There’s an age old idiom that goes, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, then you won’t know where you’re going.” As a New Testament teacher of high school students I asked my students to look into their lives and ponder what has brought them to this moment as high school juniors. They were asked to create a poetic rendering of an “I am from…” The goal of the experience is to help them consider all of the influences that affect their lives and thus, enable them to become who they are called to be. Interestingly many acknowledged the beauty all around them. One example from a student wrote , “I am from prides and hordes, and animals galore. Dense broad leaf forests from shore to shore. I am from sun and sand, a foreign land. Language you won’t understand. I am from the earth, the sea, the brilliant sky to which I’ll return for my final good nigh’.”
This process engaged the student’s recollection of “what” of their past or “who” of the present or previous generations that affect their being. The poetic rendering of the“I am from” previously mentioned portrays an understanding of this teen’s family migration from Africa and how it greatly impacts his current station in life as a student. There is a tension between what was and what is. This is similar to Hans urs von Balthasar’s first platitude recognizing that it is essential to engage a historical view of esthetics. As a first step in the study of theological aesthetics, it is necessary to recognize the theological elements of esthetics through the lens of the historical context.
In Plato’s era, “Poets and painters made use of appearances but they did not retain reality” (99). Further, there was a dualistic notion or separtion between heaven and reality, an either/or. The connection between heaven and earth was the role play of religion. Religion was the bridge that crossed the great divide. There was a very mythical notion and magical connection to life that religion occupied. Plato did not consider that artists could render truth. The eros or longing to love portrayed in art “can only love in its relation to the infinite”(100). This longing that can only be fulfilled in the infinite creates a tension that is demonstrated in the art work of the ancient Greek era. The art and theology are magical and mythological.
In the second platitude Balthasar builds upon the structure of the created order: “…the esthetic as a certain structure and the esthetic as experience must be equally taken into account” (108). For Balthasar sees the created order as the second platitude. One is connected to the natural order and made sacred in the created order. It is necessary to maintain the realm of mythology in our Christian era, according to Balthasar, in order to maintain art. When we forget the magical, mysterious nature of the world we no longer have eyes to see the ecstatically revelatory nature of creation.
Another one of my students when reflecting on their “I am from” demonstrated the second platitude of created order in a mythical, magical sense. “I am from the mounds of snow and frigid temperatures. I am from high in the sky and clouds below. I am from the long walks on the beach, the waves and sand on my feet.”
The third platitude that Balthasar discusses as “the esthetic element in revelation” reveals that all creation in actuality is an esthetic encounter. “Revelation itself is the foundation of a dialectic” (115). Contemplating the beauty in the created world is an overwhelming experience that requires a structure, a form of a story. This form is revealed in Jesus Christ through the call to discipleship in love and service. This form is revealed in the liturgical prayer of our Church and takes shape in the structure of our families and recognized in our nurturing homes.
This form and recognition of the esthetic in all of creation is demonstrated in this final example of my student’s “I am from.”
I am from the love of the creator of this earth.
I am from the mind of imagination that the world was made from.
I am from the friendship that is shared all around.
I am from the One who brought knowledge and
intelligence into the world.
I am from the author of everyone’s stories.
I am from the people who hope for the best world.
I am from the One who began all life.
I am from ancestors who gave us better lives.
I am from the father of all creation.