Ugly: Part 1, Ugly as a theological category

I’m always looking for new ways to cut at theological topics. Starting tonight at my church I’m teaching and hosting a five week class entitled Ugly.

Well, Ugly is what I wanted to title the class. But the feeling was that a one word title of “Ugly” wouldn’t be descriptive enough for the congregation. But I had visions of people saying to each other, “Hey, what class are you attending tonight?” with the response being “Ugly.”

So, in the end, the advertised title of the class is now The Theology of Ugly.

In this post, I just want to set forth ugly as a theological category and then sketch how that category might be used for theological reflection.

First, here is the definition of ugly (from

1. very unattractive or unpleasant to look at; offensive to the sense of beauty; displeasing in appearance.
2. disagreeable; unpleasant; objectionable.
3. morally revolting.
4. threatening trouble or danger.
5. mean; hostile; quarrelsome.
6. (esp. of natural phenomena) unpleasant or dangerous.

Also, here are some of the synonyms of ugly (from

appalling, deformed, disfigured, foul, frightful, grotesque, hideous, homely, horrid, ill-favored, loathsome, misshapen, monstrous, repelling, repugnant, repulsive, revolting, unbeautiful, uninviting, unlovely, unseemly, unsightly, despicable, dirty, disgusting, distasteful, filthy, low, messy, monstrous, nasty, nauseous, objectionable, offensive, scandalous, shocking, sickening, sordid, sorry, terrible, troublesome, unpleasant, vexatious, vile, wicked, wretched

I hope by looking over the definition and these synonyms you get a sense of the richness of the concept “ugly” and can see the potential for using it as a theological category.

As a theological concept I’d like to suggest that ugly—as I intend to use it—has four, interrelated concepts:

1. Being flawed, misshapen, asymmetrical
2. Revolting, disgusting, aversive
3. God-forsaken, God-abandoned
4. Alien, Other, strange

You’ll note that I am leaving some associations of ugly to the side. Specifically, I’m going to be intentionally distancing ugly from “evil,” “wicked,” and “immoral.” The reason I do this is that I want to suggest in all that follows that ugly is often mistaken for sin and evil. That is, I’m going to be playing with the idea that what we often take to be “evil” or “sinful” is often just ugly. I’m going to argue that we tend to make category mistakes with sin and ugly which leads to outcomes that are not spiritually wholesome.

Let me clarify this a bit more. Let us reflect on the cross. The cross was ugly. Crucifixion was an ugly affair. As a consequence, the cross was considered to be evil and cursed. Nothing good, therefore, could be associated with the cross. But I'll be arguing that this was a category mistake. The cross was ugly, very much so. But it wasn’t evil, as commonly understood. This, according to my theory, is why the cross was considered to be so scandalous. How could God use this ugly thing for righteous ends? The cross was so ugly—so misshapen, revolting, God-forsaken, and strange—that it just couldn’t have any goodness associated with it. Ugly had to be evil. But, in fact, the ugliness of the cross was and is its claim on divinity. The ugly are redeemed in the cross.

The cross is going to be my theological lens on ugly. That is, like the cross, much in our life and in the world is taken to be misshapen, revolting, God-forsaken, and strange. Much of life is ugly. And like the ancients with the cross, we assume that something that is ugly must be evil.

This is problematic in that we mistakenly take our anxieties, discomfort, fear, disgust, and revulsion in the face of the ugly as justifications for our failures to move into the ugly and find God there. But if the cross of Jesus is our guide for Christian practice we must follow God into the ugly. Only then do we have a chance at saving ourselves and this world.

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11 thoughts on “Ugly: Part 1, Ugly as a theological category”

  1. Clicking around. Great blog.

    Random responses.

    First, thanks for the explicit rather than implicit move from a generic dictionary definition to a theological frame for defining “ugly.” Your in-between step of switching from dictionary to thesaurus made me get ready for a Wittgensteinian dance of “uses.” When you quickly cut in on that expansive dance, to focus (more narrowly?) back toward a theological frame, I felt glad for a narrower focus, but I quickly suspected an apologetic defense coming, that is, reasons why we ought examine the ugly for God’s presence and activity in it.

    Second, I’m really wondering whether my reflexive nature (e.g. E.O. Wilson’s, “Once Bitten,” or Dewey’s “Reflex Arc”) can sufficiently be overcome by the cognitive power of a “theological concept,” to make me dash into houses of leprosy rather than burn them down, to make me quit reflexively scratching my hemorrhoids rather than sing the doxology for them, or to make my wife quit telling me to curse God and die when she can long longer count on my faith to maximize her utility, when I’m too busy scratching my boils with potsherds to clean up my ruined house. I guess Job’s friends wouldn’t go into Job’s ugliness where you’re willing to try.

    Third, may I watch the further development of this thread with one hand over my eyes?


  2. Richard,

    "I'm always looking for new ways to cut at theological topics."

    In (E. M. Forster's) A Passage to India one of the characters is described as loving " much that giving and receiving became one." I just started re-reading the book, and that quote struck me as a great way to express the goal of Christian formation.

    But Forster's character (Dr. Aziz)feels "as one" in giving and recieving WITH FRIENDS. To form a coherent Christian ideal, then, one must deal with "ugly." (BTW: Do you frame "enemy" as a subcategory of "ugly," theologically speaking?)

    And I look forward to seeing how "The ugly are redeemed at the cross." (I have a vested interest in the topic.)


  3. I know you need an "in" with your audience, but it seems problematic to say that one human being nailing another human being to a log is not evil, merely ugly.

  4. jprapp,
    I agree that a theological conversation isn't going to change my instinctive avoidance/approach impulses. In fact, it is the extreme difficulty in changing these impulses which attracts me to this "aesthetic" approach: It's hard, volitionally speaking, to change what I like or love versus what I loathe or hate. And yet, sometimes those changes are demanded of us.

    Thinking about Job, my approach is a view from the "outside": Moving into the ugly in an act of solidarity. But this approach is limited its ability to say anything to Job himself.

    Regarding the enemy. I think, it you look at wartime propaganda, ugly is used to demonize the enemy in a way that makes us more willing to kill them. This facet fits my project: Using ugly as an "excuse" not to lovingly engage the Other.

    I see your point. I would say, to add some nuance to my post, that Christians don't see the cross as simply a murder. The biblical view is that Jesus was a voluntary participant. It was an act of participating in human suffering. (I'm taking my cue from Moltmann's The Crucified God.) This still means that the act was evil from the stance of the perpetrators, but the view I'm after is Christ's move to stand in solidarity with the victims. So, I guess what saying is that Jesus is entering the ugliness of victimhood. It's not evil to be a victim, but it is ugly. And sometimes, because it is so ugly, we think the victims are evil, that they deserve what they are getting (psychologists call this "just world belief"). Jesus, I'm arguing, decouples the ugly from the evil (as it pertains to the victims).

  5. I'm tempted to say that the whole of the gospel is ugly, but the third definition catches me out every time.

    Why did you choose to include the concept of God-forsaken or God-abandoned? Surely because of Jesus and the cross ugly is more likely to be God-embraced than God-abandoned?

  6. tim f,
    Good question.

    "Ugly" is a perceptual judgement rather than an intrinsic quality. So, I probably should have written "perceived to be God-forsaken." The ugly facets of life are judged to be places where God just can't be found. But like the cross, this judgment is often in error.

    Biblically, I'm playing with these notions in Isaiah 53:

    He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
    He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

    He was despised and rejected by men,

    a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
    Like one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

    Surely he took up our infirmities
    and carried our sorrows,
    yet we considered him stricken by God,
    smitten by him, and afflicted.

    But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.

  7. Richard,

    I've been around your blog for a long time, and your writing is always very interesting and mind-stretching (is that a word?).

    I find my self returning again and again to read some of your posts (especially the series: Death and doctrine, openness theology and universalism).

    So just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    Looking forward to see where "Ugly" is going.

    Peace from Copenhagen
    Steffen Boeskov

  8. Richard, a great spectrum of questions and answers.

    I shared Tracy’s question about ugliness as a rhetorical device to demonize enemies, and Tim’s questions about ugliness as a category of theological judgment. These questions ask how “ugliness” gets insinuated into cognitive domains, where we might hope that truth-sniffing mechanisms alert us to such uses of “ugliness.”

    I agree in part, and especially in context, with your reply that ugliness is a “perceptual judgement rather than an intrinsic quality.”

    I’d like to take another pass at my previous question about our reflexive responses to “ugliness.” I’m sorry I’m not as accurate in pinpointing the frame of my question as I’d like. I’m shooting for a question on a spectrum somewhere between our reflexive responses and our other “innate” responses to ugliness, which affect what you called our “perceptual judgment.”

    Please know I’m not sandbagging or angling toward a desired answer. I’m enjoying a fresh look at an open question about aesthetics. A quick note on my bias. My bias is that practical trust in God ideally involves an integrity and synthesis of our human faculties (“and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” Mark 12:30). I don’t need a genetic understanding of my faculties as either intelligently designed, or as evolved modular components of my biological makeup (I was a biology undergrad, and am a Ken Miller fan), nor do I need a hifalutin theology to know the inward sense and satisfaction of this integrity. On the negative, I know the price I’ve paid for demeaning or neglecting one faculty to exalt another: a loss of integrity in elevating head over heart, or in elevating energetic-doing over understanding, and so on. An integrity of faculties in love and trust is my normative bias (Mark 12:30).

    That said, I apologize for my former question because it pit cognition against reflexive responses. God’s grace to embrace ugliness can operate effectively across all my faculties (heart, mind, soul, strength), so that even if a “theological concept” alone doesn’t empower me to embrace ugliness, God through grace can use theological concepts as compliments to God’s grace working on all my other senses - to get me to embrace ugliness in a larger integrity. In addition to an apology, please know that I don’t want to arm wrestle your theological focus into a discussion of innate roots of “perceptual judgments” about ugliness or beauty. Your theological focus has its own integrity.

    At the same time, I feel it’s fair to ask an experimental and empirical theology to frame narrow and testable questions, including questions that pit senses and faculties against each other, to get a feel for vector-like dynamics of our different faculties. I’m unsatiably interested in human judgment, at the intersection of statistics, law, and religion - with several years of post-grad study (after law school) in comparative religions (Chicago), on the measurable effects (analytic and statistical) of religious and theological concepts and affections as applied in concrete cases, that is, in concrete, case-by-case judgments in legal arbitration. My question here is not narrowly technical or academic; but, more heuristic. Please bear with me because I’d like to focus again on a narrow question dotted somewhere along the spectrum of what you called “perceptual judgment,” and what I earlier asked about our reflexive responses to ugliness.

    I’m thinking heuristically of findings like those of Stanislaus Dehaine on innate numeracy, in which our hardwired makeup (like our known reflex pathways) partly affect what you called “perceptual judgments.” I don’t want to belabor the question of innateness in our responses to ugliness. Maybe we can stipulate that innate dynamics work in our perceptual judgments of ugliness. It's a work still in progress to learn how innate faculties of attraction-to-beauty and repulsion-to-ugliness affect choices like assortative mating, reproductive fitness, and dynamics of kin-selected reciprocal altruism where exterior social judgments by non-family outsiders (“your mama is ugly”), might motivate us to rise up and defend kith and kin, and whether and how ugliness may confer adaptive advantages - aesthetics at a level of innateness. I don’t want to belabor the innateness issue affecting perceptions of ugliness. Just touch it.

    The problem in much theological writing is that proxy measures of personal testimony to deep gestalts of theology, or ad hoc stories of fuzzy feelings of overcoming, are persistently data-mined and marshaled in favor or against favorite, or hated, theological propositions. This theological resort to proxy measures seems almost intrinsic and impossible to overcome in discussions of aesthetics in theology. What I’m wondering is whether you might conceive of classes of our perceptual judgments about ugliness as tractable to innate dynamics, where our judgments and actions in response to “ugliness” are traceable through a metric? – perhaps tractable to a measure in our dim twilight of probability?

    Specifically, how might you conceive of a tractable measure for our progress in embracing ugliness? – some measure other than proxy measurements of personal testimony to deep gestalts of theology, or fuzzy feelings?

    Perceptual judgments are a notoriously dirty bag of tricks. Our biological world is chock full of lethal mechanisms of mimetic attraction, and “ugliness” as an adaptive advantage. Our perceptions are socially manipulable through billion dollar industries selling us endless cosmetics, cosmetic-diets, aesthetic health-care products, with plastic surgery becoming a residency of choice, so we can beautifully drive our aesthetically pleasing Chevys – where? Ah, the sweet metrics of our biology, and our social economics (politics, even theologies), selling our perception. I seem to remember Luther criticizing the sale of indulgences and the sales pitches that embellished the ugly agony of those in purgatory – ugliness as a theological money-maker.

    What about a theological metric to measure our embrace of ugliness? – to make our progress experimental? – empirical?

    I’ve belabored this (maybe too much) because it’s at the level of our deep, arguably innate perceptions, and especially our perceptions of beauty and ugliness, that I’m guessing that if any “theological concept” makes an observable difference in the way we really live - then we might find some tractable measure of our embrace of ugliness, even a heuristic measure beyond the proxy of favored testimony? – or perhaps a harder statistical measure to show that theology makes some empirical, experimental difference?

  9. Steffen,
    Thanks so much for the note. I don't track blog statistics so it's nice have people say hello.

    That's a lot to digest! First, I wholly agree that theology should begin with biological and evolutionary "givens" when it speaks about human nature or human change. And I agree with the need for theology to make, in your words, an empirical and experiential difference. I'm a pragmatist when it comes to epistemology. Ideas are guides to action.

    For just these reasons I'm attracted to ugly as a category because the psychological symptoms of our reactions to "ugly" are regularly measured in the laboratory. My own research has dwelt on issues of disgust (a facet of the response to ugly). See my "Spiritual Pollution" series on my sidebar. I also think psychological tests like the Implicit Association Test (see my post On Herbie and the Mind on the sidebar) can be used to assess progress on our reactions to the ugly. Surf the link to Project Implicit in that post to see just how many different aspects of life (from racist attitudes to attitudes about gays to fat people) could be assessed via this method. Finally, Malcolm Galdwell's book Blink is a breezy review of some of the research on how our implicit reactions to life (our focus would be narrower: implicit reactions to the ugly) can be changed.

  10. I call it the Theology of Cute. The cute and innocent fetus gets the pro-life nod. But the aging, wrinkled black man gets the death penalty. I grew up with the adorable baby fur seal getiing its brains bashed in. But imagine if the animal was a hyena or a shark. The Theology of Cute is pure judgement, and is an immature spiritualty. It also is a cheap shot at those that would "attack" cute. How evil must the pro-choice person be that would condemn the innocent and cute. I developed a saying to address the issue. "Cute is easy. Hug ugly today."I feel that when a person grows up, they should be able to see the beauty and humanity in all people. I also believe that there are those that are continually trying to make more evil in the wolrld by defining more and more things evil. Many wars have been fought with the help of propaganda. Maybe your enemy did bad things, but it could not hurt to make them even more evil by making them more ugly. Blood Libel towards the Jews as an example. Bad enough to kill Christ, but even worse to use the blood of children in an unholy commion. You get the point. Take care.

  11. Richard, the link to part two of your "Theology of Ugly" leads to this post - part 1. I'm having difficulty finding part two. The other parts, as far as I can tell, link to the correct place.

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