Called to Attraction

An Introduction to the Theology of Beauty

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Brendan Thomas Sammon
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , October
     2017.
     172 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781620324691.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There is nothing straightforward about beauty. A contested term with a contested history, beauty always requires qualification. Brendan Thomas Sammon, assistant professor of theology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, acknowledges as much when he cites a favorite proverb of Socrates: “all that is beautiful is difficult” (19). He readily admits that not everyone will be satisfied with his choice of interlocutors in his book, Called to Attraction, and that plenty of theological claims about beauty will be far more complicated than one might, at first glance, assume. For this admission alone, Sammon deserves a careful, charitable read.

In this “introduction to beauty,” which belongs to the Cascade Companions’ series that aims to provide “brief yet compelling” treatments of topics by academics aimed at non-specialist readers, Sammon seeks “to offer a brief introduction into what could be called a theology of beauty, or what is more commonly called today theological aesthetics” (2). More specifically, his goal is to provide a “forest” view of theological discourse on beauty “by examining some of the more prominent ‘trees’, so to speak,” and to show how beauty enters into the act of intellectual inquiry itself, “providing thought, or reason, with significant resources for its various operations” (7).

In chapter 1, Sammon begins his investigation by surveying the “call” of beauty in two ancient traditions, Jewish and Greek. With the former he examines key narratives in Genesis and Exodus; with the latter he offers a quick tour of beauty in Plato and Aristotle. In chapter 2, he explores ways in which the events that marked the early church, chiefly the “Christ event” but equally significantly the writings associated with Paul and with Neoplatonism, were simultaneously affected by and contributed to the development of a distinctly Christian theology of beauty. In chapter 3, Sammon highlights the influence of Augustine and Dionysius the Aeropagite on the divine name tradition. 

Chapter 4 looks at beauty at the dawn of the Middle Ages, with specific reference to John Scotus Eriugena, St. Francis of Assisi, and the crucial role that the Cistercians, the Victorines, and the School of Chartres play in the development of beauty in Christian thought. Chapter 5 examines how beauty and reason came to be intimately associated in the writings of Albert the Great, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, and how beauty becomes essentially characterized by the properties of integritasconsonantia, and claritas. Chapter 6 moves the discussion into the modern era with a focus on the writings of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, while Sammon’s final chapter explores the “return of beauty” in the 20th century and concentrates on the work of the Swiss Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar.

It is no easy thing to write an introduction to a theology of beauty. It is even less easy to write an introduction that spans 150 years. Reams of material have to be excluded from such a project and unenviable choices, guaranteed to vex experts in the field, inevitably have to be made in the interest of satisfying the requirements of the publisher’s assignment. For achieving such a task without a hint of complaint, Sammon deserves to be commended. 

He is also to be commended for gifting both the discipline of theological aesthetics and the field of theology and the arts with a book that did not yet exist: a short account of the history of theology and beauty. Sammon’s book readily lends itself to introductory courses on faith and arts of one sort or another. Sammon’s book further helps both insiders and outsiders to the Christian faith to understand how beauty relates to the grammar of Christian theology.

Less commendable perhaps is the number of assumptions and assertions that mark the book, as opposed to proper arguments. From the outset, a certain amount is presumed of the reader in Sammon’s repeated use of the pronoun “we.” The “we” that Sammon assumes appears to be a “we Catholics” because of the characteristically Catholic treatment of the subject—one that excludes substantial contributions to 20th-century theological discourse on beauty by scholars such as Paul Evdokimov and David Bentley Hart in the Orthodox tradition or by Protestant philosophers like Gerardus van der Leeuw and Nicholas Wolterstorff. 

The book’s argument is likewise weakened by a task that remains unclear throughout. Is it primarily an investigation of beauty as a divine name? Is its chief concern with the “attractive” character of beauty? Is it examining the relation between God and beauty in the Christian theological traditions? Or is the central interest of the book the idea of beauty in the history of Christian theology? All such tasks are of course related, but they require careful distinction and involve particular conceptual exercises. 

While chapters 4 through 7 engage in a persuasive exposition of the development of beauty in church (i.e., Catholic) history, chapters 1 through 3 engage in a confused intermingling of normative and descriptive activities. A kind of eisegetical approach to the biblical texts, moreover, marks his reading of the Christian scriptures, and the book abruptly ends and begs for some kind of epilogue summarizing the investigation and suggesting to the reader, yet again, why the topic matters—in what fashion specifically and for whom exactly. 

All this being said, Sammon’s book rightly inspires the reader, in his own words, to “a more careful and diligent study” of the relation between theology and beauty. And for certain readers, perhaps guided along by an excellent set of discussion questions attached to the end of each chapter, to be inspired in such a fashion might involve discovering kindred pilgrims who felt similarly inspired by “a modicum of desire to seek the divine beauty in all things” (8).

About the Reviewer(s): 

W. David O. Taylor is Assistant Professor of Theology & Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brendan Thomas Sammon received his PhD from the Catholic University of America and is an assistant professor of systematic theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He is the author of The God Who Is Beauty: Beauty as a Divine Name in Thomas Aquinas and Dionysius the Areopagite (Pickwick, 2013).

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