Skip to main content

Writings in theological discussions of beauty evince certain problematic tendencies with respect to “spirit” language. Whether it is the paucity of such language or an idiosyncratic usage of it, “spirit” language is often evacuated of specifically pneumatological content. In this essay W. David O. Taylor attempts to re-conceptualize the Holy Spirit’s role with respect to beauty, arguing that the Spirit secures the logic of each created thing and thereby its own way of being beautiful, while also drawing it into the life of God in Christ, in whom all things hold together. Mr. Taylor is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.
– Pope Benedict XVI, “Meeting with Artists” (November 2009)1


When one considers the way in which theological discussions of beauty employ “Spirit” language, several problematic tendencies surface. A first problem, we might suggest, is the sheer paucity of such language. While “God language” and “Christ language” suffuse page after page of exposition, “Holy Spirit language” receives scant attention, surfacing far less even than language of “spirit” or “spiritual.”2 In the multi-author volume, Theological Perspectives on God and Beauty, for example, we discover a single appearance of the Spirit in Graham Ward’s essay, five perfunctory appearances in John Milbank’s, none in Edith Wyschogrod’s, and a complete absence in the Index (losing out to Spinoza and the St. Sabbas monastery).3 An initial impression would lead the reader to believe that she has landed in a binitarian world.4 Perhaps the weak pneumatology that often surfaces in Western treatments of beauty has its roots in the common problems associated with Augustine’s doctrine of the Spirit, though that is plenty debatable.5 Yet if the Spirit is persistently regarded as merely the “sweetness” shared by Father and Son,6 then it is easy to see how the Spirit over time becomes merely the harmony of the Trinity rather than the harmonizing One, a divine person bereft of active agency. While both theocentricity and christocentricity, then, are often deemed not only necessary to the investigation of beauty but also as self-evidentially necessary, the same cannot be said about pneumatocentricity.7

A second problematic tendency is the use of “spirit” language in vague and inconsistent ways. In his Letter to Artists (1999), Pope John Paul II, for instance, notes how art “must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”8 Etienne Gilson, in a sympathetic sensibility to the Holy Father, writes: “Thanks to the fine arts, matter enters by anticipation into something like the state of glory promised to it by theologians at the end of the time, when it will be thoroughly spiritualized.”9 Teilhard de Chardin, in his essay “The Christic,” as summarized by Patrick Sherry, “sees the risen Christ as inaugurating a new stage in the evolution of the universe, involving the spiritualization of matter and the development of consciousness,”10while Jacques Maritain, in his exposition of art and beauty, declares that “the more highly developed a man’s culture becomes, the more spiritual grows the brilliance of the form which ravishes him.”11 From the context of these kinds of statements, it is not clear how “spirit,” “spiritual,” “spiritualize” or “spiritualization” are exactly to be related to the Holy Spirit.12 What sort of relationship are we being invited to perceive between “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” domains? Are we talking about an ascent narrative in our encounter of beautiful art—from some sort of lesser to greater, or corrupted to uncorrupted, experience?13 Or is it a flight from a heaven-less earth to a heaven-full earth?14 Authors often, unfortunately, fail to provide sufficient clarity on these questions.

A third problem concerns the way in which the Spirit is related to beauty as such. For example, as Patrick Sherry sees it, “the appeal to the Holy Spirit seems most appropriate in the case of works of art and examples of natural beauty which we find profound and moving.”15 Yet why should things that are “profound and moving” be singled out to designate Spirit-specific activity? Might these not just as easily describe the activity of both Father and Son? Pope John Paul II, in his blessing to artists, remarks: “May your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”16 While at one level wholly laudable, at another the Pope has left unclear whether the artist’s work, as a “glimmer” of the Spirit, is intended to refer to a denotative, an epiphanic, or a sacramental experience of the Spirit, and the difference between these outcomes is surely considerable.17 Maritain, in his section on art and morality, which resembles the language of both Gilson and Chardin, writes: “Now God is Spirit. Progress [in art] … is therefore a transition from the sensible to the rational and from the rational to the spiritual and from the less spiritual to the more spiritual. To civilize is to spiritualise.”18 One may ask in light of these comments: Does created beauty serve to bring us into the invisible realm of an immaterial God or does it bring us specifically into a participation in the life of the third person of the Trinity?19 The answer, again, is often not easily apparent.

In light of these problematic tendencies, I wish to propose a way in which a traditional understanding of beauty might be pneumatologically rendered on trinitarian terms.20 I do so of course mindful of the limitations of the so-called traditional theory, so-called because one can establish only very few features that commonly fall into the historically long-standing view of beauty in Christian history.21 This caution notwithstanding, the following is an attempt to retain beauty as a viable theological concern, ably serving the work of Christians to describe the “way things are,” as well as to re-conceptualize the Holy Spirit’s role with respect to created beauty.22 While modest in scope, the argument I wish to advance is that the Spirit secures the logic of each created thing and thereby its own way of being beautiful, while also drawing it into the life of God in Christ, in whom all things hold together.

The three tasks of this essay are, first, to indicate a working philosophical definition of beauty, second, to suggest a way of thinking about the logic of created beauty, and, third, to relate the work of the Holy Spirit to the kind of beauty which we find in the created realm. The argument is that all things in creation, whether “natural” or human-made, are able to be beautiful, and that it is the Holy Spirit who takes responsibility for deepening the particular reality of each thing’s beauty as well as for perfecting each thing by bringing it, through Christ, into reconciled relationship with the Father.

A Working Definition of Beauty

A first step toward our argument is to retain, by way of Thomas Aquinas, a qualified traditional understanding of beauty. The basic idea here is that beauty is marked, on the one hand, by two formal qualities and, on the other, by a pair of qualities that result in consequence of the first pair.23 The four qualities are as follows.

Beauty is Marked by Proportion24

According to Aquinas, this quality suggests either a harmonious relation of parts to the whole, a right relatedness of a form to God, a right relatedness of a form to logical or rational considerations, an order of congruity, or, finally, our psychological ability to discern the quality of proportionality or consonance in a given form.25 Granted this conceptual mouthful, the point is that the quality of proportion in beauty is not a single quality but a complex one, marked by a family resemblance. It is key to assert that right proportion is a dynamic rather than a static trait; it is, to the point, a dynamic unity.26

Beauty is Marked by Wholeness

As Umberto Eco explains, recapping Aquinas, wholeness as a mark of beauty is the complete realization of form.27 As Aquinas himself puts it, “A thing is adequate to itself whenever none of it is missing.”28 Luigi Pareyson describes the quality this way with respect to the arts: “A work of art possesses every quality which it ought to possess, no more and no less.”29 Wholeness, alternatively, is marred either by excess or by defect.

Beauty Results in Splendor

Eco acknowledges that this is a difficult concept to discern even in Aquinas’ own writings.30 One question is whether splendor is a quality that inheres in the form or is something that we perceive in the form. The answer for Aquinas seems to be both. As Eco notes, a beautiful thing brings its “diaphaneity” into act; that is, it is something that we perceive in a beautiful thing because that thing as beautiful “expresses” itself.31 Another way of putting the point is that a beautiful thing irradiates its true being (as claritas) in consequence of its consonance and integrity (its objective quality), which we in turn perceive (subjectively) as beautiful.32

Beauty Results in the Awakening of Desire

Shifting from Aquinas to Hans Urs von Balthasar, we can express this final quality in the following terms.33 When we encounter beauty, we encounter it as a kind of desire-filled epiphany that pulls us into the object of beauty as an act of eros where we simultaneously lay hold of and are laid hold of by the beautiful object; that pulls us up towards the Source of all beauty as an act of contemplation; that pulls us outside of ourselves as an act of ecstasy; and that pulls us out towards an other as an agapic act where we enjoy the other for its own sake. This kind of encounter with created beauty would serve, in turn, to counter dysfunctional tendencies: namely to escape beyond the object of beauty and so to leave it behind as if the object were no longer “needful” (to treat it in Manichean fashion as hopelessly “lesser”); to escape into ourselves narcissistically and so to protect ourselves over against the presence of others; to escape into the object of beauty and so falsely to lose ourselves; and, finally, to escape from others and so to use them instead of to love them.34 On the terms just stated, a right encounter with beauty would constitute an ideal experience. The regrettable fact, of course, is that we often fall short of it and allow the desire which beauty evokes in us to corrupt rather than to sanctify us.

The Logic of Created Beauty

In light of this (not uncontested) definition, where a beautiful thing bears the marks of proportion and wholeness, resulting in splendor and the awakening of desire, I propose the following two ideas with respect to the way in which particular created things exhibit beauty. By created things I mean to indicate both the “work of God’s hands” (angels, physical nature, human beings, and so on) and the work of human hands (cultural products, artworks, social happenings, and so on).

The Many Things in the Created Realm Exhibit Beauty According to Their Own Logic

This is a way to assert both an objective and a relative dynamic in beauty. A thing in creation is beautiful because it bears the marks of beauty (thus objectively) but in a way that is relative to the peculiar nature or end of a thing and to the particular conditions in which it is involved (thus subjectively). As Maritain writes, “Just as each kind of being is in its own way, so is each kind of being beautiful in its own way.”35 With this point we argue against any generalized judgment of created beauty and in favor of a more intensively contextualized one.36

Understanding this clearly might protect us from two kinds of damaging subjectivism: a subjectivism which projects personal prejudices onto a given thing and a subjectivism which refuses to accept any objective qualities that mark that thing as beautiful. To say it this way is not to preclude a personal response to, say, a beautiful performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One may well watch such a performance and find it disagreeable—for any number of reasons. Yet while a negative subjective response to it may be reasonable, this is not to say that all performances of Hamlet are equally good or bad, and that no judgment, however qualified it needs to be, can be made about the beauty of a dramatic rendition of the bard’s most famous play. To the point: the beauty of a performance of Hamlet must be judged according to the general logic of plays and to the specific logic of Renaissance theater. How an outsider to Elizabethan drama might acquire the capacities—or “taste”—to perceive, appraise and appreciate beautiful theater lies beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that such a capacity will need to be seen as appropriate to a right experience of created beauty.37

Things in Creation are Often Complex in Nature and Nearly Always Operate in a Complex of Contexts

This fact, I suggest, invites us to a more disciplined appraisal of beauty. Let me offer a few examples to illustrate the point. Because a human person is a complex being, he or she can be said to be simultaneously beautiful in one faculty but ugly in another. A physiognomically unremarkable saint, for instance, can be described as uncommonly beautiful of character, while a Hollywood actor may be regarded as physically handsome but morally deformed. A one-dimensional judgment of a person will rarely suffice. John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures, to use an inanimate object as an example, exhibit a beauty of form, while communicating, allusively, expressively and rather successfully, an idea regarding the ethical ugliness of car pollution.

Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor, to use a sonic case, represents a work of hauntingly beautiful choral and orchestral music. Its content, however, specifically in the “Sequentia” section, deals with the awfulness of death, the anguish of loss, the rupturing effects of sin, and the terror of final judgment; and the impression which it evokes in the listener will likely be an intensely rich, perhaps even conflicted, one. As a more complicated example, “The Tortured Christ” by Guido Rocha, a Brazilian artist, visually depicts the crucifixion of Christ in horrifying but still beautiful fashion. The visual form of the work exhibits beauty according the logic of sculpture, even as the human figure reflects a distorted form, while the narrative form which the artwork expresses can be regarded as beautiful with regard to the logic of divine love, whereas the contextual form, or the sinful circumstances under which the crucifixion historically took place, must be seen as ugly in light of the logic of human love. With artwork such as this, it is not inappropriate to want to describe it in an aesthetic sense and on linguistic terms as grotesquely beautiful.

To tease this point out, I wish to suggest a slight but significant change in the discourse surrounding Christ’s beauty, and by association all such complex experiences of beauty.38 Scholars rightly struggle to know how to reconcile traditional language about beauty with the Christian doctrine of God, especially as it relates to soteriology. Patrick Sherry, for instance, repeatedly stumbles over this quandary, citing Francisco Goya, Mattias Grunewald, and Francis Bacon as examples that he prefers to describe as terrifying and disturbing rather than beautiful.39 To the charge, “How do we square passages such as Isaiah 53:2 and the events of the cross with tendencies in Christian tradition to speak of God as the all-beautiful One?” I propose again that we view the passion of Christ as complex data rather than as a single datum.40

Is Christ’s crucifixion, and all that occurred around it, ugly? Yes, but only in a qualified sense. According to the logic of right human relationships, to put Christ on the cross is an act of ugliness, or more theologically, a sinful, dehumanizing activity. Is the act which God performs on the cross beautiful? Yes. According to the logic of agapic love, God in Christ demonstrates a perfect love in his submission to suffering and death. Whether artists depict the crucifixion in an aesthetically beautiful or ugly fashion depends on the medium employed, the style utilized, the skill of the artist, the purposes intended, the context in which it is displayed, and so on. These factors will condition our response to the work, but they will also summon us to judge the experience with greater care. As Richard Viladesau observes, “The cross challenges us to rethink and to expand our notion of the beauty of God and indeed of ‘beauty’ itself.”41 It does so not only by opening up a way of perceiving such an experience as a multi-layered complex, where both beauty and ugliness fittingly co-exist, but also by moderating our tendencies to issue hasty judgments on things or experiences which invite a more discriminating evaluation.

When all of this is considered in light of the economy of God, we can affirm that the Holy Spirit is mysteriously at work in this world, re-integrating all things in Christ, while also drawing them into the divine fellowship, particularizing and perfecting all created beauty. And it is to this work of the Spirit that we now turn.

The Holy Spirit as the Beautifier of all Things in Creation

As Philip Rosato observes in The Spirit as Lord, creation can be seen for what it is only because of the work of Christ’s Spirit, not by taking its pulse.42 Pentecost becomes determinative of creation’s meaning, not vice versa.43

The Holy Spirit as Particularizer

When we regard creation through a pneumatological lens, what is it that we see? We see, for starters, how all “material particulars,” as Colin Gunton remarks, “are the most real things that are, because the divine hypostases together constitute the being of God.”44 We see, by way of Genesis 1, not ideals or changeless forms but rather a celebration of creation’s haecceitas as the gift of the Spirit, for it is the Spirit who particularizes all things, both in heaven and on earth.45 We see how the Spirit performs this particularizing work in the life of Jesus.46 As the Scriptures bear witness, the Spirit is active at every point of Christ’s life, capacitating him to be this kind of messiah, not any other kind, leading him to this town, not that one, to heal this person, not that other one. The Spirit, in short, deepens Jesus’ thisness, enabling him to be this kind of geographically located, ethnically specific, physically and vocationally unique person, not any generic kind.47 As particularly divine, particularly human, with his own way of being, we discover in Jesus’ life the kind of work which the Spirit performs throughout all of creation.48 In the Spirit’s befriending of matter in the life of the Son, the Spirit befriends all of creation and in so doing creation discovers its true character, as both beloved of God and as capable of being “its own thing.”49 To think about the Spirit with respect to creation, then, we should not immediately think “spiritually,” if by that we mean an invisible, immaterial or “internal” domain; we should more immediately think “creaturely,” as that which befits or corresponds to creaturely life, and it is for the sake of deepening, clarifying, concretizing, hallowing, and intensifying creation’s creatureliness that the Spirit performs his particularizing work.50

The Holy Spirit as Perfector

Ultimately, as Gunton explains, the Spirit frees creation to be particularly itself in order to be perfected by relating it back to its Source.51 This work of perfection does not principally involve creation’s evolution or development but rather its eschatological transformation.52 For it is not mere change or diversity that is at stake in creation’s vocation. It is change with a telos, where the Spirit draws all “dappled things” toward their true end.53 Specifically, the Spirit’s work of perfection entails four dimensions.54

It entails, first, the realization of creation’s true being, or its full glory, and therefore its splendor.55 It entails, second, creation’s wholeness. Wherever we encounter beauty in the things of creation, the wholeness that it exhibits anticipates and awakens desire for the shalom of the eschaton. One source of debate, on this account, is whether an encounter with “earthly” beauty in, say, a poem generated in response to the Pyrenees Mountains should be regarded as a denotative, epiphanic, or sacramental encounter with God’s Spirit. That is, does the experience of beauty in the Pyrenees-inspired poem involve a sign that points away from itself towards a “true country” that yet awaits us? Does it involve a revelatory breaking-in through which we glimpse that country only dimly? Or is it that when we encounter wholeness in such things (as a taste, to use Barth’s description of Mozart, of “the whole context of providence”), the grace of God is communicated to us, nourishing us by the Spirit of Christ?56 While we leave aside for now a conclusion, which is by no means insignificant, the main point here is that an encounter with created beauty evokes a desire for the kind of world which characterizes the eschatological age, where all things will be not only whole but also, precisely in their wholeness, “most themselves.”57

The Spirit’s work of perfection entails, third, drawing all things into a reconciled relationship to God. Borrowing Gunton’s language again, the Spirit’s peculiar office is “to realize the true being of each created thing by bringing it, through Christ, into saving relation with God the Father.”58 In such a relation, all things are rightly related not only to their Maker but also to their respective “neighbors.” They are, that is, harmoniously related. Fourth and finally, the perfecting work of the Spirit entails the right enjoyment of creation. Or to echo Augustine, it entails the capacity rightly to enjoy creation in God. Under the Spirit’s supervision, all desires are rightly ordered and we are thereby enabled rightly to savor and appreciate creation’s bounty—now “in part,” at the new age “in full.”59

On the terms of this essay, echoing Paul Evdokimov, we may affirm that while the Father is the Source of creation’s beauty, and the enfleshed Son is the perfect locus of the Father’s beauty, it is the Spirit who instantiates, illumines, communicates, and completes this beauty throughout the created realm.60 In God’s original desire for a richly generative creation, the Spirit secures beauty in the manifold particulars of creation, frees them to develop in novel ways, becoming many-thinged or multi-formed, and brings them eschatologically to perfection by relating them back to the unity and joy of the triune Life.61 More specifically, the Spirit secures the logic of each created thing and thereby its own way of being beautiful—its own way, that is, of being “proportioned,” “whole,” “splendid” and “evocative of desire”—but also draws it into the life of Christ, in whom all things hold together.62

A Few Final Proposals

As we observed at the beginning of this essay, writings in theological discussions of beauty evince certain problematic tendencies with respect to “Spirit” language. Exceptions exist, thankfully,63 but in the main the tendency will be to discover irregular uses of the term, where references to the Spirit confusingly dip in and out of small s and large S,64 where the meaning of the term is presumed as obvious, or where “spirit” language is markedly evacuated of specifically pneumatological content, as if the reality of “spirit” in this world could be understood apart from the concrete reality of the Holy Spirit. What kind of redress have we sought to these tendencies?

A first step, implicitly, has been to take our cue from von Balthasar. Like his fellow Basler, Karl Barth, von Balthasar hews his theological aesthetics to a consciously trinitarian pattern of thought and refuses to develop a description of beauty apart from a consideration of the economy of God.65 These two habits represent important methodological practices for the articulation of a peculiarly Christian theological aesthetics. A second step has been to establish a working definition of beauty; to say it is this, not that. Without some kind of concrete identification, however debatable it might be, theological discussions of beauty quickly turn muddled. A third step has been to identify two features of the Holy Spirit’s work: in this case his particularizing and perfecting work. A final step has been to relate the work of the Spirit to the kinds of beauty we discover in the created (and creative) realm, with the hope that this kind of approach to the subject will have illumined “the way of the world.”

Where our thesis would require further unpacking is in regard to instances where a particular thing or experience in creation undergoes a morphing of sorts. When an audience is accustomed, say, to a particular understanding of theater, how do they begin to judge, for example, the avant-garde plays of Samuel Beckett which intentionally subvert the form in order to draw it out into a new cultural space and to invite the audience into a new kind of experience of drama? In the interstices of a form’s transition from one thing to another, from singular form to pluriform, how do we assess a new form’s beauty? More precisely, how do we re-assess both the objective and relative qualities of a new created form as well as of our experience of it? While this is a challenging task with objects in creation (for example, apple trees or dogs) and cultural objects of human manufacture (for example, cities or theater plays), it would seem that the challenge is greater with respect to conceptions of a flourishing human life (for example, whether women should wear pants [a late-nineteenth-century question], whether Western men should wear long hair [a 1960s question or a twelfth- or eighteenth-century question, as the case may be], or to what extent modifications of our body and behavior are consonant with a Christologically ordered view of humanity [transhumanism and sexual ethics come to mind here]). The answer to these questions lies beyond the scope of this essay, but the search will not be made easier by a rigid clinging to either narrowly objectivist or subjectivist notions of beauty. What will be needed is a careful teasing out of these notions within the special contexts in which they emerge and are experienced.

With all this in mind, I conclude this essay with a few specific, perhaps bold, propositions as correctives to poor uses of “Spirit” language in discussions of beauty. Against the notion that spirit language is either self-evident or self-explanatory, I propose that all such language should be carefully submitted to a definite grammar of the Holy Spirit. In similar fashion, I propose that all language in discussions of beauty—such as finite and infinite, ineffable and effable, transcendent and immanent, invisible and visible, supernatural and natural—should also be pneumatologically rendered, lest such language become too easily untethered from the triune economy. Pneumatological specificity, it is hoped, will result in more disciplined speech about the nature and merits of created beauty.

Against tendencies to view creation’s beauty as either a static possession (what we might call the Catholic tendency) or in hyper-actualist terms (what we might call the Protestant tendency), I propose that all things in creation possess beauty as a gift of the Spirit. This is an affirmation of the Spirit’s active agency in the world, as the One who realizes the beauty of each created thing in splendid, even leisurely, fashion.

Against the notion that if we simply look around we will accurately perceive the beauties of this world, I propose that it is the Spirit who enables us to see beauty rightly.66 This is to affirm, at the very least, the Spirit’s work of illumination. If Stanley Hauerwas is right, that we do not see reality rightly by simply opening our eyes, then the practice of perceiving the nature of created beauty will require training.67 Fundamentally, only God’s Spirit can disclose the true nature of things, but the Spirit also chooses to work through the practices of a faithful community and that community’s skilled visionaries—writers and artists, farmers and scientists, professional and lay—to bring to light the unique qualities of beauty throughout creation.68

Against a de facto static view of creation’s beauty, I propose, on the one hand, a dynamic view where, say, the beauty of fruits and animals unfolds in increasingly diverse ways because of the Spirit’s work to free creation to develop in novel ways, and, on the other, a Christologically oriented view of development in the human creature,69 where the beauty of the languages and vocations of the human creature develop in increasingly diverse ways again because of the Spirit’s operations. This is an affirmation of the Spirit’s particularizing work in the world, over against all homogenizing and deterministic orientations.

And, finally, against any sharp bifurcation of material and moral beauty, I propose that it is the Holy Spirit who enables all things to become whole. Sherry comments: “The claim that the transfiguration of the cosmos is being anticipated now in the Spirit’s work of creating beauty is similar to the claim that the Spirit’s present work of sanctification is an anticipation of our future glorification and life of holiness.”70 This is a way to affirm the completing work of the Spirit in creation. In the same way that the Spirit seeks to make human beings whole like Christ (thus, amongst other things, morally beautiful), so the Spirit enables things throughout creation to become whole “in” beauty, proportional in their integrity.

While these propositions may only be regarded as launching points for further investigation, the hope is that they might point us toward a more richly nuanced view of the Holy Spirit’s relation to created beauty.

Cite this article
W. David O. Taylor, “Spirit and Beauty: A Reappraisal”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:1 , 45-59


  1. St. Benedict XVI, “Meeting with Artists,” Address at the Sistine Chapel (Nov. 21, 2009): <>
  2. For example, Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001).
  3. John Milbank, Graham Ward and Edith Wyschogrod, Theological Perspectives on God and Beauty (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 65, 8ff.
  4. Compare Colin Gunton, “Editorial,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 1.2 (July 1999): 115 for a similar criticism of Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (New York: Routledge, 1999).
  5. See Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Compare Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), esp. ch. 9; Thomas Weinandy, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995).
  6. Jonathan Edwards employs this language specifically to describe the relationship between holiness and beauty with regard to the Spirit. See Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 201; and compare 257.
  7. For observations on this tendency, see Patrick Sherry, “The Beauty of God the Holy Spirit,” Theology Today 64 (2007): 5-13.
  8. Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists (1999), ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html, 12.
  9. In Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful (New York: Scribner, 1965), 33.
  10. In Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics (London: SCM, 1992), 149; see also de Chardin, “The Christic” in The Heart of Matter (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).
  11. In Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 21.
  12. Compare Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, trans. Martha M. Matesich (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 122.
  13. See, for example, Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 30.
  14. Compare Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 109-113.
  15. Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, 26; and compare 4, 30.
  16. Pope John Paul II, “Letter to Artists,” 16.
  17. More on this question below.
  18. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 62.
  19. A more helpful treatment of the Holy Spirit’s relation to created beauty can be found in Bruno Forte, “The Music of the Spirit,” in The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics, trans. David Glenday and Paul McPartlan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 78-101, where Forte ties Augustinian, Hegelian and contemporary pneumatologies to notions of music respectively.
  20. This essay seeks plainly to build on the work of Patrick Sherry, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Colin Gunton. In particular: Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press; New York: Crossroad Publications, 1982-1989); Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). See also Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, 160, who argues “that the divine beauty is to be explained in Trinitarian terms, for the Father’s glory is reflected in the Son, his perfect image, and diffused through the Holy Spirit; that the Spirit has the mission of communicating God’s beauty to the world, both through Creation, in the case of natural beauty, and through inspiration, in that of artistic beauty.”
  21. Compare Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, “The Great Theory of Beauty and its Decline,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 31 (1972): 165-180.
  22. In the interest of retaining a focused treatment of the topic, this essay largely restricts itself to Protestant and Catholic sources. More could be said, and of course should be said, on the matter by bringing Eastern Orthodox resources into play, and in doing so complicate but possibly also strengthen the thesis. Likewise, the essay focuses exclusively on created beauty rather than on the beauty of the Creator.
  23. The material of this section refers largely to Umberto Eco’s summary of Aquinas’ ideas in The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). Key is Aquinas’ statement in I.39.8c: “Three things are necessary for beauty: first, integrity or perfection, for things that are lacking in something are for this reason ugly; also due proportion or consonance; and again, clarity, for we call things beautiful when they are brightly colored” (cited on 65 of Eco).
  24. Farley, Faith and Beauty, describes the “Great Theory of Beauty” chiefly in terms of proportion (see 22-23, 47). While the tradition certainly returns again and again to this feature, it seems limiting to restrict beauty to this feature alone.
  25. Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 64, and compare 93-95.
  26. Compare Daniel W. Hardy and David F. Ford, Jubilate: Theology in Praise (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1984).
  27. Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 87; and compare 67-80.
  28. Ibid., 99.
  29. Cited in ibid., 100.
  30. Eco, ibid., 115, explains: “We may wish to inquire … why Aquinas was not more generous in providing explanations of this point, either here or in his other works. The answer lies in the fact that he never took a specific interest in the problems of beauty for their own sake. He never wrote a treatise, or even an article, about it. He never felt the need to put his ideas on aesthetics into systematic form.”
  31. Ibid., 103.
  32. Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 115, notes that when we encounter the splendor of form, we are encountering the “real presence” of the “whole of reality,” but that such an encounter also points beyond itself to the “depths” of Being itself. Form, in short, is the glory or splendor of Being.
  33. Ibid., 32-33. To be transported, he explains, “belongs to the very origin of Christianity. The Apostles were transported by what they saw, heart, and touched—by everything manifested in the form.” When von Balthasar describes a “theory of rapture,” which for him constitutes the very content of dogmatics, he talks of it as a double and reciprocal ekstasis: a movement of God to humankind in revelation and a movement of humankind to God in faith.
  34. Viewed from the perspective of the cross, beauty awakens desire but never apart from a sober reckoning with both sin and fallenness as well as the inbred proclivities of humans towards idolatry. On this account, see Jeremy S. Begbie, “Sentimentality and the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, eds. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 45-69.
  35. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 24; italics in original. Compare Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, 22. With respect to God’s unique beauty, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 650-660. In the language of the King James Bible, “He hath made everything beautiful in his time” (Eccl 3:11).
  36. This point in different ways has been raised by feminist and liberationist critiques of a traditionally Western notion of beauty. See, for example, Claus Westermann, “Beauty in the Hebrew Bible,” in Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible, eds. Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 584-602; Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith, and Susanna, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995); She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, eds. Laurie Cassidy and Maureen H. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).
  37. This point requires careful, extended inquiry. Especially helpful on this issue is Frank B. Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3-25.
  38. The goal here is to bring a measure of clarity to the common instinct, of both professional and lay audiences, to use the language of “beautiful” and “ugly,” or some such vocabulary, to describe things in nature, culture and history as well as works of art.
  39. Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, 24-31.
  40. John de Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics and the Struggle for Justice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), is particularly strong on this point. “The beauty of Jesus Christ,” he writes, “is the beauty of God. But it is the beauty of the ‘suffering servant’ (Isaiah 53:2-3), and as such it is a veiled beauty which is not self-evident” (21). Also see Barth, CD II.1: “If the beauty of Christ is sought in a glorious Christ who is not the crucified, the search will always be in vain. … In this self-declaration, however, God’s beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we might call the ugly as well as what we might call the beautiful” (665).
  41. Richard Viladesau, The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts, from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 9.
  42. Philip J. Rosato, The Spirit as Lord: The Pneumatology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), 37.
  43. Ibid., 58.
  44. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many, 207, italics inoriginal.
  45. Ibid., 190-191, 205. It might be helpful here to note the distinction so favored by Gerard Manley Hopkins between quidditas and haecceitas, where the former refers to the essential quality of a given species (for example, a Duke basketball game in the Cameron stadium) while the latter emphasizes the quality of absolute uniqueness of that species (such as a Duke vs. UNC basketball game in Cameron stadium). I owe my colleague Bo Helmich thanks for this point.
  46. Compare Tom Smail, The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1994), 169ff.
  47. Sergius Bulgakov, Le Paraclet (Paris: Aubier, 1946), 182. “The Word becomes an abstract idea if he does not receive his concrete reality in the Spirit.”
  48. This idea is developed in Jurgan Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), esp. 98-103, and Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), esp. 163-165.
  49. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), is excellent on this account; see esp. 45-72. Barth develops the idea in Church Dogmatics III.3, trans. G. W. Bromily and R. J. Ehrlich (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), §49. Noteworthy is this observation: “[God] is far too free not to be able to accept and joyfully to affirm [the human creature] in its particularity. … [Against all degenerative movement towards homogeneity, the work of God] has nothing whatever to do with a leveling down and flattening out of individuals and individual groupings. … To each of them He gives its own glory, its lasting worth, its definite value” (168). The capacity for creation to have a space “to be itself,” Barth insists, is owed to the two hands of God—Son and Spirit.
  50. Rogers, After the Spirit, 58.
  51. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many, 189.
  52. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 224.
  53. In the last line of Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” he includes this striking phrase: “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
  54. Just as creation’s particularity takes a Christological shape, so too does creation’s perfection. It is in the bodily life, bodily death, bodily resurrection, and bodily ascension of Christ that we discern the eschatological action of God the Spirit, and just as the Spirit perfects Jesus’ humanity in space and time, so the Spirit perfects creation in space and time. Compare Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many, 205. For the material implications of the doctrine of ascension, see Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1976), 135-142.
  55. Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 66-67: “Beauty is the blazing forth of the primal, protological, and eschatological splendour of creation even in this age of death, in which redeemed man is admitted to participation in God’s act of praising himself in his creation.”
  56. Compare Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, trans. Clarence K. Pott (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986). Is “sacramental” even the best choice of terms here? Might we not refer to this kind of experience as symbolical, in the Johannine sense, as a material thing which mediates the presence of divine life and power? On this point, see Sandra Schneiders, “Symbolism and the Sacramental Principle in the Fourth Gospel,” in Segni e Sacramenti nel Vangelo di Giovanni (Rome: Editrice Anselmiana, 1977), 221-235; see also Jeremy Begbie’s comments on “The Power of Sacrament” in “The Future of Theology Amid the Arts: Some Reformed Reflections” in Christ Across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 162-175.
  57. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 32, notes how the beautiful as symbolic invokes a “potentially whole and holy order of things.”
  58. Gunton, 189.
  59. See Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21-29.
  60. Compare Paul Evdokimov, L’art de L’icône; Théologie de la Beauté (Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1970), 298, 29.
  61. See also Reinhard Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 124.
  62. Compare von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 115. See also Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 203-214.
  63. See Jeremy S. Begbie, “Created Beauty: The Witness of J. S. Bach,” in The Beauty of God, 19-44; Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), esp. 224-228; Steven R. Guthrie, Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011); and William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 217-312. Despite my reservations above, Sherry’s Spirit and Beauty is an important introduction to the subject of this essay. David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) includes several remarkable expositions of the Spirit’s relation to beauty. See, for example, 177-178.
  64. For example, Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, 110-111. Compare Gordon D. Fee, “Translational Tendenz: English Versions of Pneuma in Paul,” in The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honor of James D. G. Dunn, eds. Graham N. Stanton, Bruce W. Longenecker and Stephen C. Barton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 349-359.
  65. Compare Barth, Church Dogmatics III.3. Also von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 122: “Besides examining God’s beauty as manifested by God’s actions in his creation, his beauty would also be deduced from the harmony of his essential attributes, and particularly from the Trinity. But such a doctrine of God and the Trinity really speaks to us only when and as long as the theologia does not become detached from the oikonomia, but rather lets its every formulation and stage of reflection be accompanied and supported by the latter’s vivid discernibility.” See also Stephen M. Garrett, “God’s Beauty-in-Act: An Artful Renewal of Human Imaging,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 14.4 (2012): 459-479.
  66. See Stanley Hauerwas, “The Significance of Vision: Toward an Aesthetic Ethic,” in Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1974), 30-31.
  67. Ibid., 36.
  68. That this may involve an “argument” within and across traditions, in the spirit of Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Virtue, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2007), is to be expected.
  69. Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 28.
  70. Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, 150; also 13, 142.

W. David O. Taylor

Fuller Theological Seminary
Dr. David Taylor is Director of Brehm Texas and Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.