All Ye Know On Earth

Since the first assumption of Greek philosophy by the Christian Apologists of the second century, it has been continually asserted by the great minds of our faith that God is simple and not composite.  Each attribute of God stands either as a mere condescension to humanity’s faulty understanding, or as one name for the ultimate divine goodness that transcends all description.  That goodness is called by many names, Justice, Mercy, Peace, Light, Life, Truth, Beauty, and myriad more beside.  Yet from the theological minds of those like St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas, to the mystical minds of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, the many facets of God have been called One (though the Hesychast Gregory Palamas would go on to hypostasize the energies of God and propose another way of understanding God’s simplicity).

Hints of this oneness are scattered throughout scripture, from the blatant statement in the Shema, to the possible meanings of YHWH, to the mystical and mysterious statements of the Alpha and Omega, and the God in whom there is no shadow of turning, the Lord who is One is One in all things.  His goodness is His being, and the fact that He is is identical with His beauty.  God, Three persons, yet simple, not composite, yet community.  Gregory of Nyssa goes as far as to call this mysterious oneness, this mysterious light of God, a darkness, since we cannot see through it.  The mystery of God’s Oneness is not only enough for a single image of God to contemplate for a lifetime, but for the whole community of Images to contemplate for eternity.

It is then with joy that I consider a perspective that is novel to me, the question of the aesthetically best ending to the Christian story.  Dr. Richard Beck has posted on Two Friars and a Fool regarding this question, and concludes that the best ending is in fact that all people shall turn to God; all will be reconciled.  My response here is not in manner of a critique of his argument, for I fundamentally agree with his conclusion.  This short response is intended to address the nature of the question itself.  Does the question regarding aesthetics really apply to the Christian worldview?

As mentioned above, the question of God’s beauty is ancient and well established in both the theological and mystical traditions of the church.  However, in the west our central image of God has been for the last thousand years, not the lovely resurrected Christus Victor, but the Anselmian Crucified Christ.  The Divine Slaughter, not the Beatific Vision has been the subject of our art and our aesthetic for a millennium, and any question of Christian aesthetics must grapple with the bloody dying God.  There is more of The Passion than Paradise in our western concept of Divine Beauty.

Thus, there will be those who insist that Dr. Beck’s image of beauty is quite foreign to the divine concept of the subject.  They will perhaps suppose that, given the blood of the cross, God’s beauty is vicious, terrifying, and most certainly not “nice.”  Thus the question of what we simply think is beautiful is undermined by the divinely revealed beauty on the cross.  God’s beauty, they might argue, is what we would at first call ugly.  Referencing Isaiah, they would insist that there is nothing to draw us to the cross, nothing comely or appealing.  This is the beauty of God, horrific in its most perfect expression.

To this perfectly workable assessment of western Christian aesthetics, I propose the following responses.  First, Dr. Beck’s use of Biblical texts is more proper in understanding Christian beauty than a world influenced by Anselm and his Reformation disciples.  Whole strains of Christianity have been fortunate in not adopting the model proposed in Cur Deus Homo, and have retained the beauty of Christ as the one Risen, not the one dead.  This is a far more ancient and consistent expression of Christian beauty than what has become corrupted in the West.

Secondly, the Cross is beautiful not because of the death that sits thereon, but because of the One who has descended into death.  He is beautiful, and no power in heaven or earth, not even death may make Him ugly.  He, by His love (that is to say, by Himself) makes death beautiful by descending into it for us, and thereupon destroying it and rising with beauty far beyond what we could imagine before.  The aesthetics of the cross are that the cross and all it represents, the horrors of torture, the abuses of power, the objectification and disregard for the human form, and ultimately the master that fashions them all, Sin, are all overcome by the beauty of the one who dies on it.  He is beautiful, death is not, and death is swallowed up in victory.

Thirdly, the beauty of God is not wholly “other” to us such that it might ever be what we call “ugly.”  We can see this in the morality of God, which is never what we would call “evil.”  We might think it foolish, think that it is ridiculously naive, but it is never evil.  We innately recognize the good for what it is, just as we innately recognize beauty.  God’s beauty is above and beyond what we consider beautiful, but it is in fact continuous with it.  It is continuous because all beauties derive their loveliness from God’s beauty.  Thus we cannot discount the aesthetic question regarding eschatology because we believe that God’s beauty overrides our own.  It does, but not by contradicting it.  It sits like a proper lord on his throne, not like a foreign usurper, to borrow an image from C.S. Lewis.

Thus, the question of Christian aesthetics regarding the Eschaton is wholly valid from a theological point of view.  Lady Julian of Norwich, Pseudo-Dionysius and others would agree that it is valid from a mystical perspective.  These two great pillars of Christian Epistemology stand readily together maintaining that when we ask questions of Christian Truth, we must also ask about the Beauty of the Truth as well.  George MacDonald, that great Scottish writer and preacher, whom all American Christians who love C.S. Lewis owe an everlasting debt to, once said “You cannot think too well of God.”  This is not only true of facts about God, but of God’s beauty, and the Beauty which is shared with us through the Incarnate Word, the epitome of all we know of God on earth.  And behold, it is with us even until the end of the age!

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One thought on “All Ye Know On Earth

  1. Great reflection here. No question the aesthetic approach has a lot to teach us about God. Increasingly theologians are realizing that their field is not a science, but an art. It is more akin to poetry than to physics. The task of a theologian is to paint you a picture of God that moves you, not to dissect a corpse and report their findings.

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