Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Re-Post: The Quandary of Beauty & Wonder

In keeping with what has been a pretty clear theme this week, here is an old post on aesthetics and theology:

Martha Nussbaum, in her must-read book UPHEAVALS OF THOUGHT, says that awe and wonder are non-Eudaimonistic emotions, spontaneous recognitions of inherent value in the thing experienced. Beauty, too, is much like this. Beauty, for all the Buddhist protestations against it, is a kind of universal invitation to attachment. Buddhists create sand art that they destroy with one stroke, to represent the impermanence of life. But in point of fact, there is a tension between the beauty of the art and its destruction. The gesture of the sand art is, interestingly enough, a recognition of the tension, for the significance in destroying the beauty is a kind of pronouncement against the message of beauty in general.

The world can be so wonderful, experienced as so incredible, that it almost automatically brings one to an attitude of worship. Awe and wonder are almost spontaneous worshipful responses, and they rise up in us all the time. Great beauty inspires worship. That is simply what it means to really give oneself over to the experience of the aesthetic. Beauty comes to us as information-bearing, any and all instantiations of beauty seem to be very much like a message. That message is one of sublimity and goodness. The world SEEMS TO BE saying to us: 'yes, to this you can fully give yourself.'

But in a godless universe, this is nothing more than a trick, and a trap. For all beauty is, in point of fact, passing in this world, as the Buddhist gesture attests to. Death is the final word on all that is wonderful and awe-inspiring. The horror, then, is that in the shadow of death beauty becomes something not wonderful, but terrible. For what purpose can it serve, but to remind us of all that we cannot have? What can it do but reinforce the fact that our life is inevitably incomplete? Beauty becomes the ultimate lie, an invitation to play acting and nothing more. It just makes the horror of the darkness that surrounds human life that much starker.

The very fact that the Buddhist sand art is destroyed attests to the 'danger' Buddhists see in beauty, for they recognize the message it sends. The destruction of the beautiful is a kind of saying 'no' to that message. But what if we take the message as it stands? What if we choose, in spite of the counter-evidence, to trust our experience of the beautiful? Then awe and wonder become intimations of the very eternity we seek. We say 'no, this is what it means to be human and I will not run from it', and then we let our actions and attitudes guide our beliefs. What is wrong with this? Isn't this just being honest about who we are as limited beings? You see the truth is that the passing of beauty becomes, to the person who is fully open to the wonder of the world, the death of God in the world. For if awe and wonder are autonomic responses of worshipfulness, then the fact of the passing of the object of awe can be nothing less than the destruction of that which is worthy of worship. Life becomes the story of crucifixion without resurrection.

But what if what appears to be divine is? What if eternity is calling us through those experiences to trust and choose in opposition to the counter-evidence? I think that they are, especially when taken in context of a whole range of other human experiences. Beauty is not the passing of the divine into nothingness. It is a momentary in-breaking of Eternal Divinity, into the ever-changing theatre of the mortal coil.

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