In the last century, beauty has not often found itself enlisted in struggles for justice. As Nehemas recounts, beauty’s severance from goodness and truth in the modern period renders beauty dangerous, its charm easily wielded as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the powerful. Beauty thus has been sidelined in modernity, disposed as a mere appearance, as Balthasar described. In response to this neglect, some scholars have argued for a return to a pre-modern conception of beauty that is bound to truth and goodness (Schindler 2018; King 2018; Johnson 2020).
However, the abuse of beauty is not simply a modern phenomenon, and its resistance requires more than a pre-modern solution. Beauty is eschatological, and thus its abuse points to a failure to order it properly to its eschatological end. This paper outlines the problem as a disordering of beauty through human grasping for that which has not yet been given. In this human grasping, we can locate oppressive and exclusive standards of beauty as those which fail to understand physical beauty’s eschatological nature and instead seek to immanentize it in the present.
This paper argues that the abuse of beauty by the powerful can be resisted, not by spiritualising beauty, but by ordering physical beauty to its eschatological end: an end most clearly seen in the ascended Christ, the archetype of beauty. Because of the human nature of the ascended Christ, beauty cannot be divorced from materiality but must include it. Yet in addition to being human, Christ’s ascended body is also wounded and hidden. This threefold nature of Christ’s ascended body, I argue, subverts attempts to disorder and abuse beauty.
First, drawing on Irenaeus, I insist that Christ ascends bodily and that his body is retained in his reunion with the Father. The incorporation of Christ’s beautiful body into the divine life thus embraces rather than excludes humanity’s physical beauty.
Second, I describe Christ’s beautiful body as one that is wounded. Following Natalie Carnes, I show that Christ’s wounded body subverts any standard of beauty that seeks to irradicate ugliness in the present age. Finally, in conversation with Balthasar’s concept of Christ’s veiled beauty, I argue that Christ’s hidden body should chasten theologies of beauty. Until Christ inaugurates the eschaton at his Parousia, beauty will continue to be hidden where we do not expect it, and appearances will continue to distract and deceive.
I conclude by arguing for two implications for theological aesthetics: first, physical beauty should not be despised for the sake of immaterial beauty, and second, any cultivation of physical beauty must be done with humility and hope. Rather than resisting its abuse through spiritualising beauty, Christ’s ascended body offers a way to both embrace and subvert physical beauty.