Aesthetic Theology

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Aesthetics and Theology: What of sin, evil and human imperfection?

There is one major argument against my use of 'Aesthetic Theology' which must be addressed. It is the question of how does it take account of a world which is full of evil and wrong doing, war and terrorism, the destructive power of tsunamis and volcanos, and the impact of global warming on civilisation. It is the ancient story which all religions have faced and, I feel, none have produced a definitive answer. We simply do not know, and yet it is part of the human psyche to try to effect some kind of resolution, otherwise life would, indeed, be meaningless. How, for example, do we cope with the concept of love, truth, justice and respect for all living things on the one hand when creation is built on the physics that every living thing in the universe can survive only by eating other living things, whether it be plants, animals, birds, fish, even bacteria and viruses? Equally how do we cope with the universal concept of evolution when it so often means that one species causes the extinction of another because it is more advanced? It is a complete paradox.

Numerous solutions have been put forward but I would like to essay 2 controversial ones, but both dependent of the idea that when we die we move into another form of existence. I make this assumption on the grounds that if this were not so then not only would the universe be a dark, dead and pointless place, but also that the concepts of intelligence, morality and a sense of goodness which seems to be built into its structure, and therefore into us, would be a failed and pointless exercise. I say this because it would fail to address the misfortune of those born deformed or die young, those killed in war or by natural disaster, i.e. anyone who was not given the full capability of living out a full, natural life. You cannot construct a universe with a moral imperative if that is then denied to some of those created within it. That would make the creator guilty of immorality.

The first possible solution is that this is a problem seen only from a time orientated and narrow human perspective, i.e. we do not know what the value of living on this planet is. It is all we know and experience and we have no verifiable knowledge of what happens afterward. It is like living in a house for the whole of one's life and never going outside. We might hear rumours, or try to envision what it is like, but not until we go outside (i.e. die) can we say for certain either what is out there, or indeed what the value of living in the house was in the first place. In the meantime we make the best of living in that one place, but secure in the knowledge that there is room for us outside for another form of existence.

The other idea I have is that once we decide that the universe is not purely a physical entity but somehow superimposed upon it is some form of creative and moral power then many ideas can be included. It may be that these concepts of goodness, love, respect and morality have been superimposed upon the physical creation, and then only part of creation - we see no evidence that the lion has any moral qualms about the prey it kills or the virus its host. This would inevitably meet with some form of dualistic compromise (i.e. we can survive only by eating other living things). Maybe the Universe is but one experiment among many, one in which its so far ultimate expression, humanity, has been endowed with the power of intelligence, morality and a sense of goodness to see how this works out in a physical world which, apart from humanity, exercises few, if any, of these attributes. Or maybe, when we view good and evil, we are living under the threatening power of more than one God, amply illustrated by the Christian concept of God and Satan. To believe this, however, is to make a mockery of the basic Christian message which is that Jesus died on the cross to save all mankind from the power of Satan. Few would not accept, in this scenario, that Satan is alive and well with two world wars, an infinity of terrorism and brutal dictatorships, global warming and world economic collapse brought about by selfishness and greed, and all within the last 100 years. Perhaps this global conflict of Good and Evil is some cosmic event in which we are all but bit players?

After all, did that original Big Bang contain all the seeds of intelligence and morality? Scientists would have us believe that it was but a physical event, the bringing into existence of heat and energy which the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow this energy to be converted into various subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. While protons and neutrons combined to form the first atomic nuclei only a few minutes after the Big Bang, it would take thousands of years for electrons to combine with them and create electrically neutral atoms. The first element produced was hydrogen, along with traces of helium and lithium. Giant clouds of these primordial elements would coalesce through gravity to form stars and galaxies, and the heavier elements would be synthesized either within stars or during supernovae. And so it went on. Science would have us believe that there are but 4 forces within the Universe which control everything, gravity, electromagnetic, and nuclear strong and weak. Nothing about life force let alone intelligence or morality, or even evolution. So where were they? Can it be that other forces, as yet unspecified, were present at that time, or have they been superimposed at a later time? After all, apart from anything else, Science has yet to explain or quantify evolution. I feel we have a long way to go before we can understand the origins or our peculiar human characteristics.

The standard Christian theological objection to the power of aesthetics comes from a Swiss theologian, von Balthasar, who in the twentieth century made a plea for the inclusion of aesthetics into theology, which he named 'theological aesthetics'. He was opposed to the idea of 'aesthetic theology' (i.e. that aesthetics governed theology) on the grounds that it was a 'pretty' solution which took no account of the Fall (Adam) or sin and evil in the world, and the alienation of humanity from God. His solution was that only if aesthetics took account of these factors and the subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus to effect the reconciliation of humanity to God, only then could aesthetics be valid. He believed that God's acceptance of human failing was somehow beautified by Jesus on the cross because the act of reconciliation was in itself a beautiful act. I take issue with this on two grounds. First I do not accept the doctrine of the Fall and that humanity was alienated from God. There was certainly no alienation when Moses made the Ark of the Covenant according to God's instructions (Jewish theology but accepted by Christian theology), and in which he (God) was subsequently regarded as having a presence, or indeed in subsequent Jewish history. Secondly, humanity is an imperfect species and does get things wrong, alarmingly at times. Here I think we have to accept that these acts are often 'anti-aesthetic' and not try to wrap them up as part of the human failings which God accepted through Jesus on the cross.

This inevitably leads to the conclusion that sin and evil were not conquered on the cross. So be it. If we return to basics we find that Humanity has been given the opportunity to live creative, expressive and moral lives in response to the creativity built into the universe. Indeed we now know from the latest finding of neuroscience that appreciation of what is beautiful shares the same neural pathways of what is good and moral. If we chose to ignore these concepts, despite the number of prophets, from all religions, who have tried to put us on the right road, then that remains our responsibility. On planet earth that has always been the case, and the creative force of the universe can be just as destructive of its species as it can be creative. Maybe, if we do not get our act together we will become another failed species, even at our own hands if we do not tackle global warming in a more meaningful way. After all it is only humanity which thinks itself exclusive, and this planet is heading for extinction in some 4 billion years time.

Ultimately, whatever awaits us there is one thing for sure. We all have lives to live, and we now know, from both neuroaesthetics and good theology, that the practice of aesthetics in our lives helps us to lead a more beneficial and holistic existence, and, from the evidence of UNESCO, contributes towards a more rounded education with greater imagination and better performance in all subjects, and, holistically, a better concept of citizenship and co-operation with others. Surely this is the great human experiment.