Beauty is not found power, military glory, or victory. As great as these things are, love is a surer guide. Considering this point, we would also do well to contemplate what causes us to love most, love best? When we do, isn’t it the love that someone has for us?
1. Aesthetics Leads
Aesthetics before ratiocination is not the way we typically think about our decision making. We like to think that we are reasoning and reasonable people. Isn’t our ability to reason what sets us apart? It is becoming increasingly clear that our senses lead the way and reasons trail. Jonathan Haidt demonstrates this point in the field of ethics in The Righteous Mind, and the principle applies in many other areas. In a word, the way we feel about something is often more significant than reasons and at times reality. We see this point from the foods we eat to the architecture we build to the medicine we use. For example, Beyond Meat would flop if their plant-based products did not look like meat, irrespective of taste. This is why the company goes out of its way to imitate the look and texture of it. The company uses beet extracts to imitate the reddishness of meat which comes from myoglobin, an iron and oxygen binding protein. It also uses coconut oil to give the appearance of animal fat. Bite into a medium rare patty, and you won’t be able to tell the difference; the simulacrum is remarkable. Zeuxis and Parrhasios, ancient masters of imitation, would be jealous, and both would be fooled. Aesthetics leads the way, and in this case profits follow.
We see the same reality in architecture. We build to convey a story, no matter what is going on. And if we are successful, we keep the story alive and keep people believing. The Erechtheion, a temple on the acropolis of Athens, sits a stone’s throw away from the Parthenon. It was completed near the conclusion of the Peloponnesian war. The Athenians considered this temple their most sacred, and judging by its architecture, sculptures, and altars, its significance cannot be overstated. It housed the cult of Poseidon and Erechtheus, the legendary founder of Athens. It also held the altars of Hephaestus and Butes, the brother of Erechtheus. It also told the story of the contest between Poseidon and Athena and had the shrines of Cecrops and Pandrosus. In addition, six female statues, the Caryatides, hold up the porch of the temple. A look of effortlessness characterizes their faces. The temple tells the story of Athens; all is well. The gods are on the side of the city; they always were and always will be. The irony, of course, is that Athens was soon to buckle to the power of Sparta. But appearances matter. The Pentelic marble and Eleusinian grey stone project a different story. It persuaded the Athenians and her allies to keep going. Pericles before the war knew this point and built a city that would look the part of an empire.
Similarly, transgenderism would not be where it is today if medical technology could not transform Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner. Before advancements in cosmetic surgery, transitioning to another gender did not capture the consciousness of the general population. How could it? The optics were not there. However, with the advancements of technology in medicine, it is a matter of choice. In a world where looks hold sway and define things, this development is not surprising. If you can persuade the senses, you are not almost there; you have arrived. The point of this essay is not to point out the danger of aesthetics, or show the superficiality of it, or to bemoan the lack of rationality among people. Rather it is to underline how important aesthetics are, not as a concession to a superficial world but as a core part to who we are. For the sake of clarity, I define aesthetics in the broadest possible way—the importance of experiential knowledge, which includes the desire for beauty. In this sense, we are aesthetic beings, that is, beings who sense and long to experience things that are deeper than the surface. To deny this point is not only to deny the way the world works but also to deny our humanity. Longing is what it means to be human, and the biblical story offers a God who knows this point and reveals himself in sensual and aesthetic ways.
2. A Sensual Faith
The psalms teach the importance of aesthetics. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” shouts the psalmist (Psalm 34:8). Within this context, David sought the Lord in a time of fear and anxiety, and he found God. God heard his cries and saved him from his troubles. David says: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him and delivers him” (Psalm 34:7). Because of this experience of deliverance, he exhorts others to taste and see God’s goodness. His is an aesthetic exhortation. In other words, David does not delineate the top five reasons why his readers should trust God. No, he exhorts people to partake of an intimate, aesthetic, and gustatory experience. Tasting is more than a shortcut; it gets to the vitals of who we are because we are sensing and tasting beings. We bite, chew, taste, and ingest, and David calls his readers to do the same with God. The proof of something is in the tasting. A cursory glance at the scriptures shows this point. Consider three episodes: Israel at Mount Sinai, David on the hills of Bethlehem, and Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
When the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, they already experienced God in Egypt. They experienced his provisions. Plagues upon the Egyptians, protection upon them, and deliverance. But what made them tremble was what they witnessed at Sinai. There they sensed God. Their eyes saw lightning and thick smoke covering the mountain, their ears heard peals of thunder and trumpet blasts that only grew louder, and their bodies felt the rumblings and vibrations of this theophany. The outcome was terror. They pleaded with Moses to be an intermediary: “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). Aesthetics matter and leave a mark and instruct. The Israelites glimpsed holiness. God showed that he is greater than the gods of Egypt and nature. He is to be feared. His majesty and beauty are terrible. He also showed that he was a deliverer of his people. He is to be loved and worshiped.
We see the same with an individual like David. Even as a ruddy youth, he was bold enough to fight the Philistine giant, Goliath. What gave him the courage to do so when every other hardened veteran in Saul’s army caved into fear? The reader is not left wondering. David says that while he was keeping watch over his father’s sheep, he fought the lion and the bear. More importantly, he says that God protected him in these bouts. “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:31). In the lonely hills of Bethlehem, David was not alone. He experienced God. Did God come down in a cloud of smoke, appear in a burning bush, or manifest himself in a theophany? We do not know, but David experienced God, sensed him, tasted him. This aesthetic experience trained him to act in a way others, even soldiers, would not dare do. In David, we have an example of an aesthetic experience breeding courage and shaping a person’s practice.
We see the same pattern on the shores of Galilee. There we meet a dejected Peter who denied his teacher three times. He goes back to what he knows, fishing, and Galilee happens to be very far from Jerusalem—the further the better as far as Peter is concerned. After a night of fishing, he sees a figure on the shore in the morning light. He hears his voice: “Friends haven’t you any fish” (John 21:5)? Peter and his companions soon realize that it is Jesus. And when they reach the shore, fish is already being cooked over a fire, and they eat and taste. After the meal, Jesus reinstates Peter three times to match his three denials. “Feed my lambs.” What made Peter into a bedrock of the church was his experience of Jesus. Peter heard his voice, felt his embrace, and saw his compassion. And Jesus was far better than his mind could comprehend. He tasted that he was good. No matter where you look in the Bible, the same point emerges. Faith is not blind. It is not an adherence to a set of propositional truths. Rather it springs from an aesthetic experience—tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, fearing, and feeling. And right there glimpses of beauty capture hearts. Advertisers, trendsetters, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley know this point well. They intuitively know the psalms and God. Why shouldn’t they? They, too, are created in the image of God. They, too, long, and they know that we do as well.
3. A Deeper Aesthetic
When we touch upon aesthetics, a suspicion lurks in our hearts that the experience will not match up to our expectations. And even if it does, we suspect that it might only be a copy, a simulacrum. A part of us can live with it and settle, another part wants authenticity. The tension is ever-present. Who of us has not felt duped or experienced disillusionment? When it comes to the aesthetics of faith, the tension can be greater because the aesthetics of faith operates under appearances. Let me explain.
The incarnation is an aesthetic act. God clothes himself in humanity. This step changes the calculus of appearances by necessitating a type of hiddenness. Glory hides in humility, which means we need to learn to see the nobility of humility to taste glory. And life allows death to envelop it before breaking it, which means we need to learn to die to learn to live. Even beauty itself is one step removed. We would do well to remember Isaiah’s words concerning the suffering servant: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:2-3).” The natural impulse of humanity is to think very little of the aesthetics of faith. We want glory without humility, life without death, beauty without having to look at someone from whom people hide their faces. Perhaps, this is why many seek without finding.
Herein lies the challenge. The path to almost anything worth striving for requires faith, and faith is spurred by an aesthetic experience. What to do? There are no easy answers. I suspect there is no direct path but many—crooked, windy, and uneven ones—and on some paths beauty just strikes you. When that happens, it is grace. What keeps people moving forward, however, is that they intuitively know there must be more. From Plato to Kant to Burke, there is agreement that people are drawn to beauty. The Greek poet, Sappho, said it best:
Some say a host of cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
others say a fleet is the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s
whatever you love best (fragment 16).
If Sappho is right, then what is ultimately beautiful is tethered to love. To riff on Sappho’s priamel, beauty is not found power, military glory, or victory. As great as these things are, love is a surer guide. Considering this point, we would also do well to contemplate what causes us to love most, love best? When we do, isn’t it the love that someone has for us? The greater the love for us, the greater we love. Such a love is only attainable when we taste and see.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.