Thursday, March 7, 2013

St. Anselm, Beauty, and Evangelization

In our fourth-year Christology class, we're up to Anselm, one of my favorite Scholastic thinkers.  A couple of years ago, I gave this talk on the way Anselm consistently uses the aesthetic argument ("it is fitting") to connect his theological arguments to wider (liturgical, devotional, mystical) aspects of the life of faith.

(If it doesn't play, click the "Tindeck" box at left to open a separate download page.)

Fr. Barron has a recent video on using beauty to evangelize, as a more attractive or less confrontational starting point than goodness or truth.  This overlaps conceptually with Anselm's method, although he's not specifically talking about beauty as a theological method:

I think Fr. Barron is quite correct about the impact of beauty, and its potential for evangelization.  But I think he's overlooking (probably due to the limits of the short video medium) the possible complications.  In brief, while beauty evokes goodness and truth, and calls forth from us a suitable response; and while in general  this response ultimately leads to worship of God; it's not true that beauty speaks for itself or leads directly to God.  That's precisely why the "it is fitting" argument works as Anselm uses it.  Anselm's aesthetic argument always operates in a particular context, and leads to or supports the larger conclusions evoked by concrete connections in that context (as I show in the three examples in the talk).  What we lack today, even within the Church, is a sufficiently shared context to ground the aesthetic argument.  A certain amount of work therefore needs to go into the effort to evangelize (or to catechize) from beauty, to establish a shared context and referents.  Otherwise, there's simply too much disagreement already, about what is beautiful (e.g., in the liturgy), much less about what is beauty (i.e., ultimately revealing God) to imagine that the argument from beauty by itself is going to lead to the same end for any two given people.

No comments: