Karl Barth and the Beauty of God
This dissertation examines the theme of beauty in the theology of Karl Barth and explores its fruitfulness for the practice of theology and two key areas of the Christian life. It offers a close, contextual reading of Barth’s seminal discussion of the theme, and pays particular attention to the historical sources and the theological rationale that inform his thinking. Most recent theological reflection on beauty has taken place under the auspices of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican thought. Barth’s bold theological retrieval of beauty prompts us to reconsider the possibilities and limits of approaching beauty from a Reformed Protestant vantage point.
Barth introduces beauty as a secondary but nevertheless essential concept for understanding the attribute of divine glory. Briefly, beauty names the dimension of God’s character that evokes desire, gives pleasure, and rewards with enjoyment; it is therefore especially useful for speaking of the participatory dimension of humanity’s knowledge of God. The language of beauty speaks to the winsome ways by which God, for the sake of God’s own glory, enables human beings (subjectively) to perceive and to delight in the (objectively) radiant form of God’s being and action. It follows that a failure to account for divine beauty will produce a flawed perception of God and a distorted vision of the gospel.
In the lexicon of drumming and percussion, the rudiments are a set of basic sticking patterns that serve to foster musical fluency, enabling those who master them to play with a disciplined and creative freedom. I argue that the account of divine beauty Barth puts forward in Church Dogmatics II/1 should be analogously reckoned as a “rudimentary” theology of beauty. Under the terms of this musical metaphor, the four basic nodes or patterns of Barth’s thinking—he presents beauty as revelatory, biblical, perilous, and crucial—may conceivably be applied or “played” in a wider range of contexts, in conjunction with other doctrinal loci. Indeed, Barth himself was inclined to regard beauty as a theme deserving of further theological elaboration.
Barth’s distinctive way of conceptualizing the beauty of God was endorsed by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and thus came to play an important if indirect role in shaping the course of recent theological aesthetics. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask two questions: To what degree does Barth follow through on his own insights into beauty and the character of God? And to what extent are his insights fruitful in ways that Barth himself did not identify or anticipate? In response to the first question, my contention is that Barth develops his rudimentary theology most fully in relation to the human experience of joy, which I characterize as the affection that most closely corresponds to the beauty of God. I engage the second question by looking at the practice of Communion in light of Barth’s four rudiments, in order to test their constructive potential. Seen through this lens, the church’s meal appears as a vital and, in many Protestant churches, an underutilized resource for the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of spiritual and aesthetic formation.
This study of Barth’s theology of beauty points towards several conclusions. In relation to the task of interpreting Barth, I show that the scope of Barth’s rudimentary theology of beauty is not limited to the doctrine of God; rather, it informs and enriches his broader theological project. In terms of theological praxis, Barth’s habit of reaffirming key elements of the church’s tradition while also raising critical questions, commends itself as a viable model for engaging theologically with beauty without compromising core Protestant convictions. Finally, I argue that Barth’s resolutely theo-centric way of thinking about beauty has potentially wider ramifications than he himself perceived, particularly in relation to areas of theology or Christian practice where the language of beauty is already deeply woven into the fabric of scripture and tradition.
theology of beauty