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Saturday, November 24, 2007


"As long as this deliberate refusal to understand things from above, even where such understanding is possible, continues, it is idle to talk of any final victory over materialism."
-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Modern Art
I have in the past on this blog mentioned the concept of true art versus illustration and craft. My primary source for my understanding of artwork is C.S. Lewis and his examination of the concept of glory, in the talk he gave called The Weight of Glory. Art is not true art unless it somehow through the medium portrays something greater, more meaningful and profound than the mere medium. The song that seems to transport you to a greater place. That painting that though beautiful shows you something else, something transcendent beyond it. True art is not merely the art its self, but it gives a glimpse of something greater.

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis examines the concept of growing up and always looking for a better place, a hope that things will be what they are supposed to be instead of what we see now. Dr Lewis looks at this idea and suggests that we were made for more than what we have now, that we always can sense that even the greatest joys and pleasures are not quite what they could be, and suggests that they give us a glimpse of something else beyond our reality.

From The Weight of Glory:
In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.

We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Awesome sceneryDo you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson’s remark that the élan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death—as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics. Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.

But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies. Our sacred books give us some account of the object. It is, of course, a symbolical account. Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we, and it has stood the test of Christian experience down the centuries.

The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire. And that is just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” Sophocles at first seems dull and cold to the boy who has only reached Shelley. If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.
The Right Ordinary Horatio JacksonWe live in an age which, like the embittered little German man that shows up so often in Terry Gilliam's movies, wants to stamp out every last shred of fantasy, imagination, and transcendence. To be sure, there's plenty of imaginary things out there - we're inundated with the unreal and the fantastic in every media outlet there is. But it's done with the sober, unsmiling certainty that this is all false and any sensible person would know that to be so.

The fantasy of modern life is not told with a hint of reality, it's not whispered with a look about as if the elves might be listening in. We know there are no elves, no spirits, no God, no angels, no world but that which we can touch and taste and measure at the lab. This gives our creativity a flat sort of sterility, where the child's imaginary friend has a spark that our most popular works lack. It is only sometimes that a real sense of wonder and trust accompanies imagination, such as in most of Gilliam's work.

Yet even as we try to stamp out the last vestiges of any ideas which might challenge a naturalistic view of the world - one in which there is nothing save that which we can measure with science and senses - the reality of a world beyond keeps peeking out. It's like trying to hold a fist full of water, you can never seem to really contain it. Try as we might, we cannot expunge the reality of the world beyond our best efforts to quantify and categorize it.

As C.S. Lewis points out, when we look at that awe-inspiring scenery or hear that piece of music that inexplicably brings us to tears, we're getting a glimpse at that beyond, that reality we cannot force into a box. That effect we feel is not so much the thing its self as the truth behind that thing which we get - for a moment - a small and overwhelming taste of. And even that tiny shred of the transcendent is so overwhelming it is profound to us, decades later.

The problem for us as human beings is that we want to be in charge, on top of things, in control. When we can quantify and measure something, we've gained a measure of power over it, like the sorcerer who controls his victim with their "true name." By defining each thing around us with measurements, titles, and categories, we are able to grasp it and plunge it into a comforting box. When faced with something beyond that ability, such as love, it is unnerving, disquieting. Just when we think we've got our world under control and manageable, something will inevitably come along and prove us fools.

In a world where we're able to explain and experimentally understand everything, we know that there's nothing above us. We're the top of the list, nobody can give us any commands or set up any rules we must follow, we make the rules. Yes, I'm held by gravity, but with this device I can soar in the sky. Yes, I must breathe water, but we can dive to the depths and explore all the same. Our control over the world around us extends to such a point that even the laws of nature are ours to work around, if not break.

Yet if there's more to the world that we can control and scientifically define, then we're left with the disquieting feeling that there's something more than simply what we can master with our abilities. The most powerful man in the world can be broken down by love - yet no one can create or quantify it, either. And if there's more to the world that what naturalism tells us, then the arguments and proofs of naturalism fall short of defining and explaining reality. Science is not up to the task, and that leaves us with the unnerving fact that philosophy, or even worse, religion must be the way to know this other.

We shun philosophy because all too often it move from the profound (Socrates) to the absurd (existentialism) or dismal (nihilism). When someone asks "if a tree falls in the wood and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" the answer by most rational people is "yes, you idiot." The philosopher has good philosophical reasons for the question, but the world around us tells us the answer without needing to ask in the first place.

Mad ScientistYet it is when philosophy crosses the same kind of line that science does that these troubles start. Science is great at dealing with what it is supposed to: natural phenomenon. It's when the scientist tries to deal with the unknown - and unknowable - that it becomes absurd. It doesn't matter how great your theory is built or how amazingly complex and advanced your work is, no scientist on earth can tell us where matter came from - it's outside the realm of science. A perfect example of that recently came from quantum physicists who know next to nothing about their field of study, yet feel qualified enough to suggest we may be shortening the very existence of the universe:
But there is an odd feature of the theory that philosophers and scientists still argue about. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we change things simply by looking at them and theorists have puzzled over the implications for years.

They often illustrate their concerns about what the theory means with mind-boggling experiments, notably Schrodinger's cat in which, thanks to a fancy experimental set up, the moggy is both alive and dead until someone decides to look, when it either carries on living, or dies. That is, by one interpretation (by another, the universe splits into two, one with a live cat and one with a dead one.)

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have accidentally nudged the universe closer to its death by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.
Dark matter being the material that must exist in vast, unbelievably immense quantities, yet has been unmeasured, undiscovered, and unsensed. Why is it theorized? Because that way the universe can be eternal - an unending series of explosions and collapses, a constant cycle. They've not found this, but it must exist in order to solve the problem that matter cannot come from nothing. This is a classic example of scientists crossing over into that which they cannot deal with in their field.

Similarly, philosophers cannot tell us things that science deals with. Your philosophy can be wonderful, but when you try to explain the natural world, then it becomes useless. That's why philosophers sound so goofy, talking about how things only exist when we are aware of them and so on.

Trial of GalileoReligion similarly can suffer from this weakness: Galileo ran into the church when they objected that the Bible taught that the world was the center of the solar system (the sun being described as rising and setting). This was religion reaching beyond its proper boundaries. The fact that people in the Bible used language that was common and understood does not mean it was a primer on cosmology. Meteorologist who know very well that the Earth rotates around the Sun refer to sunrise and sunset, because that's what it looks like on earth, and that's how we describe the event.

This is not to say that you cannot be a philosophical scientist or that religion has nothing to say about how we do science, but rather that applying each discipline improperly results in failure and embarrassment for all concerned.

Yet many will argue we must reject philosophy and religion because of errors it has made in the past. The idea being that if religion was wrong in this area or tried to reach for that which it does not apply to (directly), then they must be wrong in all areas. This of course is absurd, we ought not reject science because scientists have been wrong or foolish in the past. Each is useful and appropriate in it's realm.

Each must be used in its realm to understand the world we live in, and much more, to properly function in that world as well. Abandoning any of these three disciplines leaves us blind in that field, forcing us to run up against and be helpless against the areas they deal with. You can pretend as much as you can that the transcendent does not exist, but you'll have no more power over reality than the child who covers their ears and yells when they are confronted with something they do not wish to hear.

It is a sad fact of our modern culture that all too many people have at least a basic concept and functioning familiarity with science, but know almost nothing about religion or philosophy. Even more sad is that such people are often turned to for wisdom and thought on these issues, despite their ignorance. Every schoolboy and girl should graduate with a basic concept of religion and philosophy or their education is greatly lacking. Everyone who cares to write about or speak critically of these areas should have a more profound study and understanding.

Your chance starts today: you learned about bunsen burners and chemicals and dissecting worms in school, you can learn about philosophy and religion right now and today by simply reading and thinking. Who knows, maybe you'll find the world makes more sense and you're better equipped to face challenges and questions that you're helpless against right now.

Because the world consists of more than we wish it to.
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