This Christmas I find myself pondering the wise men. The past few weeks have been a roller coaster ride of competing emotions as I’ve been closing up shop at one place of employment and preparing to take off in an entirely new direction the first of the year. Such changes, I now know, are processed very differently by a 20-something than by a 50-something. I’m the latter. Some time ago I passed the midlife mile marker, that place in life of which prisoner of war Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in one of the greatest films of all time, The Bridge on the River Kwai) said, “There are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents, what difference your being there at any time made to anything.” It’s a place that’s entered, not passed by, and it offers a unique and painful – but curiously freeing and empowering – perspective from which to live.
As if life wasn’t already intense enough a mystery to unravel the past couple of months, I managed during this time to land again upon the temporal status of God’s existence as my theological conundrum of choice to work on. All this brings me to a fabulous discovery I stumbled into last night while punching out my frustrations to a friend in an email. Ever get that feeling of being exhausted from thinking about a problem so incessantly you can’t disengage? You become stuck in it and obsessed with having to resolve it. It’s the drug of choice for theologians who can’t stop chasing white rabbits down holes. I feel that way about several theological issues – ‘God and time’, ‘necessity and contingency in God’, actus purus, ‘divine epistemic openness’.
As I was going through my list of theological interests, it dawned on me that most of them exhaust me. But there is one thing about God I never tire from contemplating, and as obsessed as I am with it, it never detracts from other things I have to give my attention to. What might this obsession be? Divine beauty, God as the Beautiful, and that beauty as the summum bonum. The more intensely I contemplate God as the Beautiful, the more inspired I feel and the lighter I become. Indeed, divine beauty isn’t really a ‘topic’ of discussion at all – though I can talk ‘about’ it with others on that level. Divine beauty is more like the sun’s warmth and light that make possible viewing and engaging everything else. I don’t always do a job of living in light of this reality, but last night I remembered, and theology is a kind of remembering.
The point of talking about God is to end up talking with God, to change the fundamental nature of the discussion from whatever it is you’re processing or debating with others to addressing and being addressed by God, from 3rd to 2nd person. No truth about God can reorient me this way like contemplating God as the Beautiful. I can discuss, say, ‘God and time’ for weeks and never make this switch. Same is true with almost any other aspect of theology. And it’s exhausting. You feel it after a few hours of trying to ‘figure things out’. But 5 minutes of contemplating God as the Beautiful changes and reorients the conversation. God steps in (or rather we wake up to his presence) and we find ourselves confronted with an invitation to talk with God, which of course is just prayer – theology’s truest form. And the perception of beauty is arresting. It will not remain objectified as 3rd person topic of discussion. It calls. It beckons. It transforms ineffably. You can sit in front of Degas’ chalky “Blue Dancers” and reduce its masterpiece to a competency of brush strokes, or the care taken in blending hues, or the perfect capture of light and shadow – or – you can lose your breath in ineffable rapture. Opening your mouth to ‘say it’ immediately dispels the experience of it because it is a territory, a landscape, that will always escape the cartographers (as necessary as having to talk about it may be).
My own experience is that this moment of aesthetic rapture is also inseparable from divine apatheia and our participation in it. There’s healing to be had in theology when it finally becomes a face to face conversation with God. I haven’t found the same thing to be true of investigating or debating whether or not there is contingency in God, or whether believing that God’s knowledge of things changes turns one’s faith into idolatry. But I can’t contemplate God as the Beautiful without actually engaging God as the Beautiful, i.e., without being drawn into an experience of ineffable beauty that is in some measure transforming and redeeming by the silence it bestows. Divine beauty is the one thing the sincere contemplation of which is inseparable from participating in.
Wise men, all ways of knowledge past,
To the shepherds’ wonder come at last:
To know can only wonder breed,
And not to know is wonder’s seed.
This Christmas I’m going to take my cue from those wise men and shelve every interest in me which tends to objectify God and look simply for the beauty – beauty in the condescension of Incarnation, in the trusting surrender of a teenage girl, in the risky choice of a Jewish man to marry that girl – instead of looking for beauty behind my having figured out some knotty perplexity (if I can just figure out divine necessity/contingency, or God’s relationship to time, or come up with a formula that explains evil). The healing power of beauty will find us if we want to be found. But part of wanting to be found means letting go the rush, nearly pornographic in its spell, that we get from having constructed the best ‘map’ around, in favor of the naked intimacy of the uncharted territory of being addressed by God.