The Beautifully Hideous

There’s a thought that has drawn me for several years now, and I’ve tried to express it on different occasions, never with much success, and always with some hesitant fearfulness. Even now, I can’t quite bring myself to state my thesis at the beginning of this post, as my training would incline me to do, though my title already hints at it.

In the mystical tradition that descends to us from Neoplatonism and from the thinkers who inspired the Neoplatonists, the divine is not only invisible but even unthinkable. God is beyond thought. God is beyond any reality that we have known or can know. We can think Godward, but we can never fully think God as a thought.

The truest things that we can say about God are, on this account, negations — but negations of a certain sort. It is as if someone were to say of a group of people, “They are not even human.” Our first thought, on hearing this, is to interpret it in a downward direction. Is the speaker saying that this group of people is less than human? Certainly that is one way the statement can be meant, and probably that is the way people have most frequently used that sort of speech in the past, with terrible results. But is there another way such a sentence might be used?

What if someone said of a group of Olympic athletes, “They are not even human.” What if it were said of a group of scientists who have revolutionized our understanding of the world? What if it were said of a group of saints who served others even at the greatest costs to themselves? Clearly, in this case, we would be saying that these people have transcended what we normally mean by the word “human.” If we are human, those people are something else entirely, something greater. If they are human, if they are the revelation of what it means to be truly human, then we ourselves must still be something less than fully human.

This is what certain devout thinkers have meant in the past when they claim that God does not have being, or is above being. At first this might be cynically heard as merely a clever way of admitting to atheism without being persecuted or rejected by theists. That was precisely how I heard it when I first encountered the notion. But of course, that is not the only way to hear it. If being is what we are and what we experience in our lives, then God, so the thought goes, is something else entirely. If, on the other hand, we wish to speak of God as true Being, then we must also at the same time recognize that everything else we might speak of as a being is something that is less than being, something that exists at best only in a partial and imperfect way.

One image used to express this is the image of light and darkness. God is light, tradition tells us. But we hear that God also dwells in thick darkness. Mystics have spoken then of God as a “luminous darkness.” God is truly light, but not a light that is visible to the finitude of human reception. To us, God looks like darkness. We speak truly, from our perspective, when we speak of God as an absence of light, since God is beyond the light, even (so to speak) beyond the “intellectual light” that we as humans have access to for understanding.

To speak of God as an absence of light, as darkness, is not to speak of God as something less than light. It is God as a blinding light, a light that stymies our attempts to perceive it.

This example is intriguing to me. In this instance, we find that it is true (if carefully qualified and clearly understood) to speak of God not only as beyond light, above light, non-light, but even as that absence of light that we normally take as something less than light: to speak of God as darkness.

It seems to me, then, that we could think about extending that mystical way of speaking by turning to other ways of describing God. Let’s start with some of the conventional things we might say about God:

God is goodness itself, the true Good beside which all else is less than perfect goodness.

God is the beautiful, is Beauty, beyond every beauty we have beheld.

God is Truth, all the fullness of Truth, and next to God all we are and all we know is at best a half-truth.

Speaking from a human perspective, then, I wonder if we would be justified in saying (with the above explanation held in mind) that God is also Falsity or Falsehood, the truest Falsehood and the source of all truth. God is, from our standpoint, Evil, if we think we have any knowledge of what is good, is the best and purest and noblest Evil, the Evil from which all good things emanate.

Could we even say that God is the Ugly, the beautiful Horror that endows with beauty everything it touches?

It seems to me that if my chain of thinking has thus far not admitted into itself any egregious errors, then we may find ourselves in a realm of thought and speech which could represent fertile ground for future spiritual and artistic work.

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