Aesthetics

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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4 Responses to “Aesthetics”

  1. It is true that faith does start out as an aesthetic experience at a young age, but I can’t seem to think of a way for churches to make it anything else. What could they possibly do to actually convey the meaning of true faith to children? I feel as though I need that sort of guidance even at this age.

  2. Oh, I didn’t mean that there was anything wrong with that. I only wrote about my experience as a kid because that’s when I most noticed these details–and as I’ve written here, I think there’s some true meaning of faith amongst the details.

  3. “a child can only conceive of what they see, touch, feel, see, and taste”

    no, silly, children have the ability to believe anything their imagination, their fears, or their hearts desire. they trust in things without understanding them. you can’t say that our sense of things spiritual is simply congnitive, and since we can’t comprehend the abstract as a child we cannot know God. you may have felt like church was just a building way back when, and attribute that to not being able to understand faith, but there are kids with faith. It’s easy to look skeptically at the “I’ve been a Christian since I was three” stories (I speak from experience), but Jesus knew some “faith like a child” children, apparently.

    unless you’re referring literally to the first few years of life, 0 – 3, which is a time I don’t think we can definitely say much about at all. I assumed you meant a little older, though, since the following was about being instructed on stuff.

    I enjoyed the italics immensely. That’s weird but cool about the drinking thing.

    Christianity is heart, mind, body, spirit. Kids have little hearts, minds, bodies, and … I can’t vouch for the size of their spirits… but… somehow Jesus saw in them faith enough to get into the Kingdom.

  4. “unless you’re referring literally to the first few years of life”

    Well I did say “the first few years of life,” didn’t I? 😉 So yes.

    My point in the first half of this, was that faith has a sensory aspect that we’re much more attuned to as children–partially because our higher conceptions are in development. As I posted above, I didn’t mean anything negative by it, in fact quite the contrary.

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