The Beauty Dialogues, Part 4

Painting of Socrates standing in the center of a nondescript area, with his arm raised. He is lecturing to a crowd of men who are gathered around him, some lounging, others standing, but all looking towards Socrates in the center of the circle. They are wearing togas. The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

I’m enjoying this conversation but at times I worry that you’re playing Glaucon to my Socrates. In other words, just egging the “master” on. I want to be sure you’re not just tossing up softballs for me to take a swing at. You’re a professionally trained philosopher; I’ve never taken a philosophy class in my life. So don’t hesitate to take a real swing…at me!

Now I don’t want to bog the conversation down in quibbles but I worry that semantic differences and definitions may be getting in the way. You’re getting at this when you accuse me of doing a “bait and switch” in defining beauty—messing with the “registers.”

My point about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene was that the work of art can take what is ugly—a ragged, gaunt, old woman—and transform that ugliness into a form of beauty—a simultaneous perception of spiritual beauty inhering in outward brokenness. [Read more…]

God’s Acquaintances

Image of unfocused people in the midst of soft light from unseen windows inside a beautiful cathedral. They say God won’t let you go under; but it seems he will let your hair get pretty wet.

Most trials, if they’re worthy of the name, don’t let you get away without a good scare, maybe even a rent garment and some scratches, if not scars. The less lucky might have to surrender more. Cries for help may be answered, but instantaneous, immediate resolution is admittedly rare. I think most would concede that. The difference in people is how they handle such things; some can march on while singing hymns; others curse like all get out through their turmoil.

The comforts of spiritual sustenance alone are hard for some, among whom I number, as we are the class not given to feeling anything particular at such times, though we believe we are being sustained in a ghostly fashion. My faith is more of an intellectual assent; I am convinced of it, but it does not really make me feel better for that fact.

I know what I believe because of what I do, not because of what I sense. Habit is my testament. I’m not even sure if feelings are honest indicators much of the time. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 2

Maddalena_di_Donatello_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n03The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

Thanks for throwing down this particular gauntlet. Yes, we adopted Dostoevsky’s phrase from The Idiot, where one of the characters attributes the saying “beauty will save the world” to the eponymous hero of the novel, Prince Myshkin.

I’m well aware that any slogan or mantra can quickly become a stand-in for real thought, for Jacob-and-the-angel wrestling with difficult, complex subjects. Neither I nor the extended Image community is immune from that sort of danger.

We acknowledged that a while back when we published an entire symposium on the topic of “The Word-Soaked World: Troubling the Lexicon of Faith” in issue #75. The purpose there was to interrogate and “trouble” frequently invoked terms (art, faith, mystery!) that had become anodyne through thoughtlessness and over-usage.

And just for the benefit of readers wanting to pursue these issues further, I would point out that I’ve dealt with some of your challenges in essays like “The Wound of Beauty” and “The Tragic Sense of Life.”

Given the large amount of historical baggage attached to the word beauty, it is never going to be a word that we can use without qualms and qualifications. That’s why T.S. Eliot once wrote:

We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 1

bwstw sticker winterToday Morgan Meis continues his periodic exchanges with Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

 Dear Greg,

When we first started our conversation (see posts here, here and here for background), I thought we were having a debate about the declining relevance of religious intellectuals in today’s public realm. But that’s not what it was really about. At its heart, this conversation has always been about beauty.

So, I think we should get right to that, to beauty. I don’t know the story of how “Beauty Will Save the World” became a motto for Image Journal and for The Glen. I’m assuming it is a reference to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

I think I remember reading somewhere, in one of your essays (but I forget which one) how you’d come across the idea of beauty saving the world through Solzhenitsyn. Was it from Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize Lecture? In the lecture, Solzhenitsyn says:

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world.” What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes—but whom has it saved?

The next sentence in the lecture reads as follows:

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.

Is that what you were getting at? Is that how beauty will save the world? Are we after a “peculiarity in the status of art” by which it becomes “irrefutable?” I’m curious as to how you would define that peculiarity, where it comes from and what it means. [Read more…]

Making Contact: A Christian-Atheist Friendship, Part 2

shadow-friends-by-monika-on-flickrAn introduction: Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, two young women made contact. Jen and I shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. I was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild, and she was scary sexy cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands I couldn’t pronounce. Only in the past few years have we developed a deeper relationship, sharing our lives with one another on Facebook.

Recently, during an intense chat about religion, science, and philosophy, Jen told me that the movie Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith—is the key to understanding her spiritual struggles.

Maybe we can write something about it together, she said, comparing our points of view as a Christian and an atheist. Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Yesterday’s post featured Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme. Today I respond.

Jen,

If someone told me thirty years ago that one day I’d be writing you a letter about God, a letter that virtually anyone in the world could access on a pocket-sized screen with the click of a button, I would have called it science fiction.

And today, as we write to one another about aliens, science, and spaceships—the stuff of Contact—I realize how quickly those thirty years have gone. [Read more…]