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An Appropriation of Theological Aesthetics

Roberto Goizueta’s Christ Our Companion attempts to bring together the discourses of US Latino/a Catholicism, Latin American Liberation Theology, and Theological Aesthetics (represented by Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart) (24). More precisely, he argues that Latino/a Catholicism, properly understood, unites the fundamental insights of theological aesthetics with the methods and goals of liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Jon Sobrino. At the beginning Goizueta notes a key similarity between theological aesthetics and liberation theology: both retrieve the significance of lived faith by seeing theology grounded in and oriented towards discipleship. This is clearly seen in the centrality of saints and martyrs in Balthasar and Sobrino. Goizueta’s engagement with liberation theology is common in Latino/a theology; his engagement with theological aesthetics, although not entirely unique, is noteworthy, and I would like to explore how appropriates it within his theology.

There are various themes that can fall under the umbrella of “theological aesthetics.” Balthasar describes his as a two-fold theory of the objective appearance and subjective perception of divine glory (Love Alone is Credible, 12). He does this with an analogy to earthly beauty. Structurally, this involves an extensive discussion of the fundamental principles of form/content and disclosure/receptivity. The former calls our attention to particularity: divine love is revealed through the particular form of Jesus Christ and most of all in the kenotic, self-emptying form of his life. The latter calls our attention to gratuity, divine initiative, and contemplation: the disclosure of divine love is a free, gratuitous act of God which we contemplate and to which we respond in discipleship. Goizueta’s appropriation begins with the Johannine affirmation that “God loved us first” or the “foundational priority of God’s love” (Christ Our Companion, x): “Before I look at Christ, Christ has already looked at me. Before I do, think, or feel anything, God has already lovingly looked into my eyes and, smiling, called out my name. Every other article of Christian faith, every theological statement, is little more than a footnote to this central belief: my entire life is a response to a Lover whose very gaze and call have created me and named me, thereby compelling a response” (8). The disclosure of divine love in Jesus Christ is unexpected and gratuitous, demanding a response of receptivity in discipleship. Goizueta, drawing upon Gutiérrez, places the preferential option for the poor within the realm of gratuity. The ultimate ground of the preferential option is seen as God’s free option on behalf of the poor; Christian praxis on behalf of the poor flows from the grateful, contemplative reception of divine love (98, 101). 

The theme of particularity is central in Goizueta’s appropriation of theological aesthetics: “[Jesus] became a particular human person in a particular time and place – and continues to be revealed in particular persons in particular times and places” (127). “If the content of revelation (the ‘what’) is not intrinsically related to the particular form of revelation, then the form itself (the person of Jesus Christ, or Juan Diego, or Guadalupe) is relativized precisely as revelation, as the inbreaking or irruption of the real in our world…belief alone does not save; what saves is the object, or content of that belief, that in turn evokes a practical response on our part. If Christ is not crucified and risen, our hope – the hope of the poor – is in vain” (90-91; 94-95). Goizueta’s argument is that Latino/a popular Catholicism lives out this aesthetic worldview. They really believe in Jesus Christ and they encounter Jesus in the concrete, particular moments of everyday life and devotion (110). He further argues that Latino/a Catholicism is more attentive to particularity than Balthasar on four key points. First, extending Balthasar’s own focus on the cross as the revelation of divine glory, Latino/a Catholicism focuses on the cross but sees in it Christ’s solidarity with the crucified victims of our world. Second, a theological aesthetics is inherently connected to demand to remember, and in particular to remember the victims of history (12-14). Third, aesthetic receptivity must include what Ellacuría and Sobrino call being honest with reality of the world and the oppression within it (22). Finally, he argues that this receptivity must attend to the particular place where Jesus continues to be encountered today: the crucified peoples (23, 36).

In a subsequent post, I hope to say more about Goizueta’s argument for Latino/a popular Catholicism as a source for theological reflection. The heart of the book, however, is Goizueta’s demonstration that the key concepts of gratuity, particularity, and receptivity in Balthasar’s aesthetics, fundamentally shaped by the preferential option for the poor, flourish within Latino/a Catholicism.

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