Aesthetic Theology

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Theology and Aesthetics

What should 'Theology' be about? Augustine of Hippo defined the Latin equivalent, theologia, as "reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity", while the 16th c. English priest Richard Hooker defined it as "the science of things divine". Translated from the Greek word 'theologia' it is the study of the science of god (theos - god, logia/logos - sayings, wisdom or knowledge), i.e. what we know, or can know, about that entity which brought the universe and with it humanity into existence.

The Science of God. That indicates two important aspects. First we are talking about knowledge inherent within the created universe derived from any source, including cosmology and such scientific disciplines as maths and physics. Second is the 'God' aspect. In many ways 'God', an English word based on German, has become an all embracing and thus tainted word, carrying too much historical and cultural baggage.

I consider that every aspect of our spiritual existence should be both constantly evolving and aesthetic, open to new interpretations, yet producing a pleasing, i.e. truthful and interconnected view of life for every generation. For me, therefore, theology is an intriguing word because it demands principally the use of logic and reason. Yet ever since Paul, the early church fathers and the Roman Emperor Constantine there have been ever more concerted efforts to make it not an open ended study of the nature of God and his/her creation but formulae to support specific localised theories about Jesus and his mission based on Paul's unsubstantiated theories, and a well organised structure to give it voice, status and acceptability, notably obtained under Constantine.

One glaring example is Paul's theory of the fall of humanity, i.e. Adam being cast out of the garden of Eden. From this story he derives the idea that humanity became so alienated from God through this one primeval sin that it required the death of Jesus to pay for this original sin and to restore communication between God and humanity. If this were true then the Hebrew Bible is inaccurate. If there was alienation how did God lead Abraham around the Middle East, help Moses to take his band into Canaan, or gave them rules (the 10 commandments) and instructions for the Ark of the Covenant (which symbolised his dwelling place on earth). If there was this alienation did he really speak through the prophets? Here the 'science' (or knowledge) of the Hebrew Bible (which we mistakenly describe as the Old Testament) does not validate Paul's theory, i.e. it does not possess aesthetic acceptability.

Further, can theology be aesthetic within the realms of Christianity, i.e. an open ended and evolving inclusive view of what it is to be a spiritual human being? Here we face a classic example of the supremacy of culture over logic. Is it right, for example, that any religious body, which proclaims itself applicable to all humanity, can set rules so that only those who adhere to its entry rules are given the benefits of belonging to that organisation? Jesus never required Romans or Samaritans to give up their religions to enjoy the benefits he had to offer. I feel that the early history of Christianity, in its desire to become an accepted and widespread organisation under the Roman Emperor Constantine, fell prey to the demands of ordinary human behaviour in the Roman Empire of the 4th century and what it took to be accepted within that cultural environment. This it did by establishing a unique identity, complete with that badge of entry, baptism, to gain acceptance within the sophisticated and diverse population of the Roman Empire. It inevitably involved a complex mixture of growing away from the original ideal and power politics. This included the idea that whoever was in print first controlled the agenda (Paul never knew nor met Jesus yet his letters predate the gospels of those who followed him by years), the demands of authority for obedience in a growing church, pandering to the psychological need for simple certainties in life of new adherents while producing complexities of theology for the benefit of new adherents from more sophisticated cultures (the message of Jesus of love and reconciliation was too simplistic if it was to survive in the complex Roman Empire).

Put simply Christianity, first under Paul and then under the Emperor Constantine, attempted to 'grow up', to appeal to a wider non Jewish audience in order to establish its own identity and therefore survival by instituting left hemisphere rules of conduct easily applicable over a whole range of cultures and subject nations. To gain acceptance in the Roman Empire meant producing solutions which conformed to the accepted Roman ideal of hierarchical structures, laws and obedience. When Constantine forced Christianity, at the Council of Nicea in 322 CE, to agree on an organised system of belief this made the new faith acceptable to the elite and influential aristocracy of Rome, thus elevating Christianity from a religion of slaves into an organisation of acceptable conduct for all, reflected, e.g., in money which was pored into building new churches and establishing a Priesthood which became an acceptable, even desirable, occupation. In so doing the original holistic, right hemisphere and personal message of Jesus was subsumed into a complex system of belief and hierarchical control.

True, this enabled Christianity not only to survive but to expand throughout the whole empire. Yet the seeds were sown for establishing a religion like all the rest, perhaps more moral, but nevertheless demanding acceptance of rules and regulations of those in authority. Individual development and responsibility was not so much frowned upon as destroyed wherever found. So much for the concept of love and acceptance!

Ever since that time Christianity has been a province of the rich and powerful. Even so this has produced some remarkable buildings and organisations. I think of the great medieval cathedrals and churches and the numerous monastic organisations, both of which have contributed so much to our overall understanding of what it is to be both human and spiritual. Yet since the Reformation and Counter Reformation there has been a trend to downgrade the mystery and spiritual 'otherness' in Christianity, core aspects of aesthetics. The ensuing debate has been on power and authenticity, the authenticity of the priest and of the Bible to determine not only which is the 'one, true apostolic church' in control of the Holy Spirit, but also the authority of words taken from the Bible to determine the way of salvation for all humanity. Power, involving the need to control, and language are both constituent elements of narrow, left hemisphere thinking.

What, then, would be the difference if right hemisphere, or aesthetic thinking, held sway, and how could this be achieved particularly in Christianity? Starting with the second question, I feel that there should be a change in how priests are selected and trained. Above all, priests should be skilled in practising and teaching what Jesus did rather than what he, or anyone else in early Christianity, said. The core item is meditation and its offshoot, healing, the only way in which to express his first commandment, to love God with all your heart, mind and strength. So, what has love to do with aesthetics? Judah Abrabanel, an influential 16th century Jewish Renaissance philosopher (who influenced Spinoza through his work 'Dialoghi d'Amore') asserts that love strives towards the beautiful and the good. His concept of the Jewish love of God (remember, Jesus was a Jew) was supplemented with an aesthetic-religious view of the world. Thus, for him, love became an ontological and cosmic principle, a prime mover in the affairs of humanity. Love reflected the cognition of missing beauty in life, and thereby showed the desire to create beauty in line with that original beauty manifested in creation, i.e. a human response to the Divine concept of love.

There we have it. Love of God is not only an acceptance of God's love through what 'he' did for humanity but the need for a positive response demanding action in which beauty and truth are the core elements. Anyone who has ever managed to meditate will realise the justification for this view.

So Christianity must forget not so much about its creeds and doctrines but the prime position they occupy. They are useful documents charting the history and development of the faith but they have always represented a system of conformity and control, thereby limiting individual spiritual development in which a purely intellectual approach should play but a limited part. It is time to move on by concentrating on the core principle of communion with God, a highly individualist process in which the acknowledged disciplines from other religions, notably Buddhism, should play a part. Teaching should be the prime mover. One of the most often used titles for Jesus was, after all, that of 'teacher'. Any teacher, worth his or her salt, should teach not only freedom of knowledge but, by what they teach, encourage their pupils to reach higher standards and greater insights. Teaching people to be creative, to explore all aspects of what they are best at, what moves them onto a higher plane of communion with God, be it through music, art, architecture, sculpture, poetry, but with a principle core of meditation, these are the elements needed for Christianity to evolve in a society which is more egalitarian and globally aware of spirituality and the disciplines needed for its expressions than was ever the case when the creeds and doctrines were first formulated.

Jesus understood the problem (i.e. the developed rigid code of Moses and of Temple worship - similar to today's Christian doctrines), but transcended and evolved it into an appeal to the individual to develop his/her own approach. Christianity faces the same problems. It has achieved so much in the past through aesthetics in its buildings, music, art, and in social cohesion. It also knows the solutions to serving the needs of modern society. Is it strong, open and evolved enough, I wonder, to take the necessary steps?