My seminary professor recently played the folk song “Why Do We Hunger For Beauty?” by James Croegaert. To answer such a question we have to understand what constitutes “beauty” and then come to grips with why humans seem to desire it. The broad, biblical answer is that God created human beings with a desire to worship and glorify God and enjoy presence with God forever. But because of sin, that desire to worship doesn’t get erased but is rather disordered. Humans are easily distracted and often end up worshiping things that are not God (idolatry). So our innate longing for beauty is a right, God-given impulse.
Just saying “God” and “beauty” seems too abstract. The trouble with abstractions is that they don’t exist. God does not exist in the abstract and neither does beauty exist in the abstract. So what keeps Christians grounded? The incarnation of Jesus, the Christ, that offensive fact that God became flesh, dwelt among us and thus changed everything.
It’s not that Jesus is like God, but rather that God is like Jesus. In The Original Revolution, John Howard Yoder said: “We do not, ultimately, love our neighbor because Jesus told us to. We love our neighbor [and enemies] because God is like that.” And how do we know God is like that? Because we see Jesus! The gritty, divine particularity of the incarnation goes a long way toward protecting us from speaking of matters in the abstract, protecting us from crafting something in our own image or that of the surrounding culture(s).
Is Christ beautiful?
Hungering for beauty can be seen as a desire for satisfaction, completion or unification into something greater than ourselves. Theologically, it is the desire to return to God. But what does that look like? Biblically, it probably looks like Jesus’ prayer to his heavenly father in John 17:
“I pray…for those who will believe in me through (the disciple’s) message, *that all of them may be one*, Father, just as *you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us* so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Emphasis mine.)
In this prayer for unity, there is a call to embodied faithfulness and missional witness to the world, being pulled toward true beauty: God’s reconciling work in all of creation, seen to completion. New heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem.
“Let’s talk about sex”
Just as beauty doesn’t exist in the abstract, neither does sex. Matthew Lee Anderson, in his recent book Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, says that sex is an experience of “mutual self-giving in freedom,” an act of unification — two becoming one — and an experience that should be practiced with a deep sense of attentiveness and care.
Sex, therefore, is inherently relational. However, American culture tries to make sex non-relational. In popular media, sex is mostly about consumption. Consider porn on the Internet, where the relationality of sex is lost. But even that’s not entirely true. The person consuming porn is affected by the habitual practice, just as the person being watched in the porn is being affected by the vocation and the industry which makes it possible. So the non-relationality of sex in the consumerist, technological society is itself a lie.
Sex, understood Christianly, should be beautiful and therefore Christ-like. It should be a sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom. U.S. Christians need significant re-framing when it comes to sex. A good place to start might be to see our bodily goodness and hunger for beauty in the particular light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It would shift the assumptions away from individualistic, consumeristic and technological understandings and practices of both embodied life in general and sex in particular.
Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and a Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and Eastern Mennonite Seminary student. He writes at Restorative Theology, where this blog post originally appeared. It also appeared in The World Together blog at Mennonite Weekly Review.
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