Archive for May, 2008

Aesthetics

Posted in Faith Experience on May 25, 2008 by RWZero

I began life in a little Baptist Church in Scarborough, where my dad was associate Pastor. We were gone by the time I was nine, but the experience of those formative years is engraved on my memory as if in stone, as if it were longer than all the time that’s passed since then.

In the first few years of life, a child can only conceive of what they see, touch, feel, see, and taste. This was the church where I was introduced to faith, before it was immaterial, or the least bit abstract. While I still sit in pews and gaze on cathedrals, they fade away against wandering thoughts, and my conceptions of God. But faith in those early years was an aesthetic experience, in a way that it only dimly is today.

Church was stained wood paneling, creaking pews under the sloping timber roof of the sanctuary, pea-green carpeting in narrow masonry hallways, flaking orange paint in the derelict basement stairwell and washroom, dust and the dim light of stained windowpanes…

Community was the echoing sounds of children’s games, the distinct sound of plastic batons clattering on the floor of the small concrete gym, the rattling of the cages protecting the fluorescent lights as they deflected basketballs, polystyrene foam cups and paper plates, chairs and tables made of thin plank wood and hollow metal legs.

Faith was closed eyes, pastoral prayers, choruses, old men in suits leafing through thick Bibles. Passages were enunciated with reverence, as if the words themselves were dry as the Middle Eastern desert, parched as if they themselves had died to the world and passed on to the next life. To this very day, I drink a good deal of water before opening a Bible, as the moisture in my throat seems to vanish even as I silently read it.

Many of us subconsciously regard Christian faith as immaterial. We act as if to relate to God and Christ is a spiritual thing, and the spiritual is unseen, at best. But Christianity is not Gnosticism, nor is it any other religion or philosophy that contrasts the divine with illusory reality—it finds the divine in a man.

Even those who claim to have experiences through a sixth spiritual sense cannot ignore the other five. We live out our lives, and our faith, through the senses.

What does this mean to us?

There’s a Japanese term that I recently discovered, which I got very excited about, because I’d always treasured this concept—the quality of Miryokuteki Hinshitsu. It is the second of two essential qualities (the first is that things should work) stating that things should have a pleasing aesthetic quality that lends itself to the function.

A pen, for example, should be designed not only to write well, but to produce a pleasant writing experience. We can design a pleasant writing experience by understanding what’s involved in the act of writing–the movement of the hand, the qualities of the ink, the feel of the pen itself. So, it’s aspects of the function that inspire the aesthetics.

The Christians who are responsible for all the stained wood, glass, and leather-bound books believe that these particular aesthetic features lend themselves to the function of worship and reverence. But what unseen qualities of the divine have inspired the aesthetics of our sensory faith experience? The answer varies, but I believe it’s important; it comments on how we perceive our relationship with God.

A U.S. Megachurch is a far cry from the cathedrals of Europe, and I believe there is a difference here that is more than chronological, and more than cultural. We still see it across many denominations today: even with shared beliefs in theology and practice, the designers’ conceptions of the divine were vastly different.

With the Old Testament laced with fire and brimstone tales prohibiting Israel from finding God in wood and stone, the Christian does not naturally take this idea very far. But there is much to be gained, not from finding God in these things, but in expressing ourselves in this way, and recognizing they are a medium through which we encounter God—the one most shaped by our conception of this encounter.

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What does my aesthetic experience mean to me personally?

I recognize, looking back, that my little Baptist church was a poor church. These aesthetics that took root in my mind are commonly associated with Baptist churches, the previous generation, poverty, and missions. The experience is triggered when I see churches with old, brown maps of the world on paper or in wood, and the little Africa Inland Mission building on Victoria Park that I pass every day on the bus.

Though it’s influenced by my childhood memories, I still find this everywhere I find the social gospel—in missionaries who’ve pitched tent in the third world, and among the poor. It still transcends the ordinary, redolent of a time before I was caught up in the world, and everything was valuable for its own sake. Good will, community, and hard work were not required to fit into a grand scheme of life… but I digress. That’s all part of another entry.

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In Light of Having Wandered

Posted in Faith Experience on May 11, 2008 by RWZero

A small, blue, old hardcover booklet sits wedged between the stationary on the top of my desk shelf. Its age is evident in the faint musty smell, the sewn binding, and double spacing after each full stop. It’s a piece of Lutheran Literature, entitled Hold Fast to Which Thou Hast!, presented to my maternal grandfather on his confirmation day, written in the book’s inscription page as May 28th, 1939.

The booklet’s purpose is admonition, encouragement, and warning for youth on occasion of their confirmation. It depicts a young wanderer as standing at the parting of ways, on the brink of engaging the world. In its opening chapter, it reminds the reader how fortunate and comfortable life has been thus far, culminating in a statement that still lingers in my memory:

“And this is by no means all. You were born of Christian parents in the midst of Christendom. You are no poor, miserable heathen child. […] What a wealth of grace from the Triune God is yours by virtue of your baptism!”

This language has fallen out of use, but the implication carries timeless offence. Others consider themselves neither poor, nor miserable, on account of lacking the Christian faith. If they did, they would accept it for this very reason. Indeed, those who have abandoned their old selves to enter faith seem the most genuine.

How can we who were born in the “midst of Christendom” ever understand the minds of the converted, or even those who do not believe? The experience of finding faith—of esteeming it higher than what we hold in our hands—is missing. We never left where we were to arrive at where we are.

I’ve said, at times, that I wish I were a converted atheist. In these moments, I perceived that what I now know as doubt and skepticism would have once been indulged as unbelief; and having rejected this unbelief that I once embraced, I would be as I am now, but with a sense of intellectual completeness that seems elusive.

Perhaps it isn’t the intellectual issue at all that drives me to think such things. In matters of reason, it’s assumed that reason stands alone. You do not pay special attention to people who believe 2+2=5, simply because you have never experienced their perspective; the truth of a logical statement is unencumbered by experience. Faith, however, comprises more than reason, and is necessarily so encumbered. It seems there is value in knowing you truly rejected everything you were, to become what you are.

Rather than discovering faith, we who were “born in the midst of Christendom” can only have this experience by discovering “lostness,” reaching out and touching the vacuum of faithlessness that was once untouchable. Is it necessary for us to have this experience? We hesitate. Few Christians would say so. But through themes of repentance, our faith undeniably treasures this principle. Only then can a wanderer authoritatively claim he saw relative “poorness and misery” in his circumstances, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, the father is not overjoyed at the son’s presence, for the son had begun there. In the father’s dialogue with the older brother, we see the father’s joy is exclusively because the son had returned, in light of having wandered.