Beauty’s Ladder: Embracing the Body in the Imagery of Ascent

Within premodern conceptions of the human person, the metaphor of ascent imagined human life as a movement forward and upwards towards God. In line with substantive models of the imago dei, this ascent was often conceived of in moral and intellectual terms, a conception grounded in both Platonic philosophy and in Hebrew thought.

However, within recent theological discussions of and concern for materiality and embodiment, this image has been problematized. This image of ascent, it is argued, creates a hierarchy of being, a dualism of material and immaterial, and a movement of humanity away from embodiment (Smith, 2002; Guthrie, 2011). From this perspective, ascent imagery leads to a denigration of creation and thus is dismissed as a fruitful metaphor for the Christian life. In its place, decent, imaged in the incarnational decent of Christ, supplants ascent.

While I take no issue with the priority of descent imagery, I do hesitate to so quickly sideline the imagery of ascent. Might there be ways of re-imagining ascent that would allow us to retain the richness of our tradition’s ascent imagery without leaving the created world behind? Can we develop, rather than dismiss, ascent imagery in order to affirm a concept of the imago dei that embraces humanity, rather than seeks to escape from it? Building on Kathryn Tanner’s work to rehabilitate ascent (2010), this paper proposes one such development: an ascent theology articulated in aesthetic terms.

I will argue that transformation understood primarily as a process of beautification, undertaken by the Holy Spirit, imagines an ascent that enfolds embodied humanity into the divine life. To describe beautification, I draw on Natalie Carnes’ contours of fittingness and gratuity. Beautification entails the fitting and gratuitous formation of creatures: they become what they were intended to be, and in doing so they gratuitously witness to what is beyond their own being. My identification of the Spirit with this transformation is grounded in an understanding of the Spirit’s role both in creation and in salvation.

My argument will take the following shape:
1. Through an engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, I will demonstrate that the category of beauty does not neglect intellectual and moral transformation, because human beauty entails both. Here I presume the consonance of beauty, truth, and goodness. Human transformation, in sum, is not short-changed but enriched through the category of beauty.
2. Working from Irenaeus’ theology of the Spirit as the ladder of ascent, I will argue that beautification defined as fittingness resists a movement from material to immaterial, as it entails creatures becoming more truly themselves, rather than escaping from their physical nature.

Despite the rich ascent imagery in the premodern tradition, the dominance of intellectual and moral language to describe human transformation often sidelines the body. My attention to aesthetics is not a rejection of the intellectual and moral categories that dominate ascent imagery, but an expansion of the imagery that enriches our picture of what it means to ascend to God.

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