The Spheres of Existence

The Aesthetic Weakness

A Poem by Mike Garner

 

Pleasing to the eye

The sensuous desire for beauty

Willing to sacrifice life for appearances - Character for image

What is good must be governed

Instinct is to be ruled by love

Insight reigns when beauty is inwardness of soul

       Part of being human is to live and exist with some degree of aesthetic desire. This sphere of existence is joined with two others: the ethical and the religious. These three permeate our existence and experience of life. Each sphere is distinct and functions only in relationship with the other two. Whether the relationship is correct or not determines the character of a person. I will begin with Scripture's garden narrative where etiology and foundational teaching on humanity is part of the writer’s intent.

     The story of Eve’s reasoning when moved by desire and prohibited by divine command, portrays her humanity at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Her inward thoughts (reason) for consuming the fruit of the forbidden tree are presented by the narrator. These reasons sit in contrast to her response before God when she blames the serpent.[1] As a result the Genesis narrative of Eve’s moment of decision is portrayed in both mythical and reasoned events; reason fails a strict dialectic, reason is limited, myth used wisely appeals to the unknown, the transcendent, the imagination, spirit, even faith in the unseen; the invisible God.

 

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,

and that it was a delight to the eyes,

and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,

she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband,

who was with her, and he ate.

(Genesis 3:6)

      Initially, Eve recognized that the tree was good for food. Her observational sense is that the prohibition is not ethically justifiable. As she continued to gaze upon the fruit of the forbidden tree her aesthetic sense judged the fruit to be pleasing to the eyes. In the end the tree’s endowment of wisdom ignites her religious sense of reality and so she partakes of the fruit and shares the fruit with her non-resistant husband. Eve demonstrates intellectual capacity while Adam acts like God watching.

      The entire Genesis narrative is finely crafted literature meant to communicate universal truth about humanity and the world we construct. The stories in Genesis whether from chapters 1-11, or the patriarchal narratives that complete the book, are all more about humanity than they are about God. God is not the major character in Genesis, although he is the constant character; overall humanity revealed in all her need is the driving character of Genesis. The ongoing revelation of God portrayed in Genesis through myth, the lives of the patriarchs and their wives, is in relation to promises and human failure. Eve’s story demonstrates this truth. In Genesis God creates, watches, redeems, makes promises and is incredibly patient.

       The reader is provided with access to Eve’s inner thoughts and if the order of Eve’s sensing desire is meaningful, it is reasonable to note our first need after breathing is food. The ethics of consumption begins with food and the eye. The poor eat because they are hungry. The rich like pretty food, served up in small portions, over priced, and always prepared and served by someone else. The ethical must govern the aesthetic. This is so because the aesthetic engages our sense of beauty and order, alone the aesthetic ignores the ethical.

     The ethical and the aesthetic are both to be governed by the religious; which is the pursuit of wisdom because God revealed is wisdom.

…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

(1st Cor. 1:24b)

       Eve represents the survival instinct that sacrifices good for evil and ignores wisdom’s prohibition. The tree was identified as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The prohibition set it apart as unlike all other trees only in relation to the prohibition. This in Eve’s view (for she represents humanity and is also Adamah) is the point of denial signifying that she (and Adam with her) are not accepting of limits they do not understand. Yet the existential damage to her own being is caused because she did not recognize the religious as a relational reality and not merely prohibition. Reaching beyond the structures of reality, sacrificing God, others, and the creation become the inheritance of Eve’s children; it is the world God has created and the reality humanity continues to create.

      Faith belongs to the sphere of the religious. Faith is the corrective to Eve’s errant reasoning. Faith enables humanity to live with creaturely limits while bearing the image of God allows our insight to identify the limits of humanity’s domination over creation as prohibition.

The Aesthetic Personality 

      The relationship of the aesthetic personality with the ethical and the religious is transient and sporadic. To order the world and enjoy the beauty of creation is, in part, to be like God. To be creative and produce music, works of art, fine literature, poetic philosophy, to design clothing, and produce beauty in the world we live, all these are good. However, when love for aesthetics is the dominant trait of a human beings personality or governs their view of people, society, culture and life, then that person will be unstable in relation to goodness and fail at the river of justice. They will sacrifice for the sake of self-determined order and resist the perceived chaos of difference that belongs to humanity (our differences are God’s will).

      An aesthetic personality is a shallow person who views people based upon their appearance. The aesthetic personality does not recognize the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments. The association of the aesthetic with goodness will lead to mistaking appearances for morality. This failure in a highly structured society will blind an aesthetic culture or politic. The ones who are moral, who are righteous, are; those who succeed, those who conform, and those who have wealth, power, and influence.

Love and Comfort in Relation to the Aesthetic

     Because all human beings function within the three spheres of existence, each of us is prone to allow love for the aesthetic to capsize our better senses. For this reason it is important not to love the aesthetic, but to appreciate beauty as a morally ambiguous reality. An aesthetic person, without the ethical, is a vehicle for the entrance of evil into the world.[2] A spiritually intelligent person will not use the word love to speak about beauty. Love belongs to the realm of the living, breathing, creation that bears the image of God.

   In the U.S. where ordered environments display wealth and power, the aesthetic is a systemic evil that represents a manicured world. This kind of environment is produced at the cost of moral judgments in economic relationships; it is the illusion of Disneyland. In American culture the value of a human being is often judged based upon their car, their home and the maintenance of their lawn. Order at the cost of a functioning moral conscience is dehumanizing.

    The aesthetic is a comforting power because of the perception of beauty we attribute to our particular tastes for artistic expression. Once the pride of the aesthetic overtakes the ethical then wealth or money begins to define the aesthetic. It is at this point when the wealthy spend enormous amounts of money on a piece of art that is little more than arbitrarily splattered paint on a canvas. Pride and the aesthetic mixed with power results in absurdity.

   The real beauty of the aesthetic is its simplicity, its humanity, its ability to touch the heart and produce love and compassion; of course this response is dependent upon the receptive heart. I was walking amongst the shanties of desperately poor families living outside a small landfill where they scavenged to survive. As I passed along in front of one of the ‘homes’ I was moved by the presence of the comfort of the aesthetic. Living in severe conditions of oppressive neglect one family had used some paint remaining in a discarded can to paint flowers on the front of their home that was constructed with discarded pieces of wood. To the left of the front entrance (an opening with a hanging piece of linen) placed atop a few flat-rocks was a couple of broken pots each with a planting of vegetation. The comforting display of the aesthetic in its simplicity is a very human act. In an environment of stench, flies, filth, and hunger this little act of artistic beauty brought tears to my eyes.

     The Aesthete and Social Cohesion

     Social cohesion at the sacrifice of truth is often mistaken for social intelligence. This is so because it is embodied in a personality. The life of an intelligent aesthete is often marked by success. In a world where being spiritually intelligent requires speech that identifies socio-cultural dysfunction, the intelligent aesthete chooses the comfort of accommodation for the sake of social cohesion. The intelligent aesthete refuses truth and will not engage in criticism of the established order. In religious communities, the life of these persons expresses the unethical values of the larger society as congruent with the faith. In relation to the ethical, their lives masquerade the ethical as the approved order of socio-cultural politics. They are good citizens, good people, they are happy, they smile, they are mimetic models for the simple and exemplars for the dominant powers of wealth and success.

    At the core of the aesthetic personality is the violence of sacrificial progress. An aesthetic personality, regardless of faith claims, is in practice a social Darwinist. In his/her world merciful justice is lost to penal sacrifice of any who challenge the status quo. These persons abandon intellectual thought for legal reasoning that is without the Spirit of Christ.

    These souls do not understand the transformative power of the reign of God, they believe in sacrificial progress. Their ability to ignore the poor while smiling is reflective of a spiritual illness. An aesthete ignores the goodness in humanism but embraces the religious as the deification of a sacrificial order. They are afraid of the disorder involved in transformative change, but tolerate social injustice and identify the normalization of war as representative of a healthy patriotism. They do not understand that Jesus is Lord of the chaos. They avoid any form of prophetic denunciation because their religion is cheap grace served up sweet for the blind.

The Aesthetic Culture

       The aesthetic culture is spiritless. It is a materialistic culture where the value of a human being is based upon worth signified by accumulation. Global capitalism is the purveyor of this dehumanizing drive that functions on instinct rather than compassion, rather than humanness. In an aesthetic culture aging is a curse to be resisted with extreme measures of self-preservation. The gradual result is that the wisdom and influence of aged persons without wealth is lost because they do not display the aesthetic expectation of youthful appearance. Without the storytelling of the aged who are able to connect younger persons with a living history, the development of a generation of ahistorical persons who think of themselves as the center of existence is birthed.

        The impact of the advent, or invasion, of wireless communications as normative for the human experience is till unfolding. Its potential for good is real, yet its potential for increased accumulation and evil is amplified by mobility for the wealthy or at least citizens of wealthy nations. This is so because the disparity of wealth and power between people groups leads to the exploitation of the economically deprived.

       This eruption of technological advance has produced the naturally disruptive reality of the younger generation teaching the older generation. Older persons have lived without technologies claim upon human happiness. Younger persons accept technology without thought, while older persons are more apathetic. Technologies permeating presence into all aspects of life eventually intrudes deeply enough that older persons must accept its role in life. So the younger teach the older and this has contributed to an ahistorical generation. The technologically adept younger generation loses their sense of history because they have become teachers of their elders.

     This phenomenon of an ahistorical generation is supported by the relationship of technology and social Darwinism. In such an environment the concept of progress is supported by technology rather than ethics. In this environment the remaking, or redefining of humanity, is tested through behaviors previously considered aberrant. The ahistorical culture is like all millennial expectations; it celebrates a chance to ‘start over’ free from the past.

       An aesthetic culture lacks the ethics to halt the landslide effect of materialist idolatry and the pursuit of eternal youth. The result is historical violence; meaning not only is history set aside in the attempt to ‘start over’ but the ensuing violence caused by redefining humanity is historical; it will fail, it will be assigned to the annals of history.

      Aesthetic influence on a culture separated from ethics and religion, or as the dominant influence, is the most demonic form of culture. The aesthetic culture courts the demonic because it replaces what is ‘good’ with cultural judgments on what constitutes beauty. In an aesthetic culture the flourishing of life is replaced by efforts at longevity and comfort. In an aesthetic culture people use birth control in an unhealthy way and limit children to one or none.

    The aesthetic sphere is the weakest of the three. This is so because the aesthetic is the least dependent upon insight and gravitates toward culturally ingrained instincts that direct perspectives on what constitutes beauty. The ethical leads to the writing of legislation in society. The ethical is to pursue the preservation of life in relation to one another. The religious inculcates concepts of wisdom related to the finer attributes of being human.

    When the aesthetic dominates a culture it pushes the culture toward instinct and voids intellect. So the redefining of humanity free from history’s lessons erupts in idolatry of the human. I mean the pursuit of wisdom as the search for God in the creation is lost to experimentation that the physical world resists. Longevity, violent birth control (e.g. abortion and an insufficient number of children to constitute replacement or multiplication), and homosexuality mark the presence of an aesthetic culture.

Idolatry of the Human

      The aesthetic culture culminates in violence built on idolatry of the human, by exploiting human freedom to form reality. It is a freedom that rejects all constraint from historical ethics or religious claims on reality. Idolatry of the human is a sign that religion has failed. Populous religion caters to the idolatry of the human and love for aesthetics, for longevity, for comfort, for abandoning history, it ends thought and ends life. The idolatry of the human always leads to nationalism, simply because for aesthetics to function, some people are less human.

     Longevity as an ultimate concern placed firmly in the center of culture results in a society where death is no longer natural, no longer a gift at the end of a full life. Inevitably, longevity as an ultimate concern inhibits the maturation of wisdom in the elderly; religion teaches us how to die (ars moriendi).[3]

And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

(Heb. 2:15)

       The pursuit of wealth is essential for longevity and hopes to maintain the appearance of youthfulness. A life in pursuit of longevity, with an identity formed around appearances, and built on wealth results in greed that holds back the resources of life for children. Wealthy populations do not increase in number through procreative living.

He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.

(Ex. 1:9)

        In the end the aesthetic corrupts humanity until self-destructiveness turns toward the most instinctual behavior: sexuality. The abuse of women is validated through conquering armies. A people are not conquered until the female gender is sexually dominated by systemic structures of exploitation. It was not until 1945 that marriage of a U.S. soldier to an Asian woman was legalized. Thousands of children born to U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were not allowed entry into the U.S. until 1989. To this day the children of U.S. soldiers born to Filipina women are not granted entry to the U.S.[4] Across Asia, in Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Okinawa and the Philippines U.S. soldiers left behind their children.  

         The aesthetic idolatry of the human exploits sexuality until the culture, its language and every facet of life is sexualized. Without restraint, sexual behavior descends into violence. In the end homosexuality and gender confusion are normalized under the idea of love for humanity. It is the end of life; a world without ethics, a world without wisdom. The establishment of an aesthetic culture marks the end of a civilization.

 

[1] The serpent is an undomesticated beast of the field (it cannot speak). Eve’s projection of thought onto the serpent reveals her inward thoughts in relation to doubt. Doubt drives the human intellect and the desire to understand reality. Questions born of doubt can be destructive if not harmonized with ethical thought and faith. Pharaoh’s headpiece (crown) bore a serpent and a vulture. The serpent as symbol in the ancient near east represented power and wisdom.  The vulture represented power to bring death; that is over life, a power understood to affirm the sovereignty of every state. Rather than develop insight culminating in surrender to faith, Eve’s instinctual desire for power marred her reasoning, marred the relationship of her existential spheres of existence.

[2] The manifestation of the aesthete with power is often displayed in love for architecture. The messiness of living is not present in costly architectural extravagance; it is like a picture of a city without people.

[3] The illegal purchasing of human organs that flourishes in poor countries is an example of the conflicting realities of life and death with wealth and poverty. The pursuit of youth is the pursuit of longevity. - Ars moriendi is Latin for the art of dying and is a literary work belonging to the Christian tradition.

[4] Johnson Kevin R. Mixed Race America and the Law (New York University Press, 2003). The estimated number of children left behind (as were their mothers) by U.S. soldiers upon the closing of U.S. bases in 1991 is 250,000.