The Primacy of Beauty, the Centrality of Goodness, and the Ultimacy of Truth

D. C. Schindler, “The Primacy of Beauty, the Centrality of Goodness, and the Ultimacy of Truth,” chapter 3 of The Catholicity of Reason, pp. 58-84.


Overview: Here Schindler elaborates on the account of the soul’s encounter with Being that he has begun in the previous chapters. He has already introduced us to a basic question: how exactly can a finite soul have an encounter with infinite Being, without somehow failing to do justice to the latter’s infinitude?[1] In this chapter, Schindler examines each of the three transcendentals (beauty, goodness, truth) as an aspect of the encounter between Soul and Being—each of which is distinguishable from, but intimately interconnected with, the others.

Schindler states that his aim is to show the “fittingness” of Balthasar’s own, unconventional choice to order his own discussion of the transcendentals in this sequence—Schindler believes that this order (first beauty, second goodness, third truth) reflects the interlocking series of actions and responses that take place when the Soul encounters Being. He adapts the concept of coinherence (Greek perichoresis, Latin circumincession) to describe this encounter as a kind of reciprocal, intertwined dance between soul and Being, a kind of call-and-response, a going-in and coming-out. It is a subtle and intricate account, which helps to do justice to the complexity and wonder of both soul and Being.[2]


The Problem: Schindler credits Balthasar with showing how to answer the problem of how “to understand God in the world in a manner that respects God’s infinite difference from the world” (58), a problem that is inherent in our status as finite human beings.

The problem comes up as a result of Aquinas’s development of the account of Being. Schindler credits Aquinas with “introducing anthropology” into the problem of Being, that is, with giving “human existence a role in co-determining the most basic meaning of reality” (64). For Aquinas, the soul is how finite humans can connect to the infinite: the soul is “in a certain sense all things… open in principle to all being whatsoever, and indeed, to the ‘all’ as such” (64). But how then does this work? For Schindler, Balthasar’s account of Being responds to this challenge.


The Solution: Balthasar’s answer is to describe the “drama” of what happens when the soul encounters the superabundance or “excess” of Being. Being “includes genuine otherness within itself: being, as what is boundless, always turns out to be in some sense ‘more’ and precisely in this way to be comprehensive. It is the nature of being to be more than itself,” and it is ”this aspect of the excess within the transcendental properties that Balthasar develops in a dramatic key” (65).

The transcendentals are different modes of this encounter with Being’s superabundance. So “what was implicit in Aquinas, namely, the mutual inherence of the transcendental properties and therefore the mutual inherence of the intellect and will, becomes explicit in Balthasar” because of Balthasar’s introduction of the beautiful; the beautiful is understood as the unity of truth and goodness (69).


The Sequence: Schindler summarizes Balthasar’s ordering as follows: “Our knowledge of reality strictly speaking comes last … The cognitive act is first set in motion by the epiphany of the object’s beauty, which elicits our intellectual interest, and it is then mediated through the drama of the good before the act comes to completion in truth” (75). This order can be summarized as the “self-showing” or presenting of beauty, the “self-giving” of goodness, and the “self-saying” or articulating of truth (83n78).

He takes pains to emphasize (using diagrams) that the order is not a straight line with a static beginning and end, but a circle in which every ending sets up a new beginning, ever growing and ramifying outwards.[3] In fact, while at the beginning of the chapter, a diagram of a single circle shows the Soul responding in goodness to Being’s disclosure of itself in truth (67), by the end of the chapter, this has blossomed into a circular formation of three circles, each circling each other, and each describing one of the three transcendentals in terms of the Soul-Being encounter (Beauty as vision/rapture, Goodness as choice/fidelity, Truth as disclosure/trust; 79).


Beauty: What then are these three transcendentals? Beauty, per Schindler, is the first epiphany, setting the cycle in motion. He follows the medieval account of beauty as the “union of form and splendor” (69; emphasis added). He writes: “In beauty, we perceive a determinate figure, but within that figure shines out a kind of excess, a mystery, a light that signals that the form is the free expression of something greater.”[4] In beauty, “we are confronted simul-taneously with both the figure and that which shines forth from the figure” (70; emphasis added).

He gives the example that one has to actually hear a melody to get its beauty: “to perceive this specifically as beautiful requires the actual experience of the melody, which involves, however consciously, receiving each of the moments and movements as the communication of some mysterious whole, of a unity that is present but does not lie exposed on the surface. It requires, in other words, a glimpse of the splendor in the form” (72).[5] For Balthasar, beauty is “a mysterious point of intersection between the orders of nature and the supernatural” (58)—that first opens the soul to Being.[6]


Goodness: For Schindler, the Good first shows up as “the soul’s response to what it grasps of this address” when it encounters Truth in the form of “being’s speaking to the soul”; “truth occurs in “being’s initiating movement toward the soul, and goodness in the soul’s counter-movement” (66). It is through finite, specific, (relatively) good things that we have a glimpse of the absolute Good: “the good gives itself to us in a particular event, but in this gift there is a ‘more’ that expands beyond our initial grasp and so in turn makes a claim on us” (73).[7]

He notes that this account avoids the “irrationalism” of willing the good before knowing the truth, “because the good here is preceded by the beautiful, which is an intellectual perception of form even if it is not yet a perception in the mode specifically of comprehended truth” (75). In the soul’s response of “appropriative choice,” the soul offers in response “a yes, an assent to the good that has presented itself in the beautiful” (77). Fidelity is “a deepening of the meaning of that choice, or if you will, an unfolding of its implications… an abiding with what was chosen wherever it may lead, beyond what was expected” (77).[8]


Truth: For Schindler, the fullness of truth is revealed after the vision-and-rapture of beauty, and the choice-and-fidelity of goodness. Truth is not a mere “result” but “a laboring and living-through in which disparate aspects of a reality finally reveal how they ‘fit’ together, that is, reveal otherwise hidden unity” (78). As opposed to Hegel’s merely binary dialectic of positive-negative-positive, for Balthasar, truth is “the fruit of a faithful dwelling with the object-”—”an abiding spirit of receptive wonder”—and the “resulting disclosure includes a promise of an inexhaustible ‘more’” (78). “The clarity of the perception of truth is one with the hopeful expectation that keeps knowledge endlessly interesting” (78).[9]

But the process “does not simply come to an end with the disclosure to the understanding; because truth is diaphanous, reality retains its integrity as an objective Gestalt distinct from the soul and so abidingly mysterious, this expression is just as much an epiphany.” Finally, truth’s “moment of disclosure is itself a vision of beauty,” and the cycle “begins again” (80).


Conclusion: For Schindler, Balthasar’s scheme allows a smooth transition from philosophy to theology: “the dramatic structure of truth prefigures the Christian encounter with grace, yet is not in any direct sense derived from revelation” (84). It “instead has a plain intelligibility that speaks to reason as such” and “allows revelation to resonate all through the structures of worldly being all the way to their core, something that one cannot say of Barth’s analogy of faith.” For Schindler, “By rooting the intellectual act in beauty, and thereby connecting it most intimately with the dramatic engagement with the good, Balthasar provides what we might call a natural path of reason to God, but one that, for all its naturalness, does not compromise God’s transcendence or the pure gratuity of his revelation” (84).[10]

Although Schindler’s primary concern might be to give an account of how finite human beings can come to know God as the ground of all Being, he is clear that his account has implications for understanding all of creation, as well as its Creator. He cites, from Balthasar’s concluding Epilogue, the observation that “the basic phenomenon in all three [transcendentals] was their epiphanic character, which permeates everything that exists” (83; emphasis added; Google Books). As a further clue, he cites the scriptural promise that “in grace we will come to know the love that exceeds all knowledge” (84; emphasis added).[11] Although originating in theology, Schindler/Balthasar’s dramatic, perichoretic account has the potential to shape every other field of study as well.

[1] He quotes Nietzsche on this problem: “something strange is to be reduced to something familiar” (83).

[2] Schindler’s account can be favorably contrasted with so many other flatter, cruder accounts, which reduce the Soul to a mere ‘subject’ and Being to a mere ‘object,’ or focus only on one side of the ‘dance’ to the exclusion of the other (i.e. seeing the ‘subject’ only in terms of consciousness, will, desire, or information processing, or the ‘object’ only in material or quantitative terms).

[3] T. S. Eliot, “In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning,” in “East Coker” (1940).

[4] He notes that neither the ‘classical’ emphasis on the beautiful form, nor the Romantic emphasis on the “splendorous excess of the sublime” can do without the other: “We would have a sterile, desiccated form on the one hand and an a-cosmic chaos on the other, but in either case no beauty” (70; emphasis added). “Beauty is epiphanic, and this implies the conjunction of the two aspects we mentioned above, namely, form and splendor. Each in itself would be undramatic” (71; emphasis added).

[5] A.) Of course, trained musicians can “hear” a melody internally just by reading the score.
B.) Maybe it is relevant to think about the different kinds of knowledge implied by ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ verbs, (kennen vs. wissen, savoir vs. connaître, etc.), although not in English (except in Genesis 4:1 ‘Adam knew Eve his wife’ and 19:8 ‘two daughters who have not known man’). On Balthasar’s account, you have to personally know (kennen or connaître) the beautiful melody in order to get its beauty.

C.) Thinking about the effect of beautiful music helps develop the sense of how the finite subject can accommodate beautiful excess: Persons with no musical training whatsoever can be deeply moved by hearing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” even if they can’t carry a tune or play a single note on any instrument. Somehow the complexity and beauty of the music ‘gets’ to them, even if they couldn’t explain how it works.

[6] “The union in beauty… makes both goodness and truth diaphanous in our experience of each, the shining through of something that does not simply appear on the surface and so of something that resists any cheap possession and consumption, as it were” (72).

[7] This could be developed with relation to Rene Girard’s idea of mimetic desire, i.e. we want what we see someone else wanting. Supremely with respect to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but also in lesser examples (e.g. firefighters sacrificing their lives on 9/11 to save others), we can start to want the Good when we see it ‘in action,’ so to speak.

[8] As a way of thinking about them concretely, the dynamic, dramatic, always-unfolding nature of these relations could certainly be mapped onto those between husband and wife in marriage:
— In the first encounter with one’s future spouse, her beauty may disclose a richness of being that is scarcely yet grasped, but somehow already known, and may be developed over many decades hence while remaining somehow the “same” beauty initially seen.

— In the ceremony of marriage, the husband and wife pledge fidelity, and promise to be good spouses, yet without being able to predict even a fraction of the many eventualities that might take place over their years together, or what new aspects of each others’ persons might come to pass. Still without knowing any of this, they can nonetheless credibly promise to be absolutely faithful!

— When others look at a long-married couple, they might have some glimpse of what it must be like to live a whole life in faithfulness and goodness toward each other, yet without in any way exhausting or ‘using up’ the other person, or one’s own interest in the other person, but instead continually renewing and enriching their relationship to each other.

[9] He cites Josef Pieper that “truth is an inexhaustible light” (Unaustrinkbares Licht, literally ‘un-drink-up-able’). Compare “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4).

Comments by the poet Richard Wilbur slightly reflect the implications of this superabundance for the creative arts: “I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another; or the saying, as in metaphor, that one thing is another. And to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things.” Cited in Adam Kirsch, “Get Happy: Richard Wilbur and the poetry of profusion,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2004,

[10] “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1).

[11] “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19 NRSV; huperballó ‘to throw beyond’)

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