A Love That Beautifies the Ugly

Beauty and the Theology of the Cross

Ian Olson / 4.29.21

We often treat beauty as the thing of supreme value, the key unlocking reality’s significance, the arbiter of what is valuable and life-giving, incapable of perishing or leading us astray. But the torrent of images which surround us every day do their damage precisely by appealing to our desire, for the beautiful always suggests an order of being superior to what we have now. The too-typical Protestant reaction to this is to disparage beauty’s worth — hence the whitewashed walls and ugly liturgies of so many churches, for whom there is strictly only truth and goodness.

Eberhard Jüngel, however, declines this reductive path. Instead he explores the relation between two of the transcendentals, truth and beauty, to illuminate those relations in a way which naive emphases on “the beautiful” can obscure. Jüngel gazes into the crucifixion to pierce the veil of normal experience and to allow the deep structure of the world to shine through the darkness of the death of Christ. This showcases the relative importance of beauty: it remains a key aspect of knowing and experiencing the real, but its scope is always bound up with the true. Beauty, apart from truth, is misleading, and calls into question its own status as beautiful.

Part of the danger of an undisciplined love of beauty is that it elides invisibly into a more or less “natural theology” that only recognizes the character and activity of God in grandeur, strength, and beauty. Jesus Christ as God’s ultimate, fullest revelation ineluctably demonstrates that God is manifest most clearly in suffering, weakness, and shame. Natural theology will never bring the observer to this fundamental particularity of the God of the gospel.

Natural theology also draws false conclusions about God’s being, by interpreting our present, fallen world as the world it was created to be and then ascribing its sin-tainted attributes to God. If we reason from what is observable in nature and employ an analogy of being to formulate a doctrine of God, the very real risk is of fashioning a false god, a god very much like the one we would want to discover rather than the God who is. We abstract deity from our observations and then speculate a thing that shares no particularity with the God who is.

The beauty of a dazzling dawn or the majesty of a waterfall will become the exclusive rubric we use for determining the meaning of “the glory of the Lord.” This rubric is incapable of recognizing that same glory in the humility of a mutilated criminal hanging upon a cross. And if a person’s conception of God is exclusively bound up with these very real glories and others like them given in the natural world, idolatry will inevitably result. Human beings cannot not-worship. Awe, reverence, commitment, every ounce of our creaturely dependence will be directed to some object of worship, but it will not be the triune God revealed in and by Jesus Christ. 

This means the ugly — exemplified in the disfigurement and execution of Jesus — can, contrary to our normal expectations, be “beautiful.” In a fallen world, the phenomena of the good, the true, and the beautiful will often arise as what appears to be their opposite, for God commandeers the conditions which are so as to burst them apart with the fullness of the Wholly Holy Other.

Good Friday illustrates this better than any other moment. After all, that we should call a day of defeat, torture, darkness, and death “good” is a testament to the God whose self-revelation captures the world as it is and transfigures it.

According to the self-understanding of Christian faith, there is only one single appearance of truth which — despite all parallels to the beautiful pre-appearance of the truth — follows another law. That is the revelation of God. It is distinguished from the epiphanies of the beautiful in that the origin of all light appears in this event, and indeed appears in such a way that it does not radiate in the light of the world as does the beautiful, but rather appears hidden sub contrario [under the opposite]. The event of revelation cannot therefore be subordinated to the category of the beautiful. Sin — that which God made him, who knew no sin, for the sake of sinners, and for their benefit — was too ugly for that […]

The revelation of Jesus Christ shatters all beautiful appearance. It must shatter the beautiful appearance, because it is not a pre-appearance of the truth, but is the truth itself. Yet according to the understanding of the New Testament, this truth occurs fundamentally as a crisis. It does this by confronting the world not only with its finiteness and transience, but also with its merited end and well-earned disgrace … For according to the New Testament, God’s love is a work in this death. This love is not a love which (like amor hominis [human love]) is kindled by the beautiful, but rather a love which beautifies that which is ugly, namely the self-defacing homo peccator [sinner], by loving it. As the event of the love of God, the death of Jesus Christ is the opposite of what it appears to be. The cross of Jesus Christ does not disclose that in this death there occurs the unity of life and death in favor of life, which deserves to be called love.

(Eberhard Jüngel, “‘Even the Beautiful Must Die’ — Beauty in the Light of Truth,” in Theological Essays II, trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster [T&T Clark, 1995], pp. 79-81)

In their refusal to die, the hollow beauties to which we swear allegiance reveal themselves as the enemies of truth and as their own caricatures. For nothing which we would keep can be preserved against the demand of crucifixion. “Even the beautiful must die,” Jüngel writes, so that its beauty may be more than an ephemeral glimmer of what we hope to be true.

Beauty as the pre-appearance of truth is always evanescent: it ignites, illuminates our senses, and almost as swiftly it fades, offering a momentary respite from the chaos of our world. Keats went too far in asserting — even poetically — that “beauty is truth, and truth, beauty,” for there are many ostensibly beautiful things which obscure and disparage the truth. How many of us have been led astray by what attracted us? Few are ever enchanted by the outright hideous. The opposite of truth is a “beauty” which disguises its true ugliness until it’s too late and its talons are irreversibly lodged in our hearts. Christian faith, however, clings to the revelation of the truth which bends and breaks every preconception of what beauty “must” be to be itself.

The awful beauty of the cross must be freshly painted before our eyes for we who are bewitched by the instrumentalist techno-logic of disenchanted capitalism (Gal 3:1). The Protestant overreaction is rooted in something real, for beauty can be dangerous: the most malicious ideologies seek to seduce and capture the imaginations of their proselytes with dazzling visions of how things might and should be. They have the appearance of good news, promising prosperity through efficiency and happiness through meritorious accumulation. Our era mass produces ugliness and successfully sells it as beauty, having already convinced us beauty is truth. But in a climate that prizes efficiency above all and has little to no use for the past, what can protect us from these alluring visions?

It’s not that beauty itself must be distrusted: we must be trained in the beauty of the cross so as to recognize and reject beauty’s deformities. Beauty which repels the gravity of truth is no beauty at all: it is deceit. And the grim and the ugly which delivers the truth, paradoxically, is made beautiful in being truth’s vehicle.

Luther recognized this: “The cross tests everything,” he concluded— even beauty itself. The cross probes and scrutinized all things, exposing them to the light of God’s truth, beauty, and goodness, a light which shines in the darkness to which we have been habituated as fallen creatures and instinctively accept as normal. That which would be beautiful must offer itself up to crucifixion if it would endure, for the only endurance worth having is located in resurrection. The one who saves us by his suffering reveals the folly of what we deemed beautiful. In the nail-pierced hands of a loving God, ugliness becomes beautiful and we are guided to cling to the beauty which gives us the truth.