Reviewed by Philip BALLINGER, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258
Amidst the transcendental triad of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Beauty has played the role of poor cousin, and Christians have suffered a type of spiritual poverty for it. Within this context, we read John Navone's Enjoying God's Beauty. Navone states his theme in the first sentence: "This book is about the joy of seeing the beauty of God in our lives." (p. vii) He holds that the experience of joy derived from contemplating divine beauty in its various manifestations, more than conceptual clarity, is what compels the believer to be Christian and to do faith. In turn, it is "the beauty of truly believing, loving, and joyful Christians that captivates, motivates, and transforms others." (p. ix) Navone proceeds to reflect theologically upon the experience of looking upon the Beloved through traces imprinted upon creation and in human experience. Even more fundamentally, he offers fine reflections upon the Christian story of grace, which at heart is based upon the 'Divine regard'; i.e., the divine contemplation in Christ of the human condition. In this context, Navone refers periodically to the aesthetic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and reminds the reader that "the very ground of being smiles upon us in the face of Christ..." (p. 55).
Navone structures his book in three parts: 'Christian Experience of Beauty', 'Beauty in Scripture', and 'Beauty in the Church'. Additionally, as an interpretive key to his work, Navone offers what could be called a 'Catechism of Beauty' in the form of twenty-three theological presuppositions. (pp. 3-10) The presuppositions summarize the core of the book, and they would prove useful in either a teaching or discussion setting. In fact, much of Navone's writing is very practical in nature. Many of his chapters lend themselves to teaching, particularly those chapters found in the section 'Beauty in Scripture'. (pp. 43-95) Homilists will also find much of value here as Navone presents what he terms a 'Scriptural Iconography for Contemplation'. (p.48)
In the section 'Beauty and the Church', Navone offers an interesting juxtaposition of the American Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, and the Scholastic Philosopher/Theologian, Thomas Aquinas. He asserts that "Edwards' theology of beauty is set within the tradition of Thomas Aquinas." (p. 107) Although I do not believe any links of influence between Edwards and Aquinas can be defended, Navone's comparison of the theological stress upon Beauty found in both highlights recurring themes in his book,namely, that beauty may be the best way to describe the divine nature, and that the experience of beholding the beauty of the Lord is a defining characteristic of Christian existence. (p. 107) Interpreting human experience in terms of beauty, Navone, following John F. Haught, writes that the "ultimately satisfying beauty for which we long but which continues to elude us is what the word 'God' means," and that "God may be thought of as the horizon of ultimate beauty towards which we are irresistibly drawn." (p. 130) In creation, in human experience, through the scriptures, and through the worship of the Church, the mysterious beauty of the Creator draws us to 'Godself'. (p. 94) As Navone stresses, this is most true in the person of Jesus Christ. In faith, Jesus is the transforming glory of God. This 'transforming glory' is universally present, if not always apparent, throughout the breadth of created reality and throughout the depth of human existence.
Navone's work offers many valuable reflections upon the contemplation of divine beauty and the life of grace. It is, however, less of a unified book than it is a collection of 'stand alone' reflections and chapters loosely knit around the theme of the contemplation of divine beauty [e.g., a chapter on Sienese monumental painting (pp. 19-30) is followed by a reflection upon the meaning of leisure (pp. 31-36)]. Still, Navone offers the reader an opportunity to stop, spiritually speaking, and 'smell the roses'. His promotion and validation of the experience of joy through the contemplation of beauty in Christian life is certainly a worthy subject for theological reflection and spiritual/pastoral reading. Toward the end of his work, Navone quotes an opening prayer for a Sunday liturgy that aptly describes the intent of his book: "God our Father, open our eyes to see your hand at work in the splendor of creation, in the beauty of human life. Touched by your hand our world is holy. Help us cherish the gifts that surround us, to share your blessings with our brothers and sisters, and to experience the joy of life in your presence." (p. 133)