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Why Read Literature?

What does the Church have to do with the Library? A Christian exploration on the question of reading literature.

Up now on Dallas Theological Seminary’s EIKON artist’s page here: DTS EIKON

Check it out, and leave a comment with your thoughts or with YOUR reason for reading (or not reading) literature!

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The Mystery of Beauty

The Mystery of Beauty

“A Mystery in short is an invitation to the mind. For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind’s thirst.” Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity

Beauty is a mystery. A mystery is not a problem to be solved, but the reality that there is something greater than us that we cannot ever fully grasp, but into which we may enter. As Aquinas recognized, there are levels of imperfection and perfection in both our knowledge and its corresponding object; we either strive for perfect knowledge of imperfect, or lesser, things, or for imperfect knowledge of perfect things. Thus, scientific enquiry (perfect knowledge) is directed toward that which is less than human (imperfect things, such as plant cell structures), and therefore that which is fully comprehensible to our minds; psychology takes one step away from “mere matter” into the uniquely human, that which is body and mind together, and thus psychology is part science, part philosophy, part perfect knowledge (about neurology/physiology) and part imperfect knowledge (motives and desires); finally, philosophy is the discipline of the more than human, of such things as the reality and nature of beauty.

Just as we ourselves are mysterious, much more so is beauty. Beauty transcends even the human mystery into a greater, perhaps infinite, mystery. We cannot define beauty in totality by offering propositional statements, “Beauty is A, B and C, and nothing else!” No, we can only describe it and intuit it, but we can never deduce it as if it were a mathematical proof waiting to be discovered (there is nothing which is its equal). Frank Sheed, quoted above, also offers this metaphor: a mystery is not a series of rungs on a ladder to be climbed, but a gallery to become lost in, falling deeper and deeper, including the mystery of beauty. This means that in entering into a mystery we will begin to lose ourselves, but in doing so will somehow come to understand all mystery more clearly. This includes the mystery of the human self, where we are both producers of and participants in beauty.

There is nothing here to conquer, only to know and love. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world,” which, like a teenager, is so terribly concerned with only itself; beauty will teach us how to leave self-concern behind us, and therefore save us. Any reader of Dostoevsky’s will know that we are all saved from ourselves by this principle, which he calls love, or the total identification with another who is more perfect than we are. Beauty leads us to love beyond the self, and through self-denying love we will be able to see ourselves and each other clearly for the first time. And then, perhaps, if we are not yet completely happy, we will at least see joy’s peak upon the dawn horizon, a beckoning silhouette whose true form and power is greater than we ever before imagined. As you read, step into beauty with your whole mind, heart and soul; anything you keep for yourself might just be lost forever.

In Unity, We Find Beauty

Some of the more practical things I have ever done involve spending evenings listening to very good music, music that could send me through the entire range of human experiential response, both intellectual and emotional. This included symphonies by Beethoven (5th and 9th, of course) and Tchaikovsky (6th) to modern masters such as Sufjan Stevens or Sigur Ros, or even the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And, yes, I said practical. This was music which affected me, which has stayed with me day after day, moving my thoughts constantly back to its beauty, producing a paradox: I gained both emotional satisfaction from the music and an anxious desire to return to it. This paradox is resolvable because I know that when I return to the music, my desires will be continually fulfilled in a healthy and life-giving way, and this knowledge only serves to heighten that satisfaction. This is the objective effect of the beautiful, that it draws one out of oneself and towards, or into, itself. This is a perfectly natural and fundamental aspect of reality: human, animal, molecular, physical, spiritual­—all obey to a greater or lesser extent the principle of unity, of desiring union with the desirable.

We by necessity desire unity, and as Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher mentioned above, wrote: there is no fundamental desire in the world for which there is not a satisfying reality (CS Lewis said much the same). Hunger has the reality of food, sex has the reality of a mate. We desire unity because it is the most logical solution to the fundamental problem of existence, which goes something like this, in two parts:

Existing is an active thing, which means that I cannot choose whether to interact with the world. For example, I am sitting on a chair which is not myself, thinking about ideas of which either most, or more probably all, have begun outside my mind and have found their way into it. Existence is activity, never passivity. I must interact with other people: ideas, emotions, bodies and souls. I can avoid someone or avoid a choice, but as a smart sitcom mother probably said, “To avoid choosing is still a choice.”

On the other side, I cannot help being me. I can imitate someone or through love find my identity in other things and people, but I am all the while an individual, me. Existence means being active and seeking our identity in others; being a person means being unique and indivisible.

Unity, our solution, is not two things. It is not sameness, which is the attempt to lose one’s self entirely, to give up one’s personhood, as this is impossible. Objectively you are always you, no matter whose you are subjectively or what you take part in.

Secondly, beauty and unity are not, and strive against, individualism, defined as any activity which does everything with the focus on the good of the self. If existence means activity, then it means always refusing to be nothing, consciously or unconsciously, and thus always moving oneself away from the darkness of nothingness towards other people and things. These are the only directions towards which we can move: outward.

To eschew others completely is to attempt to do the impossible: both to get what you want from the world and avoid what you do not want from it. But no one is ever really alone. Every time you see a billboard, an idea comes into your mind and you must fight it or accept it. Even reading this essay is, in one manner, an act of love, by which you seek out something which is not yourself. You found me here, or a piece of me. We have shared something, entered into communion. Whether this is comforting or terrifying depends on whether you are open to others or closed to them (and on what you might know about me), which is a vital thing to know about yourself. Unity creates peace through the acceptance of a person’s value, love to the point of wanting them to be better, and the employment of an individual’s unique expression of self-giving, but all towards a common end; therefore, the whole transcends the part without the loss of individuality. In fact, the individuals find themselves more fulfilled by giving up some of their individual desires to fulfill their greatest desire: unity through love.

Example

This is the greatest principle one can learn from a Beethoven symphony: that beauty means diversity in unity. Diversity in unity, at the most practical and human level, includes the meaningfulness of every part, no matter how small it is, no matter how random or sudden it appears to us, how slow or quiet­—in a symphony, nothing is random, it only seems so, and this is part of the greatness of the experience; we need not to know everything in order to enjoy something to the fullest extent. Beauty, therefore, needs weakness as much as strength, the low as much as the high, the male as much as the female. The symphony, as beauty incarnated in small, teaches us that it is foolish to always prefer the strong or always prefer the weak, but there is reason to insist absolutely on the both together.

In the same way, a society must not be or seek to be all men, nor all women (remembering gender is really not the most fundamental thing about a person), nor all some third thing in the version of “equality” which is really sameness, but must be both together working perfectly in unity of purpose, but by nature working differently. Again, to insist on sameness at any level (physical, intellectual, emotional, or personal) is to do away with an integral part of beauty. Man and woman are not nothing alike: our commonality of human nature and existence amidst our differences is the basis for unity, for comm-union. We are much more similar than we are different. But it is this diversity in nature in cooperation which is beautiful because it does not dissolve into chaos, but works itself out from the past to the future.

Diversity in Cooperation

This diversity in cooperation is a principle which ultimately cannot be violated if we are to experience the true love or happiness, which are found in that which is very much not us, in the other, but also in that which can align in union with us. Can an oboe ever be a clarinet? No, they are different in inherent and necessary ways, especially in reed type, despite similarities of function and purpose. Can an oboe player ever be a clarinet player? Surely! But this presupposes a community-focused, rather than simply individual-focused, aspect and choice: that the whole orchestra will make arrangements either to successfully fill the spot now vacant, or that they will by creative means overcome that which is missing and make space for something new. We cannot be different on our own. Finding our place in life means learning how to be different in a way that is the most beneficial to society and to us.

Creativity

Diversity in cooperation, then, also necessitates creativity, another obvious aspect of any symphony. Creativity gives purpose and beauty to change, to those who are different. It wraps its arms around the different and creates a whole new space for it; a unique space for a unique individual. It highlights both the inherent individual beauty, but also sets the individual in a place where she will flourish within the purpose of the whole, therefore gaining both objective and subjective meaning, meaning which the individual knows and feels. Creation is a divine act, and is seen by all people as good. Creativity engages our whole being—our intellect, our sensitivities and talents, our bodies and souls (who we really are)—and it gives us joy when we overcome change through new solutions. It is not a stability summited through sameness, but through commonality in purpose and in the humility (adaptability) of its members. It is neither same form nor function, but common ultimate purpose, goal, end.

Practical Consequences of This Theory of Beauty: Meaningful Suffering

If giving meaning to every person, weak or strong, damaged or whole, is not practical enough for you, then I will finish by going a step further; feel free to agree or disagree. What can we learn about pain and suffering through beauty? What can we learn about the place in society of those with disability or disease, who are so often cast aside?

Perhaps most importantly, can such an abstract idea as beauty save those who need most to be saved?

When we experience great joy in listening to a symphony, we suppose the meaningfulness and worthwhileness of a great amount of suffering: the suffering of the listener in his part spending the requisite years studying music so that he might appreciate it to its fullest extent; the suffering of the musician, who has been practicing to perfection his or her part, in spite of the personal hardships or even tragedies which occur; the suffering of the musical author during the creative and refining processes. (Beethoven was almost completely deaf by the time he wrote the 9th, and yet he did not stop creating and participating in the beautiful for its own sake, just to save himself the effort and stress).

If all of these come together, then the product is worth the pain. Ten poor concerts are eclipsed and forgotten after a very good one. If we never spend time practicing, we can never expect to experience the greatest joy. If we never spend the hard effort of practicing virtue, individually and with others, our lives will never become the symphony they were meant to be. An initiate glances the Mona Lisa and moves on, receiving little of worth. The woman who has spent her life contemplating and studying artistic beauty will look at it for days on end and not grasp the totality of its beauty. Just so, the moral initiate will see the quick gratification available and take it without another thought, supposing it to be happiness. The man who has spent his lifetime cultivating virtue will give his life joyfully to save one small child, or even one cruel and unappreciative man.

Can we really believe that a society is not better for having most of its people willing to give their lives for one another, that it is really better to have a society where people are only concerned with themselves? Most will say, “Yes, it is better,” but fail to see that the lofty ideals are only reached by starting at the lowest step and with the minutest task.

There is a small child whom my fiancé spends time with every other week who has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes developmental and intellectual delays. He carries with him the label “special needs.” If you know anything about Down syndrome children, they are often incredibly sweet and happy. Some have a habit of running up and hugging strangers, sometimes to the fright of their parents. I heard of one boy recently who ran up to a homeless man and hugged him, and the homeless man began to cry. Why? Because the boy longed to share himself with that which was inherently beautiful, and created beauty itself in that moment.

The Questions We Ask

We as a society are asking these questions: Why is this child like this, when he did nothing wrong? Can this child ever really be happy, especially if most of his or her life is spent in constant pain? Should we abort children who we know are going to have special needs?

For the last question, we should see by now that even existence itself means self-giving, and thus to take life, no matter how we classify it, does not obey even our essential human nature (nature, in philosophy, is that which makes us real and human). If we think physical suffering is enough reason to cease living life, then we have again missed the point of the beautiful. Beauty teaches us that true joy is not in the absence of suffering, but comes when suffering is given meaning, when we believe subjectively and objectively that suffering serves a greater purpose, even if we cannot see all of it, for beauty is ultimately beyond us.

If we wish to give people joy by getting rid of suffering, that is simple: all we have to do is get rid of all people and all life. However, every child, as every adult, or even every microbe, is meaningful in life’s symphony. The weak by effortless existence teach the strong the beauty and value of life. The strong, in turn, create new spaces for people to find their purposes and express their individualities in ways which are meaningful and beautiful to the whole. Each finds joy, and freedom, through service. The idea is not to be free from one another, but to free ourselves of the addictions and attachments which keep us from being free for one another.

Beauty teaches us, no matter who we are, that our purpose is the same: to give ourselves to and for one another, to love. A very Dostoevsky-like principle is this: We are saved or damned by what we love, because we become most like what we most love, whether material possessions, people, or our idea of God. Beauty shows us a way out of ourselves, and is therefore teaching us how to truly love in a way which will perfect our human nature and experience, and which makes each small part, each breath we take above the waves of struggle, both meaningful and beautiful.

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A Better Knowing

the ink drips

as pen hovers

brooding over still uncertainty

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no touch can

part the waters

I see only what’s miles in front of me

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on the bank

across spaces

she faces me and it breaks my heart

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lips form words

the wind takes them

always backwards into the far parts

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of my mind

deep recesses

where knowing starts and ends abruptly

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but love can

cross these waters

I know you by your smile

I’ve known you all the while

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Why Does the Child Sleep?

Heavy in my hands,

Unwieldy yet winsome,

The tiniest bulbs on thin branches

Tickle my nose

As I nod appreciation;

A leafy child

For my new wife and I.

Still as her body at midnight,

Blooming only when out of sight,

Askance! I perceive faintest unfurling:

A small lavender setting sail of twenty-two

Anchored wings, shyly and selflessly

Inviting

The conversation of my cooing gaze.

The child sleeps more as seasons

Grow colder, us a little older —

But not much.

Leaves fall bright green

Circumscribed by tattered yellow;

I remember nostalgic what lived —

So vibrantly! —

Cradled, cupped in my large hands,

A month ago at most,

When I last watered it.

Look up!

Why looking up tells us who we are, where we are, and why and how to get where we’re going.

At an outdoor art installation Friday night, I noticed a pattern–a meaning–that some others did not. That’s not to congratulate myself; I simply can’t bring myself to walk away from things I haven’t even begun to understand, often to my own detriment. I move slowly.

Outside, at eye level, large and moving light fixtures sent silver beams upward into the fog. In seemingly random intervals, one light or several would flash golden, then a deep, but muted, bell would chime and the lights would disappear momentarily to return again moving in their white light phase.

Many children, and adults following their lead, moved their hands over the lights: this seemed occasionally to work, but that was only chance. The idea that it was motion activated was an innovative one, which is probably why the children, so used to new technologies, attempted this first.

The answer lay in looking up. Some genius, whoever put this together, had mathematically calculated when the beams–about ten of them–would cross each other a hundred feet in the air. Each time two crossed, they would both turn golden, chime, and disappear. They looked like huge steel beams falling from different directions upon one another. It took a minute’s observation to find the pattern, but it was very impressive. The lights were always crossing from different directions at different speeds–all changing, but all perfectly coordinated.

It is a principle known to every movie spy who needs to hide quickly: people rarely look up. We like our feet on the ground, stable. We like a measure of control over our lives, even those who purposely lead what seem to be reckless lives. We want to coordinate our jobs, our families, even our beliefs, in order to balance the desire for some shelter from chaos and that for what happiness we can manage to get after all that energy spent fighting back the storms.

Many of us never look up, or at least do so rarely. Despite great pain and tragedy, we internalize it all. Or we look left and right to find the guilty party. We look for a cause we can see with our eyes, and, when we find it (and we usually find something close enough to a cause), we are satisfied enough to move on. Or not. Or never.

In my thinking, a person in the midst of some tragedy who looks up toward God and says, “How could you let this happen? Why did this happen?” is in a much healthier place than the person to whom that thought never occurs. Now, a person who looks up during joys as well as tragedies is doubly blessed; however, it usually takes catastrophe, or what we perceive as catastrophe, for us to look up from our morning oatmeal. This says nothing about God, but a great deal about us.

Why do we not look up? Perhaps it is because we know we cannot control God. We cannot get enough distance from God to gain the perspective needed to manipulate him, like we can with physical objects, and like we attempt to do with people. That is what is so terribly frustrating. Even when any mature sense of faith knows it is simply impossible, religion for us so often becomes a means to control God, a series of actions we can perform to con God into giving us what we desire. “Look, God, how I’ve been obeying you!” “Look, God, at how much I’ve denied myself!” “Look, God, at how many times I’ve been to a religious service, and how much I’ve forgiven people, and how much I have given to the poor; now, how many wishes do I get for this?”

What has happened? There has been a horrible dichotomy put into our minds. Largely because we live in a society which rewards work with money or monetary goods, we have separated act from natural reward. When you go to work and get paid money, that money is a work-value assigned arbitrarily by agreement, though in the midst of constant negotiation, within society, with a little input between you and your employer. The value of a certain job done for a certain amount of time changes depending on the month, the employer, the location, etc., even for the exact same work. This is no necessary connection between working in a recycling factory and receiving money; someone has to choose to give you that money.

Natural rewards are fundamentally different. Here’s an example: Psalm 1 is less a hymn, and more a meditation on Psalms, the entryway to the book of Psalms. It is considered Wisdom literature, much like the book of Proverbs, in which two distinct lifestyles are compared. The first three verses read, in prose form:

Blessed is the man who has not walked by the counsel of the wicked / and has not stood in the way of the sinful, / and has not sat in the gathering of scoffers. / But in the Lord’s Instruction is his delight / and in his Instruction will he muse by day and night. / So shall he be like a tree / transplanted by running waters, / which yields its fruit in its season / and its foliage shall not wither. / So, in all that he shall do, he shall prosper.

The wise man does not imitate the lifestyles of those who are evil. That makes sense. Then comes the great simile: He will be like a tree transplanted by streams of running waters. This means that unlike a tree planted where streams come and go (remember, the Psalms were written in a culture which knew both coast and desert), this tree is planted where water is always plentiful and nutrients continual. So what’s the result? He is rewarded. How? He is transformed by the way he lives.

C.S. Lewis explained it this way. Marriage is a natural reward of love. Enjoying very good Greek poetry is a natural reward of spending the life-hours learning Greek well.

The point is that, whereas arbitrary rewards leave us fundamentally the same (except for when we become greedy for them, which leaves us, in that case, worse), natural rewards leave us transformed automatically. What we get from serving God is not monetary rewards. We do not receive literal “crowns,” anymore than the invisible, immortal God is sitting on a literal “throne.” These are images meant to convey a reality beyond themselves.

The reward for doing good things is becoming a good person. A good person is not a two-dimensional concept, a person who simply does what he or she is told what to do and always asks politely. A good person is a person who is healthy, especially emotionally and spiritually, who is able to love even the most difficult, is faithful to friends, is willing to stand up for the oppressed, who seeks the Truth no matter the opposition, who engages his or her mind so that he or she can think clearly and communicate truths in helpful ways, who works diligently, can handle responsibility and power without abuse, is more concerned with others than with him or herself, et cetera, i.e. a good person is a person whose whole paradigm for how to live is centered on the love of God, a love beyond him or herself but which energizes and shapes every act and thought.

We don’t look up because above us is not what we think we want. We all fear doing things which leave us vulnerable, even vulnerable to a good change. Why is God concerned far more with natural reward than arbitrary rewards? Because God is concerned not with power structures or any possessions, but with transformative relationship. God wants people who love well; specifically, which love him with everything and love others more than themselves, the first being necessary to enable the latter.

God wants us to know him, not as an abstract fact, but as a person. That is the fundamental paradigm of Christian life: knowing God as a person, rather than a force. Relationships change people; good relationships make us better people, happier, wiser, more apt to care about what we and others are actually doing and learning rather than simply working perfunctorily; bad relationships make us worse people, people who are irritable, bored with our work, who do not understand the meaning behind caring about people or giving energy to learning.

Knowing God is the ultimate good relationship, but it is two-way. Our transformation necessitates our moving toward God: this means knowing more about God, but always as a means to know God more in a personal and transformative manner. Of course, all of this is predicated upon God revealing himself and having already moved toward and into us as a teacher, lover, and transformer.

So, as you go about your day: Look up. As you wash your dishes, as I am about to, or as you ask your children about their days at school, as you love your wife or husband, as you study physics, as you do your math problems, as you struggle through cancer or with loving your spouse through his or her cancer, as you work through a broken heart, as you feel life is simply turning into routine, or as you experience fulfilling joy for the first or thousandth time: Look up. Ask, “Why am I doing this? Is this changing me? Can I do it in a way that I not only put more in my head, but I become a better person through it? God, can you reorient my life to where these questions start to make sense?”

Please: Look up!