Here is a quote that captivates a central theme where I believe his disposition falls short. While on the surface it does resonate as true, on an another level it gave me pause...
“The purpose of theology—the purpose of any thinking about God—is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning—by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings—more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful. This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.”What Wiman eloquently says here is definitely necessary, but is it sufficient? I, like many others, acknowledge the transcendent aspect of art. It is beauty which often leads us to a sense of depth.
For me, it tends to come through most often in music, in some cases a great film. As an example, I got to see Belle and Sebastian live recently. They are such a delightful band, and I really enjoy much of their stuff, including songs like this, this, and this (great homemade video). This song, for me, is particularly transcendent inducing:
But I've always sensed art was not enough. In today's secular world, art often replaces religion as a form of mass consumption and we can now see how that has worked out as a vehicle for transformation. While I understand Wiman is pointing to deeper sense of mysticism, and that literal theology is too arid, art can not itself be replacement for true theology.
Kierkegaard wrote on the aesthetic (the Beauty) as the door that opens things up for most. But if such enrichment just becomes a narcissistic consumption of experience, it will not necessitate that one become better for it. It also can an alienating existence, where it requires constant re-entry from the transcendent experience to a mundane life.
Kierkegaard acknowledged we eventually need to move to the ethical (the Good). What inclined us by beauty can eventually instill obligations and commitments for us. We begin to see we are embedded in a community with others and that bonds are formed through reciprocity, trust, and friendship. Beauty and goodness become two faces of the same reality; goodness being an internal beauty, and beauty being an external goodness. (On this note, I recall Dennis Prager saying when he was in summer camp, the women he found attractive at the beginning of the season were not the same as the women he found attractive at the end of the season. Once he got to know them more, he got a better sense of their inner/outer/whole beauty which included their goodness. The person can never be reduced to mere appearances.)
And yet, we can see how goodness may not go far enough also. With the ethical stage, we can get stuck projecting our unwanted thoughts on others or denying them within ourselves. This leads to righteous moralizing, politically-correctness, or the shallow goal of being a “nice” person. Without a metaphysical narrative and the power of grace, there is no real motivation and discernment to master ourselves within before considering how to appropriately respond with others.
As Kierkegaard noted, it only as we move to the Religious mind (the True) where real spiritual progress can be made. This stage requires faith in God. While the aesthetic can bring in the transcendent, it tends to leave God out. It is only with God that the context of beauty and goodness makes coherent sense. While we may be initially drawn to God by beauty, it is on the journey with God where we are deeply moved in our souls to become beautiful (or saintly).
With that being said, I'm about to embark on a 10-day silent retreat. I hope to use that time to truly immerse myself in the deep Beauty that permeates all of Life. And for someone like myself who has an intellectual bent, it is necessary every so often to embody those “aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings.” The art of silence has its time (of no-time) and place (space).
In truth, experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others. — Christian Wiman