A Feature Review of
Called to Attraction:
An Introduction to the Theology of Beauty
Brendan Thomas Sammon
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Julie Sumner
It was around noon when I walked out of my house one day in August, as the air cooled and the light took on a silvered quality. I joined my neighbor and her parents to watch the moon eclipse the sun. My husband, who rarely stops for lunch, joined his co-workers, walked out on a sidewalk downtown, and stared upward at the darkening sky. We, and eighty-eight million other Americans, all stopped what we were doing to watch a solar eclipse. We all stopped for the simple reason that the eclipse was beautiful, and because it was beautiful, we wanted all of our friends to see it, too.
The eclipse and its power over us is a perfect example of beauty as it is defined in Brendan Thomas Sammon’s latest offering, Called to Attraction. Beauty, as Sammon describes it in his introduction, is that which “stirs us to a place of glorious unrest, provoking us out of ourselves into its shared splendor” (1). Beauty is that unique occurrence that uses desire to call us out of ourselves, to gather us in way that never diminishes our individual integrity, but somehow joins us to something greater than ourselves. A professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Sammon is single-minded in presenting and illustrating the purpose of his book: to present an introduction to the theology of beauty predicated on the principle that beauty is a divine name for God. Sammon asserts that because beauty is a divine name for God, “an outward flow of God’s very self that comes to inhabit certain formal qualities in the world,” that it indeed merits theological inquiry (3).
Sammon covers an impressive array of texts in his survey of the concept of beauty, shepherding the reader chronologically from the early Hebrew scriptures, Greek philosophers, and New Testament writers all the way through to work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Soren Kierkegaard, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. There are also discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and these make it a very interesting book to consider for a group study. It is important to note that this is an introductory text, and Sammon takes care to highlight and define terms that the reader may not be familiar with, such as the anagogical quality of beauty, “that feature of beauty that uplifts the intellect in an act of spiritual ascent” (35). Sammon also gives brief descriptions of the historical context of each of the writers that he features, which helps the reader understand the concept of beauty as it has varied in meaning throughout history. One of the most notable differences in the concept of beauty that Sammon articulates is, “(f)or the ancient world, beauty was not in the eye of the beholder, or at least not only in the eye of the beholder….this was due to the fact that the “beholder” as we understand her today had not yet been thrust into the cosmic spotlight, had not yet become the center of the universe’s orbit” (9). Rather than revolve around ourselves, beauty in the truest sense, Sammon argues, calls us out of ourselves.
Though the book is academic in tone, Sammon’s passion for the topic of beauty as it relates to God is irrepressible, and he expresses this through several recurring themes throughout his book. One idea that Sammon notes resonates throughout the work of multiple theologians is that the penultimate expression of beauty is through the Incarnation; the particular, concrete life of Jesus is also the revelation of the transcendent God, an outflow of his abundance. In his discussion of Paul’s theology of beauty, Sammon observes, “(t)hinking in light of the Incarnation, Paul is able to overcome such limits (between the spiritual and the material), and say, ‘For the invisible things of him (God) since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity…'(Rom 1:20)” (42-43). For Paul, and for all of us in the church, because of the Incarnation, there is now no division between the material and the spiritual, all of creation is viewed as a revelation of God’s beauty without diminishing the otherness of God or the individual integrity of creatures. Sammon later observes that the Incarnation was also the centerpiece to Dostoevsky’s theology of beauty, that the revelation of God in Christ was a beauty that “transcends the economy of mere cause and effect in the world” (128). The gratuitous nature of God and his love and his beauty, as revealed in Christ, who healed lepers, fed crowds of thousands, and blessed the woman who washed his feet with her hair and her tears, defies any sort human logic.
Another concept that is frequently found throughout Sammon’s book is that of the ability of beauty to elevate the particular above the universal, that beauty resists reduction and categorization. His evaluation of St. Francis of Assisi details how St. Francis’ theology sprang from a particular love for the particular, concrete person of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Francis developed a love for all of creation, as it revealed the specific beauty of God and his Son. In his discussion of Kierkegaard, Sammon notes that faith is located in the concrete details of the often-mundane particulars of life, and that beauty flows out of these details when they are imbued with faith. Beauty in its truest form cannot be parsed into categories, it cannot be filtered or pigeonholed. Beauty, as we experienced watching the eclipse, transcends any of our limitations or conceptions.
I found Called to Attraction to be immensely helpful in thinking about the power of beauty available to us as a people of faith. Examining the work of writers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard and considering the primacy that they gave beauty in their discourse makes we wonder why we don’t consider beauty more rigorously in our contemporary churches or universities. In our fractured culture, which seems to be bound by a destructive either-or paradigm of thought, to seek the beauty of God seems to be the most life-giving and creative way to help repair some of our brokenness. For a moment this past August, as the moon slid between us and the sun, the sparrows and bluebirds called to each other as if it were dusk, and we all stood wordless together.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com