Session One, part 5 – The Sphere of Art

The Sphere of Art

Well, as I started to say, if you think that language is counter-intuitive and deeply mysterious, then what are we to say about the sphere of Art, about the ancient human propensity to paint superbly on the walls of caves? Or about the current propensity of human beings to find the deepest meaning of their lives in a particular kind of music? It’s pretty obvious that the “something” with which literary theory deals does belong to language, but it seems also to belong to the inexplicably human sphere of art, to that mysterious and compelling self-presence of the finely formed, which has been honored and enacted in every human community in history. This self-presence of the finely formed is, of course, a compelling factor in the scientific process for many scientists and mathematicians, who say they are guided by their (very sophisticated) disciplinary intuitions of elegance and symmetry – and the ancient Greeks would have understood them very well in this respect. (In one wonderful documentary devoted to interviews with scientists, the only thing I noticed that all of them mentioned was the guiding role of beauty in their work. It wasn’t intended or premeditated.)


Now think with me about this. It’s relatively easy to explain, isn’t it, why human beings ubiquitously engage in warfare? It’s relatively easy to explain why humans form family units and deep clan loyalties. It is even relatively easy to explain the fact that for human beings, “God” always “comes to mind.” Emmanuel Levinas, the most beautiful of theorists, wrote a dense and profound collection of essays called Of God Who Comes to Mind. (And by profound, I mean both deeply significant, and deeply difficult to read. I am still working on it, whenever I can…. In order to read Levinas, you have to deal with Husserl, and dealing with Husserl makes Heidegger look easy.) Anyway, it is the case that whether we happen to embrace a specific religious faith or not, nevertheless, in times of crisis, there is indeed a “God” who does come to mind, as the subject of our entreaties – or of our wrath. As Anne Lamott puts it, upon finding herself in a very scary situation, “I prayed The Great Helping Prayer, the one that goes, ‘Help,help,help,help. Help,help,help,help.’” You know that prayer, do you? In extremity – and also in powerfully joyous moments – we turn to a dimension of our being that we think of as located both beyond ourselves and also deep within our very make-up (something both immanent and transcendent). And in fact, it turns out, thanks to the honesty of science as a way of knowing, that this dimension of our being is hard-wired in our brains.


Ironically, however, it is only scientific moderns like ourselves who need to be told that humans beings are hard-wired to be religious beings, because of that “conversion experience” I’ve mentioned before called the Newtonian Enlightenment. The 18th century’s cultural work changed the deep structure of “rationality” for Westerners, so that Reason for the first time came to be structured as the polar opposite of religion or spirituality in every way. Earlier “reason” please note – or the Latin ratio that translated the Greek logos, and meant proportion or formal elegance – had been the mind’s path to God for Greeks and Christians alike. The soaring joy of the human mind-in-discovery had previously been a deeply sacred or religious or ultimately contemplative kind of joy. But the new “distinctive features” or significant contrasts that came to identify the word “reason” involved a fresh set of binary contrasts: mind versus nature (from Descartes, a most profound new model), and along with it the brand new notions of “objective” versus “subjective,” masculinist thought versus feminine intuition (or emotionalism), impersonal versus personal, logical versus impressionistic, sense versus sensibility, if you will. This new deep structure of oppositions supported the burgeoning scientific project by identifying it with the positive terms in a series of parallel oppositions between science and religion, rationality and irrationality, head and heart, or in our own current terminology, “cold hard facts” versus warm fuzzy “values,” or the empirical versus “anything taxonomically squishy,” as one commentator recently put it. This pattern of binary contrasts constitutes the most pervasive and powerful of the latent cultural patternings seated currently within our language and education, automatically conditioning our perceptions and thinking as modern Westerners. This is the case in spite of the postmodern critique and even when we are most trying to fight against this conditioning.


Here again we can see an inescapable Derridean dilemma, that the harder we fight against something that has shaped and conditioned us, however it may have wounded us, the more powerfully we are imprinted by it, whether we are thinking of everybody’s live-long attempt not to turn into their parents, or of the way that fundamentalist Christians have tried to oppose the hegemony of science by adopting the same reductive scientism that created the backlash in the first place: the reductive idea that truth is synonymous with scientific fact. There is no true escape from this deep-structure conditioning. The more you attack it directly, the more deeply you entrench it (and turn into it), something those who attack fundamentalism might do well to bear in mind. The best we can do, if we seek such deep grace from contemporary heory, is to take up the inventive labor of working some “play” into the entrenched assumptions of our culture, perhaps opening up in the process some avenues for otherness and for surprise.


So perhaps – as I believe, but you may not agree – we can account without too much difficulty for the human species’ warlike tendencies for aggression, and for our family and clan structures, and even, perhaps, for our propensity to turn at times to an experience of holiness or the sacred, a divine otherness that is so much bigger than we are. But just how easy is it to explain that human beings cling to art and music as for dear life? So even though we can make pretty convincing accounts of many human characteristics, art remains a mystery. And yet art, like language, is implicated in our deepest collective being as humans. In the West today, in fact, we could say that music is our greatest collective religion. Without our music, surely, my own generation, the Baby Boomers, could not have come into existence as a generation. We were created as a generation by our music.


I vividly remember being just a kid back in the Fifties, living in my own little family world. Then the Beatles came along. And “we” found out that if we played their music and if boys let their hair grow down over their collars a little bit, our elders sat up and took notice. They took notice of us. We learned we were a collective force in the world, and we used our power to fight for Civil Rights in the South and to challenge the War in Viet-Nam, which killed horrific numbers of us for an utterly hopeless cause – a cause that was known higher up to be hopeless, as it has turned out…. Our music was our salvation – which is to say that it spoke to us of being radically changed. It was our conscience, and in the face of all the odds, it gave us hope for a better world. It formed us into the coherent (or incoherent) generation that we still are. Then we were traumatized by the consecutive murders of our leaders, and in our paralysis we sold out for mere material opulence as our legacy to our children. But we aren’t done yet; at least I hope we’re not…. In our second, late-life careers, perhaps we Baby Boomers will do better at finally keeping the faith.


It seems to me that your music has played the same role for you in your generations, in Generation X or Y or whatever you are, sorry…at least most of you folks sitting here in front of me are the children or grandchildren of Baby Boomers. And how is Westernization spreading around the entire globe? Through our music. As a collective religion, our music is the best of us, and the worst of us, our vitality and optimism and freedom of expression and commitment to individual fulfillment, and yet also our arrogance and shallowness, our utterly shameful materialism, and our grotesque and vulgar indifference to others’ sufferings and to our moment in history. In this way, too, we see that music is like religion for us human beings, because a religion is always the best and the worst of us – all religions are, including my own.


It seems to me that throughout human history, art has been the most powerful revelation of humankind’s spirituality, of our passion for God. Isn’t it fascinating that “the God of the philosophers” – whom Plato and Aristotle so desired to contemplate and, with deepest wonder, to theorize – was so profoundly associated with the intrinsic order in the cosmos? Esthetic perfection and formal completeness –this was the very essence of the divine nature for Plato and Aristotle. And the God of the Abrahamic scriptural tradition is of course before anything else identified as a divine artist. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is identified always through the uniquely divine role of being Creator of the universe, pantokrator. “And so it was. God saw all that he had made, and indeed it was very good. Evening came and morning came: the sixth day.” The God-indwelt cosmos was esthetically good, that is to say, as well as morally good. And this profound identification of the divine with the esthetic, creative, and artistic dimensions of the mind’s life is developed and “read out” most explicitly of all by Christianity, because in its tradition of thought, the notions of the “word” and “image” come to be so deeply meditated upon. In the person of God’s Son, the Word and Image are even located within the Godhead itself, in the historical development of the Trinity. And we’ll see how this untoward and profound paradox was always-already deconstructing Greek logocentrism in earlier Western Christian thought.


So in Plato and Aristotle, and in all three “religions of the Book,” we find a profound sense of Divine Artistic Immanence. Furthermore, it seems to me that the irreducible intuitive paradox of immanence and transcendence was at the heart of all Greco-European thinking (as I’ll show) until after the rise of science. The rise of science need not have derailed this philosophical meditation, but one nail always drives out another, and a new knowledge the metaphysical aspects or questions surrounding the natural world. And isn’t this – a deeply held sense of divine immanence – what the tragically misguided Intelligent Design movement is really all about? I think it is about theism and about how important a divinely indwelt universe and the presence of God are for many people to find meaning in life. I remember a moment on the West Wing television show, when the Presidential candidate played by Jimmy Smitts is asked from the audience for his “position” on Intelligent Design. He says: “I’m a Catholic. I believe in God. And I gotta believe that He’s not stupid.” He goes on to say it doesn’t belong in science classrooms.


This pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? I remember showing a very good film about the Big Bang to my honors seminar in Science and Faith, and afterwards there was nothing but a troubled silence in the room. So I told these mostly Evangelical students that I had shown the same film at a state university in a secular classroom, and the room had been buzzing and afterwards students rushed up to ask me if I thought this meant there might be a god. Now that’s irony. Whether it’s cosmology or evolution, there’s nothing in current physics or biology that is in conflict with Christianity – or any other faith – except maybe ethically, when science is high-jacked by power for terrible purposes, just as religion has been.


Just because science has frequently overstepped its limits and made arrogant claims outside of its own ways of knowing doesn’t mean that Christians should do the same. From the origins of Western education with the Greeks, it was understood that large questions of ultimate meaning are questions for the synthesizing, “overview” ways of knowing, like philosophy and theology, which must work at encompassing and yet transcending the other arts and sciences. Such disciplines, too, aim at wisdom, not knowledge, and wisdom has to do with the individual human being in each person’s developmental journey within the life of the mind. Philosophy and theology are designed to deal with our always ressing human needs for ultimacy, in the face of our pressing human limitations. These disciplines, despite having their own rigors and their own histories and methodologies, must remain more uncertain than other ways of knowing, because they must deal with the most difficult subject matters of all. But they are not to be despised for that reason, or so the Greeks are going to be telling us, in our next session on the classical Greek thought-world.….

[Please go on to Session One, part 6 – The Sphere of Representation (or Mimesis)]

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