At the basis of humanity’s engagement with religion is humanity’s experience of God. It may seem an absurdly simple observation. It describes the plain fact that an aesthetic experience of God is determinative of a people’s or a person’s relationship with God. Yet, it is, I suggest a powerful insight. It indicates that for all the attempts at rational proofs for God’s existence, an endeavor stimulated by the intellectual and philosophical developments that characterize the period in western history known as the Enlightenment, are not determinatively persuasive on their own.
Western culture, of which our own is a part, overtly claims to assign definitive authority to rational thought and intellectual reason; however, in practice the collective culture can be found rather superstitiously idolizing the systems and the persons upon whom it projects its cultural valuations of reason and rational thought. In a sense, professors, physicians, and attorneys are the modern era’s shaman, wizards, and priests. Envy does not lie at the root of this observation; rather inspiration does.
I first happened across an intellectual assent to aesthetics when I was in fact quite enjoying my intellectual pursuits during my university years. My favorite philosopher remains a pillar of the early development of the European Enlightenment period: Immanuel Kant. One his final works, certainly his final significant one, The Critique of Judgment, is a powerful intellectual analysis of that which exceeds rational thought and reason: aesthetics. Kant’s use of the word ‘judgment’ refers to human judgment of the beautiful, the moral good, the ethical right. This analysis is the least read and the most difficult to appreciate of all of Kant’s works. To find that his previous works led to this highly intellectual description of the inability of rationalism and reason to account fully for humanity’s ethical, moral, and religious progress can disappoint pre-conceptions of Kant as an icon and progenitor of rationalism.
To the contrary, though, I encourage our inspiration, if not from reading Kant, then at least from the insight that his thought and work affirm; namely: that we really do encounter God most immediately in our aesthetic sense of things. When we experience an intellectual appreciation for God and for our Christian religion, it is our aesthetic experience that leads, and our intellect that follows and supports. For one, I genuinely get excited when I encounter a sound intellectual expression of theology. I read it and my experience of it is every bit as aesthetically rich and moving as listening to a Bach concerto. I love them both, and for all their differences, my personal experience of each is much the same.
As a people, we Episcopalians have an historical and collective experience of God that incorporates the virtues of intellectual inquiry and insight. Just as well as the more purely aesthetically gratifying elements such as the rich musical tradition and the liturgical rite and ceremony, we ‘love’ the intellectually satisfying aspects of our Church, of its expression of human relationship with God.
The vacation from which I’ve just returned along with my family helped to put me in touch with the beauty of the natural environment, and the beautiful experience of being present in and to the moment. Apart from immediate responsibilities for the day-to-day and week-to-week vitality of our community here at ECR, I indulged myself in the experience of the aesthetic aspects of my relationship with God and of God’s relationship with all of us. It was refreshing and I want to sustain this renewed appreciation for the aesthetic quality of our collective relationship with God here at ECR.
We have a profoundly important project unfolding before us with an increasing pace. We are, rightly so, experiencing an urgency about it, as well. Quite objectively dispassionately, we can only accept and not deny the proposition that updating and improving access to ECR’s campus and community is both our Christian responsibility and our call from God. And if we were somehow to choose not to do so, we would both deny our vocation and ensure the demise of this community and this institution. However, we do not approach this project and these responsibilities without passion.
Quite to the contrary, as I return from vacation I find people excited, energized, eager to move forward. There is a collective sense of the ‘rightness,’ dare I say ‘righteousness,’ of our efforts. We have been many years in prayer and discernment that have inspired us and in fellowship with one another that has delighted us as we have gained a clarity of mind about the ‘right’ way ahead.
Follow the joy. With great respect for Prof. Kant, and a great love of sorts for his writing, maybe it is properly summed up in this simple phrase. Follow the joy. It’s not about seeking what pleases us; joy is different from mere pleasure. Joy has a holiness about it that pleasure does not. There is joy moving through ECR; it has been a defining characteristic of this community as long as I have known ECR. And it continues to move through this current effort. This is why I am confident that our efforts continue to be born of our relationship with God. This is why I know that the material results of our efforts, prayers, and fellowship around this project will be vessels of the experience of this same joy, both for us and for those who will comprise this community in the future.
We will continue to be, and they will become, a people who follow the joy and find here a relationship and experience with God.
God’s Peace, Jim +