Aesthetic Theology

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Aesthetics and Survival

The title sounds a little drastic, but I feel that unless humanity takes greater account of aesthetics in a global context, the possibility of its survival in its present form here on earth seems debatable. In this context I am looking at Aesthetics in its widest holistic sense, to place to the fore ideas not only of beauty, goodness and truth, but of imagination, social cohesion and responsibility.

Survival - the choice, left or right hemisphere existence. In determining this we need to look at the reason why humanity exists. In my mind there are two basic choices. Either is it to acquire success through acquiring power, money and goods (i.e. operating within the narrow materialistic confines of time spent on planet earth as the only parameter of existence), or is it to acquire knowledge and information which will enhance the whole spectrum of human ability within the timeless context of the universe - not only the intellect but dwelling on compassion, imagination, social awareness and artistic ability? Science has expanded our total view of not only the creation of the universe and the forces which govern its evolution, but also of planet earth, its self regulating systems and the place of humanity as but one of the living species needing to respect the underlying principle of nature which favours no one when it comes to survival. Yet we rarely use such knowledge to expand our individual horizons.

So, what are the dangers of a materialist existence? Probably about 1% of the population govern the thrust of human development and of this only 1% think of planet earth. Here, I feel, it is an underlying problem of not only who rules, but also of the recent and remorseless movement in our brains towards a left hemisphere approach to life. In this I encompass not only politics, but also religion, the educational establishment, the leaders of industry - notably multinationals and advertising, and the media - television, radio and newspapers. Collectively these are the modern shapers of society. The problem is that, so often, they are in the hands of the few who have very personal or amoral attitudes to the development of society, promoting the sound bite of populist politics based on imagined fears, the quick financial solution of credit, the latest techno must-have, a fashion industry often dependent on sweat shops, or the glossy pseudo-scientific presentation with hidden anti-religious agenda. Further, these controllers of our destiny are increasingly people driven by a need for power, control, profit, people who are highly competitive, who see things in black and white, in the here and now and who admit no opposition - i.e. those with psychopathic tendencies redolent of a singular left hemisphere domination. (For a more detailed account of the rise of psychopathy go to the following page on my personal web site).

The danger to the Christian religion, embroiled in this materialistic approach. First the local reality of expression. Here, theological research never filters down to the level of the pew. There are, for example, few universities with biblical theology as part of a degree course which do not exercise some mental discipline in the treatment of the Hebrew Bible, its composition and origins. Yet what greets us Sunday by Sunday in church but unexplained readings termed "This is the word of the Lord". Too often the ordained ministry is filled with those who have never studied critical theology because they are assured that all that is needed is pastoral theology which they study at theological college, a rather anaemic presentation centred on liturgy and social awareness, the practicalities of presenting modern Christianity rather than the inherent discipline of negotiating the problems of belief arising from a critical examination of the sources.

Christianity for common consumption thinks only in materialistic left hemisphere terms of planet earth and of obedience to set rules, and within this narrow spectrum only the fallen plight of humanity based on a highly dubious interpretation of the story of creation and Adam. This has enabled them to adopt a highly necessary high ground in terms of moral and social cohesion and responsibility but has done very little to stimulate personal spirituality or development, one of the greatest extant needs of the present society.

Secondly, problems posed by asserting the global impact of the message, Jesus dying for the sins of the whole world (not merely planet earth). Fine for a fifth century view of life when Jerusalem was regarded as the centre of the know world and the only opposition was from the dying embers of belief in the Roman/Greek pantheons of gods among the cultured, or from the (regarded as) weird practices in the countryside of wiccan, druidic or other nature based religions of defeated ethnic groups. Islam was not yet in existence while Buddhism and Hinduism, being far to the east, had little impact. Knowledge of the universe and the possibility of life elsewhere was primitive to say the least. Consequently life centred only on this planet and, spiritually and morally, on Jesus, a natural progression of ideas. How different the viewpoint is now. Indeed, when one considers Science and exploring the spiritual dimension of life, it would seem that many favour the more open ended approach of Buddhist discipline with which to associate and experiment. For many, Christianity in its popular expression seems too set in its past ways and ideas, too dogmatic.

Knowledge of true Christianity is out there, available to all, but it is kept from the general public or from gaining ground for a variety of reasons. Loss of power and influence, fear of shaking the foundations, fear of change, acceptance of the status quo into which they were born, desire to push their own agenda, inertia, lack of an open and evolving quest for truth, or merely preservation of self interest of having climbed the greasy ladder to power and success they comfort themselves with the thought that they are part of the (rather questionable) apostolic succession handing down to followers that which they received.

The same is true for many religions. The great religion of Islam, for example, has been hijacked in the public mind by fundamentalists with their demands for Sharia law and terrorist fatwahs, while the noble religion of Jesus, Judaism, has been appropriated to one of a land grab in modern Israel, no matter what the consequences, because that is what many, especially in Israel, consider God gave to them 3,000 years ago.

In all these cases we see the dominance of the left hemisphere in action, the failure to see the whole picture, to be forward looking on a global scale, evolutionary and compassionate, and ultimately to use the aesthetic gifts of creation to progress humanity onto a new level of existence. Unfortunately the left hemisphere is like an empty vessel. It makes the most sound yet is empty within. It engenders too many self induced, non-negotiable standards.

Science, unfortunately, has contributed much in terms of attitudes to the malaise. It is a paradox. To experience the benefits of science we need experiments, results and information. For these to be accurate requires verification and certainty to be reproduced time after time. Thanks, however, to its popularisation and spread into all areas of human existence such a quest for unrelenting results has now begun to infect every area of life, even health, aided in the media by many a programme proclaiming that the material world is the only verifiable state of existence. Consequently we too look for a black and white reality to govern our whole sense of well being. This is especially so at a time when the pace and complexity of life is on the increase and we start to look for some form of certainty around which to solidify our being. At a time when we are hit by global depression and all talk is of austerity, job loss and the growing gap between rich and poor, our minds are being constantly encouraged to think of life in a narrow left hemisphere way, i.e. in terms of material comfort and well being. This is the only way to happiness and fulfilment. Politics, consumerism and the media fare equally badly, yet our lives are governed by such organisations. Together they force humanity to see their existence purely in terms of money, objects, certainties and power, all expressions of the left hemisphere.

The problem is that these lobbies are powerful and persuasive. Compared with them the Arts, religion, aesthetics in general are in retreat because they inevitably lack the clout which finance and big business bring. Moreover they are too often hide bound by cultural baggage. At a time of austerity, or discussions over how to handle riots, the Church of England, from letters in its flagship publication, the Church Times, is more concerned with the problems of ordaining women bishops.

What do we need to survive? Humanity is a curious entity. We look for some form of authority to lead us and are relatively happy even when they go off the rails occasionally. But at times they go too far and then battle arises. We see this in the present generation with the growing opposition to bankers and financiers. Real change tends to start with local and popular uprisings, rather than with the leaders who, more often than not, are concerned with their own survival. What, therefore, we need are catalysts for change, the spread of such information, and the use of all means to spread the message so that it becomes and overwhelming movement. It is clear from recent events that we cannot look to the Church (much too involved in hierarchical and compromising survival). It is up to us!!