“One good thing about music—when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

 – Bob Marley

 

In a previous blog post, Edward A. Gutiérrez outlined Lonergan’s work on civilization’s cycle of progress, decline and renewal. He rightly concluded that we are collectively in the midst of decline in the West, which has aptly been predicted by notable historians and social scientists, such as Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, and Jane Jacobs. Jacobs, in particular, wrote convincingly about the decline of the West and the North American way of life. In Dark Age Ahead, she provides a carefully crafted and compelling warning that Western culture faces a dead-end due to a number of societal units that are in deterioration: the health of communities, the transformation of education into credentialing, historical amnesia, the lack of commitment to the common good, and others. The book concludes with an observation that cannot be discounted: societies that managed to avert complete decline in history are those that fiercely protected their culture regardless of how close they come to complete decline.

In this statement, the word ‘culture’ gives us a stark clue to help us fight the growing toxicity of our society.

Any discussion about the importance of a particular culture must include the indisputable value of the aesthetic for the human life. Ever evolving, the aesthetic object represents the best (and worst) of human living at any point of human history, be it music, visual art, literature or dance. Indeed, even the most primitive of societies expressed their culture through the medium of visual art and music. But what does this have to do with combatting the suffering and despair that surround us each day? A lot, it would seem. Referencing ‘culture’ also leads us into another of Lonergan’s passions: art.

In the midst of the increasing violence and fragility of our 21st-century society, many of us rightly ask, where is God?  Like most Christians, I believe that God lives with us in and through this suffering. He reveals his presence also through scripture, tradition and religious sacraments. But I would contend that he does so very deliberately through art, music and other aesthetic objects.

Perhaps when we are attentive to God’s self-revelation in music, art, dance and the beauty of the natural world, the human experience of the aesthetic can bridge the distance between our fixations of human living and the divine revelation surrounding us that we so often overlook. Indeed, the human experience of the aesthetic has the potential to move us radically closer to a fuller experience of the religious and transcendent freely given to us through God’s gift of grace.

When we experience an aesthetic object (say, listening to Mozart’s Requiem or being transfixed by Michelangelo’s Pieta), we decisively choose to participate. I could be deeply moved by the most spectacular sunset, or I can choose instead to check out the latest Tweet on my phone. Decision leads to participation. Participation indicates that one is open to new meaning and the possibility of being transcended, of being changed by the experience.

Also, when in this mode of experience, Lonergan argues that we are removed from the instrumentality of our daily lives, including the banter, suffering and oppression. Note this is not to ignore it, but to be removed from it. The aesthetic pattern of experience is not prescribed; there is no formula or series of pre-programmed steps to follow. “There is an exploring, a search, a discovery, but not a defining[1].” But there is the very real potential that when returned to the instrumentality of daily living, we see it with a clearer vision.

Finally, Lonergan writes that the aesthetic experience has the potential to give a gift of personal transcendence, precisely due to the unrestricted meaning one can derive from it. Here, meaning is unmediated and unique to the subject. And if the object and its meaning carries forward divinely created revelation, the potential for healing and grace is unbounded, directing our clearer vision.

When we choose to experience the beautiful and the transcendent, most especially in times where we are between progress and decline, we are reminded that God is with us among that which is not so beautiful, and walking with us through the surd of our times. And when we consciously choose to encounter divine revelation in the aesthetic, he perpetually offers to guide us through the darkness.

In addition to some of your own favourite divinely inspired art, check these out for a bit of transcendence:

“Almost Heaven” by Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon

Sculptures by Timothy Schmalz

Jesus Walks, by Kanye West (version 2)

 

 

 

[1] Gerard Walmsley, Lonergan on Philosophic Pluralism: The Polymorphism of Consciousness as the Key to Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008) 114.