Ravished by Beauty, by Belden Lane (Review Essay)

Belden Lane’s Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford 2011) is a lovely book. It is a book that uncovers beautiful dimensions to the Reformed tradition. It is accessible, winsome, personal and inviting. Lane does a particularly good job of summarizing some often overlooked and valuable aspects of the Reformed tradition. He dispels many stereotypes about this tradition, especially in its Puritan manifestations. This is a book that I might well use in class to introduce students to the discipline of theological aesthetics in a Reformed context.  

If I were to use it in class, however, I would have to point out that this is also a fundamentally incoherent book. Lane is trying simultaneously to embrace and to reject the Reformed tradition, which creates problems for him throughout. He freely admits to being “at best, a reluctant Calvinist” [p.57] who is “repulsed” by doctrines of divine wrath and predestination [p.207]. This does not invalidate the book, but it does mean that readers need to be attentive. Lane is at his best when he is at his most academic, giving accurate and accessible summaries of the thought of past thinkers. As soon as he starts to move into contemporary application, however, things get a bit sloppy, and the line between what these thinkers actually said and what Lane wishes they had said is sometimes unclear. For instance, here is a passage from the final chapter, when Lane is attempting to move from the theology he’s been discussing into some ecological consequences:  

[T]he Reformed tradition insists that God intimately participates in the world’s suffering for the sake of a redeemed creation. Lest there be any doubt as to where God stands, the Trinity radically embraces (in the mystery of the divine vulnerability) the pain of an anguished world. Calvin and Edwards speak of a ‘beauty’ in suffering because of what they witness in the cross” [p.220].

Granted that there have been some theologians in the late 20th-century who have identified themselves as Reformed and who have also been happy to talk about God sharing the world’s suffering, this is hardly the consensus of the Reformed tradition, and it is certainly not what either Calvin or Edwards would have had in mind when they spoke of the beauty of the cross. I am sure that Lane knows this, so I’m not entirely clear about what he’s trying to claim in a passage like this one. I think he wants to say that, even though he disagrees with many of the essentials of Calvin’s theology, he is nonetheless an heir of John Calvin; he wants to be recognized as a thinker standing in Calvin’s own tradition. What puzzles me is why this is so important to him, given that he wants to reject so much of that tradition.  

Most of the time, Lane does a better job than this at reading his primary conversation partners, who are unambiguously Reformed. John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards each merit an entire chapter, and Puritans such as Richard Baxter, John Cotton, and Richard Sibbes are referenced throughout. The emphases that Lane finds in these writers on God’s glorious beauty and on the reflection of that beauty in the natural world are really and truly there in the tradition, and he articulates those emphases with a compelling delight. The chapter on Calvin is especially enticing.  

Lane sees two streams in the Reformed tradition – one which emphasizes affect and sees creation as the theater of God’s glory, another which emphasizes analysis and looks for God’s glory in discussions of His eternal decrees. The problem with this division is that the thinkers in the first stream, whom Lane mostly likes, share with the thinkers in the second stream a belief that salvation is entirely God’s work and decree from before the foundation of the world, and this belief is not incidental to their understanding of how His glory is reflected in the world. In other words, it turns out to be incoherent to grab hold of Calvin’s beautifully articulated awareness of God’s glory reflected in creation while simultaneously rejecting Calvin’s conviction that God elects some and rejects others. These two aspects of Calvin’s thought are connected in that the sensus suavitatis – which Lane defines as “the new, aesthetic capacity to sense the sweetness of things that believers receive as one of the graces of salvation” [p.171] – is awakened in the heart of the believer by God’s electing work.  

Many modern readers of such texts would miss the connection implied here since we twenty-first century people typically have a reduced understanding of causality, only recognizing the sorts of causes that science is equipped to measure.  Since science can’t measure the ways in which a goal or destination might operate causally on the human heart (what ancient and medieval folks would call final causality, or teleology), we tend to re-interpret references to such experiences in pre-Enlightenment texts as if the person doing the desiring were the agent, choosing an object to desire. It’s pretty clear in the Puritan texts Lane cites that in their experience of being drawn to God by His alluring beauty, it is God who is the active agent. The desire they experience is generated within them by His work. The experience of God’s beauty is only possible as a result of God’s electing love. God is the magnetic power drawing those he chooses toward himself by means of his entrancing glory. The difference between people who are aware of that glory and those who aren’t lies in God’s decision, not their own. It’s possible that Lane shares the common modern inability to read older texts accurately. However, in other respects he demonstrates an ability to read very accurately and well, making me suspicious that he isn’t missing this implied causality at all, but rather that he is glossing over the connection between election and the desire for beauty because he doesn’t like it.         

In between the book’s six chapters Lane inserts what he calls “landscapes of desire,” personal mediations on his own aesthetic experiences – especially, though not exclusively, in the natural world – and how those experiences lead him to desire God. These are almost all very appealing. They range from his description of visits to the communities of Iona and Taizé to his relationship with an ancient cottonwood tree.  With these meditations, message and medium fit together particularly well, in that Lane wants to recall us to a fully embodied and “landscaped” experience of God’s glory within the world.