Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts

Bearing Witness to the Triune God

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Jeremy Begbie
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , February
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802874948.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God is Jeremy Begbie’s fifth book, by my count, with his sixth, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, due to release in August 2018 (Baker Academic). Within this considerable repertoire, Begbie displays a research arc that advocates for the arts as vital contributions to theological conversations. I myself am indebted to Begbie’s interest in showing that the arts are not peripheral to theology or merely decorative ornaments enhancing liturgy. The arts can be a resource for Christian theology, as long as the interchange between theology and the arts is rooted in attention to scripture and the creeds of the church. Redeeming Transcendence seeks to focus on what divine transcendence or divine otherness means when considering the arts as a resource for Christian theology. Begbie is concerned that in the recent popularity of theological aesthetics, the postmodern influence has removed the scriptural and liturgical foundation from the orthodoxy of divine transcendence in the Christian tradition. Indeed, much of the book argues against the prevailing tide in theology to follow the postmodern interest to move away from positivistic discussions of the divine.

Begbie insists that this book is not an outline of a theological aesthetics, but a plea to consider the value of the arts from a scriptural understanding of divine transcendence over and above the philosophical categories he sees as dominating Christian theology.  His guiding question is: “What kind of theological weight can be given to the language of divine transcendence when it is associated with the arts? How, if at all, might the arts bear their own kind of witness to divine transcendence?” (2).

Begbie explains that the relationship between the arts and theology does not make art or an experience of beauty a separate goal, but that all aesthetic experience is grounded in and oriented toward the transcendent God. He observes early in the book that the Western turn toward secularization, in which belief in God has become a matter of private taste, became a nebulous interest in “spirituality” rather than religion. He sees that interest in the arts as located in spirituality. The arts appear attractive to those exhausted by the scientific domination of meaning—as though the answer is just a measurement or observation away—but then the scriptural foundation of divine transcendence is discarded in favor of the “hollowed out” or “nameless Sublime” (52) popularized by the Romantics. He asserts that such a “false transcendence … can only redound to our harm” (12). 

For Begbie, the corrective to the postmodern, post-secular hold on contemporary theology of the arts is a return to the trinitarian doctrinal scaffold that is built on a solidly scriptural foundation. The triune God—the Christian experience of God as the Father who reveals through Jesus Christ the power of the Holy Spirit—is the lens through which to consider transcendence. This is opposed to the postmodern interest in beginning from a “unitarian theology of transcendence,” (38) rendering it virtually undisturbed by the Christian story of God. 

Begbie’s lengthy discussion of the postmodern substitution of sublimity for transcendence avoids the reason postmodern philosophy began to edge out the modern philosophical fascination with rationality: as Maurice Blanchot put it, not just “knowledge of the disaster, but knowledge as disaster” (The Writing of the Disaster, Gallimard, 1980, 4) that led to the 20th-century catastrophes of war, Shoah, Jim Crow laws, and industry dominating humanity and environment. In short, Begbie avoids the direction of postmodernity in favor of a more nostalgic trinitarianism, a wistful and even at times disgruntled longing for a return to an understanding of the transcendence of God in terms of an esoteric description of God’s internal life. Begbie is suspicious, as Barth was, of any theology that seems to begin from human creativity and agency, and is confident, as Barth was, “that God is other than the world speaks of the Creator’s commitment to a world whose integrity and flourishing matter to God, and matter infinitely. That God is other than the world means God is not in thrall to its fractures and distortions, and is thus, so to speak in a supreme position to do something about them” (121). 

But is not a God whose being is revealed in the Christian story to be relatedness, “in thrall,” to a world so broken by violence and suffering? In love, God submits—empties Godself—for the Other, for us. His concern that sin has distorted the human capacity for God means that the human requires the Christian story to arrive at the truth of transcendence, otherwise a “gnostic-like quest for universals” (135) will mislead the seeker. 

I agree with Begbie’s assessment that “the arts can serve as compelling witnesses to the way in which the richness of meaning we encounter in the finite world always exceeds our grasp … things are recognized as having their own integrity—and with this goes a perception of what could be, of connections as yet unexpressed” (165-66). The arts shake our tidy assumptions and rationalizations, our idolatries and certainties. Begbie, a concert pianist as well as an ordained Anglican priest, is at his best when discussing the intricacies of music and the tension between order and disorder, note and rest, silence and sound. His excellent Music, Modernity, and God (Oxford University Press, 2014) dealt more specifically with questions concerning the theological illumination of several musical works. But Begbie need not be pessimistic about the future of the relationship between the arts and Christian theology; the “scriptural imagination” he expertly articulates contains a story of divine transcendence that resonates from the whirling dervishes of Islamic mysticism to the Zen koan. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susie Paulik Babka is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeremy S. Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, founding director of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, and senior member at Wolfson College, Cambridge. A professionally trained musician, he has also written Voicing Creation's Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts and Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.

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