Monday, February 27, 2012

Christianity and Positive Aesthetics: A Religious Reply to Carlson

Allen Carlson, prematurely in my view, argued that the position that theism provides suitable justification for positive aesthetics is "counterinuitive in light of both the theist position on the problem of evil and the historical point of view of Christian theism" (222). Theism - properly understood, which Carlson does not - holds that the cosmos is contingent upon Uncreated Being which is fundamentally good.  Modern scientists such as Stephen Hawking believe the universe is "elegant" because of its laws and forces.  Carlson holds beauty is "appropriate" the more we recognize the system behind the natural world.  Are not monotheism and science together on this point?  Why then does Carlson object to transcendental religions' form of positive aesthetics - and is his critique valid?

Carlson fails to make several distinctions. First, some religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and some forms of Hinduism are "non-theistic" - that is, hold to an essential, cosmic order without belief in a specific, divine personality from whom reality has its existence. Second, Carlson's "theism" does not include polytheism and fails to deal with other monotheistic traditions such as Judaism and Islam. In this critique, I will engage only Carlson's objections. In ancient religions, the undifferentiated cosmos existed as primordial chaos - an emergent, "atheistic" materialism - from which spawned the gods. The gods then created the orderly world always threatening to fall back upon itself. The gods are fundamentally very powerful creatures subject to fate. Philosophy moves beyonds superficialities into deeper absolutes and unities. Hinduism evolves out of this thought - merging the disparate personalities of the natural world, the gods, into a sublime oneness which is fundamentally impersonal. The gods are the personalities emerging from the impersonal which is fundamentally amoral and becomes pantheistic as the world and the gods are one. Hegelianism and modern atheism can be seen as merely a branch of the materialism which also includes ancient polytheism except "the gods" are forces dictated by the universe's laws. In Polytheism, Pantheism, Aristotelianism, and Materialism, the universe exists as the womb of, and prior to, the gods who uphold the laws of the universe. The gods are arbitrary, capricious, and sometimes even evil. In my opinion, polytheism does not provide a secure basis for positive aesthetics.

Carlson's first criticism is that monotheism (when he says "theism" and really means "Christianity") seems to hold then that only believers could have a privileged appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, that "there is a significant difference between the aesthetic appreciation of... the theist... and non-theist." On one level, this is true since world view does inform one's perspective. However, at least Thomistic Christians believe that God has created all of mankind with reason and, therefore, nature can be appreciated without knowing the Creator. Everyone is created with a hunger for his or her ultimate meaning, or essence, inside - and beauty is part of that. To use an art analogy (which might be inappropriate here), I can appreciate the Last Supper without knowing who painted it.

Carlson's second criticism is Christianity's problem of evil and the related "problem of ugliness." Personally, I am baffled by this since St. Augustine especially would lock arms with Carlson with regard to positive aesthetics:

"One might ask why brute beasts inflict injury on one another, for there is no sin in them for which they could be a punishment, and they cannot acquire any virtue by such a trial. The answer, of course, is that one animal is the nourishment of another. To wish that it were otherwise would not be reason- able. For all creatures, as long as they exist, have their own measure, number, and order." (City of God)

Carlson's argument appears to be this. The problem of evil and the so-called "problem of ugliness" should be seen as two sides of the same coin. While Christians must engage evil by means of a theodicy, Christians (and other monotheists) are willing to accept that ugliness does not exist. Carlson takes this to be inconsistent and demands "the theist should engage in aesthetic theodicy" (221). Why is this inconsistent? In Medieval Christianity, evil is a mere privation of something that should exist. All existence is good because existence comes from God. True ugliness then is privation, an undoing by humankind. In Abrahamic thought, evil comes from the sins of the first humans who lost their intimacy with God. Augustine writes:

“For He has wrought them all in His wisdom, which, reaching from end to end, governs all graciously; and he leaves not in an unformed state the very least of His creatures that are by their nature subject to corruption, whose dissolution is loathsome to us in our fallen state by reason of our own mortality.

In his mind, natural evil is a perspective humans bring into the world. We lost the "God's eye view" in Eden to speak metaphorically. Indeed, the Book of Job affirms that God in His sublimity created the whole of nature. Isaiah, I believe, says somewhere God is the source of both good and [natural] evil. This is why Job delights in terrible sublimity - because God is above all of that. a religious form of the "view from nowhere." The the sublime is beautiful because fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom, the Other, "that terrible goddess" in the words of Carlson (218).

His third criticism is that Christianity historically has not been appreciative of environmental aesthetics. He cites Western belief "wild nature [was believed to be] something to be confronted, dominated, and domesticated..." Here, I will partially concede to Carlson. The monotheistic religions clearly teach that humans are the crown of creation. However, in the first creation story God affirms every thing as essentially good in itself - without any thought of mankind. Furthermore, in all of these religions, God is in charge over nature and - through nature - wields absolute power over humans. Humans are clots of dirt. Adam and Eve are set over the world to cultivate it, to rule it. Are we not the crown of creation though? What other animal - and Christianity affirms we are mere creatures - has the ability to experience "the numinous"? In other words, we reflect on beauty and, in a sense, create beauty and morality out of our minds. We create art and virtues to reflect the world. Nature has no beauty without observers. I find deeply disconcerting those in Life After People who would want humanity gone to "save" the natural world. The natural world does not care about being "saved," any species being "saved." Nature runs on its course with or without us. We care. That alone gives human lives a higher value over the natural world. As Roger Bacon chillingly attests, science is only possible with this view in mind - the separation between the world and the observer. Carlson himself recognizes this in his disputation with the Engagement Model. This entails dominion, setting humans up and against the world. At the same time, however, religion provides another side to this: we are only temporary creations ourselves, that God holds power over both and grinds us into humility.

Finally, Carlson particularly agrees with Romanenko who says, "Religion...reduces her [nature] to the position of a most christian subject of the all-mighty creator." First, "religion" does not do this. Polytheism and pantheism conflates the gods and cosmos into a single chaos without a transcendent standard. Otherwise, I must also concede to Romanenko. Historically, Christianity has been radically anti-material - especially in some Platonic streams of thought the Medieval Ages (while there is much to admire about the medieval synthesis of philsophy). The Pre-Socratics such as Thales and Pythagoras followed by the three Socratics in many ways disenchant the material cosmos. By positing a realm of underlying structures - the abstract harmonies in music and mathematics, the logos, the atoms, or the forms, they pointed to a higher, uncreated unity to which the world can be reduced. As such, nature became an obstacle to perception of "the One" for the Platonic Gnostics or at best a proto-sacramental - that is, a material object participating in divine grace - for some Platonic Christians and Neo-Platonic philosophers. Nature became important insofar as the material world derived its existence from God. While Augustine lovingly depicted the material world acutely (the beauty of the human body, the brilliance of light playing against the world), he still divided between what can properly be "enjoyed" (which he defines as beheld for its own sake) and "used" (a sacred symbol along the road towards the Creator). The bishop reveled in nature not for its own sake. However, I would point out that Emerson himself - in contrast with Thoreau - takes a more balanced version of the "sacramental" position. He states, "A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests universal grace...The world exists to the soul to satisfy this desire of beauty." (53) He then waxes on like a true Socratic seeking universals when he says: "Beauty one expression for the universe...different faces of the same All." (53) Even though Emerson claims to love nature for its own being, he connects its being not as an ultimate end but as grace towards "the All."

Medieval Christians and Platonic philosophers then have always had a love-hate relationship with the natural world. An imbalance occurs where creation is maligned for the Creator's sake - an odd paradox, and one Emerson and St. Francis of Assisi tried to correct. However, I should note a less extreme version of this attitude is taken by any ascetic mystic of any religion - seeking to escape the world into the uncreated reality.

While monotheistic religions (predominant in the West by an accident of history) partially carries the blame for a devaluation, or demythologizing, of the natural world, Carlson cannot summarily dismiss religious forms of positive aesthetics as invalid.  Indeed, Carlson's own model could be described as as a scientifically updated version (somehow without a ground of existence) of the positive aesthetics created in dialogue between monotheism and the Socratic philosophers.

Blog 7

Dante's Cosmology (Platonic Natural Order, or "Great Chain of Being")
John Scotus Erigena's Cosmology (Divinity bringing forth the variations within Creation)


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