Eve Tushnet has an article up at Inside Catholic on beauty and sublimity. It's well worth reading, but her definitions of beauty and sublimity are not quite the same as mine (which I have poached more or less whole from David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite).
Tushnet wants to start with Burke:
“It's just about impossible to talk about the sublime without reference to Edmund Burke's rakish essay, ‘A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,’ although we shouldn't end there . . . Beauty, in this understanding, is found in those objects and people we can cherish; and therefore in those we can master. The sublime, by contrast, inheres in what masters us.”
She rightly goes on to distinguish the Christian sublime from the Burkean sublime. For Tushnet, the most important difference is that, for the Christian with eyes to see, sublimity is to be found in what is humble, even ridiculous. Saintly foolishness is sublime.
But is this really the best way to parse out beauty and sublimity? Well, David Bentley Hart managed to write a whole book about beauty, with a large section on various postmodern sublimities, without mentioning Burke, except perhaps by including him in a broad allusion:
“As it happens, beauty has fallen into considerable disfavor in modern philosophical discourse, having all but disappeared as a term in philosophical aesthetics. In part this is attributable to the eighteenth-century infatuation with Longinus's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, one of whose unfortunate effects was to reduce the scope of the beautiful to that of the pretty, the merely decorative, or the inoffensively pleasant; in the climate of postmodern thought, whose humors are congenial to the sublime but generally corrosive of the beautiful, beauty's estate has diminished to one of mere negation, a spasm of illusory calm in the midst of being's sublimity, its ‘infinite speed.’ ” (15)
It could be that that Hart and Tushnet don't have much more than a terminological disagreement; they may be working within roughly the same conceptual scheme. For Hart, “beauty is the true form of distance,” (18) which means that it includes what we master and what masters us as part of the same right order of creation.
I can't help but think of Sam Gamgee and the Elves in Tolkien: the Elves mastered the hobbits and were therefore Burkean-sublime to Sam, whereas the simplicity and courage of the hobbits was Burkean-beautiful to the Elves. Yet Sam's Burkean-beautiful dedication to Frodo becomes nothing if not Christian-sublime by the time they arrive in Mordor. For Hart, this would all be Christian beauty, all covered in this single term.
I have to admit that I have a preference for Hart's definitions. Take the music of Bach (whom Hart terms “the greatest of Christian theologians” (282) ). In the biggest works, there is plenty that is pretty and comforting, but there is also much that is awesome in the old sense. Or in the fugues, where the “beautiful” upper voices are so often set in play with the strong, even fearsome bass counterpoints. These sorts of beauty and sublimity do not seem to me to be ultimately separable.
But not all that is sublime is beautiful in this sense. For Kant, Hart says, sublimity was a rupture in the scheme of beauty, and contains within itself a violence. European philosophers developed this sublimity of violence and rupture in four relevant ways. I'll attempt to sum them up based on my reading of Hart, but I'm far out of my depth here. We have the differential sublime, as described by Derrida, in which difference continually escapes from metaphysics; the cosmological sublime of Deleuze, where a chaotic violence is the order of things and representation is but another manifestation of that violence; a Heideggerian ontological sublime, which I simply don't understand at all; and the ethical sublime of Levinas, in which duty and obligation to the Other take on a staggering, stupefying dimension. These sublimities—they clearly are not beauties—oppose theological beauty.
I wonder where Tushnet and Hart would really disagree. Hart seems to be much more committed to Christian beauty as an expression of the primordial peace of the Christian creation and the inner peace and harmony of the Trinity. And Hart argues for the ancient doctrine of divine apatheia, which holds that God does not suffer in his divine nature because the Trinity is, has always been, always will be, infinitely peaceful and infinitely complete. I wouldn't presume to read a position on apatheia into Tushnet's article. (Lee from A Thinking Reed had an informative post on apatheia last week.)
I suppose my basic point is this: isn't the “Christian sublime” just the sublime that is covered by a robust Christian definition of beauty? Failed beauty—saccharine kitsch, for example—is just not beautiful enough. It would be better if it were more deeply beautiful. But human cruelty can be as fully sublime and incomprehensible as any frozen waterfall: no additional amount of sublimity will fix the problem. Indeed, it seems to me that no true beauty is without a place in Christian thinking, whereas many kinds of sublimes fail to make the cut. Can I go so far as to say “Christian sublimity” is only Christian insofar as it is also beautiful?
UPDATE: Eve asks, “Can there be a peaceful rapture?”
Which is a great question, and I'm going to leave it at that for the time being.