By Britt Herrington
There is a famous line in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? Does it hold any weight, or should we simply discard it as a sentimental platitude? It is my hope that in the musings that follow, we can push into these questions and perhaps arrive at some meaningful understanding.
During this first week of the Paschal Season, I have been meditating on resurrection. This is something I do especially at this time of year because the story of Easter is so familiar to me that I do not want to risk it slipping into unfamiliarity. In particular I have been thinking about the path to resurrection. We Christians like resurrection because it speaks of rebirth, restoration, and renewal. This is all well and good and right, but if we dwell too much on Easter, we may forget that the path to resurrection is the way of the cross.
There is a well-known passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus teaches his disciples about what it means be his followers. Jesus tells them: “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it” (NET Bible, Mark 8:34-35). Now that is a radical, all-in commitment!
Pause here for a moment. Try to step into their sandals. How must those words have sounded to Jesus’ most devoted followers? You want me to do what? Could you say that part about losing my life again? Maybe I misunderstood. It is tempting for us to read the promise of resurrection back into the story, but it is simply not there. And, to do so redefines Jesus’ call on our lives.
But what does all this have to do with Beauty? Over the past few months, I have come to believe that ‘beauty’ is a word commonly used but rarely considered; its familiarity has bred unfamiliarity, so perhaps a brief meditation is needed to reframe our understanding.
In our day and time, beauty is something we define as pleasing to the eye. It is how we describe a piece of music or a sunset. Lamentably, a Google image search yields hundreds of photos, exclusively of women, and often promoting this or that cosmetic. However, it has not always been this way; in fact, this conception of beauty is something that has emerged only in the years since the Enlightenment. For the ancients, beauty did not refer to an aesthetic quality, but to a virtue. Beauty (together with truth and goodness) is known as a transcendental virtue, meaning it is indicative of the divine. Thus, for the early Church Fathers, Beauty was not a way of describing God, but rather a way of naming Him (Beauty Itself).
Now we are ready to weave together these various strands into a single cord. Due to our inherited understanding, we tend to associate beauty with hopeful and exalted things — like resurrection. Likewise, things that are lowly and broken we characterize as ugly — like the cross. But recognizing God as Beauty Itself ought to immediately challenge this duality and realign our thinking, for if Beauty Itself became lowly and broken, how can we place lowliness and brokenness in the category of ugly? In short, the Incarnation negates the perceived polarity of beauty and ugliness.
Through the Incarnation, Beauty Itself appeared having “no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him” (NET, Isa 53:2b). God (Beauty Itself) stepped into the creation as one impoverished, later to be battered and broken on the cross, yet Beauty was not diminished. In this we can recognize that God gestures towards brokenness and impoverishment. Beauty Itself did not remain aloof from suffering with an outstretched hand offering assistance, but entered into suffering with outstretched arms offering atonement. If we are to follow him, we must consider how we might do likewise.
The call to follow Jesus in the way of the cross is a call to enter into Beauty. In the same way, Jesus is resurrected as a promise, the firstfruits, of our own resurrection; therefore, to live in resurrection life is to live into Beauty. Resurrection is the hinge, or the fulcrum, on which our faith turns. This is the mystery we proclaim when we say:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
Easter looks backward in celebration, and forward in anticipation, at the work of Beauty Itself in the world. Beauty invites participation, transforms us in the process, and prepares us for the life of the world to come. Thus, Dostoevsky was exactly correct: “Beauty will save the world.”