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Beauty in the Darkness: A Surprising Encounter with God’s Omnipresence

I have been long concerned with questions of beauty, in particular how beauty is to be understood with relation to God. There are big questions about Beauty itself, and how to understand that as a characteristic of God, and of course that interests me greatly. But there is the more domestic (though no less deep) question of my own experience of beauty. For the power of those moments when I am captivated by beauty drives me fiercely away from the notion that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, that my sense of beauty is entirely private and in no way related to anyone else’s, except perhaps accidentally (we happen to both find this thing beautiful). And so even my sense of beauty, demonstrably incomplete, impure, and backward as it is, must in some way be related to God the ground of beauty.

The answer is as simple as it is profound: I find beautiful that which reminds me of God. This grounds an objective (or even public, if you will) dimension to my experiences of beauty without eclipsing a subjective, private dimension, precisely because I am reminded of God as I know God, which is imperfectly, disobediently, and sinfully, but also fundamentally, inescapably, and truly enough to make me culpable of failing to act on this knowledge. And so I sometimes find the ugly beautiful because my conception of God is blasphemous, and I attribute to God things that are in no way to be attributed to him. But I also really know true things about God from creation, and I have met him truly in the person of Jesus, and so I also see and love true beauties.

A People Who Sit in Darkness

And yet we are a people who sit in darkness. I find beautiful that which reminds me of God. Click To Tweet Indeed, even those of us who have seen the Great Light remain after the encounter sitters-in-darkness. We have not escaped it, we have only seen the direction of escape and begun to move towards it. This is confirmed in our daily experience of sorrow, grief, and rejection, and in our daily actions of oppression, neglect, hatred, greed, lust, and so on. All of this works in us guilt, shame, frustration, and despair. And so what is done to us, what we do, and what we feel, all these things form the darkness in which we sit, nearly helpless to make any progress towards the light.

So here is where things get interesting, and potentially confusing. We see beauty in the darkness. Now, this is to be taken in two senses: in the first sense, we see beauty in the darkness in spite of the darkness. There are beams of light skewering our prison, messengers from a better world with the power to cast our minds in the direction of that world, if we will only follow the beams back to their source. The world is not only evil, it is not only fallen: it is still a world made very good by God, and though it groans and its character as image of God is shattered, it is not erased.

But there is a second and more scandalous sense in which we see beauty in the darkness, and that is that we find something about the darkness beautiful. Now this is very dangerous, for as I have hinted at, if we find beautiful that which is in no way beautiful, we are in fact blaspheming, for we say that this thing is like God, when it is in fact unlike God. So surely it is safest to say that our attraction to the darkness is just our own failure to see rightly, is a symptom of our own fundamental wrongness, one of the things that sanctifying grace has to fix.

A Difficult Beauty

This path is safe, but it is not entirely true. For the darkness around us is not uniform. The darkness of sin is not the same as the darkness of suffering, though they are bound together by many ties. And, though I know it is very unpopular with some to say so, there is a beauty to suffering. There is an order to it. We all feel that this is true in those moments when we hear that someone who is guilty of a horrible crime is being punished in a manner that we find appropriate: such punishments seem right and orderly to us, even though to the one receiving them they are suffering. We had forgotten, in our mad rush to escape, that he is everywhere, and cannot be escaped. Click To Tweet

I will speak confidently of my own suffering: I have suffered rightly as a result of my evil, and I have suffered unjustly as a result of the evil of others. In either case, the suffering is often enough to reduce me to wretchedness, and even bitter despair. I am no lover of suffering, for I know the soul-splitting pain of it that makes me wish I had never been born. But this is not enough to render it not beautiful, for the beautiful is not only the pleasant. The beautiful is difficult, to borrow from Plato. And I can say with the Psalmist: “it was good for me to be afflicted.” This suffering, when I offer it rightly to the Lord (that is, in humility and repentance), is a means of grace.

A Dangerous Beauty

How can all of this be? This is the really important point, and why I think these reflections are urgent. Because, after all, the question of how suffering could be beautiful given the relation of beauty to God is really a very strange question. It betrays a very strange conception of God. God is love, and mercy, and grace, and peace; but God is not only these things. God is also just, the defender of the stranger and the poor, the avenger, the holy one. These things are not at odds: God’s justice is merciful, but his mercy is therefore also just. He loves savagely: that is, his love defends the weak by chastening the strong, and in so doing shows that only by chastening the strong can he really love the strong. God is not safe, because God is good, and we are not. A good and holy God can never be safe for an unholy people.

And so to find beauty in the darkness in the second sense is to encounter God where we least expect him: at the limits. In our rebellion, we push outward, away from God, into the outer darkness. It strains at our being, it brings us no joy, but only pain and despair, and yet we push further, because our primal longing is to be free of God, to be our own gods, and for that we need space away from the divine oppression. But when we have reached the end of our flight into madness, when the darkness seems thickest and we think ourselves safe, we encounter in that very darkness the God we fled. We had forgotten, in our mad rush to escape, that he is everywhere, and cannot be escaped. And so, wherever we stop, when we look up we see his face; but the expression is quite different out in the outer darkness than in the courts of peace. Still beautiful, yes, but now a beauty that wounds, that judges, that demands. The beauty of darkness is the divine severity calling us back to the center, and setting limits to our wicked destruction.

Junius Johnson

Junius Johnson works in historical and systematic theology, with special interests in trinitarian theology, Christology, metaphysics, and the Eucharist.  He holds a BA from Oral Roberts University, an MAR from Yale Divinity School, and an MA, two MPhils, and a PhD from Yale University. He is the author of Christ and Analogy: The Christocentric Metaphysics of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Fortress Press, 2010), Patristic and Medieval Atonement Theory: A Guide to Research (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and the forthcoming The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty (Baker Academic, 2020).

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