Thursday, May 07, 2020

Reflections on the Challenges to the Concept of Beauty as a Nexus for Science, Philosophy, Theology, and Art

I’ve been there. I’ve been in the jazz combo, grasping for beauty, sitting and drumming while the upright bass thumps, driving the rhythm to my side, just to the left of my hi-hat. As my right hand rides the rhythm on the cymbal, the tenor sax soars and dips, improvising around the chord changes, my left hand and foot on the kick drum, alongside the piano, “comping” the soloist. 

And for some moments—and sometimes longer—it is truly magical: we find a right relationship among the rhythms and chords. We feel the groove. We improv. And beauty emerges. The beauty arises from the music while it is played. Beauty has movement and narrative. Beauty has a story. It is known by its dynamism. It is hypnotic and inspiring, luring us on. Somewhere in the process we find a truth.

And without beauty, what is the worth of truth? Augustine, with his voluntarist twinges, has convinced me that rationality, and its ability to grasp truth, must be accompanied by affections of the will, which is motivated by beauty. Playing jazz drums reminds me that it is when the combo actually finds that moment of rightness—where we groove and improv together—that I am lured to continue.


In fact, I'm convinced that beauty understood as rightness and telos, as reality fitting together—is a kind of beauty that can be grasped in science, philosophy, theology, and art. The beauty is a lure for theologians, philosophers, scientists, and artists.

I've presented previously, beauty stands at the nexus of these disciplines. But here—lest these initial musings make beauty sound irresistible in its allure and unmistakable and simplistic—l'll outline a few challenges to beauty. 

The first is the natural world itself. On many occasions, I walked through one of my

favorite sights, Upper Bidwell Park in Chico, California, struck by this realization: natural beauty doesn’t take us into account. In fact, nature frankly disregards us. 

Taking a walk on a misty, windy morning through Upper Bidwell Park’s rugged, bumpy, and austere lava rock, I felt like Jonathan Edwards as I encountered both Nature and Nature’s God where contemplation led him 
“... into a kind of vision… of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapped and swallowed up in God.” 
As I reflected on the natural world, I felt that I was understanding a bit more about God. God for Edwards is not a cozy Friend, but a transcendent and terrible Lord. Even more, I felt a bit like Simone Weil because I was most taken by the austerity of Nature’s beauty. It didn’t take me into account at all. And that fact was particularly alluring. This fact would give lie to the idea that beautiful things exist merely to please us in an unambiguous way. Beauty in fact may be stern and displeasing. When we come to beauty, we will do well to dispense with all types of sentimentality.

Just as challenging is the philosophical context. Though his work is well over a hundred years old, Friedrich Nietzsche laid down the gauntlet for Christian theologians to discuss beauty. He challenged the notion that Christians, following Jesus, care a wit about beauty. Beauty ought to be connected with power and nobility. We, he opines, care about notions of weaknesses and assign those to goodness.
 His complaints about the Christian notions of beauty and goodness swing into the twentieth century like a large, formidable door. As he put it,
"It was the Jew [Jesus] who, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equations good/noble/powerful/beautiful/happy/favored-of-the gods and maintain, with furious hatred of the underprivileged and impotent, that “only the poor, the powerless, are good; on the suffering, sick, and ugly, truly blessed. But you noble and mighty ones of the earth will be, to all eternity, the evil, the cruel, the avaricious, the godless, and thus the cursed and damned!" Friedrich Nietzsche
Nonetheless, as the century progressed, it was not Christianity, but secular thought that disentangled beauty from art. While strolling contently through at an exhibit in the stunning Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati in spring 2004, I came across a still life by the provocative twentieth century artist, Marcel Duchamp. The attached comment by The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, is bombastic but not idiosyncratic. He wrote in July 1969,
"Art is not usually edible, but it is known to satisfy certain hungers. In the last century, it was thought that Beauty, that vitamin concentrate, was what we were after. More recently, Duchamp taught us that art is simply habit-forming, like salted peanuts, and that Beauty all along was the glutton’s alibi…. Nothing about art has ever been honest except our hunger for it." Peter Schjeldahl
Like Schjeldahl, the twentieth century generally impugns the notion that art and beauty belong together. Beauty in fact becomes merely a lure for purchasing art.

And there are more reasons to stop now: There is the argument from neo-Darwinian science that beauty exists merely a by-product of what creates fitness for survival. To this contention, I propose that pursuing beauty is central and definitive and that it solves the problem of good more effectively than a pure survival of the fittest. Just as there is the problem of theodicy, there exists the less discussed, but no less tenacious, problem of good: Why is there good in the world? The classic atheistic evolutionary perspective subordinates the elements of good and beauty to the ability to survive. Thus, for example, beauty in human beings must always relate to survival through fertility, strength, etc. But why then the purely creative elements of colored leaves in fall, the spectrum of the rainbow, the sound of the whales’ call? Hardcore evolutionary science must see this as a by-product. Instead, my research program sets beauty at the core of reality.

Is that enough?

For these reasons and more, many think that beauty seems like it's a far cry from being a viable candidate for bringing together theology, philosophy, science, and art. But, as I wrote above, I think it's a viable nexus. More on that next week.

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