Beauty and beast
The role of the arts in Jesuit education
|Ceramic sculpture by Kelly Detweiler. Photo by Charles Barry
In Erik Ehn’s compelling play performed at Santa Clara this April, What a Stranger May Know, one character says: “Build with diamonds and your work will never decay. How do I do that?” It somehow echoes the concern expressed by Adolfo Nicolás, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, about whether Jesuit higher education offers the kind of “genius” future generations need to address the challenges they face. I am convinced that music and the performing arts have an indispensable role to play in what Nicolás describes as “promoting [the] depth of thought and imagination” that our students will need to be leaders—and, particularly for those studying in the Jesuit School of Theology and the pastoral ministries program at SCU—ministers and pastors, for the future.
The danger lies in thinking that art is accessorial, for the “elite,” or at least secondary, only to be considered after more urgent matters of economic growth, technology, and even ethical concerns are dealt with. And yet if the role of the arts in education, in the words of Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, is to “explore the possibilities of fuller living in a richer world ... [which], instead of being considered superfluous or illusory could rather be called more real and more true,” then perhaps we need them more than we realize. Perhaps they’re even indispensable.
"Perhaps we need them more than we realize. Perhaps they’re even indispensable."
The heart of the matter is Ignatian and theological: Christian spirituality has to do with how we inhabit and interact with the world, each other, and God—whom we can encounter in and through all things, if we have eyes, ears, and senses awake and free enough to perceive. Here is where beauty and the arts come center stage: Beauty is not indifferent to us, and it has the capacity to awaken formerly paralyzed visions and ways of perceiving the world. The arts can mediate our experience of beauty.
There is a field in theology that has re-emerged during the last 50 years and is drawing the attention of scholars across the world: theological aesthetics. Although it is developing in many directions, origins are important, and its main forerunner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, realized that one essential characteristic of “who God is” had been neglected by Western thought—beauty. Balthasar writes:
Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.
In a world without beauty ... in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.
In a world without beauty, the good and true become harder to defend, to want, to desire … As Oscar Wilde once said to a journalist, talking of a city whose name I shan’t reveal: “I wonder your criminals don’t plead the ugliness of your city as an excuse for their crimes.”
Life is beautiful. God is beautiful. We are beautiful, even amid the ugliness that at times surrounds and touches us. Christian faith does not shy away even from that; the vulnerable, poorer aspects of our lives can also be a place in which to encounter the God who inhabits all things—the God who, through the Incarnation and continued presence among us is, upon assuming things in God’s self, beauty and beast. The arts can help us access that beautiful God.
A university such as Santa Clara has amazing resources for exploring the arts in this way. I had the pleasure of learning this firsthand as a visiting Bannan Fellow at the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education this past year. From early on, conversations with colleagues in the musical arts and the Jesuit School of Theology set the scene for what became a lecture and performance—staged on both the Mission Campus and in Berkeley—involving music, dance, theatre, words, and prayer, with the added collaboration of many gifted students and alumni. Through their generosity and giftedness, I believe a space was opened in which we not only talked about but experienced the arts as an access point to the beauty of Christ.
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