The Beauty of the Gospel

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.


Evil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured. The fact that individuals are vile, cruel, stubbornly vicious is a recurrent testimony of history. Anyone can know this, though lots of folks blink. They shudder before the horror of it all. It’s a kind of survi­val mechanism, that blinking. Maybe Nietzsche thought he saw this timid dullness in his Last Men. Still, whether he was ultimately a swaggering, vulgar little pretentious would be hero or not (in The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart suggests some such evaluation of Nie­tzsche’s aesthetic), I take Nietzsche to be earnest in his attempt to say Yes to a cosmos beset with corruption, weakness, an inability to face reality. There’s another side. Some folks are incensed by the injustice of the world. They are permanently angry, furious at the cancer of evil. There’s dust in everything. Every mouthful of life, no matter how sweet, is awash in mortality. Death is at the end of it. All our loves end in death. All our essays at love, our desire to love and be loved, to experience the real as an ever deepening novelty of discovery that is full with the plenitude of delight, yet open to fresh innocence, to frontiers that ever expand into infinity, that is what the dynamism of heart and mind require—all that seems to lose out, we grow old and stale, stupidly repetitive. We tire, are humiliated, betrayed by our own failures and compromises; cowardice accompanies the loss of powers, of beauty, the accumulation of sorrows, errors, our own secret and explicit complicities with evil. Canker within is met by cosmic despair without, by inveterate, tenacious refusal of eternal life whose generous gift comes wrapped in dust, this terrifying disappointment, perduring through our hopes, the death, bitter waters, who grows beyond jejune childhood without acquaintance of it?

And so, there are those who hear of the gospel—and I make bold to claim that the only gospel worth telling, the only story that bears suffering for, that requires belief, well, it isn’t a witness to a reality everyone knows. The narrative embraced as a necessity of tradition or the plain sense of the scriptures, those who speak of the victory of love as if it were made acceptable—or even somehow radiating a splendor of justice in the permanent or possible simultaneity of heaven and hell, a symmetry of celestial bliss and infernal gnashing of teeth, how is this not writing large the mixed experience of wonder and anxiety, of the possibility of enchanting beauty and the recurrence of ugliness, putrefac­tion, decay, and misery that poisons life? We all know that story. It isn’t a revelation. It certainly isn’t an announcement of good news; you may limit, of course, that gospel, turn it into a lifeboat for the few. The good news becomes not a triumph of the innocent Father, the mystery of innocence, the winsome childhood of hope that touches the kenotic abiding of charity amidst every sorrow and creaturely betrayal—this is what Balthasar suggests is going on with Holy Saturday, with the descent into Hell—no, one may take it for a much narrower affair. And then, the good news is that you may escape horror. The world is horror and decay, but if you are lucky or moral, if you find yourself fortunate enough to be placed in circumstances where the good is clear enough for you to recognize it, perhaps you shall act well and escape the pernicious cruelty, it may end well for you. The Pharisees were certainly thankful for the opportunity. Gethsemane says otherwise. The Cup that Christ need drink, the request of the Father, this is what he had learned all his life. And here, let me reprise something I wrote to my friend Tom. Tom wondered if Jesus in his humanity ever thought of God as zealous for the destruction of souls. Here is what I wrote:

Christ sets his face towards Jerusalem. The event of Pascha is the longing for consummation that draws Jesus of Nazareth from the beginning. From the mute dependency of the babe at his mother’s breast to the young man of twelve confronting the doctors in the Temple, from the unexpected timing of the miracle at Cana, Mary as “the Woman” calling forth the Man to begin the work of reclamation, to the last word on Golgotha, no dissonance is discover­able. There is a literalist version of the Cross as well as a univocal, flat understanding of hell. Then we are treated to an examination of the horrors of crucifixion which, terrible as they are, were replicated by thousands. The inventiveness of fallen mankind displays sadistic artistry for torture. So, it either becomes a trial made infinitely unique because of the innocence and dignity of the person (that is a familiar theology) or the Cross is more than an instantiation of the brutality of evil. Gethsemane is arguably the fully felt existential weight of the mass of sins of total human­ity, a burden only the God-Man could bear. The latter is the “natural” conclusion of the Son seeking the face of the Father. It is not an antinomy or contradiction. There is no sense that the Son was surprised by the enor­mous requirement that synergy with the Father’s will asked of him. How­ever exegesis accommodates and explains passages that carry an infernal­ist inflection, they do not negate the compelling power of the form of Christ’s beauty which cannot be detached from the victorious reach of the gospel where God will be all in all. Exasper­ation with men who were supposed to be Israel’s spiritual guides, sadness at the cruel imaginations of those who would calculate and bargain with God by a finite, egotistical standard of justice, fury at the meanness of the lot that did not hate violence and death with the burning zeal of charity—all that seems to me psycho­log­i­cally valid and not really all that hard to square with the ultimacy of love.

Could the triune God, the God announced by Christ, ever have imagined justice as what, the victory over evil as permanent death or imprisonment of the radically recalcitrant? Is it indeed even coherent that the horizon of the Good which makes possible every act, makes every thought and deliberation rational and not a caprice of indeterminate choice could somehow result in ultimacy where decision comes to rest in wickedness as the preferred Good? Or one might demur, refuse the Good as intrinsic to being, maybe one is a secret Manichean, the thing Augustine wrestled with and mostly, but probably not fully over­came. If the intelligible is not comprehended by the Good, then decision is not radically directed by the good, the teleology of creation is suspect. The eschaton so conceived is precarious. One might foretell an end where evil is an acceptable tale told by the bipolar god, though such a tale embraces a metaphysics where person is chimera, a mere transi­tory resting place for chance. One is confronted with contradiction. And so, more deeply, the anger of those who reprise hell as the justice of love covertly assign freedom to a schizophrenic divinity, one who does not create ex nihilo from a generous plenitude of love, but some different dispensation, either a well-meaning demiurge restricted by twisted starting material, a warp that remains despite best efforts at amelioration, or one posits evil as an equal but opposite metaphysical principle, a source of difference “all the way down”: this, of course, is not the beauty of triune astonishment that announces difference as fundamentally the mystery of person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Passion is not a myth of spurious imagination. If it is real, if the imagination that overcomes idols and makes iconic vision the beginning of epektasis, the infinite, wondrous discovery of the Good, then it is the reality that is synonymous with the intelligible, the meeting of thought and being known by sage and saint as prayer. In prayer, one holds the creature as we encounter it, death bound, mute or screaming, mad, vile, terrible, disgust­ing, everything that seems to forestall the gospel as the triumph of love, the serene articu­lation of triune bliss, as vanishing condition, as rebellion or sickness vanquished by the Cross. The Church is nurturing, yes, healing, yes, but I think, also creative. For us, it is a thin distinction between healing and creativity. The gospel asserts that the horrors we encounter are not the last word. The theologians that make of this presumption have not understood Christ. Apart from theosis, such a claim could only be titanism, a vain attempt at self-creation. We are not, however, separated from God. We are always nestled in his care, called to participate in the mission of Christ who is the seed of all creation. And so there is another kind of double vision: not the duplicity of beauty and horror that marks our existential passage through the times of a fallen world, but the proleptic completion of divine artistry, the “it is finished” from the Cross, the fruition compactly indicated by the Ascension of the Son to the right hand of the Father, the implicit promise of parousia where God will be all in all and we shall see the creation rightly as it was and is and shall be.

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Brian Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a reader of and contrib­utor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.

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6 Responses to The Beauty of the Gospel

  1. Herb Garfield says:

    denise@fpcukiah.org

    It has occurred to me that I hadn’t asked your forgiveness for my loss of temper early on.. I had wrongly perceived that you were unconcerned with the reopening. It is not my place to scold one so attained

    Like

  2. Tom says:

    The “thin distinction between healing and creativity.”

    Yes. Thank you Brian. It’s so good to hear your voice.

    It would be wrong to say you ‘write’ your thoughts. ‘Paints’ is more accurate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mercifullayman says:

    I have always wondered if people truly understand the depths from which that final statement at the Cross really reaches to. An event horizon in the eternity of the divine life where even purpose for Itself is finally culminated. It isn’t merely the cry of a dying man, or even the cry of a dying God, but rather the final statement of creation for the realization of all things. In essence, the Cross becomes the 8th day. The work is completed, and oddly, it is not said to be Good (although it is) but fully complete, final. One who even conquers the utter edges of the ultimate negative, and in so doing, transforms it into the bridge to the ever positive. The fusion of the divine life, fully and finally engulfing the life of man. The actual moment of creation for many of the Alexandrian theologians hinges on the fulcrum of that moment. The beauty of the infinite, in many ways, is wrapped up in the beauty of now. The beauty of the Gospel is really the beauty of the emergent good in every choice and decision that pulls us through the continuous struggles of the day to day.

    For many, including Nietzsche (who, if we are honest, God’s death for him was merely a way to hide God from himself), and all following really after that wonderful struggling mind Pascal (who in many ways echoes the same struggles as Augustine), God is hidden. Suffering becomes the pain of a hidden God who will one day reveal it all, as we escape into the sweet by and by. The stark reality is that the Gospel calls us to the beautiful now, and that now may indeed require some suffering along the way. The finality of the mysteries we yearn for explanations too will indeed come, however, many of the answers are already there for us. Yet, where we find the beautiful…actually the infinite… is in the eyes of others, in the caring for those who need it, in standing up for those who will need it, and transforming the world bit by ever increasing bit. And why is this? Because as we are told, what we do and say, how we live and breathe and have our being, is wrapped up in the divine economy of our lives. To truly live, is to truly be like Christ. The beauty of the Gospel is only ever beautiful when we live as Jesus lived. When we emulate the infinite now….(thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven) And just as the rays of the sun illuminate the day, so too, do we illuminate and change the world by looking up to the Cross and seeing the fullest expression of what Love, divine eros for us all, and truly see what it calls us to. God is no longer hidden from view. That’s what the “powers” and really many of ourselves, want us to believe and still try to make us believe. The world has been stripped of that ability. The question becomes, do we truly want to see what lies before us? Do we want the infinite, now? And in so doing, truly want to live beautiful lives. The beauty of the Gospel, is that it calls you to stop waiting and live, no matter the cost. And that….that’s the most beautiful thing ever.

    Thank you for this, Brian. You did a wonderful job as usual. It’s a joy interacting and meditating with you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • brian says:

      Well stated, Logan. Most Christians probably think of Christ’s cry as expiatory and then it is further watered down by forensic justification. The Cross is the nuptial bed, that is the truly remarkable and forgotten reality. The eternal fecundity of the new creation is rendered visible to those who have ears to hear.

      Liked by 4 people

      • mercifullayman says:

        It’s also interesting that when people start discussing Atonement, no one really discusses or cares to realize that the only At-One-Ment that occurs for all of history in both the human and divine spheres is in that final breath. Time itself, for all intents and purposes, stops in that moment. All is one now in that final breath. God and Man…Transcendence and Immanence…the One and the Many. That final breath is so much more than some transaction or method of justification. It is literally the entire created order finding its nexus point. Kind of baffling we don’t talk about that more often.

        Liked by 3 people

      • myshkin says:

        ” the Cross is the nuptial bed” – this calls to mind St Ignatius Roman epistle 7:2 – my eros is Crucified.

        “The eternal fecundity of the new creation is rendered visible to those who have ears to hear.” – to imagine that in the middle of the Edenic garden stood the Tree of Life, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

        shivers, amazing. thanks for the words. the first paragraph of the essay is especially poignant, there is dust everywhere indeed.

        Liked by 1 person

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