Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

So far in this series, many questions have been raised, and in my contribution, I’m going to begin to untangle some of the answers. Thankfully, Luke and Sean have framed the problem very well and have raised some really important questions: How do we navigate the double commitment theology seems to have to both the academy and Christian practice? How do we initiate a theological discourse that isn’t self-legitimizing? Is that necessary or even possible? Why do we need theology at all?

We might find it useful to consider these as aesthetic questions. Aesthetics has this same double commitment to theory and practice and this same problem of legitimization. Aesthetic theory has also already faced (and continues to face) a problem that seems central to theology these days: systemization.

I think the first two can actually be answered through the third. It may seem to some that theology is, without question, a systematic discipline. “Systematic Theology” is one way we refer to the discipline in seminaries. Theological systems usually take as their starting point a number of first principles. These are concepts that ground a system and can’t be deduced from any other concept within the system. (What Derrida calls “centers” in “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”) What those are may change, but probably all theological systems include “God.” Some might include sin, love, wisdom, Man, etc. Aesthetics too, from the time of Kant, included an attempt to establish some principles from which to begin evaluation and understanding of the aesthetic object.

While Kant identified three spheres of judgment, understanding, reason, and aesthetics, only the first two have a realm of objects in which they are interested: sensible objects and moral objects, respectively. However aesthetics is a disinterested sphere according to Kant because any object has the potential to be an aesthetic object. Because of this disinterest, in order to determine whether or not an object is aesthetic and its aesthetic value, one must employ judgment by subsuming the object under general categories of aesthetic understanding. These categories are first principles which ground what it is for an object to be aesthetic (beauty and so forth.) It’s important to note that Kant isn’t trying to say that aesthetic judgment can be objective in the same way that the understanding is (in the First Critique.) Rather, Kant’s aim is to separate the aesthetic from the teleological. To establish a purposiveness without purpose for the aesthetic. If the telos is removed from the aesthetic object (i.e. we can no longer say the aesthetic object exists for the purpose of inspiration or the portrayal of divine beauty, etc.) then a completely new way to understand how we know when an object has aesthetic value must be derived. That is Kant’s aim, and his solution is to say that we use the categories. That is, of course, a huge oversimplification, but for our purposes, I won’t be going into the details of exactly how the categories are implemented in aesthetic judgments. It is enough to know that Kant thinks aesthetic objects are subsumed under the categories in making aesthetic judgments.

There are some very important differences between the aesthetic object and the theological concept (particularly with regard to purpose), so I don’t want to say there is a 1:1 relation. But I think the problem that Luke and Sean outlined in their post with regard to the rigidity they find in theological discourse and pedagogy finds a helpful analogy in the problem of systematization in aesthetics.  Namely, theological discourse has typically demanded that the discursive practice of the discipline be subsumed under certain first principles which must result in a system in which every element hangs together with every other without any room for contingency. The discipline, particularly in orthodoxy, becomes a practice of eliminating difference in the hopes of banishing contingent possibilities. It may seem like the solution is just to say we should eliminate systems altogether. But I don’t think that’s the solution. Indeed, I’m not sure such a thing is really possible. Instead, systems need to be laid open, made contingent, not just to allow for the movement and flux of concepts for the sake of concepts, but to make the politically mobilizing potential of theology actual. Adorno’s aesthetics starts us down this path.

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno agrees that form in the Kantian sense is important in aesthetic judgment, but this must be combined with the Hegelian notion of intellectual import and the Marxist understanding of the social function of art. Thus, what qualifies as an aesthetic object drastically changes. Adorno specifies between two different types of experience of the aesthetic: Erlebnis und Erfahrung. The former is the unreflective consumption of art (what we typically experience when we see a blockbuster film or listen to pop music.) The latter, however, is an engagement with the object in terms of why it qualifies as art, what Adorno says is the “subjective experience directed against the I [which] is an element of the objective truth of art.” By “objective truth of art” Adorno literally means a “transcendent” dimension–an intangible that pushes beyond, sometimes far beyond, where we are already. Aesthetic cognition, then, is not a subsuming of the object under generalized categories. Rather, there is a reversal of transcendental judgment when one is confronted with an object that is truly of high aesthetic value. Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced. It is a shattering of the general categories that transcendental aesthetic judgment would try to impose. It destroys what you thought the beautiful was, what you thought form was, what you thought a human being was, what you thought love was, what you thought God was. And finally, we understand the aesthetic object when we recognize the non-transitive form of the experience—that we cannot restate something without eliminating the original meaning that the aesthetic object disclosed.

The temptation here, especially if you study theology or are a person of faith, might be to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s account of aesthetic experience can simply be read analogously as an experience of the noumenal per Rudolf Otto or something like that, but I would strongly caution against that. There’s more that we need to consider first.

Gilles Deleuze carries Adorno’s project further in including and focusing his attention on the visceral, embodied experience of the aesthetic object (see: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.) What is important for both is to understand how an aesthetic object can break free from its own context. However, judgment for Deleuze is not antithetical to aesthetic experience; rather, it is an epiphenomenon of sense with the potential to commit violence against aesthetic objects. In his essay “To Have Done With Judgment,” Deleuze uses the distinction between combat and war to make this point. Judgment is a war on the senses in its attempt to subsume objects under a particular aesthetic ideal. Combat, on the other hand, is how Deleuze describes not just our sensual interaction with the aesthetic but the way understanding works in general. That is, we are incessantly confronted with “forces” that we must adapt ourselves to in order to proceed, and in that combat, we are changed.

If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus. When theological discourse is rigidly subsumed to the first principles and categories of “theological judgment” the latter becomes a war on our theological “senses”–even those that are practical! Paradoxically, however, it is the system which makes theological transformation possible in the first place because it is precisely the calcified system against which we must engage in combat. Therefore, systems, in a new sense, need to exist; however, they cannot be permitted to wage war against us but rather allow us to engage in combat.

Both art and theology become politically mobilizing forces in this way and it is in this way that the politically mobilized force can be both aesthetic and theological (which is, with regard to the aesthetic, to push this discussion in the direction of Jacques Rancière.) That is, if the aesthetic object must be that object which destroys previous formed categories (about sexuality, about humanity, about race, about gender, etc.) then it is also necessarily politically mobilizing. This is one way to answer the question of the legitimacy of the aesthetic.

How can theology produce this sort of effect? It can’t in the same immediate way that aesthetic objects can. But remember, we shouldn’t be drawing such tight parallels anyway. Instead, we might think about the openness of theology in a way that would allow those doing work in the field to produce politically mobilizing theologies–theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with. As an aside, I want to stress that radical theology (meaning “death of God” theology) is but one example of this. The death of God isn’t the only unthinkable in theology.

To close, I offer one note of clarification: My point about the necessity of systems may sound like a justification of systems that have been historically oppressive, so I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not what this is. Since this post is already getting quite long, we will have to explore that idea more in a later post, but I will just note that for Adorno (and even more so Walter Benjamin) the reification of art is simply an inevitability in the the age in which we live. That is, even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power. When this happens, those ideas and objects can become tools of oppression. (Think “saved by grace through faith” or MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream.”)

I didn’t say much about pedagogy directly; I’ll do that next time. We’ll take a look at what literature departments are doing with theory (and what they’re not doing) and ask why theology couldn’t maybe do something similar as a way to talk about how theory and “practice” might be related without theologians having to pretend that they’re pastors when so many are not.


8 thoughts on “Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

  1. Joel,

    You bring up briefly Kant’s understanding of the aesthetic and the need to remove any notion of teleology from this. Now, I am no expert in Adorno, Kant, Deleuze, etc., but it would seem both from your post and what little I do know about them is that this removal of teleology continues to be necessary. Is this what you mean when you say ‘If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus’? I could, of course, be completely missing the point here. If not, however, then I have further remarks to make.


  2. David,

    The “purpose” of separating the teleological from the aesthetic in Kant is to help him establish the “disinterestedness” of aesthetic judgment. For Kant, personal preference, which would also include teleological considerations like divine beauty, etc. which establish the aesthetic-ness of the object prior to any judgment of it, can have no part of what Kant wants to say aesthetic judgment. It’s not quite the same in Adorno or Deleuze. While they would never say an object has high aesthetic value because its purpose is to represent the divine, or beauty, etc., I think that there is a sense of teleology–just not a teleology that the artist himself can establish as in pre-Kantian aesthetics.

    I wouldn’t say that considering theology aesthetically necessarily means the elimination of teleology–in the theological sense. Kant’s understanding of teleology with regard to the aesthetic isn’t quite the same thing as theological teleology. We don’t, as a rule of theological method, admit articulations of concepts or concepts themselves, simply on the basis that there’s a claim that their purpose is to be theological. What I’m suggesting with regard to orthodoxy and tradition is for those modes to admit contingency and historical embeddedness so that we can say an articulation or concept is theological when it is properly politically mobilizing. I’m going to clarify in the next post, but I’ll close by saying that this last point isn’t to say that ALL elements of a theological system or articulations of concepts have to come how be justified by being politically mobilizing.


    • Joel,

      Thanks for the clarification. I’m still a relative neophyte when it comes modern philosophy, spending most of my time with authors writing before the seventeenth century.

      I want to ask another question about theology/aesthetics being politically mobilising. At one point you seem to suggest that to be politically mobilising theology (or aesthetics) must culminate in ‘theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with.’ You then go on to cite ‘death of God’ theologies as one example of this. I wonder about this, however. In one sense traditional, that is patristic and early-high medieval theology would say both that there are no boundaries for what is thinkable within theology and that the premier subject of theology, namely God, is in fact unthinkable. Now, of course, as you implicitly noted, some of the systems used to define this became, in some sense, oppressive. Nevertheless, it seems to me that traditional theology and theology that is based in tradition have a built in foundation to be politically mobilising by your definition. This, however, begs the question of why political mobilisation is good. Clearly, by your post, it seems that you think political mobilisation at least a potential good, but only really define as the shattering of old conventions and allowance for new understandings. Why is this good and/or necessary?


      • David,

        I am neither a patristic nor a medieval theology scholar, so maybe we can enlighten each other a bit on this stuff. That said, as far as I know, I agree about patristics and medieval theology’s “unthinkableness” with relation to God. I’m not sure about the first point, however (that there are no boundaries.) Certainly, the excommunication of theologians shows that there were very strict boundaries? (I know Thomas’ work was condemned at one point–was he ever officially excommunicated?)

        But my understanding of the use of these resources from aesthetic theory doesn’t preclude the possibility of “reclaiming” particular aspects of patristic or medieval theology for the purpose of pushing against contemporary boundaries and exclusions. I think that happens quite frequently. I’m trying to provide a helpful way of thinking that sort of discourse.

        I perhaps should have defined “political mobilization” in the post! This doesn’t have to be something as monumentally revolutionary as the Reformation, though that’s certainly an instance of what I’m talking about. With regard to the aesthetic object, political mobilization happens when the object undoes political categories (race, gender, class, environment) and forces us to see those things differently. I’ll have to devote another post to articulating clearly how this might play out in theology, but I think theology has the ability to perform the same function (within the life of the church) with regard to political categories as well as theological categories–and those two are not completely separate, either.

        It might be helpful to consider Hegel’s contribution to Adorno’s three-part account of aesthetic experience. What Hegel brings to the table is our ability to look at art from the past and still understand the intellectual and aesthetic import of the piece even though they may not meet the Marxian criteria (which only applies to art produced within one’s own time.) While it may be that a particular piece has been reified, one can still consider the original apart from its contemporary reification and analyze the ways in which it contributed, during its time, to the intellectual life of the society that produced it.

        Thanks for the engagement and the pushback.


        • Joel,

          Well, I’m definitely always in favour of cooperation. The post I have in the works for this series deals with the communal nature of theological pedagogy.

          What I mean by no boundaries is that for patristic authors and medieval authors, all aspects of life and experience fall within the purview of theology. That is, all aspects and experiences of life fall within the discipline of theology, hence its being the queen of the sciences. No Thomas was never excommunicated. I think I see the issue, we are using boundaries differently. Clearly, yes there are boundaries as in there are things considered true and things considered false (i.e. Trinitarianism and Arianism), nevertheless, questions concerning the divinity of Christ are not off limits, or how we understand his divinity, etc.

          Thanks for defining political mobilisation. I definitely think I can behind that, to an extent, though I’d be more inclined to couch the use of patristic and medieval theology in terms of return and synthesis, but I think we’re generally on the same page there.

          I agree with how you’re wanting to bring Hegel in here. I think this could be useful when speaking about past theology as well. However, for me, what is equally essential here is an understanding of the Spirit works both within history and the present. If the Spirit has worked in the past and if Truth is subject to change only in an accidental sense and not in a substantial sense then even its reification in the present can be overcome by an understanding that what it is and how it has been used are two separate things.

          Thanks for the congeniality and amiability. I definitely appreciate this aspect of theology.


  3. I’m not sure if the problem that’s bothering Luke and I is systematics or systematization per se, so much as the lack of a clear reason to do theology in the first place; and with that question unanswered, there’s a lack of clear reason for the various theoretical engagements one might make with theology.

    You’ve got your own questions to engage around issues of pedagogy, etc, so I don’t bring this up to say that you have to be asking the same questions, but rather because I think those questions can be posed to this post pretty instructively. If, for instance, what theology is for is political engagement, why would one do theology instead of, say, political theory? Or, if it’s a response to a certain sort of quasi-aesthetic experience, what separates this from just doing aesthetics? On what basis would you read certain texts instead of others?

    • What I was trying to do was put a name to the more nebulous complaint (but no less important) Luke raised about tradition, denomination, etc. By “systematization” I have in mind a very broad notion of “system” that aesthetics and theology have both participated in (beginning with Kant for aesthetics and the schoolmen for theology) and that the sciences most certainly participate in still (and maybe necessarily.) “Systematics” which is specific to theology is a manifestation of the problem of “systematization.” For Adorno, it’s “system” which raises the problem of self-legitimization since system in the Enlightenment sense is necessarily based upon ahistorical first principles which are themselves legitimized by the system they support and which essentially erase the subjectivity of the one employing reason in order to systematize.

      In my next post, I am going to make an appeal to theory in the way literary criticism has utilized it as a way of engaging in legitimate theological inquiry that is authorized by the exclusions theology necessarily makes. That is, the margins themselves demand a theological inquiry that seeks to account for and include them. Spoiler alert: I’m going to use Derrida rather than Adorno to explain.

      With regard to your last question, I think I’m a bit of a pragmatist (which pains me a little to say.) I would rephrase your question a bit: Why would one choose either literature, theology, painting, or political theory over any of the other discourses? I think the answer is practical: Different discourses speak to different people because each theoretical discourse is actually linked to a group of practitioners. None of those theoretical discourses exist without first having practitioners. I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that. So why theology and not political theory? Because there are important practical concerns that only theology can speak to the practitioners (pastors, congregants, etc.) With regard to aesthetics, practitioner can be either producers or viewers/readers of the aesthetic object. With my posts, I’m wanting to move in the direction of these discourses as tools for real political action. I think they can be, and I think that’s what gives them legitimacy. (I should note that this has long been the claim of many in both art and literature, but the claim is far from having consensus. Some think that theory is total garbage.)

      Of course, instead of asking why theology, literary theory, etc. as abstract theoretical discourses exists, one could question the very necessity of Christianity or literature themselves. I would be very tempted to say that the theoretical can help demonstrate their legitimacy–but then we’re back where we started with self-legitimization. Politics is, I think, the one discourse that can’t fall into this trap (I have to think about that more though…)

  4. Pingback: Criticism I: On Navigating Between the Tension of Mechanism and Personhood | fluxofthought

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