An Interview with John Cunningham, Part One

On this week’s podcast, Dan sits down for a conversation with his friend Dr. John Cunningham, a pastor, theologian, and husband of Susan Cunningham, who shared her poetry on the podcast two weeks ago. John and Dan discuss the meaning and importance of beauty through the lens of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. Yes, that Jonathan Edwards—as in, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” John says that the view of Edwards as a wrathful, fire-and-brimstone preacher ignores a larger theme of his work: beauty.

“He talked about beauty more than almost anything else, also more than any other thinker in history. He estimated the value of beauty as a theological idea.”

John and Dan talk about how the emphasis on beauty began to fade from the church in the Reformation, when beauty was considered subjective, even dangerous. While beauty made a comeback through Romanticism, it was largely thought of as separate from the work of God—certainly not a theological concept.

“But if we think of beauty in terms of a unity of diversity, of symmetry and harmony, and we think of what we know God to be—Trinity, three-in-one—the very essence of God, Edwards would say, is beauty. It’s not just that God has an attribute of beauty; God is beauty itself. This made [Edwards] radical, because no one was going to say something like that.”

If God is beauty, then our interaction with beauty must go beyond static engagement. When we are grasped by beauty, we are invited to know more of the goodness of God that is expressed in mutuality and love. But—and this is critical, John says—it’s not about saccharine prettiness that tries to cover over flaws.

“True beauty must capture ugliness, suffering, injustice—as Christ did on the cross. We want to say, as Edward did, the most beautiful thing the angels have ever beheld was the crucifixion of Christ. […] What was the greatest ugliness becomes the greatest beauty because it has been absorbed into beauty. […] Beauty can handle ugliness, but transforms it.”

Next week, Dan and John will continue this conversation by wondering how our personal and theological understanding of beauty helps form our notion of the work of God and informs how we engage our own experiences of darkness and pain.