With its associations of wealth and excess, beauty can easily be seen as a privilege, or, even, an enemy of justice. The pursuit of beauty can be linked to denial of pain and suffering. Ethics and aesthetics are incompatible.
Adrian Coates, whom I mentioned yesterday, attempts to navigate the polarities of this-worldly and an other-worldly concepts of beauty. Although much of Christian theology has ignored or dismissed beauty as irrelevant, Coates says that because this-worldly beauty has the potential to be demonic, “We dismiss this-worldly beauty as insignificant at our peril” (1).
Coates explores the theology of Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer to find a connection between ethics and aesthetics. The first choice, Kierkegaard, is perhaps a strange one—most others that I’ve read so far don’t think Kierkegaard has much to contribute to a positive aesthetics. Coates shows, however, that Kierkegaard distinguishes between aestheticism and aesthetics. Aestheticism is a romantic idea of beauty that is concerned with sensory immediacy, thus creating a virtual reality that “anaesthetises and exhausts the soul”(1). What a description! He argues, “Such aesthetic existence is incongruous with the Christian life, the faux beauty of sensory immediacy along with idealistic creation of self-gratifying systems of identity and meaning (even as manifest in Christendom) needing to be rejected in truly ethical-religious existence” (2). In other words, if by aesthetics we mean self-gratification and/or immediate sensory satisfaction, aesthetics is incompatible with ethics. That kind of life only deadens us to the Other.
But that kind of aesthetic life is not the only option. From Bonhoeffer, Coates argues that the faithful aesthetic life comes from being oriented towards the other that follows Christ’s example:
“Bonhoeffer’s call to this-worldly Christianity is also a call for aesthetic-ethical discernment.24Echoing Kierkegaard’s distinction between an immature and mature embrace of aesthetic existence, Bonhoeffer (2010:485) distinguishes between a “shallow … comfortable … lascivious” this-worldliness and a mature this-worldliness practised in light of “the ever-present knowledge of death and resurrection”. This mature mode of this-worldliness follows after Christ in the everyday, as a relational orientation of “being-for-others” (Bonhoeffer 2010:501).” (3)
“Theological aesthetics should always be grounded in Christology, in the marriage of both the human and divine beauty of Christ. By focusing on the divine and neglecting the human, we fail to appreciate both the visceral impetus of beauty in the formation of this-worldly apperception, and the connection to embodied action (the social impact of such understanding)” (4).
Christology, Coates argues, brings together ethics and aesthetics by bringing together the divine and the human, this-worldly and other-worldly beauty. I love Bonhoeffer’s phrase, describing Christ and us as imitators, of “being-for-others.” As a transcendental, beauty is associated with “being”—Bonhoeffer’s phrase describes the proper orientation of that being/existence as towards the Other.
Coates also uses the word “fittingness” to link ethics and aesthetics. “Fittingness” is traditionally an attribute connected to beauty, a way of determining whether something is beautiful or not. Following others such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Coates says that fittingness also applies to ethics: “an unjust act is an unfitting act; it is an act which fails to accord with the status of the person treated” (5).
I’m interested in following up with Wolterstorff…both in general for his concern that ethics and aesthetics be united, but also because he comes from the Reformed tradition (as my own), and there don’t seem to be many such theologians thinking about aesthetics! Jeremy Begbie is another one. Both seem to focus on the visual arts more than on creation’s beauty, however.
(1) Coates, AM. “Beauty Lived Towards Shalom: the Christian Life as Aesthetic-Ethical Existence.” Acta Theologica, suppl. 29; Bloemfontein v 40 (Jan 2020): 93-113.
(4) Coates, Adrian. 2019. “Everyday Aesthetic Existence And Discipleship”. Ph.D., University of Cape Town.
(5) Coates, “Beauty Lived Towards Shalom.”