Aesthetic Theology

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Aesthetics in Action

Aesthetics is, or should be, as much an implicit and necessary discipline of humanity as walking or language, both of which are regarded as essential for survival. Equally we cannot survive as complete human beings without learning and appreciating the basics of aesthetics, the original creative urge of the universe which flows through all things. When applied to Theology the need becomes very apparent. Christianity, in particular, has developed away from its roots into a theology for the salvation of humanity based on language and obedience to authority. Please note the global term 'humanity'. Christianity has become not so much concerned with the individual, but, through the death of Jesus on the cross, with world salvation, and one which it feels has been accomplished. All that is necessary for the individual to share in this is to believe in Jesus, to verbally repent of all sins, and to be baptised. A neat formula providing a neat conveyor belt solution which requires no demonstrable change of heart/mind or lifestyle, only an aspiration.

So, what is missing? Human endeavour for one thing. Jesus offered a global solution, yes, but it required individual action. It was both tailored to the individual and challenged him or her into developing right relationships, first with God and then with fellow humanity (the two great commandments of first love God and then all humanity which needed help). No good merely obeying the demands of the priests. He saw enough of that in the Temple sacrifices. Focusing as he did on illness he was challenging the individual to change lifestyle and attitude, which we now appreciate is the cause of many illnesses. He was, in effect, encouraging them to reconnect with their core being as entities needing an holistic, integrated physical, spiritual and emotional well being within an evolving creative universe. He was challenging their minds at all levels to produce this. The solution lay with them, not with the acceptance of some formula, or following set rituals. This he had found to be the problem with the orthodox Judaism of the time based as it was on the strict observance of set rituals and laws laid down in the first 5 books of the Bible, the Mosaic Law Code.

So how does this translate into our action? Strangely there is little we can do about the foundation of the process! Many of our attitudes, outlooks and likes are determined by our first 18 months of existence, 9 months in the womb and the first 9 months outside. It is known as womb-conditioning. Consequently any action must needs start with correct parenting. This is not rocket science yet I know of no branch in Christian Theology which even attempts to focus on this new understanding of birth.

The rest is simple, being creative, compassionate, inquiring, challenging even. Much can be gained by aesthetic practice. In the 18th century, for example, Schiller and the German romanticists regarded aesthetics as a means for social reconstruction and the collective improvement of society. This view was reinforced by a Unesco report in 2001 which drew attention to his view that aesthetic education promised 'social integration and cohesion, peace, justice, ethics, knowledge and truth.' This should still be the aim of education but which other global or non-controvertible subject can offer such possibilities. The later Arts and Crafts Movement of Ruskin and Morris advocated aesthetic and artistic practice 'as an end in itself, but also as a means of learning self-control through the artistic process of shaping materials', while art and music education were regarded as a 'means towards the reform of society at large'. The Unesco conferences of the 1950s 'emphasised the importance of aesthetic learning in terms of its emotional, cognitive, physical, and social effects.'

The modern public educational systems are being shaped more and more on the economic model of industrialism (i.e. concentration on left hemisphere subjects such as maths, engineering and science). This is now found to be failing society which is seeing ever greater unrest among those who cannot find employment because they have not been equipped for life. Modern cognitive studies are critical of this approach. According to UNESCO there seems to be an acceptance that aesthetics has a unique role in developing skills in science and technology through its development of spatial thinking, lateral thinking, creative problem-solving, pattern-recognition, cognition, concentration, perception, communication, and team work (most of which derive from the right hemisphere). In 2005 the Asian Vision for Art Education emphasised the multiple intelligences which derived from aesthetics - creative, perceptual and cognitive skills; aesthetic skills of harmony, balance, rhythm, proportionality and vitality, and a love for beauty; communication, teamwork and sharing skills.

Often, aesthetics is seen as a subject which is suited only to education rather than a lifelong learning skill. This seems to be a general malaise, and possibly contributes to the increasing risk of dementia with age. According to the Alzeimers Society there are some initial findings that those who lead healthy, active and knowledge-led lives decrease the possibility of the onset of this illness. Life should be evolutionary. There should be no time within our existence when we stop learning, being creative, being involved.

The problem comes when trying to apply aesthetics to Christian theology. Vatican II and John Paul II (in his 1999 letter to artists) reaffirmed the role of the arts in the whole life of the Church, and the Council stated that the clergy should be trained in the 'history and development of sacred art', though this seems to have had little impact. Meanwhile increasingly universities are offering religious courses with an aesthetic content, some accounts indicating that this is a result of the decline in church attendance and the need to make the subject more palatable and relevant. The problem with all these courses is that aesthetics are always subservient to theology, an addition either underpinning it, creating an emotional impact, or providing an extra dimension. Nowhere do I find an aesthetic look at the content of theology, e.g. questions surrounding the fall of Adam, the divinity of Jesus, the salvific nature of the resurrection, acceptance of the creeds, or baptising infants.

Churches need to wake up to the fact that excellence of presentation is the only psychological way to be relevant to the whole community. Small wonder it is that a recent survey indicated that with the decline of the church in Western Europe the intelligent middle classes were fulfilling their need for spiritual upliftment by increased visits to museums, art galleries and historic cathedrals. Here in the UK I perceive that the modern interpretation of a Christian service is built on inclusivity. Anything goes as long as people are involved. The sense of excellence has long departed. Meanwhile it is there, in the rest of life. People react positively only to professional, well-produced products, imaginative and well-informed media presentations, well-argued relevant debates, or solutions which they can work on for their own benefit. No wonder that the shelves of bookshops in the section on 'Religion' are filled, not with Bibles or the latest theological treatises, but with the latest self-help books on how to cure stress (THE greatest modern ailment), improve life-style, or be successful.

The parable of St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick. I was invited in 1979 to become organist and choirmaster of a great Irish Medieval cathedral with the 'order' to involve the young and make the Cathedral worship more relevant. At that time there was both an aging congregation and an ancient choir, all rather set in their ways (typical, in fact, of many a church in England!). Roman Catholics were virtually barred! It took me, and my wife Moira, some 10 years with the help of some of the most devoted (and orthodox) clergy I have known. One in particular, Dean George Chambers, deserves mention. The excellence of presentation of the liturgy, the harmonious blend of sight, sound and atmosphere remained paramount in our minds. Inevitably I had to start small - no Handel's Messiah, Mozart masses or the like - that came later. Simple stuff performed well gradually helped to attract the congregations. Gradually the choir was expanded to take in many youngsters who, despite no religious background, were curious. I introduced 'new' but atmospheric services, such as an Advent Carol Service according to the traditional Sarum rite, full of right hemisphere atmosphere of candles and excellent singing. By the end of the 10 years these services were oversubscribed with people, Protestant and Roman Catholic (some in the choir by now!), standing in every spare place in the cathedral, and it enabled us to go on and raise £2.8m for the much needed restoration. When we left I gave the choristers the choice of music for our farewell service. Without exception they chose Renaissance music because that was their greatest love and that which spoke to them the most.

What I am saying is that there is nothing wrong with traditional Christianity. It is all to do with presentation, inclusive appeal and involvement, imagination, education and an aesthetic evaluation of what appeals to the spiritual needs of people to move them onto a higher plane of being. A sense of striving for excellence must, however, remain paramount.