Objections to Beauty, drawn from Ratzinger’s “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ”
Is beauty true or is it just a distracting deception? It seems that good and evil exist along side of each other, as we experience both very deeply. The same can be said of beauty and ugliness. Since both are experienced, this raises the question whether one should be put above the other, whether one is more true, more real. Why associate beauty with reality and not ugliness and evil? Ultimately, this is a question of ontology and priority: which is first in the history of eternity – a positive entity, and which holds greater force? Do we come in contact with true beauty or is it imagined? Is not sin, suffering, and death more real and prevalent than beauty? Where is truth ultimately rooted, in the beautiful or in the ugly? Ratzinger captures these objections succinctly for us:
“Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion? Isn't reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true "reality" has at all times caused people anguish.”
Ratzinger gives the example of Auschwitz, after which many questioned God: does He exist and if so, how could He allow such a horrible thing to happen? No longer able to deny the existence of evil, many denied the existence of a loving God. Did they not realize that they know evil is ugly only because they know that goodness is beautiful? Conversely, do we need to know hate to know love? The experience of evil is always a scandal; otherwise these questions would be irrelevant. Ultimately, we will either find that beauty exists and all evil and ugliness is a negation of it, or evil exists and beauty and goodness is a negation of that. While both are experienced, only beauty – that of love and redeemed suffering lead to truth. Ratzinger’s answer is much simpler: Christ.
In His Passion, Jesus, the suffering servant was tortured, humiliated, and executed – this is the scandal of the cross, the most beautiful Person, Beauty himself, was defiled – similar to those who suffered and died in Auschwitz. In an even more direct way though, he suffered and died in Auschwitz because “as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:41). So yes, “God is dead;” he died in every suffering victim. Why did he endure it? What is the reality deeper and more powerful than evil? Love. God has transformed even the gates of death. Because of his love, he not only rises from the dead, but he raises us and shares his conquering of death with us.
The deepest and truest reality of love should always inform our idea of beauty; the sacramental vision looks beyond mere appearances. Christ’s sacrifice, his infinite love, is greater than all the evil of this world. Even torture, humiliation, and an imminent death could not stop his love. Without any depth of sight, his beaten face and body is neither heavenly nor majestic. A beautiful face may be aesthetically pleasing, but unless the person is beautiful like Christ, there is no beauty to behold. Then, it isn’t her face which is beautiful, but her being, which is united to Christ who shines forth from within her. We notice and operate from this almost every day. Every time we meet someone, we immediately take in their physical appearance, but only when we get to know them better do they become more beautiful or less, some even repulsive. We are inseparably body and spirit. Our bodies thus mediate spiritual realities, giving them all the more significance.
Briefly, let’s return to the beginning of “The Truth and the Beauty of Christ” where Raztinger draws from Plato and Cabisilas for their description of true Beauty, that is, Christ’s beauty:
“”It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound" (cf. The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabisilas).”
Beauty draws you out of yourself, away from your present state of sin. You forget the self as beauty calls you to fulfill your nature as man, one who is created for the gift of self. Christ is this beauty and this call, this piercing wound, a reminder, a reason, the truth. We were made for his beauty, holiness. However, if it is not ugliness taking the place of beauty, then it is ugliness dressing up like beauty, attempting to appeal to our baser fallen desires. Falsities, like the devil, attempt to clothe themselves in beauty, which is not theirs. This is false beauty,
This is the perversion of beauty that we cannot allow ourselves be fooled by. To be open to true beauty requires humility. For anyone to be “struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty,” he must be capable of receiving beauty as a gift. If he believes he is completely and utterly self-sufficient, his pride will reject any longing for reform; this wound calls for repentance, and a proud man will never repent.
“Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky's often quoted sentence'. "The Beautiful will save us"? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”