Within the grounds of the University of Geneva stands the “Reformation Wall,” a century-old monument commemorating the influence of John Calvin’s development of Fr. Luther’s movement. Calvin is not the central figure but stands as an equal, flanked by other early Protestant figures like the Scottish iconoclast John Knox. There is some irony in seeing these old icon-smashers depicted in statuary and bas-relief, but the intent is so clearly secular that few modern Calvinists are likely to complain.
For all the problems 2020 is likely to bring, I can at least breathe freer now that a major reading project from 2019 is over and done. Both of my sisters’ husbands are Protestant seminary graduates who have worked in ministry positions. During Christmas Vacation 2018, we agreed on a theological-exchange program: they would read St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica if I would first read the lengthy Reformed Dogmatics of Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. Thousands of hardbound pages and ten long emails of my own glosses later, the ball was back in their court, and I was left to reflect on the theological tradition in which I was raised.
Like most heretical sects, Calvinism not only bears a smudged image of what Catholics would recognize as Christian, but veers so far into its own peculiar style that it enters a sort of Uncanny Valley of Christianity. While Dr. Bavinck is not the best known Calvinist theologian, he is making a minor resurgence in Reformed circles thanks to the recent translation of his major works into English. He is clearly well-read in Protestant theology, Patristic sources, and in the contemporary philosophy and theology of his day, all of which serve to impress his readers with his erudition. Intellect is no sure stay against contradiction, however. Scattered throughout his systematic volumes were the stirrings of an aesthetic which never managed to come to life:
For the beauty of God Scripture has a special word: glory…. All creatures, accordingly, contribute to the beauty of the whole. But all creaturely beauty is transitory and changeable; it is not beautiful by itself but by participation in a higher, absolute beauty…. The pinnacle of beauty toward which all creatures point, is God. (Vol. II, p. 254)
Bavinck gives us much to appreciate, and from a certain point of view he appears to care more about beauty than St. Thomas, who does even not include Beauty among the Transcendentals. Yet, for all of the Calvinist’s bluster about God’s glory and the Christian’s duty to glorify the Creator, the Calvinist tradition is one of destroying all objects intended to glorify God. The Reformed are so scrupulous about graven images that they ignore the divine command to make beautiful religious instruments patterned in part after heavenly beings and angels (Exodus 25; 1 Kings 6). Strong scruples have a tendency to spread, and thus one also finds no beautiful Calvinist churches, no memorable Calvinist hymns, no great paintings, poems, or novels. Their sole boast is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which succeeded only by stripping out all specifically Calvinist theology, and still it is a faint echo of the great spiritual allegories of the Catholic Middle Ages.
I am grateful now for many things I did not have as a Calvinist—the richer theology, the sacraments, and the missing books of the Bible all come to mind—but beauty is something I did not realize was missing until I had been in the Church for a while and completed a pilgrimage to Rome. (Brutalism has not yet eradicated the Catholic sensibility for beauty, and perhaps we still have time to reverse the backdoor invasion of Calvinist anti-aesthetics that came to us through modernist architectural experts.) I became obsessed with aesthetics and began my lifelong amateur study of poetry, iconography, storytelling, symbolism, architecture, liturgy, and allegory. I cannot deny that it saddens me to see Catholic artists ignoring their rich aesthetic heritage to chase after the ephemera of the world, although I can hope that we might successfully plunder the Egyptians of whatever riches we may put to our use. All truth is God’s truth, and all real beauty is God’s beauty, but we still need to get out of this toxic, co-dependent relationship we have with Ugliness. Dredging treasures out of sewage might not be a task worth doing unless we are the ones who threw them in there.
Indeed, it seems silly to criticize the aesthetic failures of a small sect when our own house is in such disarray. It is less interesting to trace the loss of beauty through history than to try to build it back up into something substantial. Early Christian poets built a new aesthetic on the last gasp of Roman Stoicism, and perhaps we will miraculously build something on the dying embers of postmodern cynicism. We need the will to make it happen, and we need to do so much more than lazily mimic the world around us. We need to think of our art in terms of centuries. Will we make art that future generations will want to imitate and develop into depths we had scarcely even considered? Are we making feuilletons or heirlooms? If there is such a thing as an examination of conscience for artists, we might kneel quietly and soon feel the need for a bit of shriving.