But it is true, they fear it more than death, beauty is feared more than death, more than they fear death.
– William Carlos Williams

Theology seeks the particulars of how God works in the world and who He is, how the Infinite interacts with we the limited. Aesthetics pursues a strikingly similar aim: how the Whole, the All, the Eternal manifests itself in the fragment to create beauty. In the fusion of these two similar and yet disparate disciplines can be found incredible and important insights. Yet both theology and aesthetics are huge, diverse fields of thought, with canons too massive for mere piqued interest. For a simple start, The Portal of Beauty introduces a few key thinkers who tie together the two fields. Bruno Forte, in his concise, dense, and gorgeous work on the theology of aesthetics, draws us to a deeper understanding of the Holy One, through an exploration of the many links between studying beauty and theology. These links are reminders of vital, inescapable truths — truths we would do well to apply in our own relationships, lives, and art.

Forte’s knowledgeable, well-read guidance at times forsakes clarity in favor of poetic and eloquent mental acrobatics. All in all, though, his work is an enlivening beginning to an area that merits much further examination. He often stops at summarizing thinkers’ viewpoints, not carrying forward their ideas into practical applications relevant to daily life. And yet his work provides the first stepping stones in a path that we must take. Indeed, through his window into aesthetics shines impassioning clarity about the importance of beauty to the world, and specifically to the lives and missions of believers in Messiah.

Beauty, as Forte defines it, is “an event; beauty happens when the Whole offers itself in the fragment, and when this self-giving transcends infinite distance.”1 The Infinite Whole gives of itself in tiny fragments of its fullness through form and splendor. Beauty as form suggests that a fragment becomes a proportional analogy of the harmony of the Whole, a dwelling-place for the Eternal. Beauty as splendor describes the Infinite breaking forth, shining out of the intimate fragment and giving itself into the finite.

Seen in such light, what event is more beautiful than that of the Holy One offering to manifest Himself as Jesus, a frail, human fragment to His unfathomable entirety? Jesus embodies the exact perfection and nature of God — He is the image and form of the Infinite. At the same time, the power and radiantly loving heart of the Father shines forth from Jesus’ deeds and personality, a splendor unmatched by any other human being in history. Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus is perhaps the most complete and obvious example we have of an event of beauty. Thus suddenly the entire, vast body of understanding of beauty through the ages — aesthetics — unexpectedly reveals the personality and love of God. In examining beauty, one shortly comes to wonder at that strange melancholy that seems to haunt the truly beautiful, the twinge of death that entwines with joy to pierce the heart in aesthetic arrest. Forte puts his finger on the importance of that strange sadness, our need for despair in tandem and contrast with beauty.

“A Christianity deprived of beauty would risk being nothing other than a faith that has never known the darkness of despair, and so being an empty, tranquilizing ‘established Christianity’…True sacrifice requires love, and we only truly love a beauty that has stolen us from ourselves. And so there is a special strength and dignity in despair, attained only by those who have fallen in love with beauty, and absent from a this-worldly Christianity which has compromised with the calculations and comforts of this present age.”2

Forte turns to Soren Kierkegaard to elucidate the interplay between beauty and misery. Kierkegaard intimately investigates various models of how one might stray into pursuing penultimate beauty, all of which lead to abject despair in the dissatisfaction with the merely reflective beauty of this world while the heart continues to long for the true Beauty of the coming Kingdom. Beauty draws us to need desperately, and at some point of the dark night of despair our desperation drives us out of our prejudices, lusts, mediocrity and false comfort into a relationship with the One who is equally desperate to hold us in His arms and fill us with His Comfort. A faith without such passion at its heart is dry, shallow, and cannot but be co-opted by the forces against the Kingdom—quotidian apathy, satisfaction with mediocrity, fleeting pleasures to dull the pain of existing instead of living. Without beauty and therefore despair, we subscribe to a comfortable, controlled religion that places the Infinite One in a box built of our own fears, urges, and mundane routines and will not allow Him to fully reign over our lives. And yet beauty in the world has a way of entrancing its pursuers, never quite fulfilling their inherent longing for the Infinite at its heart. We stop at aesthetically pleasing moments and begin to pursue the pleasure they lend us, rather than the Truth that shines through such beauty and indeed is at its very core. There is a harsh tension between the acknowledgment of the Infinite revealed by real beauty and the desperate yearning for something more that beauty seems to highlight within us.

Forte, in his exploration of and departure from the base of Augustine’s aesthetic theology, elucidates the nature of this tension. “God is…Beauty, original and final; so it is that this worldly beauty, echoing its divine origin and pointing towards its fulfillment in the homeland, is the way that leads to him if, following this way, we do not halt at what is penultimate, but let ourselves be attracted towards supreme delight.”3. In Augustine’s treatment of beauty, we are granted permission to perpetually wish for another moment of beauty, so long as we remain conscious that in our pursuit of that more, what calls to our hearts is not the pleasure of experiencing beauty, but rather the Infinite within the beautiful fragment. The choice to run after the penultimate beauty rather than the Source of all Beauty is a snare, a doorway into the abject pain of grasping at what cannot ever fulfill — skeptics have been entirely correct in fearing beauty’s fickle allure. But because of this snare, it seems that for far too long much of the worldwide Body of believers in Messiah has shied away from pursuing beauty, branding it ‘worldly’ and ‘vain.’ We worry, because the corruption of something so profound as Beauty can so pull the heart from its quest for intimacy with its Creator. And yet in such fear, the Body risks practicing exactly what Forte (and indeed Jesus) warns against — a passionless, dry, “established” religion. Just as beauty corrupted is a fearful thing, so Beauty redeemed strikes terror in the hearts of the adversaries of the Kingdom. Further drawing us to the urgency of our need for beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that “…in a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency.”4

So much of our knowledge of the Holy One is through His creation; what proofs exist of His truth are in His beauty. Augustine speaks to this in a parable, questioning creation. “I looked at the creatures, and asked [about my God]; their beauty was their answer.”5 Should we choose to ignore the vital importance of beauty in drawing the human heart toward God, we risk not only missing vital truths about His nature, but misusing our own creative natures. We as the living Body of Jesus have a mandate to live in His image: an image that yearns for the beautiful, that embodies the beautiful, that creates, mimicking the actions of the Creator.

We have been granted “…salvation of history, and not salvation from history…The more man is man, the more he is an image, an icon of God.”6 This idea is from the Russian Orthodox thinker Evdokimov, a philosopher wrestling with the concept of the icon. In salvation does not come removal from our true selves, but rather growth toward who and what we were made to be. In exploring what it is to truly walk in His image, as we were designed to live, it is impossible to escape the mandate to create. Indeed, the first thing God asks of the human race in the Bible is that we “be fruitful and multiply.”7 We were made to create: our choice is not whether or not we will be creators, but whether or that draws us to first know God, that helps us understand the Infinite from our finite perspective through its form and splendor, that comforts us and agitates us and yet always pulls us deeper into the mystery of Reality. And we find ourselves with a commission to act in His image, creating and interacting with beauty in this world as a tool for drawing every person we meet into the coming Kingdom alongside us.

Forte’s book, densely packed with many more nuanced revelations and philosophies, still manages to leave the reader at a simple, convicting place. It is an invitation to begin a life of Beauty, not a set of spoon-fed conclusions applicable immediately to life. But the invitation is one that returns to the very core of our beliefs. The Eternal, Infinite One manifested Himself in fragmented humanity, took on death, and conquered despair — this core truth is the heart of all Beauty. All beauty in the world is in some way an echo of the Truth in the realization of the Eternal within the finite. And as beauty creates desperate hunger for Beauty, so by daily creating in the image of our Beautiful Creator, we advance His Kingdom and draw closer to Him.

[1] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty, p. vii.

[2] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty, p. 29.

[3] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty, p. 12.