Once the neglected transcendental, beauty has arisen in recent years as an important topic in both constructive and historical studies in theology and ethics. This is seen not only in the continued interest in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s oeuvre but in generative works such as Natalie Carnes’s Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (Cascade, 2014) and Mark Mattes’s Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Baker, 2017). Sarah Stewart-Kroeker’s Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought stands as an important contribution to these discussions, showing the importance of beauty to Augustine’s account of virtue and moral formation. Stewart-Kroeker’s entry point is the image of peregrinatio (pilgrimage) in Augustine’s thought. As she shows, for Augustine, the Christian life is a journey of “moral-aesthetic formation” whose destination is conformity to Christ’s image (9). The pilgrim is in via toward having her loves shaped by Christ’s beautiful exemplar, becoming one whose perception of beauty and thus of goodness is rightly formed.
Chapter 1 focuses on the origins of Augustine’s use of the peregrinatio image in Plotinus’s thought. While influenced by Plotinus and the Platonists, Stewart-Kroeker shows that Augustine departs from them in his commitment to the centrality of Christ in salvation. With the Platonists, Augustine affirms the beauty of the highest good and describes the journey toward union with this good as a journey, yet diverges from them in seeing the incarnation as the means by which humanity achieves this union. Chapter 2 delves further into this point, focusing on Christ’s role in mediating humanity’s return to God. As divine and human, Christ reveals humanity’s alienation from God, overcomes this alienation through his death and resurrection, and provides a path toward union with God as an object of faith and love who purifies and heals those who love him. Chapter 3 further elaborates Christ’s status as the object of human love, arguing that the process of moral formation involves both human and divine initiative as the Christian is drawn to, and sustained by, Christ’s beauty. To be morally formed is to have one’s perception attuned to and formed by the beauty of God in Christ.
Whereas chapters 1-3 focused more on interpretative and historical work, chapter 4 places Augustine in conversation with contemporary philosophical aesthetics. This is arguably the central chapter of the book, as Stewart-Kroeker reads Augustine alongside Alexander Nehamas, Elaine Scarry, and Iris Murdoch, showing the relevance of Augustine to their discussions of beauty’s coordination with morality. Like Augustine, Nehamas claims humans love what they find beautiful, are formed by this love, and are offered the promise of happiness by beauty. Unlike Augustine, Nehamas denies that the pursuit of beauty is subject to moral judgment and claims that the fulfillment of beauty’s promise is impossible since love depends on being drawn in by what is ever unknown. With Augustine and against Nehamas, Scarry gives a defense of beauty’s relation to morality, claiming that beauty draws humanity to justice and vice versa. Stewart-Kroeker argues that what both Nehamas and Scarry’s accounts lack is an “active cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility in particular relationships,” a lacuna found in Murdoch’s aesthetics, albeit without the aspect of promise found in the other authors (122). What Augustine’s presentation gives us, Stewart-Kroeker claims, is a conception of beauty in which we are drawn into loving relationships and in which there is the eschatological fulfillment of their promise. Beauty forms bonds of love with others on the basis of its promise of happiness.
Chapter 5 turns to the church as the site of moral and aesthetic formation. The church is the community of wayfarers bearing each other’s burdens on the journey to God. This community is formed morally and aesthetically by certain social and sacramental practices while also drawing others into fellowship with the community through the appeal of its practices and form of life. The sixth and final chapter takes neighbor-love as the “culminating topic” of Augustine’s view of moral and aesthetic formation (205). Stewart-Kroeker is keen here to respond to critics of Augustine—such as Hannah Arendt and Oliver O’Donovan—who worry that Augustine instrumentalizes the neighbor, making her a means to the end of loving God. Stewart-Kroeker claims that the peregrinatio image helps avoid this worry by showing that the journey of moral and aesthetic formation is essentially communal. To love Christ is to love as Christ loves, “both as an embodied, temporal, incarnate creature and as a creature bound for resurrection in the heavenly afterlife” (244). If moral formation causes one to reflect Christ’s way of loving, then this love must be attuned to the needs of the neighbor in her particularity and the eschatological fellowship of eternal life with God.
Stewart-Kroeker’s book is an important book for Augustinian studies specifically and for ethics more generally. As a contribution to Augustinian studies, the work discusses the underdeveloped theme of Augustine’s aesthetics and development of the peregrinatio image, responds to important critiques of Augustine’s moral theology, and furthers the generative trend of focusing on Augustine’s sermons and commentaries as key to his thought. As a contribution to the field of ethics, the work is a helpful account of the coordination of beauty and morality, presenting a constructive critique and alternative to similar projects in the philosophical literature. One place the project could be expanded would be to put Augustine’s ecclesiology and view of aesthetic formation in more explicit conversation with contemporary discussions of Augustine’s view of the church’s relation to the secular, a discussion which could gain much from Stewart-Kroeker’s project. In short, in Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation, Stewart-Kroeker presents an artful and thought-provoking presentation of Augustine’s moral theology under the aspect of beauty which does much to bring clarity to the relation of beauty and goodness and to neglected themes in the structure of Augustine’s thought.
Luke Zerra is a doctoral student in Theology and Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Date Of Review:
March 19, 2018
Sarah Stewart-Kroeker is assistant professor of theological ethics in the faculty of theology at the University of Geneva. Prior to this position, she received her PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and held a research fellowship at the University of British Columbia.
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