Fall Semester, 2005

Thursdays, 9 – 11:50 a.m.


Mark S. Burrows, Ph.D.

Professor of the History of Christianity and

Director of the Program in Worship, Theology, and Arts


with Priscilla Deck, Ph.D., and guests 617.964.1100 (x235); (x209)

Office hours by appointment



I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society.  That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls ‘the ecstasy of the privileged moment.’  Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy.  Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it.  Letting art is the paradox of active surrender.  I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.

                              Jeannette Winterson, Art Objects, 5 - 6



The work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.  The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.

                              Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 102



Beauty is not so plentiful that we can afford to object to stepping back a dozen paces to catch it.

                              Willa Cather, as cited in Writers on Artists, ix



To say that the tone of postmodern life is determined largely by consumer-related activities which themselves are incompatible with beauty may be another way of describing the loss of a master narrative.

                              Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty, 6



What is beauty, or the beautiful?  Does such a question have anything to do with theology, faith, ministry, or even the quotidian tedium and urgencies of life, properly speaking?  Is this necessarily a theological matter, properly speaking?  Or, in what manner might it become such a matter?  Are such questions ones that come to us with an abstracted neutrality, or are they not always bound by culture and tradition, memory and hope, desire and fear – and thus woven into a wider fabric of human experience than we alone can ever know?  Is the question of beauty, in other words, one that always comes to us an ethical claim with real and “worldly” implications, reminding us that the aesthetic is both real in its transcendental referent as well as being inevitably and inherently social and political?


This seminar is shaped by the conviction that beauty is not one category of experience and expression among others, but rather the primary mode of our being-human-in-the-world.  It is the invitation to us to incarnate our creativity as human beings.  It is the measure of the hope we live from, and toward – and, in this particular sense, both within and beyond our “experience.”  It is the shape of love enacted in and through our bodies, and by means of the communities of witness in which we find ourselves living.  One might even say that beauty – or, “making [in] beauty,” as Socrates would have it – is a true form of faith, not measured by doctrine or dogma nor exhausted in its direct ethical implications or social consequences.  It is a trans-cultural category of human experience, one distinct expression of its transcendental nature that implies both personal and socio-political dimensions.  And yet it comes to us also as a distinct mandate; it is a calling, framing our lives in a wider metaphysical invitation.  Above all, it is not simply “there.”  It must emerge through distinct ways of being.  As expressed in acts of human creativity and discovered in the natural order, it is “not a version of the facts, it is an entirely different way of seeing” (J. Winterson). 


In this seminar, we will ask about the nature of aesthetics, and whether there is a properly theological perspective on the matter – and, if so, what this might look like for each of us.  We will wonder about what the implications of such an understanding might have upon our life in communities of faith.  We will inquire about the implications of beauty for living in society and church.  We will explore what it might mean to “practice” beauty as an expression of our deepest convictions – viz., as “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11. 1).  And, we shall find ourselves compelled to ask, again and again, what it means for us to make the claim that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1. 14).  This is a physical claim, one that places – as the orthodox theologians in their defense of icons remind us – a certain pressure on our view of the ordinary and mundane, the earthly and what lies close-to-hand.  As we shall suggest in the course of our work together, it is a claim that might most adequately be understood not in historical but rather in aesthetic terms.


This class is thus an experiment in thinking, an exercise in theological discernment, a practice of contemplative engagement.  It is constructed on the premise that beauty is a primary category of human experience and expression (creativity), and shaped by the presumption that engaging the depths of being human depends on how we grasp beauty, and how beauty grasps our very being.  The seminar aspires to become not merely an academic exercise (though surely also this), but also an expression of transformational “seeing” and a goad toward a more attentive and faithful way of living in this world.





  1. Short essay.  A concise response to the question:  “What is beauty?” or, “What is the beautiful?”  An initial sketch; no more than two pages.  Due at class on Sep. 22.  Should state a clear thesis, and suggest resources, insights, or convictions you are currently aware of that help ground your claim(s) (e.g., scripture; theological or philosophical resources; experiential perspectives).


  1. Attendance.  Since this class is a seminar, regular attendance and participation is expected.  More than one absence will affect the final grade adversely.


  1. Critical reading journal.  Students will be paired at the beginning of the semester with a “journal partner”; each week, students will submit their response to the stated question to the instructor at the beginning of the class session and to their partner for written (and, if possible, verbal) response.  Each week beginning on Sep. 29 several students – schedule to be determined – will share (perform?) one entry in the seminar.  These entries are to be no more than a single page of focused writing, engaging the specific question related to the readings as stated in the syllabus.


  1. Final paper.  A final essay on the nature of beauty or the beautiful.  12 – 15 pages, double-spaced (12 point type, please).  This essay should be both critical and creative, reflecting a sustained engagement with the readings and sources explored in this seminar. 





Grades for this seminar will reflect each student’s active engagement of the material in written and oral form during the semester.  Active participation is expected.  Students who submit eight of the (eight) weekly assignments will be eligible for an “A” grade (as measured by progress during the semester, and the quality of this work together with the final paper).  Students must complete five of these (eight) assignments to receive credit for the course and be eligible to earn a “B” grade.  The final paper will constitute 50% of the overall grade, with the remaining 50% given to these written assignments and in-seminar participation.  The first short paper will be ungraded; it will become a measure of each student’s learning, and will be submitted with the final paper.




Sep. 15             Openings and framings of the questions


                        In class “readings”


Sep. 22             Foundations, 1:  Platonism and the origins of the aesthetic in the West


                        Read:   Plato, Symposium

                                    Iris Murdoch, “Art and Eros:  A Dialogue About Art,” in

Existentialists and Mystics.  Writings on Philosophy and Literature, 464 - 95


                                    Also of relevance:  Edward Farley, “Beauty as Being:  The Irrepressible

                                    Character of Beauty,” in Faith and Beauty.  A Theological Aesthetics,

                                    15 – 30; and, Richard Viladesau, “God and the Beautiful:  Beauty as

                                    a Way to God,” Theological Aesthetics.  God in Imagination, Beauty,

and Art, 103 – 140


                        For class:  formulate a written response to Socrates’ contribution

(the dialogue with Diotima; Symposium, 199c – 212c); how

does Murdoch engage Socrates’ insights in the imaginative

dialogue she constructs?  Is it truthful, and useful, for us?


                        N.B .:  First short paper on “What is beauty?” due at classtime.           


Sep. 29             Foundations, 2:  A medieval debate about the proper uses of art


                        Read:   Abbot Suger, selections, On the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and

Its Art Treasures

                                    Bernard of Clairvaux, Apologia 28 – 29 (Xerox)


                                    Frank Burch Brown, “Art in Christian Traditions,” in

                                                Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, 26 – 61;

                                                Robin Jensen, “Holy Places and Sacred Places,” in

                                                The Substance of Things Seen, 101 - 24           


                                    For class:  Formulate a written response to this debate,

and specifically to the question of the proper use of art given

the function of a particular sacred space (i.e., a “public” church;

a monastic church; another space)                                           

Oct. 6              Interlude:  The performance of art, and the question of cultural meaning


                        Read:   George Steiner, Real Presences, pp. 3 – 50, 200 – 32; and,

                                    Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects:  Essays on Ecstasy and

Effrontery, 3 – 21 and Alejandro García-Rivera, The Community

of the Beautiful.  A Theological Aesthetics, 39 – 61


                                    For class:  In a short essay (2 – 3 pages), insert yourself in the

“debate” between Steiner and Winterson and/or García-Rivera, on

the question of art and culture.  Steiner asks, “Why should there

be art?” but seems to presume a cultural and gendered neutrality in

this question.  How do assess the question?


Oct. 13                        Foundations, 3:  Are images defensible?  An orthodox defense and

a reformed response to the iconoclastic question


                        Read:   John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk. I, ch. 11; and,

St. John of Damascus, First Apology against those who Attack the Divine Images


                                    For class:  What is at stake in the argument John makes, and how

does this relate to Calvin’s quest to find a “pure and legitimate use”

of sculpture and painting?  How might one “imagine” God, beyond

representational art?  That is, is representation the only viable

form of theological expression of the divine? 


Oct. 20                        A philosophical interlude:  On the history of aesthetics in the modern west


                        Read:   Truth and Method, 2nd rev’d edition, trans. Joel Weinsheimer

                                                and Donald Marshall, pp. 42 - 169


                                    Also of relevance:  Farley, “Beauty as Sensibility,” Faith and Beauty,

31 – 42


                                    For class:  Gadamer muses that “play” has everything to do with

how we experience art.  Discuss this claim, and design a simple

exercise to express your claim; try it out with friends or church

members before class, and be prepared to discuss this “practical”



Oct. 27                        A Roman Catholic challenge:  Can one speak of a distinctively

“Protestant” aesthetic? 


                        Read:  Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord:  A Theological

Aesthetics.  Vol. 1:  Seeing the Form, pp. 45 – 79; or, Wendy

Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure


                                    For class:  What is the point in von Balthasar’s critique, and is

it correct?  If not, offer an initial musing about what he missed.



 Nov. 3                        A philosophical challenge:  Are there “norms” in art?


                        Read:   Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 156 – 74


                                    For class:  What criteria do you bring to bear in evaluating the quality

of an artwork?  Be specific; your own opinions are not sufficient as

arguments.  What specific authorities – e.g., theological, biblical

socio-cultural, political, etc. – would you bring to bear on this



Nov. 10                       An ethical challenge:  On “radical decentering” and the ethics of beauty


Read:  Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, and

            Simone Weil, “Love of the Order of the World,” in Waiting for God,

                        158 – 81


            Also of relevance:  Farley, “Beauty as Benevolence” and “Beauty in

Human Self-Transcendence,” Faith and Beauty, 43 – 50 and 51 – 63;

And, Viladesau, “The Beautiful and the Good,” in Theological

Aesthetics, 183 - 214


            For class:  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once concluded

that “the aesthetic and the ethical are one” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).  How does Scarry view this relation?  Offer a specific

response to her contention that beautiful objects (artworks, etc.)

“turn us toward justice.”  What does she mean by this?  How do you

assess her claim?  What limitations might we need to raise, if any, to



Nov. 17                       Aesthetic discernment and the question of taste           


                        Read:  Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste,

                                                esp. pp. 3 – 127; Robin Jensen, “The Beautiful and the

                                                Disturbing,” in The Substance of Things Seen, 125 - 52


                                    For class:  In what manner might art reform faith, even if it

                                    is not specifically “Christian”?  In what sense are – or, might – criteria

of artistic “taste” related to Christian doctrine, faith, or experience?

What do you make of Brown’s argument that we might speak

Properly of “Christian taste”?


Thanksgiving recess


Dec. 1              Practicing beauty, 1 (field trip)


Dec. 8              Practicing beauty, 2 (field trip)


Dec. 15                        Final discussion


                                    For concluding discussion:  Each student is to bring the thesis

statement that will shape their final paper; they should be

prepared to explore these thesis and suggest resources they anticipate

being pertinent to such an exploration.




Balthasar, Hans Urs von.  The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1:  Seeing the Form. 


Barth, Karl.  Church Dogmatics II/1


Begbie, Jeremy.  Voicing Creation’s Praise.  Toward a Theology of the Arts. 


Brown, Frank Burch.  Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste.  Aesthetics in Religious Life. 


__________.  Religious Aesthetics.


Dyrness, William.  Visual Faith.  Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue


Farley, Edward.  Faith and Beauty.  A Theological Aesthetics. 


Gadamer, Hans-Georg.  Truth and Method.  Second revised edition. 


Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro.  The Community of the Beautiful.  A Theological Aesthetics. 


__________.  A Wounded Innocence.  Sketches for a Theology of Art. 


Gilson, Etienne.  The Arts of the Beautiful. 


De Gruchy, John.  Christianity, Art, and Transformation:  Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice. 


Hazelton, Roger.  A Theological Approach to Art.


Heidegger, Martin.  “What Is a Painting?”  in Poetry, Language, Thought. 


Jensen, Robin.  Understanding Early Christian Art.


__________.  The Substance of Things Seen.  Art, Faith, and the Christian Community.


Laeuchli, Samuel.  Religion and Art in Conflict.  Introduction to a Cross-Disciplinary Task


Maritain, Jacques.  Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry. 


__________.  Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, 


Mothersill, Mary.  Beauty Restored. 


Murdoch, Iris.  The Fire and the Sun.  Why Plato Banished the Artists. 


__________.  Existentialists and Mystics. 


Nichols, Aidan, O.P.  The Art of God Incarnate.  Theology and Symbol from Genesis to the 20th Century. 


O’Donohue, John.  Beauty.  The Invisible Embrace. 


Plato, Symposium


Scarry, Elaine.  On Beauty and Being Just. 


Steiner, George.  Real Presences. 


Steiner, Wendy.  The Scandal of Pleasure.


Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth, ed.  Theological Aesthetics.  A Reader. 


Tillich, Paul.  On Art and Architecture.  Ed. John Dillenberger. 


Viladesau, Richard.  Theological Aesthetics.  God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art


­__________.  Theology and the Arts.  Encountering God through Music, Art, and Rhetoric


Weil, Simone.  Waiting for God. 


Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  Art in Action.