Thursday, April 24, 2014

Saved by beauty




Dostoevsky confessed to his journal that it was 'beauty that would save the world' (and had Prince Myshkin in 'The Idiot' pronounce likewise). But what did he mean?

In part, he meant that in recognising that the world is a gifted creation, holy and beautiful, we would be reminded that we too are gifted into being, and fashioned as 'icons' of God.

Nature is the book in which we read God's presence and respond in worship, transformation, and care (to paraphrase St Anthony the Great).

Bruce Foltz in his 'The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible' explores this theme with lucid intelligence. If we are to 'save the world' (and ourselves for the Creation is one), we cannot rely simply on either 'ethics' or 'pragmatism'. We must learn to see, dwell in and love the world's beauty and see its disordering as a 'dis-graceful' enactment of our failure to be truly human.

We find the resources to explore this way of seeing and being in Orthodox Christianity (in which Dostoevsky dwelt) that, unlike Western Christianity, has systematically valued the Creation as our dwelling place and home, whose transfiguration is an integral part of our own redemption. It is a world that can be seen aright, now, as paradise, if we are led to step out of our 'half-tied vision of things', our 'doors of perception are cleansed' and we come to see with purity of heart.

This is beautifully evoked in a passage from St Isaac of Syria, a passage Dostoevsky treasured, and which Foltz quotes several times.

"An elder was asked, 'What is a compassionate heart?' He replied:

'It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person's eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.'"

What is compelling about Foltz book is that he brings this tradition into dialogue not only with Western Christianity but with environmental philosophy and the tradition of nature writing (represented by Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry etc...) in ways that are deeply fruitful, untangling knots, correcting errors, salving dilemmas; and, deepening ways of seeing.

He shows how it allows us to see that the world as a place that dwells in God and through which God can be seen without ever sacrificing the transcendence of God, of a reality that always leads us deeper, that allows us to see the world as icon but never as idol.

But, essentially, it allows us to begin to reclaim a language about 'beauty' that is objective and that we sense in our hearts is a truth bearer. It recognises that the first place in which 'aesthetics' is born is in our natural home, the world, before it is applied to 'art', and that far from being a little populated sub-branch of philosophy, it is a way of seeing and thinking that is at the heart of things.

A recovery of which may just save the world.

"The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars... Aloysha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages."

The Brothers Karamazov: Dostoevsky.

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