Kimberly VRUDNY. Beauty’s Vineyard: A Theological Aesthetic of Anguish and Anticipation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. 264. $34.95 pb. ISBN: 978-0-8146-8407-8. Reviewed by Craig A. FORD, Jr., Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.
Many of us who are drawn in to theology find it to be a beautiful field of study—for sure—but it is not so often that one can find theology told in a beautiful way that, at the same time, brings a rigorous analysis to questions seeking to be answered. It is this task that Vrudny carries out so well in Beauty’s Vineyard. Vrudy’s work here is truly multi-dimensional: from one angle, the book is stably anchored as a work of systematic theology that uses the category of beauty as its fundamental organizing theme; from another, it is as equally anchored in the Catholic tradition, seeking to bring Catholicism’s relative emphasis on the integrity of creation and the human creature’s natural desire for communion with God to bear on contemporary theological problems; and from a third, the book conveys the author’s own spiritual journey, using the categories that she develops throughout the text as a memoir through which we, as readers, can refract our own stories.
The main story that Vrudny offers is this: if we take theological aesthetics seriously, we will find that the Christian story can be organized around the category of beauty—a beauty that takes a triune shape in the classical transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness. More than this, this beauty—another name for God—calls human beings into right relationships each other and with the world around them, all while God works to transform the blights present in our world by working alongside human beings nonviolently, non-coercively—or to use Vrudny’s vocabulary—God works on and alongside human beings by alluring them into a way of life into which they are naturally inclined.
Vrudny identifies the space of right relationship and justice-making into which God is alluring humankind as ‘Beauty’s Vineyard,’ from which the title of the book comes. As the text unfolds, this allure is further analyzed along several axes that will be familiar to specialists in theology: soteriology, the Trinity, the Kingdom of God, theodicy, theological anthropology, hamartiology, Christology, and liberation theology infused with pneumatological overtones. However, Vrudny’s accessible writing style—made all the more gripping by the personal stories and insightful interpretations of various works of visual art that serve as reference points for each chapter—allows her to approach these complex topics largely without using the technical terms themselves. The value of the text increases all the more because of Vrudny’s willingness to distill these major topics in systematic theology through the crucible of contemporary examples that can present theological difficulties. Vrudny does not allow her readers to approach theological anthropology, for example, without considering the significance of evolution and the naturalness of death; nor does she allow a discussion of theodicy to proceed without dealing with the American tragedy of 9/11. For its part, in is not discussed without making reference to police brutality, the mass incarceration of black bodies, and domestic violence against women, and hope is not discussed without drawing attention to the reality of torture. The relevance of this book for our cultural moment is hard to overstate.
This relevance is hardly limited to the contemporary examples that Vrudny raises, however; it also extends to the theological insights that drive her book — insights that bear a genealogy made of equal parts feminist studies and peace studies, together with attention to the dangers posed by anti-Semitism and racism. These influences come together most strongly in Vrudny’s chapters on sin; her more Christologically focused chapters on Jesus’ parables and atonement theology’ and her chapter on theodicy. Meeting the challenge of our day, sin is analyzed not solely as a personal and interpersonal problem, but, significantly, as a structural problem as well. With respect to Christology, Vrudny argues that God is in no way complicit in the death of Jesus. Instead, God’s salvation comes from God’s willingness to be present among the people, showing them a better way to live. Salvation does not come by way of the cross, the instrument by which Jesus was tortured, in some act of retributive justice, but rather through the restorative justice manifested in the flowering of right relationship among Jesus’ followers. This insight concerning God’s refusal of violence transforms into God’s will actively to work against structures of violence and moral evil when Vrudny considers theodicy. It is precisely this non-coercive power—the power that Jesus engaged in his earthly ministry— that characterizes God’s omnipotence. In other words, God works with us to stop moral evil, not against us in order to do so.
For all of these well-constructed arguments, Vrudny’s work does point up an important question for theological thinkers, and it is one that Vrudny perhaps does not tackle as directly as one would like: if ‘Beauty’ and ‘God’ are viewed largely as synonyms, how important, at the end of the day, are distinctively Christian confessional claims? Is it necessary to believe that Jesus is the son of God on this theological framework? The answer can be answered fairly decisively in the negative, but this answer is not thereby necessarily more dangerous. After all, the Second Vatican Council explicitly admonishes Christians to recognize the truth that is present in all authentic religious traditions (Nostra Aetate 2). If truth is unitary, leading back to the one font that is God, perhaps one of the most helpful insights into our contemporary day is Vrudny’s: that the goodness, and especially the beauty, witnessed in various spiritual practices around the world lead back to that font as well.