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This is the seventh post of a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule, along with links to previous posts, can be found here.
What is the nature of the experience a person has while contemplating art? Where does the mind wander when listening intently to music? Does an encounter with beauty fundamentally shift a person’s conception of the self, religion, and his or her place in the world? In this chapter, Gschwandtner explores Jean-Louis Chrétien’s understanding of art toward an apology—a coherent and reasoned explanation—of the experience of God and religious practices. As a phenomenologist, Chrétien’s work invites one to be attentive to the sensory aspect of the self and the space he or she is drawn into when encountering beauty. Aesthetic experience can be pleasurable, complex, and an end in itself. However, as Gschwandtner notes, “[Chrétien’s] writings evoke in the reader a sense of admiration for the beautiful even in experiences of pain and loss” (143). This is similar to the twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who describes how the complexity of beauty includes the underside of life, including chaos and woundedness. The intensity of feeling evoked in beauty is increased through the blending of oppositions and the harmonization of contrasts.
The production of art depends on imagination and creativity, crafting what can be felt and apprehended but is difficult to express conceptually. Producing art requires something beyond the intellect alone, exceeding conceptual thought and discourse. It involves the mind and body, and envelops the entire person. Similarly, although the interpretation and appreciation of art is dependent on one’s history and location, what is understood is similarly put into thoughts and words.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1777-1860) devoted a great deal of his writing to the relationship between art and ideas, which provides a helping comparison to understand Chrétien’s project. Schopenhauer and Chrétien pursued a similar course by inquiring into questions of truth and the fundamental nature of being human in a mode other than speculative or rational philosophy. The work of both philosophers, despite stark differences in their philosophical assumptions, each dwell on the mode of the aesthetic and pursue the experience of beauty to gain a more pure understanding of truth. Because of their differing philosophical assumptions, however, they come to divergent notions of the meaning of truth and the nature of reality.
Schopenhauer uses the illustration of a husk and kernel to describe how science and the pursuit of rational inquiry provides information about phenomena and processes in the world, or the “husk of nature.” Yet, it is art—the aesthetic experience—that draws a person toward the inner “kernel” of reality. The will pursues concepts and ideas allowing one to observe the “husk of nature,” the pluralism of parts as individual objects and phenomena. Art confronts ultimate questions from a different lens or mode, thus producing a different result. For Schopenhauer, perception of the inner truth of reality is achieved through aesthetic contemplation by shifting away from the desire of the will. Setting the will aside makes one receptive to the inner metaphysical truth of the whole of reality, including “the kernel of our true being.” This experience of grasping the whole comprised of all the various parts, as well as one’s place within it, yields a different kind of knowledge. However, for Chrétien the inner truth of reality experienced through the aesthetic is not something one pursues but, rather, a call that one responds to. He writes:
“To think of God as that which is beyond beauty and gives beauty is to discern that only his excess over and above the beautiful, and over all the formal definitions of the beautiful that we might put forward, makes it possible for there to be a gift of beauty, and for the beauty of creatures itself to be in excess—an excess of itself, which is itself in so far as it responds to the call of God.”
It is impossible to possess beauty, as it is perceived only through an ephemeral occurrence of something that is beautiful. And just as it is impossible to possess God and ultimate truth in their entirety, one cannot grasp the whole of beauty. An object or person can reflect beauty, just as a person can reflect truthfulness in his or her life. However, beauty and truth are not elements whose essential natures are graspable. Wisdom is the ability to parse out what one knows and does not know, which is to understand that one encounters and experiences truth, just as one encounters the Divine. A wise person understands that they are not in possession of all truth or in possession of God, though they may pursue both through the course of life. Rather, being approached by God is an invitation to respond and be changed as a person.
One connection between Chrétien’s philosophy of speech and beauty with the experience of God and religious practices is a reorientation of the understanding of truth and one’s place in the world. He connects the call or lure by beauty with Christian vocation. Christians are called to see that the parts and whole fit together in a way that fundamentally ties the self to others. Christian vocation is understood as a person living in response to God and allowing this faith to directly shape interactions with others.
Schopenhauer describes the experience of the artist as “losing of the self.” Art frees one from the rational will and invites a more lucid perception of reality. Being freed from the rational will is not to be without reason, however. David Torevell notes, “This is not a stance against reason itself, but a freeing of reason from its own tendency to dull and false conditioning.” A person’s desire to grasp metaphysical truth fully is a desire that invites an entirely different power dynamic between oneself and the rest of reality, one that is the antithesis of “woundedness through suffering” that opens oneself to God and others. Goodness and truth encountered by a person through God’s call invites, or rather, obliges, a response that is also an encounter with the self. This call and response reorients or clarifies one’s place in the world. One is always already addressed; our speech presupposes that we have been spoken too. When we speak, we enter a conversation that long preceded us.
Prayer is a response to the call, having first been spoken to by God, in which one experiences vulnerability through the invitation to bring suffering creatures before God with all their nakedness and wounds. In this way, prayer is “an authentic dwelling place for humankind,” writes Chrétien. Torevell suggests that “wounds are our satisfaction and blessing.” Chrétien describes prayer and a wound’s power to change, for instance, to Jacob struggling in the dark night with the angel. This kind of wrestling is a struggling together, an occasion toward the possibility of a more raw intimacy. God calls and one responds in prayer, but the response also moves one into closer proximity with the entirety of creation when a person brings the suffering of others before God in prayer. Just as the aesthetic experience is an occasion to move beyond the desires of the will, relinquishing the idea of the self in strictly individualistic and egoistic terms moves one toward deeper intimacy and care for others.
To summarize in the form of an illustration, musical notation alone inadequately conveys the meaning of the piece until a musician takes up her instrument and plays. Attempting to harness emotions elicited by the experience of music through analysis is inadequate when compared to the music itself; the beauty of music is found foremost in the experience of it and not within a description. God and religious experiences are always in excess and overabundance to the descriptions and sets of doctrines formulated about the divine. While doctrines and rational arguments about Christian theology are important, the beauty of the Christian experience is the invitation God makes to each person, the experience of the relationship formed by the response, and the opening of oneself to others.
Trisha Famisaran is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology and Director of the Honors Program at La Sierra University.