Beauty


Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict

Images from recent excursions.

Some of the sights from our snowshoeing expedition yesterday at Salmon River, NY (click pictures for full size):

Trinity

Stillwater

Footbridge

Salmon River

White pathway

Falls

Falls, again

Through the trees

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, stuff like this reminds you of what Bruce Cockburn says: You’ve Never Seen Everything. For which, I guess, we can only be thankful. But here’s a new one, at least to me: Virtue Perfume, a new beauty product that the creators say was inspired by biblical ingredients and which is geared toward assisting the wearer, or the lover, as the case may be, towards spiritual attainment. $80 bucks gets you a chance to be biblical, spiritual, and sexy all at the same time.

Scent From the Bible

Obviously this kind of materialist marketing, capitalizing on obscure content from the text of the Bible, is nothing new. Pop-culture pragmatic evangelical products have been around for at least 30 or so years and include everything from rock music to visual art of biblical scenes and characters, Christian Tee-shirts that parody popular consumerist products and ideology, to Christian horror flicks. The Christian retail industry hit something like $4 billion dollars in sales three years ago, and this figure doesn’t even include sales of Catholic bookshops and gift stores that marked incense, images, and other such sensory aids to worship. So I suppose that the surprising thing is that it took so long for a Christian perfume to appear at all.

Now, while I find the consumer-capitalist junk products of Tee-shirts and other Christiany knick-knacks highly problematic, especially for the purpose of evangelism, I can definitely appreciate sensory, physical, and material elements in the practice of faith. The natural, physical world exists to be experienced through the senses, which can deepen faith for those who have it and can inspire mystical ecstasy even among those who profess no faith or who cannot intellectually assent to the Divine. There is nothing that inspires my experience of God so much as things that allow me to participate in the physical, sensory world of the Creation. So much that I find sensorily beautiful move me to tears and to stronger faith. And smells are one of these; food, for example, is a spiritual experience for me from time to time, as it engages sight, smell, and taste. The human body is also an inspiration to beauty that engages the senses. I love good perfumes on my woman. So the concept of something like Virtue Perfume as an aid to experiencing the sacred isn’t particularly foreign or offensive to me.

What I find ridiculous is the need to justify the spiritual value of sensory and bodily beauty to certain Christian groups by marketing the stuff as a religious product and, especially, by making it “biblical.” As if to say that smelling good and feeling sensual or sexy is sinf, unchristian, and unbiblical unless it can be shown that smelling good, feeling sensual, or being sexy is OK’ed by Scripture. The way Virtue tries to pull this off is by listing its ingredients as “biblical.” And so they are. But so what? In fact, the website even notes that one of these biblical ingredients, Apricot, was probably the original forbidden fruit. This would have been news to medieval theologians like Bernard, no stranger to sensual spirituality himself, who thought of the fruit as the apple, and of modern scholars who find it much more likely that the forbidden fruit was the pomegranate. But in any case, it is highly ironic that an ap-peal to the forbidden fruit in this very biblical list would be used as an aid to experiencing God.

The thinking is that “Christians won’t buy perfumes if they psychologically associate them with negative stereotypes of sexuality that most perfumes perpetuate.” And that’s probably the case. Why feed into the sex industry even more by buying products that perpetuate sexual imagery that is damaging and destructive? It is tough, I suppose, to avoid thinking of having wild sex on the beach if your schnozz picks up avirtue-perfume.gif whiff Nautica or whatever. Having a marketing image that provides an alternative to ads like Nautica’s or Calvin Klein’s is commendable, but to actually say it’s “biblical” goes a bit over the top. Some things can be good, and sensual, without having to justify it as being biblical.

Plus, its $80.00 bucks.

Cover of Davis McCombs, Ultima ThuleI’m sitting here doing a little reading from Davis McCombs’ Ultima Thule, a collection of the author’s poems inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Told from the vantage point of a slave cavern guide to tourists of Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, these poems are stunning reflections on beauty and provide some pretty awesome metaphors for life, spirituality, the whole bit. As a religionist and student of scriptures who also views the natural world in metaphoric terms for deep spirituality and community ethics, I was particularly taken by the poem “Tours:”

Tours

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast … Here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night. (Ultima Thule, p. 17)

This is such a striking metaphor for what we as educators do. It also speaks to me in terms of stewardship; like the poet, we have all heard of proposed improvements to just about everything from Bibles to Bayous. Despite my vocation, I do feel moved to sometimes just turn off the exegesis, turn off the exposition, the discussion, and just let the text/landscape speak for itself, in silence.

And the rough-hewn fear … yeah, for both student and educator, laity and pastor, reader and expositor.

To do this poem justice, I must cease now, and let it speak to you in the silence.

View of Crater LakeRecently I have been reflecting on what it means to try to live a real life in a world that strikes me as becoming increasingly unreal. Our world aspires now to unrealistic expectations of “progress” on the one hand or to the imminent advent of a salvific messiah to bring us to an eternal utopia on the other. Beauty is commodified and objectivized, to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between what is authentically beautiful and intrinsically good and what is a commercialized copy to serve ends that are anything but good. Seems like we have somehow exchanged genuine love for the beautiful and the good for a crass faith in fakes, as Umberto Eco puts it. Even when an occasional prophet comes along to expose the idols we have constructed, we typically have no idea how to restore, or re-create, an original beauty that can deconstruct our original sin.

In a recent post, Audrey (of saintsophia.wordpress.com) expresses her desire to be able to recreate in a way that gets her away from the pains and horror of the ugliness of real life, what Merton would call the “dread of emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity” that results in the “experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 25). I have been feeling exactly the same, and the recent events in Blacksburg, Virginia, as well as the student’s self-proclaimed justifications for his actions, demonstrate how much the faith in fakes has taken over. Like Audrey, I also seek to recreate and to develop a spirituality and consciousness of beauty and goodness and ingenuity that can combat the faith in fakes wherever we find it (and this includes, let it be said right now, our churches and communities of faith). How do we live a real life in an unreal world? How do we life a life that seeks creation and recreation, that consecrates the beautiful and cherishes the good, that names the holy and recognizes the sacred?

 

Diane Ackerman, “The Work of the Poet is to Name What is Holy”

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy:

the spring snow
that hides unevenness
but also records
a dog walked at lunchtime,
the hieroglyphs of birds,
pawprints of a life
tiny but resolute;

how, like Russian dolls,
we nest in previous selves;

the lustrous itch
that compels and oyster
to forge a pearl,
or a poet a verse;

the drawing on of evening
belted at the waist;

snowfields of diamond dust;

the cozy monotony
of our days, in which
love appears with a holler;

the way a man’s body
has its own geography –
cliffs, aqueducts, pumice fields,
but a woman’s is the jungle,
hot, steamy, full of song;

the brain’s curiosity shop
filled with quaint mementos
and shadowy antiques
hidden away in drawers;

the plain geometry
of you, me, and art –
our angles at rest
among shifting forms.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,

and not to mind so much
the pinch of words
to cope with memories
weak as falling buildings,

or render loss, love,
and the penitentiary
of worry where we live.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,
a task fit for eternity,
or the small Eden of this hour.