Beauty Transcendent and Immanent

It’s been a long time since I’ve used this blog space for regular writing and thinking. Most of my writing now is for other platforms/publications, in addition to my monthly essay on Substack.

But I thought that I might return to the blog more regularly, now that I am actively reading, thinking, and writing in pursuit of a PhD. Right now I’m in the proposal-writing stage, and my task is to read as much in my field as I can to get an idea of where the current research/conversation is, and where I might be able to make a contribution. Fortunately/Unfortunately, I’m a super-fast reader with low retention. I’m hoping to combat that weakness by the discipline of writing on this blog—I always remember more when I have to write about what I’ve read. I also write in order to understand.

My very-broad area of research is theological aesthetics. I’m interested in a number of topics that fall under or intersect with this: ecological aesthetics, care for creation, creation’s role in revelation, the connection of aesthetics and ethics, the role of the imagination in perceiving beauty and the telos of the creation, pedagogy/discipleship/spiritual formation.

Ha. As you can see, I’m going to have quite a time narrowing things down for my proposal. But while I do, and hopefully beyond that, you can find my musings and questions—unpolished and in the process of being formed—here on this blog.

One of the themes that I’m continually finding in my research so far is the polarities of transcendent and immanent.

On the one hand, beauty has traditionally been named as a transcendental: along with truth and goodness, it is a core and common properties of all beings. If something exists, it must have (in some way) truth, goodness, and beauty. Plato, the earliest philosopher to discuss beauty, connects physical, earthly realities to eternally existent “Forms”— single, ultimately real, unchanging Ideas. Physical beauty is thus an instance of the Form of beauty—or, The Beautiful Itself, as Plato calls it. As Platonism developed into Neoplatonism, the philosopher Plotinus discusses “the Supreme Beauty by reflection of which all beautiful things are lovely” (1). Augustine, whose encounter with Neoplatonism helps him towards accepting the Gospel, takes up these ideas into Christianity and baptises them. Thus, for Augustine, beauty is a name of God.

But for many contemporary theologians, Plato seems to be the scapegoat for everything wrong in Western Christianity. He’s the reason, they say, we have a body/spirit dualism, which denigrates the physical and material in preference for the spiritual. From this perspective, a focus on transcendent beauty paves the way for the neglect and denigration of beauty present and perceptible to the human senses.

AM Coates raises this issue in his essay “Beauty Lived Towards Shalom: the Christian Life as Aesthetic-Ethical Existence.” He argues that the problem isn’t with the classic understanding of transcendental beauty, but with the Enlightenment’s severing of beauty from everyday action (2). The Enlightenment associated beauty with disinterested contemplation, and so made beauty not only other-worldly, but also disconnected from everyday life (2).

So, according to this narrative, we denigrate and dismiss creation as less—non-ultimate, changing, corruptible, and thus less real and less significant.

I see resonances of this in my own experience. I know many Christians (I include myself here!) who just love the beauty of creation. They prioritise nature hikes, camping, vacations at the sea-side, in the mountains. They talk about the glory of God manifested in creation from the pulpit and the lectern. This is, as far as I can tell, a genuine appreciation for the world that God has made. And yet—there seems to be (largely, not totally) a disconnect between that appreciation and ethical, everyday action.

It seems that many Christians prize the spiritual at the expense of the physical; the material creation that they can perceive with their senses is only a means to apprehend the truest reality (who God is), and so it can be left behind as unnecessary. Returning to Plato, it’s one of the lower rungs on a ladder than falls away when the higher rungs are attained (4).

What we need, as far as I can tell, is a way to hold both together, so that creation is transparent enough to be a sign of something beyond it, without fading away altogether (5).

Incredibly, we are not left without an image of this holding both together: in Jesus, the God-Man, we have transcendence and immanence. We have the transcendent God who is above and distinct from creation not only enter but also assume that creation in the form of humanity. Perhaps by understanding rightly his identity as divine-and-human, we can begin to understand how to fix our eyes on transcendence without forgetting immanence.

(1) Nichols, Aidan. Sacral Beauty, p 9.
(2) Coats, AM. “Beauty Lived Towards Shalom: the Christian Life as Aesthetic-Ethical Existence.” Acta Theologica, suppl. 29; Bloemfontein v 40 (Jan 2020): 93-113. The Enlightenment—another scapegoat for everything wrong in Western Christianity? I would agree with most (all?) critiques that I’ve read of it, but I think that people have the tendency to create whipping boys of certain ideas/people, and I wonder if this is one example.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Natalie Carnes draws this idea out in her comparison between the images of ladders in Gregory of Nyssa and Plato. See Carnes, Natalie. Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa.
(5) Junius Johnson uses the language of transparency and opacity to discuss created beings ability to function as signs. Johnson, Junius. Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty.

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