Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Contemplations in Theology: #2

For all my life, I have struggled with my personal faith. I am a rationalist in almost every respect; my mind operates on words, definitions, and discrete thoughts. I think about God; I certainly believed in God. But I did not "experience" God, in the same way that others did; I could not "feel" the Holy Spirit. My faith was rational, not experiential. I was immensely jealous of those who could experience God's presence--perhaps it was a sin, I know not. My desire to feel God led me to a spiritual crisis about two years ago, and it hurt me to my core. I started to question my faith, because I did not relate to how most Christians (and almost all mature Christians who I respected) experienced God. I was insecure in my faith, and it hurt.

Two summers ago, I was reading some books by C.S. Lewis, and I was struck by a thought, an idea--I'll write about that idea in a future post--that drove me wild with Joy. I use that term deliberately, for I had been reading Lewis's spiritual autobiography, "Surprised by Joy." Lewis had related how, as a young child, he had been visited by this sensation of Joy--notably through the vision of a cold northern landscape--which drove him wild with desire for something. He later identified Joy as the fundamental desire for God. I actually disagree with his definition. Joy is not the sensation, but the thing itself: the sight through the glass darkly, past the veil, in the shadows, of God smiling at me--an obscured glimpse of God finding Joy in me.

The concept of Joy is an important one, for more reasons than this. However, to realize that the Joy I felt was an experience of God... how to describe it? I had felt God's presence! Moreover--and here is the crucial aspect as it relates to my argument in these notes--I had felt God's presence not through prayer, not as a distinctly spiritual experience, but in the context of reason. My thoughts had given me Joy.

This is the phenomenon I call "The Aesthetics of Reason." I believe that the contemplation of a truly sublime and profound idea gives the same visceral aesthetic feeling, as experiencing the beauties of Nature, or standing before the majesty of God. Reason, taken in its highest sense, is an aesthetic experience.

The contemplation of God draws me closer to the presence of God.

Why would this be? How could this be? This argument seems to fly in the face of the rather central concept of philosophy and psychology--the mind-body dualism. Experience operates on the sensations; reason operates on the mind. The one is subjective, the other objective. The one is physical, the other immaterial. How can we equate them? Yet I believe we may.

I believe the God of reason is the same God of faith and experience. I believe the God of lights is also the God of mysteries. I believe the God of John 1 ("In the beginning was the Word...") is the same God of 1 John ("What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands..."). Praise be to Him!

There is one last thing which I wish to mention. This concept of the "aesthetics of reason" was a tremendously encouraging one: it was a Joy and a relief. But it is also tremendously practical. Several weeks ago, I was engaged in discussion with several college friends discussing medieval cosmology--the subject of a future note. The conversation lasted about three hours; the last hour of our discussion was almost solely focused on explaining a particular paradox which arose from our earlier discussion. We tossed around a number of ideas, any of which would explain the paradox. However, these did not satisfy; they merely fit, they were useful. At last we hit upon one that gave us those divine goosebumps, an aesthetic sensation of Joy, the feeling that we had hit upon something at the core of who God is. It was this last one that we decided was 'right'--though there was little logical difference between any of these ideas, the last one manifested the aesthetics of reason.

It sounds almost perverse, but we used aesthetic experiences (necessarily subjective) as proof for an objectively rational construct of Truth. It reminded me of John Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Reason is not independent, but is integrated into, our experience of God.

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