The Quest for Aesthetic Perfection

The following is an excerpt (first draft) of an article I am writing. The article’s title is “Better than New: Reflections on Wabi Sabi as a Metaphor for Christian Perfection.”

The Greek ideal of beauty is tied to Platonic philosophy. With this, the goal is to conform an object to an ideal form. A carpenter making a beautiful, “perfect,” chair is then attempting to reproduce the idealized form of a chair. His skill as a craftsman is understood in terms of how closely he is able to conform his creation to that ideal chair. Since the ideal forms cannot be perceived, the standard for perfection is unavailable for judgment, and the imperfection of a creation becomes, in essence, an act of faith. In the eighteenth century, this understanding began to be challenged with J. G. Sulzer and Immanuel Kant, who taught that beauty did not necessarily imply perfection. However, even with Kant, there is still a serious attempt to see beauty as an objective quality, not simply subjective, so a form of idealism persisted.7 The Greek ideal for beauty/perfection could be thought of as otherworldly and superficial. It is otherworldly since the standard is something that does not exist in the world we live in. It is superficial, because beauty is limited primarily to perception – something that is quite literally skin deep. Such a metaphor of ideal forms could be said to be seen used for the animal sacrifice among the Israelites, and the Bride of Christ as described in Ephesians 5. However, I Samuel 16:7 reminds as to the limitations of lessons one can draw from this metaphor since God values more what people are unable to see, and that appearance (beauty) can misinform as to character.

In time, the quest for a flawless perfection became questioned further in the West. As John Ruskin noted in the 19th century.

…imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we

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John Ruskin, Art Critic (1819-1900)

know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom,—a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,—is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain, irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect…” 8

Returning to the Bible, flawlessness is not the only aesthetic view. Another is commonly seen in the Old Testament. It has been described in different ways. One way could be an “aesthetic of natural abundance.” This term follows the logic of Gerald Downing who recognizes that natural abundance is not merely a utilitarian appreciation, but also an aesthetic evaluation.9 The Israelite nation was primarily an agrarian society, and so were tied to the land economically. But there is more than this. This writer was raised in an agricultural community and can attest that members of that community can see a large sow with a dozen piglets, or an apple tree straining under the weight of its fruit as objects of beauty. As Yeshua Ben Sirach stated, “The eye likes to look on grace and beauty, but better still on the green shoots in a cornfield.”10 The Hebrew Bible has much appreciation of natural abundance. Psalm 65 would be good example.

Much like the aesthetics of idealized forms, the aesthetics of natural abundance is used at times to point towards ethical holiness and a form of perfection. An example of this is Psalm 1 where a righteous, godly person is compared to a well-watered tree whose leaves never wither, and produces abundant fruit. Isaiah 58:11 speaks of the righteous as being as a well-watered garden. The aesthetics informs the character of the righteous. Berleant and Carlson note that this sort of “environmental aesthetics,” as they describe it, has a quality to it quite unlike an aesthetics based on static ‘flawless’ perfection. Beauty seen in the form of living abundance has an “engaging, inclusive, dynamic character.”11

7Alexander Rueger, “Beautiful Surfaces: Kant on Free and Adherent Beauty in Nature and Art” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 16(3) 2008: 535-557, 535-536.
8 John Ruskin, “The Stones of Venice, Volume II” Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30755/30755-h/30755-h.htm, p. 171-172.
9 F. Gerald Downing, “Environmental Beauty and Bible” Ecotheology 7.2 (2003), 185-201, 193-195.
10 Ecclesiasticus 40:22.
11 Quoted by Downing, p. 199.
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Among Them and Overwhelmed

Quote from PGJ Meiring’s article, “Max Warren and His Seven Rules for a Dialogue Between Christians and Non-Christians. “Actually, the article was originally written in Afrikaaner (Max Warren en sy sewe reëls vir ’n dialoog tussen Christene en nie-Christene” DEEL 47 # 3 & 4 SEPTEMBER & DECEMBER 2006, P. 588-599.)

The fourth rule/principle is “Identification.” Here is a rough translation of an excerpt of Meiring’s article regarding Identification:

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Preparation of the Prophet Ezekiel

The fourth principle probably asks the most of the conversation partners: the willingness to identify as far as possible with the other person’s life and conditions he lives in. It asks you to understand “the language of his heart”. It does not come naturally of itself: it requires imagination, endurance, humility and much love. Warren loved to refer to the example of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet to the exiles in Babylon, sent with an all-important message from the Lord. Even though Ezekiel cannot be in the modern sense a “missionary” – after all, he is a prophet sent to his own people – he provides a model for all to consider as the Lord prepared him for his preaching task. Before the prophet was sent to speak, he had to first experience and learn to listen – and this is a lesson that every missionary in our day needs to seriously consider.

In the Authorized Version, Ezekiel 3:15 is translated as: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat where they sat, and remained astonished among them for seven days “. The Revised Standard Version translates this slightly differently: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat there overwhelmed among them for seven days”. The emphasis is different, says Warren: the first-mentioned translation emphasizes Ezekiel’s “entering into the experience of the exiles” while the latter “the ‘Overwhelming’ character of what the prophet experienced by joining these exiles where they were ” is emphasized (Warren, 1960: 60vv).

Both emphases are important: first of all, we must meet people where they are, we must “Sit where they sit”. We must understand their situation – their joy and their pain and how these experiences influence their views and beliefs (Warren, 1960: 17). “You and I can not bring men to Christ by whistling to them at a distance. We have to go and meet them, as God does, and psychologically speaking, this means coming to them imaginatively where they imagine themselves to be “(Warren, 1955: 31). The second emphasis, however, is just as important: that we become “Stunned.” We find ourselves speechless because we find it so difficult to really understand the other because their need is so great, and we are struggling to make clear the salvation of Christ because our vocabulary is too inadequate. But also speechless because we experience God already there, that He has already made his voice heard in the situation (Warren,1960: 17).

Tertullian, Love Feast, and Social Ministry

Excerpt from Tertullian’s 39th Apology

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Tertullian (160-220 AD)

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.

Much of the context of this quote is on the Love Feast. At the time, the Love Feast (think perhaps “Sacramental Potluck”) was a normal part of Christian worship and some were charging Christians with being wild drunken folk. Tertullian is making the point that the love feast was shared, charitable, chaste, self-controlled and started as well as ended with a prayer. But further, moneys gathered within the church were done to help those in need. The love feast was an act of worship, but it was also an act of charity since the sharing was equal, not based on what one had to give.

The Love Feast was referred to by Paul, by the Didache (by implication), Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, and others.

Raised a Baptist, we have a lot of potluck dinners. And many other churches have similar things. Sadly though, we tend to do them with a bit of a chuckle— a bit of pride and embarrassment. But perhaps, we can see it (or make it):

  • An Act of Worship
  • An Act of Charity
  • An Act of Brotherhood

But I hope it would be all three. It has a sacramental role in terms of worship of God. It is an act of giving to and caring for the needy. It is an act to remind ourselves of our spiritual unity in Christ.