The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty

“Every good giving and every perfect gift is from on high, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). This verse offers a powerful image of God as the source and referent of all beauty.

In The Father of Lights, Junius Johnson goes beyond theological aesthetics (art) to consider beauty in its broadest form. Richly informed by Johnson’s scholarly expertise on Bonaventure and von Balthasar, this book demonstrates how the experience of beauty is related to our inherent longing for the God who is reflected in such moments.

“Junius Johnson is easily one of the smartest, most creative, most learned theologians of his generation. Johnson controls all the relevant literature, both theological and theoretical. As an artist in his own right, he has an insider’s feel for the topic. And he brings a rare combination of intelligence, insight, and perceptiveness to this material. Most of my students will be interested in this book and so will many people I go to church with. I strongly and enthusiastically recommend it.”
Kevin W. Hector, University of Chicago Divinity School

“It is rare to find such a lucid, and indeed beautiful, account of the theology of beauty. The terms are well defined, the argument precisely advanced and defended, and the range of reference capacious. It’s as though, amid a modern debate that has generated more heat than light, one of the classic theologians of the Scholastic period has stepped into the room and brought us at last some clarity, definition, and order.”
Malcolm Guite, author of Faith, Hope and Poetry; life fellow of Girton College, Cambridge

“‘The beauty of holiness’ has long been a familiar phrase with a somewhat elusive meaning. With a combination of scholarly precision and infectious relish for the theological task, Junius Johnson gives a new clarity to this phrase. Beauty is interpreted as the manifestation of a sanctity whose fullness we both remember and anticipate as we encounter a world of creatures densely, dazzlingly, and divinely interconnected.”
Ben Quash, Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College London

“In theological aesthetics the lineaments of Thomistic thought have long been most formative, but now, in this rich, closely argued, and admirably synthetic work of theological aesthetics, Junius Johnson has contributed a powerful adequation of St. Bonaventure’s conception of beauty–both as gift from the Father of Lights and as illumination leading back to him. Beauty rightly perceived–that is, in a necessarily subjective appropriation of objective reality–enables a fuller understanding of God, in Bonaventure’s term a ‘contuition.’ We are simultaneously dazzled by beauty in the world and by beauty’s Giver. Johnson’s thoughtful book, conversing as it does with the likes of von Balthasar, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Ouspensky, is brimming with insight, a remarkably fruitful excursus in philosophical theology in which many will find worthy treasures.”

David Lyle Jeffrey, FRSC, Baylor Institute for Studies in Religion, Baylor University

“Johnson’s work is an illuminating meditation on the experience of beauty and that experience’s implications for the world of theology.”
Anne M. Carpenter, St. Mary’s College of California

Detailed Contents

Acknowledgments     xiii

  • Introduction    1
    • Defining the Question    2
      • Three Senses of the Word “Beautiful”
      • Our Concern: Beauty Broadly Speaking
    • The Challenge of the Ugly    8
      • An Ugly World
    • Structure of the Work    12

Part 1  The Encounter with Beauty

  1. Eternity in Our Hearts: Memory, Beauty, and Divinity    17
    1. Characteristics of Beauty    18
      1. Pre-argumentative
      2. Imperative
      3. Subjective
      4. Expansive
    2. The Theological Definition of Beauty    21
      1. Corollaries
        1. Corollary 1: It is not only through the physical that we approach beauty.
        2. Corollary 2: Longing for that which is not present in the desired way is an integral part of the experience of the beautiful.
        3. Corollary 3: The experience of the beautiful, properly speaking, is of creatures.
        4. Corollary 4: God is the remote yet proper referent in the experience of the beautiful.
        5. Corollary 5: However much the beautiful creature is dear to us for its own sake, it is more importantly dear to us for God’s sake.
        6. Corollary 6: Because what reminds one person may not be the same as what reminds another person (for various reasons), the subjective element in the experience of beauty is irreducible.
      2. Preliminary Conclusion: Subjective Objectivity
    3. Beauty in the Ugly World    33
      1. Understanding Ugliness
      2. Beauty and the Rejection of God
  1. The Eyes of Faith: Contuition and Spiritual Vision    43
    1. The Need for Eyes of Faith    46
    2. The Importance of Vision   47
    3. The Nature of Vision    49
      1. Divine Vision
      2. From Uncreated to Created Vision
      3. Angelic Vision
      4. Human Vision
      5. The Nature of Contuition
    4. Contuition and Beauty    57
      1. Implicit Contuition
      2. Explicit Contuition
    5. Subjective Objectivity Explored    62
      1. Symphonic Witness: Virtuosity and the Experience of the Beautiful
      2. Transgressing the Object: Blasphemy and the Ugly
    6. Conclusion: Analogical Expansion to the Rest of Human Experience    67
  1. Beauty and Analogy    71
    1. The Nature of Analogy in General    72
      1. General Definition of Analogy
      2. Analogical Complexes
    2. The Nature of the Analogia Entis    80

Part 2  The Meaning of Beauty 85

  1. Word and Concept: The Nature of Language    89
    1. Realist and Relativist Linguistics    90
      1. Signifier and Signified
      2. Linguistic Relativism
      3. Linguistic Realism
    2. Adjudicating the Positions    93
    3. Theological Considerations    95
      1. God’s Creative Speech: Calling Things That Are Not
      2. Naming the Animals: An Irrevocable Choice
      3. Babel: The Shattering of Language
      4. Pentecost: Proleptic Restoration
    4. Language and Beauty    108
      1. Subjective Objectivity: Naming and Beauty
      2. The Subjective Concern: Babel and Beauty
      3. The Objective Ground: Pentecost and Beauty
  1. Concept Squared: The Nature of Metaphor    113
    1. Defining Metaphor    113
      1. Metaphor and Analogy
      2. Metaphor and Contuition
      3. Ad Placitum Institution and Human Invention
      4. Contuitio ad Placitum Instituta
    2. The Dynamics of Metaphor    119
      1. Accretion of Meaning
        1. Complexity of Meaning
        2. Complexity of Interpretation
      2. Metaphorical Complexes
    3. Metaphor and Beauty    127
  1. Res and Concept: Things as Signs    131
    1. The Sign Character of Things    131
      1. Res as Signs
      2. The Transparency and Opacity of Res
        1. Opacity
        2. Transparency
        3. Translucence
    2. Signs and Beauty    139
      1. Herrlichkeit and the Objective Res
      2. Independence: Herrlichkeit as Sovereignty
      3. Transparency, Opacity, and Incarnational Logic: Herrlichkeit as Glory
  1. Res Sacramenti: The Nature of Sacraments    143
    1. The General Concept of Sacrament    144
    2. Secular Quasi-sacraments    146
      1. Quasi-sacramental Elements: Culture and Artifacts
      2. Quasi-sacramental Institution: The Assignation of Meaning
      3. Confection: Real Presence and the Quasi-sacramental Elements
      4. Quasi-spiritual Eating: Anamnesis and Incorporation
      5. The Limits of Quasi-sacraments
    3. Cross as Crux    158
    4. Divine Sacraments    160
      1. Sacramental Elements: Promptness and Natural Suitability
      2. Sacramental Institution: Res Realized
      3. Real Presence: The Union of God and the Sacramental Creature
      4. Spiritual Eating: Transformation and Conversion
      5. Sacraments versus Quasi-sacraments
    5. Sacraments and Beauty    165
      1. The Dynamics of the Sacrament in Relation to Beauty
      2. Suffering, Darkness, Pain, and Beauty
  1. Radiant Res: Icons and Ecstasy    171
    1. The Nature of Icons    171
      1. Distinguishing Icons from Sacraments
      2. Icons and Thick Signification
        1. Otherness
        2. Depth
      3. The Efficacy of the Icon
    2. Icons and Beauty    184
      1. Beauty and Thick Signification
        1. Otherness
        2. Depth
      2. Beauty and Ecstasy
        1. The Rapturing Power of Beauty
        2. The Transformative Power of Beauty

Postscript    189

  1. Beauty and Desire    190
  2. Beauty and Fulfillment    191

Bibliography     195