Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Theological Aesthetics

Much of 20th century philosophy was to do with language. The limits of our language are the limits of our world, said Wittgenstein, with Derrida bringing this linguistic turn to its logical conclusion: There is nothing outside of the text. Theology today employs much of these insights in one form or another. Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine proposes a cultural-linguistic approach to understanding religions and their doctrines, with many others displaying the influence of Wittgenstein and co. in their work.

This turn made good sense to theology, especially to a theology concerned with the incarnate Word. But I fear that something is lost when we make of words the be all and end all of existence. There are "truths beyond speech" (to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt, who, it must be said, seemed to have no interest in such truths), and the word-work that is theology must always keep in mind (that is to say, in sight) that which transcends the limits of our language. David Hart writes that "the good can be known only in being seen, before and beyond all words." He even speaks of a moral truth revealed in the music of Bach that could not be known otherwise. I think he is right to do so.

Knowledge is not owned by words alone. Our bodies are not mere breathing machines for our speech, with our eyes or hands less valuable than our tongues. Truth is as visual as it is verbal; it is as much a seeing as it is a saying. On a personal note, I remember little of what I said or what was said to me as a boy, but I have a whole array of wordless scenes stored in my memory. The truth of my childhood is a truth that could only be properly communicated in images. This is why The Tree of Life is, quite literally, a must-see, for it is a reminder that we have eyes, and that they are a gift.

In the end, however, word and image are not in opposition. The Word is the image of the invisible God. God speaks to us through Christ, a prophet mighty in word and deed. Yet before and beyond all human words is the glory of the triune God - a glory named to us when the Father declares that "This is my son, whom I love" as the spirit connects Father and Son to each other. In the face of this glory we can and must speak doxologically, but only as we behold in wonder. The gospel, according to 1 Corinthians 15, is not only that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised. It is also that he appeared and was seen. "And we beheld his glory."

Thus begins and ends theological aesthetics.

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