This week I was chatting with Brian Mattson, a Th.M. student who is working in the new field of theological aesthetics. He is reading a lot of Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart. You actually don’t read the inscrutable Hart as much as you slip along in his general direction. I’m sure Hart is brilliant, but his genius suffers from a general failure to communicate.
Brian mentioned that many theologians who use beauty as their organizing motif tend to slide into panentheism. This heresy means “everything is in God,” so that the world is a part of God, or said from the other direction, God is not entirely separate from the world. You would think that panentheism suffers from a low view of God (and you’d be right), but Brian and I decided that people often become panentheists because of their too low view of creation.
Here’s how it seems to work:
1. Their low view of creation leads many in theological aesthetics to say that the beautiful object does not have value in its own right but merely as a symbol of God. It only counts because it is a symbol that points to some higher, spiritual good.
2. And so the physical object, though beautiful, loses the integrity of its independent existence and is easily subsumed into the essence of God. And voila, you’ve got panentheism.
The payoff for me is twofold:
1. We must continue to teach evangelicals to have a higher view of creation. Gnosticism remains a default position for many, especially in our music, and it threatens not only our view of life but also how we understand God. A too low view of creation inevitably produces a too low view of God.
2. We are right to say that creation points to God, but we must also make the case that creation has a separate and independent existence from God. If you want to read more on this, see chapter three of Langdon Gilkey’s classic book, Maker of Heaven and Earth.