Thursday, February 10, 2011

Aesthetics and Religion

Aesthetics & Religion [Platonicity & Empiricisms]: Two Interesting Thinkers –In More than One Respect

Religion has very little to do with “belief”; it is an indivisible package of aesthetics, ethics, social-emotional commitments, and transmission of κηρύγμα, a set of customs and rituals inherited from the elders. Indeed the complication of “belief” is mostly a Western Christianity type of constructed problems, and a modern one at that: ask an Eastern Orthodox monk “what he believes”, and he will be puzzled: he would tell you what he practices. [I discussed the “amin” in an earlier note].  Orthodoxy is principally liturgy, fasting, practices, and tradition; it is an ornate religion that focuses on aesthetics and requires a very strong commitment. “Belief” is meaningless; practice is real. What we now translate by “veneration”, προσκυνει is literally bowing down to the ground a very physical act [Note that I am not partaking of the current debate on religion out of disrespect for almost all the participants: aside from being journalistic in the worst bildungsphilistinistic sense, particularly when they talk about “probability”, most are not even wrong].

Two thinkers stand out: the pagan apologist Libanius of Antioch (friend of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate) who attacked Christianity for the very same reasons he would defend it today against such philosophasters as Dawkins –its destruction of the old practices, the abandonment of the accumulated mysteries, it simplistic move away from classical erudition. And, mostly, its belief. Libanius was a formidable orator, the last Greek purist in Syria. More on him, later. The second one is Saint John Damascene one of the fathers of the Greek Church, the one who attacked the iconoclasts and to whom we owe the restoration of icons.

Saint John Damascene ‘hAgios Ioannis Damaskenos, يوحناالدمشقيwas unusual in many respects. He was Syrian, but not apparently Greek-Syrian, born (I assume) Yahya Ibn Mansour Ibn Sergion (Sergius). If his real name was Yahya, it would be Arabic for John –the Syrian version would be Yuhanna, يوحناor modern Hanna حنا. [Some documents claim that his name was Mansur, changed into Yuhanna]. Anyway, he was apparently Arabic not Syriac-Aramaic speaking, as he reportedly learned Syriac during his philosophical education. He was born in Damacus c. 678. He was trained to be part of the Omayad administration –in spite of being a  Christian, his father was the equivalent of finance minister of Al-Walid and John took that job as it was, as most professions were, hereditary. John was a true polymath, his areas were: music, mathematics, classics, oration, finance, logic, Christian theology, linguistics, etc. Around the age of 30 (or so), he left finance to become a monk and went to live at the monastery Mar Saba south of Jerusalem.

Now the interesting part: in 726 the Byzantine emperor Leo issued his edict against the veneration of images. John of Damascus was the chief iconodule, and wrote three main treatises in Greek. He benefited from theDhimmi protection of the Caliph as Christians could not be persecuted other Christians. My ancestors benefited from such protection and you need to give credit where credit is due! Note here that it was Islam that protected the Greek Orthodox Church from the Byzantine Emperor. And note that John the Damascene never set foot outside the Arab ruler’s land. So the greatest single contributor to Greek Orthodox Aesthetics and Byzantine music was an Arabic speaking Christian operating in Arab land [note that St John calls Greek, by hellenoi , meant pagans –“Greek Orthodox” meant Byzantine). This Arab protection did not prevent John from writing an aggressive treatise against Isl*m and its prophet.
He was also called “golden speech” owing to his erudition ( I will translate when I have nothing better to do; I hate translating):

وكان يوحنا ينذوي في صومعته، في سيق مار سابا يؤلف مع أخيه قزما الترانيم والقوانين الدينية التي لا تزال الكنيسة تترنم بها إلى يومنا هذاوكانت قريحته فيّاضة لدرجة أنه استحق أن يُدعى فيما بعد بـ “مجرى الذهبثم شاءت العنايةالإلهية أن يُنتخب قزما أسقفاً على مايوم، المعروفة اليوم بميلمس(قرب غزة)، وطُلب مراراً إلى يوحنا أن يُرتسم كاهناًوكان في كل مرة يرفض، إلى أن “استحضره بطريرك البيت المقدس وسامه قسيساً بغير مراده، بل بكثرة الزامه إياه غلبه علىرأيهولما عاد من عنده إلى السيق زاد في نسكه وأتعابهوانعطف إلى تصنيف أقواله التي سرت إلى أقصى المسكونة.
ويعتبر المؤرخون أن رسامته قد تمت بوضع يدي البطريرك الأورشليمي يوحنا الخامس (735) 8.

Another historical irony early this century the now called Antiochian Greek-Orthodox church proceeded to translate from the Greek (John’s adoptive tongue) into Koranic Arabic (his native one) his hymns & chants. I wonder if he would have approved of it. Much of this activity took place at the Deir Balamand near my village of Amioun (around 7 miles). [One can listen to the Choirs of Balamand on U-tube, with some Greek left untranslated].

As Orthodox Christians (as well as the earlier Christians during the patristic tradition), liturgy, rituals and icons are central to our identity: Orthodoxy is embedded in icons. It is also embedded in chants. And not just chants: the lamentations of the epitaphion (say Zoi en tafo) require grueling episodes of fasting.
When I probe into the demarcation between the holy and the empirical, I insist that both are physical. I dress up my ideas in stories –I try to make good use of the narrative fallacy. Art is physical.

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