The Aesthetic of the Suffering God
In Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, the novel's protagonist, is asked by Hippolyte, an intoxicated detractor, if it's true that he believes "beauty will save the world." In the Western context, beauty has long held a place in the triumvirate of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth; this set of ideals implies that, in some way, each of the three has a measure of the other two, i.e., truth is good and beautiful; beauty is, in the same way, good as well as true; and goodness, following suit, participates in the virtues of its fellows. These ideals all have a certain ultimacy to them: actual beauty (perhaps we might even say "true" beauty?) expresses the virtues of beauty to the utmost extent, bearing the marks of what Immanuel Kant called the "sublime." But is this the beauty that Dostoyevsky envisioned when he proffered the Prince's beliefs about the fate of the world? We might ask, as Hippolyte mockingly does, "What beauty saves the world?"
If we would answer this question from a Christian perspective, we arrive at the notion that God is the one who saves the world, and thus, in some way, it is God's beauty that is of the world-saving variety. Indeed, this seems to be Dostoevsky's train of thought as well, since Hippolyte follows his question about beauty by asking whether or not Myshkin is a devout Christian. That beauty saves the world seems to be, at least in the mind of Dostoevsky, a specifically Christian idea.
However, if this world-saving beauty does indeed have its source in God, what manner of beauty might this be? When Christians speak of the beauty of God, notions of God's majesty, his power, or his glory are typically placed on the table. This sort of divine beauty is what Moses asked to see in Exodus 33:18; God agreed to reveal only his back to the prophet, lest the sight of his full countenance cause Moses to die. God's presence is beautiful in a lofty, transcendent way because he is holy and his nature is so utterly beyond the grasp of humans. God's beautiful "otherness" is one of the things that makes him worth worshipping. The psalmist writes that his one desire is "to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple" (Psalm 27:4, KJV); in another psalm, the people of Israel are exhorted to "worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness" (Psalm 96:9, KJV). The transcendent beauty of God warranted an suitably beautiful house for God's presence and evoked a fitting response from his worshippers. Solomon's magnificent temple was an appropriate abode for the appropriate acclaim of God. The beautifully holy God was to be worshipped in a holy house as the object of humanity's holy desire.
This view of God's beauty fits very well into the classical Beauty-Goodness-Truth model. From this perspective, God is an ideal being; he is ultimate beauty, ultimate goodness, and ultimate truth. However, this ultimate beauty, the sort of transcendent majesty that becomes a barrier between divinity and humanity, is not all that there is when it comes to the Christian God. I would suggest that the sort of transcendent beauty discussed above is not the world-saving beauty that Dostoevsky points us to; rather, the beauty that saves the world is actually quite ugly.
When we consider the incarnation of Jesus, we oftentimes do our christology from above, that is, we begin with Jesus' divinity and move into his humanity; Jesus is the Word made flesh, after all, and as John 1 tells us, that Word "dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14, ESV). In Jesus, humanity beheld something of the same glory that Moses saw, the transcendent beauty of a holy God. This could have actually been the end of the story: God puts on flesh and brings glory to humanity, saving the world through his divine power. However, part of the beauty of the Christian God is that he is a suffering God. In Isaiah 53, the prophet describes the Suffering Servant, whom Christians traditionally read as referring to Jesus Christ:
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:2-3, ESV).
In his passion, Christ was brutally disfigured, so much so that he could not even be recognized; indeed, this is the opposite of what we might expect! Moses longed to see the face of God, but Isaiah's description suggests that were we to see Jesus in the throes of his crucifixion, his marred appearance would make us shun him and hide our faces.
This is a mystery. With Karl Barth we might ask, "Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering" (Dogmatics in Outline, 103). The Holy One who showed forth the beauty of the Father has now become a victim, and the Word-made-flesh has been transformed into a disfigured man, condemned to die. In the crucifixion, the beautiful, good, and true image of God in Christ was marred by sinful humanity. If God's transcendent beauty served to display the divine character, then God's willing adoption of the ugliness of the cross serves to display the character of humanity. Barth continues: "[Jesus] has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man's revolt against God" (Dogmatics in Outline, 103). The grotesque spectacle of the cross, this disturbing revelation of the evil of human sin, is the means by which that same evil is addressed, for, as Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant, "with his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5, ESV). The beauty of the cross is that a holy God subjects himself to an ugly death at the hands of unholy creatures so that his creation might be redeemed. A God who remains transcendent and entirely "other" in his beauty is not the God of scripture; rather, the Christian God enters into a broken world to suffer so that he might share his glory with humanity. The beauty that saves the world is shaped by the aesthetic of the suffering God.
If, then, Christians worship a suffering God, a God who takes ugliness upon himself to achieve victory, what does this mean? How are Christians shaped by the aesthetic of the suffering God? I suggest that we ought to look to Revelation and Romans to find the answer. The worship portrayed in Revelation consistently finds its center in the slain Lamb:
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth….And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth." (Revelation 5:6, 9-10, ESV).
This worship has a different locus than the temple worship of the Old Testament. In both, God's glory and beauty demand a worshipful response from his creatures. Yet whereas the Hebrew temple engendered worship in response to God's transcendent holiness, as mediated through a particular place, the worship of Revelation is evoked by that same holiness, as mediated through a particular suffering person. Jesus is not primarily worshipped as the radiant Son of Man, a la Daniel 7; rather, his suffering is permanently incorporated into his identity and is the basis of the worship he receives. When we worship a slain Lamb, one who has suffered to bring about redemption, in some way we must become like the object of our worship. As followers of the suffering God, we, like Christ, must incorporate suffering into our identity; we, like Christ, are suffering servants.
Paul addresses this issue in Romans 12, using the language of worshipful sacrifice: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1, ESV). For Paul, a self-sacrificial lifestyle is an act of worship; the remainder of Romans is a veritable litany of instruction concerning how Christians are to manifest the beauty of Christ's sacrifice to the world. Yet this is not merely an exhortation to "love God and love others." Being a sacrifice isn't comfortable! Sacrifices are cut up, torn apart, and burned! When we are called to live sacrificial lives we are not called to merely give something up or inconvenience ourselves in some way or another; rather, we, like Christ, are called to die. If we are to obey Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:1, then we must participate in the sufferings of Christ. Our lives must be shaped by the aesthetic of the suffering God.
Perhaps the deepest realization of this aesthetic of suffering in the life of the Church is the Eucharist. In the celebration of the sacramental meal, as Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann observed, we are what we eat (For the Life of the World, 11). When we eat bread and drink wine, we participate in the body and blood of Christ, and in so doing, we have a share with the Lamb that was slain. This participation gives meaning to our calling to live as servants of the suffering God; God offers himself to us in the Eucharist, and in partaking of it, we offer ourselves to God. Schmemann sees this offering as a part of the telos of humanity:
And thus this offering to God of bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering to him of ourselves, of our life and of the whole world….It is the movement that Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and all frustration, all hunger and all satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful (For the Life of the World, 35).
The Eucharist points us to the sacrifice of Christ, the very thing that enables us to imitate him in offering ourselves as living sacrifices. When we eat and drink, and, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes", we are in some way also proclaiming our own death; when we remember the death of our Savior, we ought to remember that we, too, must die.
Dostoevsky was right: beauty will save the world, and this is primarily true because it already has. The beauty that saves is the suffering of the sinless One who poured himself out to redeem his creation. We are invited to enter into this beauty. Worshipping God in the beauty of holiness does not always look attractive, pristine, or beatific; it will often look like walking through the valley of the shadow of death with those who are hurting, or dying to ourselves so that others might experience the life of Christ. When we think about how our lives as Christians ought to look to those around us, I suggest that we should consider the aesthetic of suffering. When the Church imitates Christ in this way and beautifies herself with this aesthetic, her life becomes permeated with the savor of the Savior's love. It would be fair to say that in some way or another, secular culture also believes that beauty will save the world. Yet that secular conception of world-saving beauty tends to be a Lennon-esque "imagine all the people living for today" aesthetic in which humanity at long last evolves past its problems and makes the world a perfect place. Both the secular notion of salvific beauty and the Christian ideal acknowledge that the world is imperfect and needs fixing, but for the Christian, the solution is not to create a sterile world, devoid of pain; rather, the demise of suffering is accomplished through suffering itself. Despite how Hippolyte regarded Myshkin's seemingly foolish ideas about the fate of the world, true world-saving beauty is found in the wounded, stricken, but now risen and victorious Jesus Christ, the suffering Lamb of God.