A Sense of Sweetness: In Search of a Reformed Theology of Beauty

I am hoping to be on sabbatical in 2022-23, and to that end have been developing a detailed project proposal for the book I want to write about a Reformed theology of beauty. Since I would value input on this plan, I thought it might be helpful to post one iteration of the proposal here.

My Question: I am a theologian working within the Reformed tradition. At the same time, my theological work is focused on the theology of beauty. Sometimes the connection between those two statements is strained. I often encounter the idea that the Reformed tradition is aesthetically barren, or even that it is opposed to all beauty. Even people within the tradition sometimes think this. But the Reformed tradition offers and has always offered an alternative aesthetic, not an anti-aesthetic.

There is a minimalist understanding of beauty that emerges from Reformed confessional theology, focused on events and relations rather than on objects. This understanding of beauty was implicitly operative for the first several centuries of the tradition. I find it particularly observable in the Church of Scotland during those centuries. I believe that a coherently Reformed theology of beauty is still implicitly operative, now most clearly in the majority-world church, particularly in parts of the world where the broader culture is amenable to a minimalistic aesthetic. That is the hypothesis with which I begin this project, titled “In Search of a Reformed Theology of Beauty” because it is quite possible that I will find something else. I have already found some interesting ideas and connections that I had not anticipated. This is a real search, and I expect to be surprised more often as I go.

Why This Matters: The study of beauty can seem like a luxury, but this is a mistaken impression. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry notes it is not an accident that in English the word “fair” means both beautiful and just. We see similar overlap in meaning in both Greek and Hebrew, where words for beauty may also mean goodness. The connection is a natural one that people in many cultures can understand, since a just and good world is beautiful. Beauty is often a word for what appears to be properly ordered, and that is also a way of describing justice. So developing a taste for beauty should turn us toward justice.

When we cultivate an appropriate taste for the beauty of justice, holiness, and love, it becomes more likely that we will be just, holy, and loving. It is more likely that we will find a lack of these things to be not only wrong but repellant. Too often in the Church, we teach people things that are true, which is important, but then we stop. For those true things to have traction in people’s lives, the mind must be supported by the will, and the will is moved and motivated by beauty. We are drawn toward what we find to be beautiful. If we want people to pursue justice, we must present justice as beautiful and desirable.

          We are living in a world that has fewer and fewer resources for contemplation, quiet, and delight, fewer and fewer supports for a life that allows time to turn aside and pay attention to the beauty of the world around us. Many of us are emerging from this covid season with a deeper desire for such beauty than ever, but meeting that desire well requires counter-cultural action. For those who are Christian, shouldn’t our desire for beauty have some relationship to our desire for God? Shouldn’t the life of the Church be a place where we experience beauty and are pointed toward God’s own beauty?

          Those who are Reformed must ask two questions: When has the Reformed tradition done this well in the past? Where is the Reformed tradition doing this well right now? My theory is that the answer to that second question will probably be some part of the world which is culturally equipped for simplicity, elegance, contemplation, and quiet joy – not the first values that spring to mind when we think of the United States. Reformed Christians in the U.S. need to learn from Reformed Christians elsewhere. Part of my research for this project therefore involves traveling to Reformed communities in different parts of the world. When I tell people that I’m going to visit seminaries and churches in Cairo, Nairobi, Tokyo, and Jakarta, they ask me what I’ll be teaching in those places. They assume that I go as the expert to the theologically less fortunate. But no. I go as someone from a broken culture looking for assistance, hoping to learn how the resources of the Reformed tradition have been translated more gracefully into other cultures and wondering if perhaps we in the west can learn how to do something similar.

          I also believe that anything we can do to make ourselves and others more aware of the beauty that surrounds us will improve our lives and theirs. Being aware of beauty is one of the simplest and most straight-forward ways to make life better. Even during great sorrow or tragedy, a moment of beauty can bring comfort and sustenance. But beauty also illumines paths that reduce sorrow and tragedy. Sharing the experience of beauty can advance understanding and reduce hostility and suspicion. Sharing the experience of beauty reminds of us of our common humanity and helps us to see the beauty in each other, not in spite of our differences, but in all the glorious particularity of our differences. No wonder Dostoyevsky famously said, “Beauty will save the world.”   

Plan & Timeline: In addition to working on the theology of beauty, I am also a medievalist, with a specialization in the theology of Bonaventure. I am used to approaching systematic theology via historical theology. This project on a Reformed theology of beauty is thus a move to a new theological era, but it does not require a shift in method. However, when it comes to beauty, there is a difference between studying medieval theology and studying early modern theology or contemporary theology. In the ancient and medieval worlds, most theology was done through the lens of beauty even though beauty was often not explicitly discussed. It was so much a part of the way that the world appeared to people that it did not always need to be articulated. During the Reformation era, some people still lived with that set of “enchanted” presuppositions. The Calvin scholar Richard Muller has established that in his theology John Calvin worked from a largely medieval way of thinking, which explains why we find an implicit, though not often articulated, sense of beauty in Calvin. This has always made Calvin a comfortable conversation partner for me. But the centuries after Calvin see an increasing proportion of Reformed theologians eagerly embracing the new Enlightenment mode of thought, which is less friendly to the lens of beauty even though beauty comes to be mentioned more frequently and explicitly. For several centuries, the old and the new perspectives overlap.  

          The book I am writing has as its working title A Sense of Sweetness: In Search of a Reformed Theology of Beauty. Here is my current table of contents. Each numbered topic represents a section, rather than a chapter, and the length of the sections varies.

  1. John Calvin’s Theology of Beauty. First, Calvin took his sacramental theology from the Orthodox theologian John Chrysostom, though he adapted it in a way that has significant implications for his approach to beauty. Calvin’s sacramental theology follows the same trajectory of ascent as Chrysostom’s, but for Calvin the locus of union is not in an object or place but in an event moving through time. It is not surprising that music rather than painting is the primary art form of the Reformed tradition. Second, Calvin took his iconoclasm from Bernard of Clairvaux, who forbade the use of images in Cistercian monasteries. Calvin never had Bernard’s financial resources when it came to building, given that Geneva was inundated with refugees during his ministry, so the gorgeousness of Cistercian architecture is missing from early Reformed aesthetic practice, but that style is consistent with Reformed aesthetic theory. The absence of images must not be equated with the absence of beauty, nor can we simply assume that the presence of images guarantees an experience of beauty. Third, Calvin took his participative ontology from Augustine, an approach to metaphysics that typically gives rise to a strong emphasis on the beauty of God when deployed theologically. Finally, Calvin used language for beauty that was common in the high Middle Ages, preferring non-visual metaphors such as “sweetness” when speaking about the beauty of goodness. He developed the idea of a sensus suavitas that is renewed within the soul during sanctification.
  2. Beauty and the Reformed Confessions. As the Reformed tradition spread, it produced confessional documents, many of which included implicit understandings of beauty in the creation as well as of the beauty/glory of God. These confessions also tended to assume a highly personal and aesthetic understanding of final causation. Calvin’s aesthetic commitments from the previous section were supported by confessions such as the French, Belgic, Second Helvetic, Heidelberg, and Scots Confessions, as well as the Westminster standards. Confessions that may seem irrelevant to contemporary people can take on a new glow when presented in the light of beauty, as I have often found in both church and classroom.
  3. Reformed approaches to beauty in the 16th – 18th centuries. There were some Calvinist theologians in England during this time who wrote at length about beauty or who expressed their theology in poetry. The English theological tradition therefore spoke about beauty more explicitly and more frequently than any of the continental expressions of the Reformed tradition; however, the English Reformation never embraced a fully Calvinist aesthetic. In contrast, the Church of Scotland offered a more consistent aesthetic expression, while speaking about beauty much less, at least until the advent of the philosopher Francis Hutcheson, whose seminal work An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) is the first systematic exploration of beauty within Protestantism. Hutcheson developed the idea that humans have an internal aesthetic sense by which we perceive beauty as well as other aesthetic qualities such as grandeur, order, and harmony. Although a minister in the Church of Scotland, Hutcheson has not always been classified as a Reformed thinker, but his ideas about beauty are closely connected to Calvin’s concept of the sensus suavitas.
  4. Jonathan Edward’s Theology of Beauty. Edwards is the Reformed theologian for whom beauty is most explicitly central. Beauty was the lens through which Edwards did most of his theology most of the time. I am looking for connections with Calvin and Hutcheson, but also for aesthetic ideas original to him. I am currently focused especially on his understanding of human affections and his adaptation of the sensus suavitas.
  5. Reformed approaches to beauty America in the 17th – 19th centuries. The Puritan roots of the American Presbyterian churches are seen in much eighteenth-century church architecture, music, and poetry, but the nineteenth century reflected a departure from this pattern, a departure I suspect is linked to controversies over sacramental theology. A Reformed theology of beauty is naturally grounded in a participatory understanding of the supper, but during the 19th century a memorialist understanding became dominant in large parts of the American Presbyterianism.
  6. Approaches to beauty in the 20th and 21st-century global Reformed communion. Today, the World Communion of Reformed Churches represents more than 100 million people in over 200 denominations and over 100 countries. It seems inappropriate to write about a Reformed theology of beauty in today’s world without consulting in some way with theologians from a cross-section of those countries about their experiences of beauty and its relationship to faith. The reception of Reformed theology into many different cultures offers an opportunity to see this theology translated into different aesthetic expressions.

Impact: Jonathan Edwards was raised in a Christian home as a believing young person. And yet he described a time of conversion in his young adult life, when suddenly the beauty of the theology he had always studied was revealed to him. Ideas about which he had been unsure were suddenly precious and clear. They were too beautiful not to be true. The study of the theology of beauty does something similar for me.

          Beauty is a hospitable, welcoming value. There is far more beauty in the world than any one person can ever grasp. There is far more beauty in the world than any one culture can ever express. Because there is so much beauty to be discovered, our human capacity for experiencing beauty can expand indefinitely. Beauty is thus a hospitable hub around which to gather people from different backgrounds, cultures, and disciplines. When we attempt to gather with people unlike ourselves to discuss what is true rather than what is beautiful, we may very soon find ourselves at an impasse. If you think that the solution to a math problem is x, but I think that it is y, we cannot both be right. Truth often works like this; we find we are unable to affirm the other’s perspective without denying our own. But beauty does not work like this. If you think that x is beautiful, and I think that y is beautiful, we can both be right. More than that, we may each be able to show to the other beauties that the other had not seen before, so that each of us leaves the conversation with an expanded awareness of the beauty of the world. The law of non-contradiction does not apply to beauty in the way that it applies to truth, because truth is about reason whereas beauty is about love, which can multiply and expand. Aesthetic perception is a way of knowing about the world that can be shared between people who do not speak the same language and whose patterns of life are radically different. Sharing together about what we find beautiful is a way of coming to know one another that is expansive and welcoming of difference. This is why I believe that retrieving a Reformed understand of beauty can help to advance knowledge between Reformed/Presbyterian people around the world who might otherwise be separated by differences of national and cultural allegiance. I hope to bring the American Christians with whom I work to a greater awareness of the global Church, not as a possible mission field, but as a possible source of wisdom about how to be Church together, how to honor the beauty of worship, and how to delight in holiness. The ultimate goal of this project is to facilitate communication and understanding between different parts of the Reformed communion worldwide by retrieving a part of our tradition that has often been overlooked.