Happy Thanksgiving, folks.
I’ve always been an anxious person. As a child, fretting over something in the middle of the night (probably because I hadn’t done an assignment for school the next day; I was indeed that lame), my mom would hold my shoulders and say, “Can you do anything about it right now? No. Wait until morning. Things will be better in the morning.”
That mantra has stuck with me. I still repeat it to myself in the wee hours when all seems so fragile and lost. I’m dealing with more than forgotten homework these days, but the mantra holds. I breathe it in, let it consume all the angry, buzzing anxiety in my lungs and then breathe the whole mess out like some oil and water mass.
Except, things aren’t always better in the morning. That’s the everyday theodicy, the mundane “shit happens” of life. We’re all familiar with it, and we’re all tempted to see it as conquerable. Sometimes, though, it just isn’t. The morning light appears, ready to comfort, only to find you still cradling the tiny, momentous pain you rocked all through the night.
This isn’t just an issue of theodicy, of hoping that God or the universe will suddenly realize that bad things happening to good people is actually as awful as everyone’s been complaining it is for all of human history and thusly banish such a concept from reality. This is the paradox of faith, which is one even someone with no faith understands. Beauty and suffering never separate. The terrible is always knotted so firmly to the lovely that wondering how or if one will come apart from the other is a waste of time.
For Christians, this is the paradox of the cross Logan was talking about last week. But this goes beyond the cross (even the cross goes beyond the cross; huzzah for paradox!); this is the rich, fertile soil upon which all life is built. We grow in it, learn to live and love in it, face heartache and death in it. It’s all-encompassing. Which is why, for me, the most complete healing comes when I root myself in nature, the space where I get most of my metaphor.
Last week, I felt panicked, jittery, and unable to connect. So I retreated to the hiking trails. I walked under trees that rose from both sides of the path until they arced and bowed, forming a patchwork cathedral ceiling. Above it, the sky that was the kind of blue only a crayon can be. By the time I finished walking, all the panic had seeped out and I hadn't even noticed.
It’s not always better in the morning. It’s not always better any time. Like a good apophatic theology, our painful experiences tell us so much about what isn’t. But, also like a good apophatic theology, they clear a path for us, helping us to understand what is. Because sometimes it is better. Sometimes the air is cool, the music on the radio is right, and the sky is so wide that our hurt couldn’t possible contaminate it were we to just exhale our troubles into the big, vast nothing that is also a good, good something.
The Behemoth, a product of Christianity Today, is a small magazine which aims to remind readers of “the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.” Sort of an effort at a reunion of the various modes of being and knowing torn asunder by the Enlightenment. The claim is that we can know God in tangible ways and that fields claiming authority based upon the scientific method can be used in conjunction with faithful theological reflection to seek understanding.
So it isn’t surprising that the most recent issue features a thoughtful piece on the theological significance of beauty. The basic argument goes that beauty cannot prove the existence of God, nothing can, but it can give an observer clues about truth.
The author quickly moves past the problem of evil: “How can there be a good God when there’s so much evil in the world?” He then suggests a “problem of beauty.” In other words: “How can there not be a good God if there’s so much beauty in the world?” Beauty graciously and freely given is a clue to the nature and reality of the divine.
My gut reaction is to reject this notion. Too often this kind of argument about the revelation of God in nature is essentially an appeal to the vague lovely. Given Christianity’s claim that God is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—the vague lovely as a theological ground just ain’t gonna cut it. I am hesitant in the extreme to move past the cross to the resurrection, to a theology of glory and victory which might deny the reality of suffering and death.
But, embedded in the piece is a part of a compelling argument. If we look at, for instance, a storm that causes destruction, pain, and death and call that a problem of evil, logically we must also allow ourselves to be confronted by the beauty of a cool breeze on a warm day, the quality of light cast through a window, or the way cotton forms around a body. The author touches upon this when he writes about redemption as a sign of beauty: “God also creates beautiful things out of brokenness—unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes, divided communities, hurting people.” But this doesn’t go far enough.
Beauty does not cease to exist because suffering exists.
Suffering is not easily resolved by the reality of beauty.
The content of faith exists in the tension between beauty and suffering. Indeed, there is beauty not only in our response to the destruction caused by a storm but in the storm itself. A forest fire is not only beautiful because it prepares the way for new life; the fire itself is beautiful and terrifying.
A truth is available in the tension between beauty and brokenness. This is the truth of the cross.