Sunday, January 16, 2011

Aesthetics and Belief

Read original here
I wanted to write on this subject, but instead found a very useful post on this subject. My contention was that "CAN AESTHETICS BE DEVOID OF BELIEF"

Years ago, I came to the quiet decision that the god I was introduced to at an early age in Sunday school was no longer a god I wanted to believe in.  He had become an ugly and vengeful being. And though I still participated and the day to day Christian activities of the bible college town we were living in at the time, I knew that this “god” that I had either been overtly taught or inadvertently inferred to through the hidden curriculum of this particular institution was dead to me.  I didn’t become an atheist (in the practical sense - I'm far too non-confrontational), though I could certainly see the attraction. 
But things changed after some time.  I was re-introduced to the God who had been lost in the hierarchies and patriarchies of my past church experiences.   This is the God who is beautiful. The words in the bible didn’t change.  The church didn’t really change.  The evidence didn’t change. What changed was the aesthetic… I was gently and graciously discipled into recognizing what was beautiful and what was ugly through the lens of Christ.  I was working with largely the same materials, but yet I saw things so differently. 
The question could be asked what makes the difference between loving Christians and Christians who are full of bitterness and hatred?  What makes a Mother Theresa and what makes a Pat Robertson?  They accept similar concepts as true.  They read the same scriptures and both are integrated into a largely imperfect institutional church, yet their outcomes – their actions – are vastly different.  Their actions, or as some might argue their true beliefs, are governed by a sense of what is beautiful and what is ugly.  If I find the story of a god who demands blood and sacrifice and whose justice takes its truest form in smiting those who oppose him (which could easily be a rational interpretation of many passages in the Old Testament) a beautiful story, then my actions and likewise my true belief system, will reflect this.  However, if I am uncomfortable with this interpretation and instead look at scripture through the aesthetic lens of the story of Christ, God’s justice becomes something entirely different.  
“Evidence”, whatever we define that to be (the words of scripture or of religious authorities, or observable scientific evidence or even personal experience), should never be our only basis of belief… Evidence alone can lead us down dark paths.  Instead, we see evidence through an aesthetic lens from which we determine things as beautiful or ugly, acceptable or unacceptable. If the evidence we hold as most important points us in an ugly direction, we might consciously re-evaluate and search for alternatives.   We are convinced to a certain degree by what aesthetic is most pleasing to us before we even consider the evidence.   
Scientifically, one could argue that the genetic differences between certain animals and humans are so miniscule that it there is no reason humans (especially humans who don’t possess the abilities, either because of age or mental deficiency, from which we tend to define our “humanness”) should be treated no differently than animals – to be used and then to be put down when rendered useless.  Of course even those who argue from this point of view most likely do not live out these concepts (though there are those who have), not because the evidence does not support such a conclusion, but because the conclusion is so very horrific.  The horror and the ugliness of such a claim prevents it from finding its way (fingers crossed) into the mainstream.  We weigh the aesthetics of the conclusions of such a claim, and then move from the evidence (which exists and has credibility in this case) to an interpretation, to a belief, to a way of life.  Perhaps in a debate on the subject, it wouldn't be a game-ender to simply argue "That's just ugly".  But for most of us I think the supreme ugliness of culling the sick and the elderly would far outweigh any argument, no matter how well corroborated it might be (I say this as a hopeful person). 
I suppose some might think the idea that preferences of beauty and ugliness shape what we accept as true sounds wobbly at best.  In our culture we’re so used to understanding beauty as something purely superficial or material, or something that can only be defined in the eye of the beholder.   It is at least somewhat individual, yes.  But the idea that because aesthetics has a subjective element and therefore has no authority is a modern myth, one that divorces us from our histories, cultures and all those things that bond us together as human beings.  It could be argued that most of the dilemmas Western culture faces today stem from an inability either to recognize beauty or to recognize the importance of beauty.
What do we mean to say when we speak of someone who is “rational” or “wise”?  Do we mean to say this person is adept at carefully sorting through and weighing the data in order to ascertain what is true and what is not?  Certainly this is part of the answer.  But one who is wise and prudent, no matter what he or she might claim as belief or disbelief, is one whose aesthetic lens is finely tuned to recognize the beautiful and the ugly.   
May I aspire to be such a person – one whose beliefs do not start and stop at demanding evidence, but one who can also see and hear the beautiful.

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