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Since the emergence of modern science in the West (roughly the 17th century), there has been tension between classical theism (there is a God, as envisioned in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and different forms of naturalism (the denial of theism and the affirmation of a natural world with no souls, no afterlife, no supernatural, and so on). It is argued that the case for recognizing that some nonhuman animals have thoughts and feelings, and are thus morally significant, is stronger from a theistic perspective rather than from the standpoint of naturalism. Special attention is given to upholding a humane, Christian animal ethic.
We began this book with a comparison of the visibility and invisibility of persons and God, stressing the importance of being available to others and the transcendent; we have reflected too on the importance of examining different, ever-expanding points of view when it comes to aesthetics and values. In this chapter we offer a personal guide to enhancing aesthetic experiences of and through works of art.
While this chapter pertains to works of art in almost any context, the focus is on the engagement of works of art in museums. Although we addressed two museum experiences in Chapter 7, we offer some further reflections on museums here, before presenting our guide to the aesthetic experience of works of art.
In Chapters 1 through 3, we compared the aesthetic visibility and invisibility of God and persons and introduced a substantial, high view of human persons as able to encounter the transcendent experientially. In Chapter 4 we undertook an aesthetic investigation into a series of religious worlds and their secular alternatives; in Chapter 5 we reflected on the religious significance of beauty; and in Chapter 6 we reflected on how works of art can conceal or reveal secular and sacred values.
In Bertrand Russell’s The Wisdom of the West, the above photograph is paired with the caption “Mt. Sinai, home of Yahweh, the Invisible God of the Jews.” Indeed, this photograph depicts what is believed to be the 7,500-foot-high, volcanic, granite mountain located on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, which the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) and the Qur’an identify as the site where Yahweh makes a covenant with Moses. The choice of this grey, out-of-focus, distant view is akin to Herman Melville’s description in The Encantadas of the Galapagos Islands: “It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group … . In these isles rain never falls … Another feature in these isles is their emphatic unimaginableness.”
Exaltation is at the heart of all religions. The aesthetics of religions disclose the values of the practitioners who shape the religion, and who, in turn, are further shaped in their practice and aesthetic experience. Religious life involves all the dimensions of aesthetics: beauty and ugliness, aesthetic emotions such as awe and love and hate, feelings of guilt and shame as well as joy and ecstasy, and a staggering range of artistic works. The field of aesthetics raises an array of religious concerns: Can we have aesthetically charged experiences of the divine? What is the relationship between beauty and divinity? In Is God Invisible? An Essay on Religion and Aesthetics, we investigate the aesthetics of religious life and values.
Art is generative by nature, revealing and concealing our intentions and identities. Form, by which we mean embodied content, has a unique relationship with each viewer, reader, or listener of call and response, and that is why the meaning of a work of art cannot be easily fixed or guaranteed. Art is a form of life.
The valence of a work of art is experienced over time. Even in works of art that fail to reach an impact many of us would consider profound, meaning can’t be grasped in a glance or a moment of listening. Meaning in art often accrues by degrees as the world of the art’s embodied content meets us in what we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. And the world that art creates is formed through an act of poesis (from the Greek for to make), with intention, but not with a means to stabilize meaning(s) in its encounters with viewers over time, in some cases, millennia. As a form of life, works of art may have not just histories but also biographies (extended narrative lives), and sometimes works of art die when they disappear from public view or consciousness.
Religious traditions hold the sacred to be beautiful and desecration to be ugly. Is this a glib, pious claim, masking a sentimental attachment to outdated categories? Or, is beauty still a guiding force in understanding what is valuable? Should our sense that an event or a person’s act is ugly guide our judgment?
Hans Urs von Balthasar, a twentieth-century theologian, developed a theology of beauty. He submitted that without an allegiance to beauty, along with her “sisters” truth and goodness, our lives would be fallow and loveless.
The question that started our project, “Is God invisible?” took us into theological reflection on what might be meant by God being invisible and, just as importantly, what might be meant for our being invisible or visible to one another. We explored the religious worldviews of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and their secular alternatives in the three areas of aesthetics: aesthetic experience itself, the philosophy of beauty and ugliness, and the philosophy of art. In advancing aesthetic personalism, we have argued for the reality of embodied persons as enduring individuals with our distinctive aesthetic experiences and values. We have argued against defining persons and the transcendent so as to make it impossible for persons to have symmetrical experiences of God or the sacred. We propose that an omniscient or God’s-eye point of view (as we find in the Abrahamic idea of God, the omniscience of Brahman, and the Compassionate Buddha) provides an important challenge to oppressive, false narratives and supports a realist view of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
In the midst of a fierce storm with brilliant light and flashing fire, four bronze figures emerge with the faces of a man, lion, bull, and eagle. There is a profusion of extended wings, along with lightning, wheels, a scroll, and a prophet, who is commissioned to exhort Israel to repentance, warning about the forthcoming fall of Jerusalem.
The thunderous, cascading opening passages of the sixth-century BCE Book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible led some twentieth-century commentators to speculate whether it was actually a description of an alien spaceship landing. What seems more reasonable to assume is that interpreting the sacred texts of great religious traditions requires acquaintance with the meaning and history of the people and cultures in which these texts took shape.
The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The scripture narrates a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who is an avatar (a kind of incarnation or manifestation) of Vishnu, the cosmic force of goodness, the inner Lord who lives in the hearts of all beings. Their dialogue takes place prior to a monumental battle. Arjuna is downcast, despairing over the monstrosity of the imminent mass killings of family, friends, and former teachers, who are in the opposing army. The dialogue has many layers and teachings about choices, our duties, actions, intentions, the presence of good and evil, and reincarnation. It culminates in the revelation of the divine. Here is a section from the chapter Divine Splendor.
In the current intellectual climate, there is a monolithic assumption that the natural sciences are our best guide to reality. While there is little doubt about the titanic significance and the necessity of physics, chemistry, and biology informing our understanding of reality, there is some doubt about the sufficiency of the natural sciences in helping us identify and explain values (what is good or evil, beautiful or ugly) in society and politics, our personal choices, our religious or secular life, and even the very existence of conscious, subjective experience. A growing range of philosophers has argued that to fully address the reality of consciousness and values we need to expand our inquiry beyond the confines of the natural sciences. In this book we undertake such an expanded exploration, looking into the aesthetic dimension of religious worldviews and their secular alternatives, including those that limit inquiry to the natural sciences.
In this volume, Charles Taliaferro and Jil Evans promote aesthetic personalism by examining three domains of aesthetics - the philosophy of beauty, aesthetic experience, and philosophy of art - through the lens of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, theistic Hinduism, and the all-seeing Compassionate Buddha. These religious traditions assume an inclusive, overarching God's eye, or ideal point of view, that can create an emancipatory appreciation of beauty and goodness. This appreciation also recognizes the reality and value of the aesthetic experience of persons and deepens the experience of art works. The authors also explore and contrast the invisibility of persons and God. The belief that God or the sacred is invisible does not mean God or the sacred cannot be experienced through visual and other sensory or unique modes. Conversely, the assumption that human persons are thoroughly visible, or observable in all respects, ignores how racism and other forms of bias render persons invisible to others.
After a brief overview of Christian Platonism in modern philosophy, the chapter has three sections. The first defends a Platonic account of value, in the second the primacy of consciousness is defended over and against physicalist accounts of mind that denigrate or eliminate consciousness, and in a third section objections are raised to Christian materialism, thus the chapter concludes with a defense of a more Platonic Christian account of the soul and body.