Monday, 1 February 2016

What Hope for the West?

My recent series on aesthetics has cast fairly damning judgements on many aspects of modern Western life. The question may be asked as to what hope, if any, I see for the West becoming thoroughly Christian in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as it was much closer to being in centuries past. God will always save at least some Westerners, of course, but I only see two options for a complete Christian revival at every level - materially, politically, economically and spiritually:

1) Jesus will return and bring in His New Creation once and for all, casting out all that is false, wrong, and ugly. This is something that, in faith, I believe will certainly happen, and so there is much hope and optimism for the long term.

2) If the West is to become thoroughly Christian in this present age, I can't see any alternative but for a cataclysmic destruction of Western society at every level, primarily through the complete destruction of modern industry and technology through resource depletion, leading to the end of unified nation-states and a return to an agrarian culture. This would bring much death and suffering, of course, but, if God wills, out of the rubble Westerners may return to the God who has judged them for turning their back on Him and embracing evil. A return to the Truth, Goodness and Beauty that our ancestors witnessed to may result, and a Christian nation once more emerge.

Falsehood, evil and ugliness are too ingrained into Western politics, economics, architecture and mass media for it to be reformed completely - nothing but complete destruction and a fresh start can bring a thoroughly Christian culture to the West once again.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Canonical Interpretation

If the Bible is trusted as highly as possible, each individual portion of it should be interpreted canonically. Even if two passages present conceptual antitheses, from the perspective of this faith, these should be melded into a synthesis. If the contradiction is at the level of real time fact - for instance, the differing numbers between Kings and Chronicles - it may be trusted that the truth the synthesis of traditions will communicate is not meant to be at the factual level, but rather the conceptual.

To do otherwise - to choose one passage's truth claims over another - is to make our trust in an authority external to the Bible higher than our trust in the Bible itself, and to therefore fail to place the highest trust in the Bible as a canonical collection that contextualizes and clarifies its own contents. 

Historical and Imaginative Truth in the Bible

What kinds of narratives does the Bible present us with? Are they factual, or are they fictional - or somewhere in between? And if there are fictional elements of some narratives, does this discount their truth value or authority?

It must not be assumed that a fictional event has not truly taken place, for it has - in the imagination. We are familiar with this concept through the use of metaphors, reading novels and hearing stories: we do not describe these as lies despite the absence of a disclaimer that declares them to be fictional. And more than that, we consider works of the imagination to be 'true' insofar as they accurately reflect and comment upon reality. A fictional work that can't be related to reality in any way whatsoever is of little interest - except for negative criticism, perhaps.

By and large, the Bible does not specify whether its narratives take place in the real world or in an imagined one. If it is to be trusted to speak truth about reality, then its narratives must have some basis in historical experience. But the possibility of imaginative elements being present can't be discounted, as these are able to speak truth about reality as well.

For those seeking to trust the Bible as highly as possible, therefore, the most humble and faithful hypothesis is that many of the Bible's narratives contain a mixture of real-time truth and imaginative truth, the quantity of each varying from story to story and never precisely or even roughly measurable. The Bible can be trusted to be more specific when necessary, such as in the prologue of St. Luke's gospel, where the author is at pains to emphasize that the events reported - including the miracles and physical resurrection - should be read as eyewitness accounts whose reality we can be certain of. But believers need not be disconcerted by the idea that in much Biblical narrative, particularly in the Old Testament, imaginative truths may be present that help us to see ultimate truths about reality more clearly and powerfully than otherwise.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Reasons for Belief

Where comes the motivation to trust and hope in the Bible and the God it portrays? To make a commitment of ultimate trust in them?

Not from the hope that this is what we should do, as it's possible to believe that there's nothing we 'should' do - so where comes the motivation for hoping there's something we 'should' do?

The motivation to trust and hope in the Bible and God, therefore, is a mystery at the level of the choice. It is only after the choice to trust and hope has been taken that it can be trusted that God made the choice possible in the first place.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Aesthetics of Providence

Those who seek to place ultimate trust in God will often end up trusting in His exhaustive providence - that He has fore-ordained all events to take place. The problem of God fore-ordaining evil and suffering is usually explained in terms of His two wills: His decretive will - what He wishes to take place, which will always happen - and His moral will - what He wishes to take place morally and doesn't always happen.

This bifurcation does seem to be reflected in Holy Scripture. But it is unsatisfying insofar as it fails to give any hint as to why God would fore-ordain evil actions or thoughts carried out by others in the first place. For obvious reasons, I distrust anyone who can reel out the idea of the two wills flatly without trembling or falling into solemn silence.

Some therefore go on to offer possible explanations. Some would suggest that God fore-ordaining evil and suffering is somehow necessary to a Christian's salvation - our suffering refines our faith, and our knowledge of the many who will be damned makes us swear allegiance to our Saviour more fervently.

I find this unconvincing. The effects of suffering and evil do indeed produce beneficial effects in believers, but it's hard to say they are necessary for the good of believers. God could, after all, have fore-ordained no fall and no evil, but instant obedience, maturity and bliss. We would not have felt that we'd 'missed out' on the chance to grow through suffering, if we were in an instantly perfect world.

Some would suggest the answer lies in terms of God's glory - that His punishment of evil brings Him more glory, so He has fore-ordained its existence for this purpose. But it is hard, logically, to see how this brings Him quantitatively(?) 'more' glory than if He'd ordained an evil-free world from the start.

The only comprehensible answer we can know, I think, is that God has ordained every detail of this world because it has a particular and unique aesthetic impact that an always-perfect world would not have. The salvation of the few, the damnation of the many - the horror of sin, the wonder of God's mercy - the agony of the cross and the glory of the resurrection: these contrasts hold a unique and awe-inspiring poetry and drama very different from that of a world absent of sin and suffering. God has fore-ordained these qualities precisely for this aesthetic impact, an activity He has the perfect right to carry out as the arbiter of all reality and values.

Still, it might be said - why would He choose this aesthetic over another? He would have to choose some aesthetic for a created world - but what would motivate Him to choose this one in particular?

It is here that, alongside Job, great mystery - perhaps forever impenetrable - must be acknowledged. But by considering the conundrum of providence in aesthetic terms, rather than logical or utilitarian categories, some sense - some reason - for God fore-ordaining a world of extreme beauty and extreme tragedy can be provided, without sacrificing the mystery at the heart of God's being.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Ecclesiological Aesthetics

This post follows on from my thoughts here and here.

The Church in the West finds itself in a difficult place. Our society is so saturated with unnatural ugliness that most have grown to like and even revel in some or all of this ugliness. Such an attitude has infiltrated the church itself, and so for Christians to be effective witnesses to Beauty much reform is needed. Thankfully, forgiveness is always possible because of Christ's death and resurrection, and so, at an individual level at least, some things can be done.

  • It is clear that, in terms of procreative sexuality, the church is largely no different from the world, even among more conservative congregations. In Britain, many Christian couples have the national average of two children: the fact that this is only enough to replace the parents, and not fulfill God's commandment to 'multiply' speaks of the church's participation in this suicidal and consumerised aspect of our wider culture. A similar aesthetic in consequential appearance, to greater and lesser degrees, is readily observable. A new attitude to children and the natural use of sex is desperately needed if conservative churches' teaching against deviant sexualities is not to be toothless.

  • Politically, the church in the West has largely accepted prevailing political and economic structures. Church-goers are encouraged to participate in the ugly system of democracy to give their allegiance to anti-Christian parties. A new vision of true societal change only coming about through the True, Good and Beautiful message of the gospel is needed to counteract this fraternising with Babylonic powers.

  • If truth, goodness, and beauty are truly inseparable, then church buildings and services must not separate them. This will be challenging in different ways for different denominations: for many Anglican churches, whose inherited buildings and (historic) liturgy are truly Beautiful, the Truth and Goodness of their founding traditions is often ignored, twisted, or openly denied. The challenge here is for Truth and Goodness to be proclaimed in the face of what may be stiff opposition from church members, church hierarchy, and the general public. But there is still some modern ugliness has crept in, such as the use of computer-projected slides for notices or needless sermon illustrations that clash horribly with the beautiful surroundings. A return to the more beautiful - and True and Good - liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer is well called for as well.

  • For non-conformist churches, aesthetic change is much more difficult. Any attempt to add natural design to modern buildings will be impossible if they're rented, or incongruous without complete demolition and reconstruction. However, some simple things could be done to witness to Beauty: computer projection could be abolished, with a return to songbooks or psalm-singing. A 'space' at the front could be created, with a well-crafted lectern and communion table and a couple of flower stands. Such might seem an unnecessary expense, but if a church is willing to spend large sums of money on sound equipment and projection technology, it should be prepared to purchase things for the sake of Beauty. In fact, getting rid of all sound equipment altogether would be advantageous, avoiding the whistling of microphone problems that blight many services and removing another layer of technological mediation that intrudes upon the service. Finally, electric lights could be used sparingly, with candle-lit lanterns placed around the front if needed. The point of such suggestions is not to turn non-conformists into Anglicans, but to suggest ways they can express true Beauty in worship rather than the ugliness of modernity, and so more fully express the Beauty of God's better reality.

It must be recognised that we will unavoidably have to make use of much ugliness for practical purposes. As long as those purposes are good, we are not guilty of sin - but the presence of the ugliness we have had to use is still something to be lamented and limited, its transformation into the Beauty of the New Creation to be fervently hoped for. 

Political and Economic Aesthetics

This post follows on from my thoughts here.

It is instructive to consider the imagery that different economic and political arrangements call up in the mind. In this way, systems in service to evil can also be seen to be ugly, while those in service to the Good can be seen to be beautiful.

Both communism and free-market capitalism, for example, are bad because the systems themselves are not for the purpose of the Good in seeking to glorify God through man's work, but only exist for the creation and distribution of material goods and wealth. They therefore bring to mind ugly imagery of blind machinery inseparable from their status as bad systems - a judgement applying to the general bureaucracy of modern society as well.

In a similar way democracy serves no Good purpose in and of itself, as a system existing only for a valueless concept of (illusory) liberty and choice. It therefore brings up similar imagery to communism and capitalism - although perhaps that of an altogether more cunning machine.

(In this way modern work is also revealed to be machine-like, not having grown out of natural necessity (i.e. subsistence farming) or family tradition, but instead coming from conformity to an external system which uses individuals as fuel for its purposes. The nature of such work, usually undertaken in utilitarian offices through the constant use of a computer, is ugly, and it often serves uglifying or bad purposes even when the work is more 'creative' or 'engaging.')

An absolute monarchy or league of judges bound to divinely-revealed law, on the other hand, is explicitly in service to the Good of seeking God's glory, and therefore calls to mind life-giving imagery, such as the trunk of a flowering tree.

Of course, with an evil monarch or judge in power, good forms of government may be used for evil. But because the system itself is Good, it has the possibility of being Good, in comparison to the necessary evil of systems which do not seek the Good.