A Theological Aesthetics of Liberation
God, Art, and the Social Outcasts
- ISBN: 9781532646126
- Published By: Pickwick Publications
- Published: November 2018
Aesthetics, as Michael Kerwan highlights in his introduction to Vicente Chong’s A Theological Aesthetics of Liberation: God, Art, and the Social Outcasts, usually centers upon beauty. But where the world is vicious, is there any place for beauty, and therefore any place for aesthetics? More specifically, is there a theological aesthetics that is relevant where brutality and oppression are experienced daily? These are the questions that Chong asks. He answers them, first, by establishing the grounds for his project; second, by considering how humanity represents itself in works that endure and how these works exceed their frames; and third, by considering how God’s Spirit inspires creative works, and how images of the crucified Christ are motivations for liberation.
Chong, like others working in this field, is compelled to begin with Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose multi-volume corpus focuses on God’s beauty. However, he finds in von Balthasar a beatific vision that deflects its gaze too insistently away from this world. In contrast, for those seeking liberty from enslavement, art must represent, and aesthetics must concern itself with, reality in all its callous barbarity. Karl Rahner’s theological anthropology, with its this-worldly and experiential reflection upon the conditions of being human, provides Chong with a more promising basis upon which to construct a liberative theological aesthetics. Rahner grounds his understanding of persons in a vision that does not defer to the world to come. Instead, there is only “one history” (25) to which human persons are called to respond. And to respond means taking responsibility for this world, which includes unchaining the bound and the bonded “who suffer from material poverty and social exclusion” (113). Therefore Chong’s theological aesthetics, with its emphasis on liberation theology and centering upon “the experience of art” (117), turns from the most industrious 20th century theologian of aesthetics (von Balthasar) to Rahner’s less dedicated, yet finely tuned, aesthetic sensibility for the task of constructing a “theological aesthetics of liberation.”
Chong then appropriates David Tracy’s notion of “the classic”—that is, of what endures as representative of what it means to be human, of what witnesses to humanity’s real plight and promise. For art, the question posed to any creative work is whether it is a truthful depiction of reality, because a “classic” artwork is not simply “for art’s sake” without implications. It would betray human reality if it deflects the eye from contexts of suffering and would be complicit in condemning those “outside the city wall.” Artworks, in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s words, “present to us a world for our consideration” (149; original emphasis), and they act upon the viewer and inspire the viewer to act. In the Christian worldview, it is God’s Spirit that inspires and capacitates action. Where creative action generates artworks, they should, Chong argues, contribute to liberating those in bondage.
If the third person of the Trinity motivates praxis, then the second person of the Trinity, not haloed but in dusty incarnate form, provides a provoking image. Indeed, the bloodied body—visible—on a skulled hilltop is not beautiful, but is, in “contrast, horrifying ... shocking” (177; original emphasis). Of course, merely to focus upon such an image would not change anything. Therefore, the Rahnerian notion of forging personhood in the world is augmented by Schillebeeckx’s dialectics of contrast. For to live in the world is to be confronted, whether proximately or distantly, by images of pain, of the maimed and the scarred, images that ask about their contrast, of what could be. And in artworks that portray torture and agony, a theological aesthetics of liberation envisages their opposite—freedom from oppression, from what is depicted—and challenges the viewer to act, to overturn all that oppresses and dehumanizes. Human responsibility for turning the negative into an integrated and holistic harmony is for Chong, as for Schillebeeckx, evident in the life of Jesus, an exemplar who suffers through human obduracy and blindness (207) and whose resurrection inspires and energizes the necessary human work of this man’s followers to “imitat[e] God in the praxis of overcoming suffering” (210; also 214).
There were occasions when, for this reviewer at least, the distinction between theological aesthetics and aesthetic theology was elided—that is, the knotty and problematic issues of the lens (theological or aesthetic) and of the discipline seen through the lens (aesthetics or theology). In addition, in a book that, as the author claims, focuses on “painting” (6–7; 54) and that highlights artistic praxis, the exploration of specific artworks is largely absent. This is unfortunate because the author’s interpretations of various works not only could have illustrated his theoretical argument, but they also would have provided productive insights into art that, without this lens of a theology that strives to liberate, may be seen—and continue to be viewed—differently. But perhaps that is the task of another book that Vicente Chong would be ably equipped to write. In this one, by challenging the power of creative representation to work for humanity’s greater wholeness and holiness, Chong’s passionate conviction about the role of aesthetics in liberating the oppressed has highlighted significant strands that will inspire further work in theological aesthetics.
Frank England is an honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.Frank EnglandDate Of Review:April 22, 2022