instance, the word “extended” in this passage:

In the realistic image, the extended fact and the interior world are related. The image is not ‘extended’ within the mind.

Often the sense of these things began to sink in as I went along, and I found that in leafing backward through what I’d already read it was often more comprehensible. Still, I can’t get around the fact that I just don’t have the prerequisite knowledge assumed of its audience. Reading it was a lot like reading the broadly similar work of Marion Montgomery: while accepting the fact that I’m not entirely getting it, I find much that I can connect with. So I’ll do my best to make an intelligent comment about it.

It’s a work of theology, philosophy, and literary theory, converging on theology. The major names involved are the Fugitive group (especially John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate), William Lynch (S.J., I think?), and von Balthasar. The theme is the relationship of imagination to Christology: “It argues that our ability to enter into the Incarnation is in proportion to our willingness to imagine realistically.”

I think it’s accurate to say that a great deal of the book is taken up with the questions of what “imagine” and “realistic” mean, and with the question of whether imagination is useful, or perhaps necessary, in order for us to apprehend the real. And I think one of the conclusions is that the nature of Christianity is such that it is itself structured in a way that is not only eminently suited to be understood with the aid of the imagination, but presents this way of understanding as the only way of apprehending, or at least touching with the mind, Being itself. That is, it not only justifies but requires the imaginative—as opposed to the abstractly reductive—mind. Christ himself is an analogue.

The Son—not only seen statically, in a moment, but most of all in the drama of his life—is in a sense the work, the art work, of the Father and also represents the Father in a finite way that we can apprehend. He is however totally different from any “work” that we know in the ordinary course of things, or from the kind of work which we ourselves are, in that he is a work which works itself, fully and perfectly participates in its own shaping. The Father is God in his infinity and the Son is God in his apprehensibility, his knowability.

This makes Christianity a fundamentally aesthetic religion. Or perhaps I should say it is a religion whose fundamental mechanisms are aesthetic, or like those of aesthetics. It is not a religion which happens to have produced beautiful art, but one in which the process of beauty, so to speak, is intrinsic and essential. Beauty is, in a perfectly literal way, a sign of God.

The mental processes by which we know a work of art are essentially the same as those by which we know God, in this present life, with our present capacities and limits. Art, then, from both sides—that of the artist and that of the beholder of art, both the one who sees the vision and attempts to render it in some medium and those to whom he communicates it—is a way of knowing, and a way that is ultimately superior to, if of less immediate practical value than, the “univocal” way of scientific empiricism, which has no place for meaning, and for the organic complexity and ambiguity which point to meaning. Indeed, it has in the end no room for the human at all, as popular atheism continually reminds us.

All right, that’s as far as I’m going to try to go in trying to describe (or maybe just react to) the substance of the book. What I’ve said is certainly not a reasonable summary, and is maybe a little off to one side of the main point, but it’s what made the strongest impression on me. Here are a few passages that seemed important to me, and which express things I’ve long believed, however inarticulately:

Maritain describes beauty as the “radiance of all the transcendentals united.” This means that beauty is an objective property of being. If it is a transcendental—and thus coextensive with being—beauty is an element of everything that exists. It is not only present in lovely or majestic things such as seahorses or the Acropolis. Part of what it means to be, is to be beautiful. Beauty is not superadded to things; it is one of the springs of their reality. (p. 48)

Beauty is the meeting place of finite form with infinite light. It unites a definitely shaped form, upon which the mind can come to a stop, with an endless sea of radiant being, into which the mind can move without limitation. The human mind can only graps forms; boundless things elude it. …. Form concretizes a transcendence which overflows it, but which is its lure. (p. 142)

Beauty is reality under the aspect of form. (p.31)

Perhaps that’s a good explanation of the book’s title: how Christ is indeed the form of beauty.

And a good last word:

The beautiful is the presence of being. As such, it is pleasurable. This is not the aesthete’s escapist pleasure…. To accept the transcendentality of beauty is to make an act of faith in the giveness of being no matter how appalling or terrifying or repulsive. (p. 203-4)

And now maybe Francesca will tell me how much or little what I’ve said reflects what she actually meant.

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