Richard Valadesau Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric

(New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2000)

Valadesau argues in this important book that art is no mere adjunct to the ways we know God. Nor is it -- or should it be -- subsidiary in the methods we use to understand our faith, in the discipline we call theology. Rather, God's very nature is beauty, conceived of as "the unity of being, intelligibility, and goodness. . . " (p. 220), and the arts, as beauty created by humankind, mediate God's revelation of God's self to us. A priest of the diocese of Rockville Centre, Valadesau orients much of his book to pastoral questions. For instance, he examines the history of sacred music from the point of view of its relationship to text and arguments about whether this relationship and the character of the sound itself assists or hinders one's experience of God. This, of course, is no small issue in liturgical concerns today as parishes and their leaders struggle over choosing music that is pleasant and current as opposed to music that stems from the long Catholic (and Reform) traditions. And his chapter on rhetoric, focused on preaching (whether from the pulpit or more generally), could stand alone in a journal on effective homiletics.

Yet Valadesau does not detach beauty from the changing understanding of what it is. In the Western or European traditions, historical sitedness is what humankind brings to God's transcendent revelation. To advance his argument that beauty is an essential tool in our ongoing response to God, Valadesau proposes a synthesis of changes in the methodology and focus of the arts and of theology since the Middle Ages. Those of us who are art historians (as I am), musicologists, cultural historians, and theologians tend to be quite locked into specific conceptualizations and vocabulary that we use to discuss our discipline and its history. Valadesau transcends these narrow focuses to provide, first with music, then art, and then theology, a synthesizing interpretation of the world view and specific methods of composers, artists, and theologians over the last millennium. As the author of Theological Aesthetics. God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), a more theoretical treatment of the discipline, Valadesau speaks in this book to the more general reader, and certainly to scholars in other disciplines. He draws many of his insights (and quotes often) from Bernard Lonergan, Paul Tillich, David Tracy, Karl Rahner, and such predecessors in the field of aesthetic theology or theological aesthetics as Frank Burch Brown and Hans Urs von Balthasar. He brings new life to the worn-out shibboleth that art is text by proposing that art can be theology -- that is, that an image is not illustrative of a matter of faith but actually constitutes it in an inimitable language. 

It would not be unfair to say that the author's most important objective is to persuade the reader that theology is not a separate sphere -- not a science in the Aristotelian understanding -- but one that is congruent in many ways with aesthetics. He argues this methodologically in tracing the relationship of the history of theology to the histories of the arts, citing the work of Has Kung and David Tracy in particular (Paradigm Change in Theology[New York: Crossroads, 1984]) and he argues this in practical, pastoral terms. He proposes that "aesthetic theology" and "transcendental/metaphysical" theology are not alternatives, but rather are "complementary, and mutually corrective modes of thinking" (6). His viewpoint always ends with the beholder before the picture, the listener absorbing the music, and the believer in the pew or at private prayer.

I confess to being shocked at first that Valadesau included no illustrations of art in this book, nor for that matter examples of musical scores. However, my own experience with the tremendous expense of reproducing images made me sympathetic to his decision. And when I realized that he included generous references to works of art on web sites, and an impressive discography of musical examples, I realized that there was much pleasure to be had in reading the book without the distraction of reproduced images, reflecting on the totality of the author's argument, and then going to the web and to the public library for evidence with which to review his case. -- Elizabeth Johns, Renewal '97