Summary: The concept of beauty is an under appreciated and very important concept in Christian Theology.
Over the past couple years I have occasionally thought about the role of beauty in theology.
NT Wright in his book Simply Christian talks about the role of Beauty in theology and I think that was really the first time that I had heard someone speak of beauty in the way.
Neither Zahnd nor Wright are talking about physical beauty. Instead they are talking about conceptual beauty, maybe awe or amazement would be synonyms, but not quite.
For Zahnd, when we miss the concept of beauty, we make Christianity into something that is fully discoverable, more of a science than an art. And more important we try to gain control over our faith (and God.)
That focal point is this: Jesus is the full revelation of God. Jesus is the eternal Word of God made human flesh. Truly this is the greatest wonder of all. The wonder we long for is found in the sacred mysteries of the faith, and a return to these mysteries can recapture the wonder. Recapturing wonder is part of salvation. We become jaded and bored because we mistakenly think there are no more mysteries to imbue us with wonder, but the Incarnation is an eternal fountain of mystery and wonder. In the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation is found the beauty that saves the world.
The central point of beauty for Zahnd is the cross. The cross is the symbol of Jesus’ power, a power of sacrifice, not of domination. So much of the book is a discussion of the cross as beautiful and a discussion of what is lost when we lose the wonder of the incarnation and the cross.
A kind of kitsch Christianity is what we are left with if we don’t take the Incarnation seriously. If we don’t deeply contemplate the absolute and full humanity of Christ, and if we don’t work the Incarnation thoroughly into our thinking and theology, we end up with a cartoon Christ, a “Precious Moments” parody, or Jesus as one of the “Super Friends”—a comic book hero who is thoroughly unbelievable. This is Gnosticism in one of its more common forms.
I would like there to be more of a discussion about evaluation of beauty. Especially after this comment, ‘When considering Christian faith and practice, we are used to asking, “Is it true?,” but we also need to ask the question, “Is it beautiful?”’
Christians like to talk about the Truth of Christianity, but often do not walk to talk about how we determine what truth is. I think the same could be said of beauty. There is some sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Death on a cross is not a traditionally beautiful vision. It is only beautiful when you take into account the motivation of Christ and the reality of what the cross and resurrection accomplishes.
But there is also an issue with something being beautiful as a whole. Breaking it down into pieces and laying it out does not necessarily make it more beautiful. “…wisdom of God is found, not in “solving” the paradox, but in entering its mystery.”