16 May 2022
Kintsugi (金継ぎ) literally means “golden joinery,” and it is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. It involves the mending of breakage with urushi lacquer. However, instead of concealing the breakage, it seeks to reveal and highlight it through the gilding of mended seams with pure gold. Not only does kintsugi restore the function of broken pottery, but it also makes them more beautiful than before. It is not a beauty we are accustomed to. Today, we tend to think of beauty in terms of immaculate perfection. In kintsugi, the accentuation of the mended breakage with gold reveals a different quality of beauty, a beauty that takes brokenness up into itself and transfigures it without dissolution, a beauty of a plenitude that emerges out of emptiness and negation.
Kintsugi has its roots in wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that sees beauty in what is rustic and imperfect. I would suggest that this uniquely Japanese art of repair serves as an apt theological motif for how Christian hope can stand in right relation to human suffering—perhaps something relevant to us still in the throes of the pandemic.
If our lives are likened to pottery, then the suffering we experience are like the cracks and breakages that happen to pottery. In pottery repaired with kintsugi, it is not the breakage itself but the repair of the breakage which brings about beauty. The breakage is a negation of that beauty intended by the potter. Suffering, like breaking pottery, cannot be anything but inherently meaningless and purposeless. When we regard the cosmos to be an ex nihilo creation of a good God, a creation wholly other to God but which nonetheless emerges generously from the plenitude of God’s wholly good being, then evil and suffering can have no proper substantial place in it. If one takes the creation narratives in Genesis seriously, then all that is evil—and the experience of that evil by creatures—can only be a negation of good, a privatio boni, a breakage, an irruption into and a disruption of a good creation that is neither desired nor intended by the Creator.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency for Christians to give great positive valuation to suffering because they believe it is “eternally purposeful.” All suffering experienced by Christians must be “measured, wise, and loving” divine dispensations for sanctification. In fact, all human sin and suffering must be ordained by God for the display of his glory. Certainly, such a belief is motivated by a pious desire to ensure that divine glory is not diminished by any penumbra in creation. However, it quickly becomes horrifying when one recalls the previous century with all its bloody wars and genocides. Could a good God build his glory on mass graves? Suffice to say, God does not need to break his creatures to demonstrate his glory—the Potter’s pottery is already glorious from the beginning: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Whence evil and suffering then, if not from God? As far as we are permitted to say a word about this, it can only emerge from the genuine autonomy God generously gives to his creation. Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart states that “God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills.” Apart from that, perhaps all we can say is that suffering is a mystery. God does not ordain it, but it is present just as the serpent was somehow present in Eden. It is a mystery which, according to theologian Karen Kilby, is characterized by an “utter lack of intelligibility.”
However, the good news—what is intelligible to us—is that God is a God of kintsugi. In Hart’s words, “God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace.” God does not ordain suffering, but he wills to deal with it. In spite of the breakage of his good creation, God wills to suffuse the depths of creaturely suffering with his creative Spirit to transform it into something good and beautiful—a divine kintsugi.
Kintsugi restores broken pottery to a more glorified form through the breakage itself, bringing greater beauty out of a negation. We see kintsugi eminently in Christ’s death and resurrection. Although Christ was raised with an imperishable and glorified body, he still bears the marks of his crucifixion, signifying that none of his suffering is unremembered or erased by God. The creative power of the Spirit has transfigured his wounds of suffering into signs of God’s grace. Instead of consigning it to oblivion, God saturates Calvary with the light of the resurrection and turns it into a gloriously life-giving event. The object which once exemplified the perversions of Roman cruelty has now become a universal symbol of God’s love.
Our suffering is not good, but God is able to work them into occasions of repentance and growth that become beautiful chapters in our stories. The late Australian disability scholar and Anglican priest Christopher Newell wrote this of his own disability: “Yet, despite all the pain, discomfort, and life-threatening challenges to my being over the years, I would not immediately take a miracle cure tomorrow. … I think that I am a much better person, priest and academic for the very experiences that I would have done almost anything to avoid.” Like with kintsugi, God can make our lives more beautiful through suffering than it would have been without suffering, even if it may be arduous to bear.
What if we do not experience that grace? What then when the devastation is immense and nothing redemptive emerges? Today, we are not unaware of the unspeakable injustice, tragedy, and terror in the world, after all, we were just in the grip of a pandemic. Considering the immense incoherence of suffering around us, it would be presumptuous to assert that all Christians will experience something good from their suffering in this life. Yet, if we consider how God transformed Christ’s horrific suffering and death into something beautiful through his resurrection, then we may certainly be assured that God’s redemptive grace will at the end mend our lives broken by suffering and restore them to be more beautiful and glorious. Even though we now see through a glass, darkly, we are invited to hope in God’s final divine kintsugi, that all shall be well and incomparably glorious in the end.