Aesthetic Theology

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Home site of Author, Stuart Gray

Need for Aesthetics seen through recent studies in the Brain & Consciousness.

Humanity possesses an unknown striving for happiness and fulfilment. In determining the need for aesthetics I start with the needs of our twin abilities, human consciousness on the one hand, and on the other, how the brain affects our view on life. The two seem to be quite different but are very inter-related. One cannot rely solely on the operations of the brain for our fulfilment. It often tells us (or one part does) to acquire goods and lifestyle to achieve happiness, for us only to find such things unsatisfying. We strive then for the missing ingredient. But where? Striving is a manifestation of that added ingredient - evolution, of striving for perfection and new understandings. We just cannot stay still. Yet while our brain functions appear to cause us to operate in one way or another, it seems to be governed by an external and overriding universal set of philosophical principles, the need for truth, beauty, compassion, social co-operation, harmony, awareness, of evolving into something better. This external set of values, for me, is where consciousness or the soul offers an explanation. For its own total fulfilment and survival human consciousness seems to need a mix of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, i.e. the total integration of the brain's functions. Where imbalance occurs problems arise. Further there seems an hierarchy in these needs. It would seem that consciousness demands primarily an holistic interconnected view of life, everything in balance leading to the greater good of awareness of all things.

Consequently I find I have problems with the so-called progress of humanity as seen through the march of scientific investigation on the one hand, and the inherent abilities of humanity on the other. Let me explain. If we consider that here in the 21st century we enjoy the most advanced state in terms of ability and understanding of what it is to be human and our place in the unfolding evolution of the universe, then do we regard all previous generations as somehow lacking or restricted because they do not possess current knowledge? If we do then we are in trouble! There is an imbalance favouring the intellectual. Not only does it presuppose some form of hierarchy in the hereafter, it denies the inherent abilities of our forebears to understand and express humanity in all its glory. Was Bach, Michelangelo, the medieval builders of cathedrals, even the psalm writers or Hebrew prophets, let alone the druids and builders of Stone Henge or the craftsmen of the Sutton Hoo artefacts, were all these somehow diminished because of their lack of knowledge? I think not. Why? Aesthetics provide the answer. It is not dependent on knowledge but on expressing the infinite within us, our search for beauty, understanding of what humanity is in relation to the inherent concept of the infinite within us. It is not dependent on language or scientific knowledge. It represents the unexpressed journey of humanity towards its own emotional and spiritual fulfilment through a true integration of consciousness and brain.

So how do we reconcile this problem of the acknowledged fulfilment of past generations? Few would disagree that humanity faces increasingly large problems of a personal, national and international nature. For me aesthetics is how we decide to live our lives, what focus we give to our own sense of self fulfilment and development. This should be achieved through an evolving sense of morality, goodness and beauty played out in the wonder of creation and our interaction with it. It should be a journey, a never ending one with which we must engage both as individuals and socially aware human beings through engagement with the arts. Equally it should be full of knowledge, scientific discovery and understanding, but these should be seen as explanations or reinforcements of the feelings which aesthetics engender deep within us, the 'how' rather than the 'why' of existence. Those, for example, who built the great cathedrals had little scientific understanding of the universe or the operation of the brain and neither did J S Bach, yet few would deny their enduring legacy in architecture and music which even fewer, if any, can equal today.

Aesthetics, in reality, is how we decide to manipulate our brains, our left and right hemispheres given that our ability to use them is constantly expanding and changing and that there is an historic state of tension between the two. According to recent research our ability to comprehend physics and music, for example, may reside in both hemispheres. The distinction lies in how they view the data. The most fundamental difference is that all experience originates in the right hemisphere which sees the picture in its holistic entirety. It comprehends meaning, social relationships, emotions, morality, appreciates music, art, architecture, poetry, the progress of time, and is the seat of the spiritual side of life. The problem is that it presents us with impressions, lacking in detail and clarity. For these it hands over to the left hemisphere, which focuses on extracting and organising the detail of what is presented. It is the seat of precise language, mathematics, logic, analysis, precision. The problem is twofold. All perceptions originate in the right hemisphere. Nothing originates in the left. In an ideal situation the left would then transfer its precise findings back to the right so that we would experience the whole picture, holistic but with detail. The second problem is that the left appears to be competitive, often trying to persuade us to base judgements on its own findings without reference back to the right for the whole picture through its own desire to organise everything based upon its own findings. Consequently it attempts to 'persuade' us that its perceptions, based on language, analytical detail and logic, are the only reality needed for our existence.

Few could deny that the left hemisphere has brought great benefits to humanity in terms of the industrial and technological revolutions which we have experienced in the last few centuries. Equally it has never been more subject to adverts for consumerism which aim to provide solutions. Today our left hemispheres dominate. It uses its view of consciousness in a very restricted way. For example, the need for evolution. Yes, but seen in terms, not holistic, but only for that individual, the need for greater wealth or power, i.e. increased selfishness at the expense of society. It distorts what our consciousness has to offer. One consequence is that we live our lifestyles out of the rhythm of a natural physical environment, in cities, man made and of ever increasing consumerism. We live according to the dictat of individual rights rather than social responsibilities. Thus we become more selfish, inward looking for solutions, not willing to see the whole picture, and that selfishness translates into a desire for power and material goods, often at whatever the cost to society or the environment. The over dominance of language, logic and self-perceived 'truth' based on this concept of selfishness makes our lives dependent on consumerism, our politics on expediency and the need to retain power by whatever means, our education on points, our laws on precedence and observance of forms and minutiae rather than on the broader picture.

In Christianity left hemisphere dominance has led to the supremacy of conformity, rules (creeds), hierarchy, fundamentalism. Thus Christianity has become beset with obedience to bishops, creeds, entry only by baptism, and global solution to salvation based on a left hemisphere acceptance of the precepts of the 'Organisation'.

Compare this to Jesus' holistic summary of the law, love God and your fellow human being. These ideas originated in the right hemisphere, passed to the left hemisphere for execution, i.e. in his parables, teaching and healing, but always eventually emanating from his right hemisphere with its total world view, a view which, for example, enabled him to heal the servant of a dreaded Roman Centurion, to say "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's", or utter the holistic sayings included in the 'Sermon on the Mount'.

What then can be achieved if we redress the balance through the right hemisphere approach of aesthetics which involve personal freedom and development, seeing the broader picture, understanding and relationships? This alone can lead to inner satisfaction, upliftment and inter-relationships, empathy, acceptance of others. Further, such an approach is non-judgemental and accepts the validity of all those who exhibit a similar open approach.

For me there is a need to move onto a wider plain, possibly beyond that of any religion in seeking the solution to the ultimate happiness and fulfilment of humanity. For me this imbalance can be cured only by a greater appreciation and use of aesthetics. The problem is aesthetics is based on the individual and his/her psychological needs, aspirations, and cultural identity. It is more ephemeral and delicate, resistant to rules and conformity. It is based on finding and understanding the broad picture. It is a personal journey which must be stimulated, not controlled. Consequently it is difficult to fit it into current standards of logic and science which are more tangible, demonstrable and so understandable. That is why it is decline. That is why it needs first to be more understood, then more practised.