Ugly: Part 2, Spirituality as aesthetics

It is one of the most puzzling facts of life that intelligent people can so often disagree on important issues.

For instance, I think there are great minds who are Democrats and who are Republicans. And the issues dividing them will not boil down to either IQ or quality of argument. In spite of intelligence and sound reasoning differences and disagreements will persist.

Having reflected on these kinds of disagreements I've reached the tentative conclusion that much of life simply boils down to aesthetics. We find ourselves attracted and drawn to some things while being repelled and revolted by other things.

Let me apply this formulation to some religious and theological cases.

i. Liturgy.
I have some good friends, raised as Protestants, who find the Catholic mass to be ugly. The candles, the incense, the robes, the ritual. It just strikes them as baroque and overwrought. As so much silly and superstitious filigree. Smells and bells.

Yet I find the mass beautiful, profound and moving.

Like with politics, the difference between my friends and I isn't a difference of IQ or sound theology. Further, no amount of argument is going to change these felt experiences. The issue is one of aesthetics. They don't like it, I do, and that's about where is going to stay.

ii. Sin Judgments.
From smoking to homosexuality to abortion to saving the rain forests, people know the rightness or wrongness of these issues before any argument begins. Moral wrongness is felt in the bones. And if you don't feel it, little can make you get worked up about it. When people are arguing about homosexuality they are, at root, sharing their aesthetic judgments. Some find it ugly and repugnant and others do not. Again, the IQs of the conversation partners are not the issue. They are simply discovering that their felt judgments, their aesthetics, are incommensurate.

iii. Theology and hermeneutics.
We all feel that the bible, theology and religion can be used in ugly or beautiful ways. We are drawn to the theologians or preachers who play the melodies we like. And at the end of the day, despite all the arguments I can deploy, I don't think I can claim my biblical or theological positions to be the Truth. All the verbal pyrotechnics of theological, religious, and biblical disputation is simply the expression of this simple formula: I am attracted to this kind of God and repelled by that kind of God.

This model of aesthetics has also come to color my view of human volition and agency. Specifically, I don't see humans making choices that create their selfhood (i.e., my choice creates who I am). Rather, I see human choice as an act of self-expression. More properly, there is no choice, only self-expression. To choose is to express, to reveal, to discover, and to declare. Given this perspective, each moment of life is an aesthetic experience: What am I drawn to right now? We don't create a life, we don't choose a life. We express one.

Now the issue will quickly be raised, if choice is non-existant and simply the final stage of self-expression, can I change who I am?

My answer is this: Yes, but it is very hard to change.

If life is an act of aesthetic judgment then changing oneself becomes a very deep challenge. It is going to involve the wholesale change--emotional and cognitive--of my entire being. I must seek to change my felt experiences in the face of life circumstances. Concretely, I am going to have to get control of, change, and sanctify all those snap judgments that guide me, moment by moment, through life. This is a labor-intensive task. And it requires exposure to different life experiences. For example, the only real hope of dislodging racism from your heart is to find healing and humane experiences with the very people you fear or find offensive. Our aesthetics of life can and do change, but they mainly change in the face of emotionally corrective life experiences.

It was this "spirituality as aesthetics" framework that attracted me to ugly as a theological category. Because if this framework has any viability then it suggests that my spiritual failings, opportunities, and calling are currently found under the category of "ugly."

For the most part, the things I move into with love--the beautiful--do not represent for me my most pressing theological challenges. These are the places in life I already recognize as Holy Ground. Yes, these places should be preserved and protected, but since these beautiful things are already owned by me they ask nothing of me, spiritually speaking.

But the ugly is a different story. Under that umbrella are all the people and situations I find myself more than happy to avoid, ignore, or hate. But somewhere in all that ugliness is my calling. God is in there, somewhere. The weird person at work. The homeless. The person who votes differently from me. The morally unclean. I'm not drawn naturally to these people or situations. Yet I'm called into what I feel to be "ugly."

Let me conclude with why I think the ugly/beautiful frame is better than a more traditional good/bad or righteous/unrighteous frame.

If we frame life as good/right vs. bad/wrong we are easily tricked into thinking our current stance is True and in no need of correction. I mean, if you are right and they are wrong why listen to them? But ugly/beautiful builds in some slack. I'm not expressing the Truth, I'm expressing how things appear to me. And you are expressing yourself. I think this starts the conversation off on a better foot. We are more likely to tolerate our disagreements and work to appreciate the perspective--an aesthetic term--of the Other. Rather than arguing with people we begin, as we do with all aesthetic learning, with issues of appreciation. The good/bad and the right/wrong frames are zerosum conversations. But ugly/beautiful allows me to start with the aesthetic question: Can you appreciate where I am coming from? The ugly/beautiful frame calls us into perseptcive-taking and empathy in a way other categories cannot.

Much of this is likely to be overstated and problematic. It is primarily offered as a sketch.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “Ugly: Part 2, Spirituality as aesthetics”

  1. Richard,

    First a pull with you, and then a push against.

    I agree that the ugly/beautiful frame is preferable to a good/bad one in the sense that you articulate: "...we are tricked into thinking that our current stance is True and in no need of correction" by seeing our (moral judgments) as good/right. In looking for a word to describe this error (the naturalistic fallacy) "perspectivism" comes to mind as a candidate. Perspectivism erodes humility, love for others, and a search for truth, it would seem. So bravo for bringing the topic up! (I've heard the term "perspectivism" used before, and it just might be the parent ism behind all of the ugly isms. But I'll have to Google the term after getting off this comment.)

    Now the push back. You say, "...I've reached the tentative conclusion that much of life simply boils down to aesthetics." I, however, liked your use of "flourishing" as a wedge for understanding good and evil from a common sense perspective: people who claim love as a universal ethical commitment have no conceptual justification--if consistency is desired--for harming others (preventing their flourishing).

    But that's a true statement, ethically speaking. So I guess that I'd want to make this distinction. On the one hand, no Christian perspective can be called either beautiful or true, ethically, if it allows any individual to justify an unloving or harmful attitude or action to be taken against others. Such would be ethically ugly as well as false. But the meta-ethical commitment which renders that judgment on all narrow ugly isms must be made in order to frame a coherent ethical and religious perspective.

    Bertrand Russell's paradox of whether the class of all classes that are members of themselves is a member of itself comes into play here. You may recall that he resolved the paradox by appealing to levels of assertion. On the level of judging the world according to my (or your) aesthetic preferences, the lower level aesthetic preferences (the beautiful to me) become ethically ugly from the higher order commitment to an ethic of universal love, which does not allow for petty discrimination. (In Tillich's words, "Theology is necessarily existential, and no theology can escape the theological circle.")

    Now I've blabbed on too long (again!), and may have happened upon the resolution to which your posts on this subject are moving... If so, I'm rude, not insightful, here.

    But allow me to summarize anyway. I think your post is right on target, but only if it is seen in context as part of a larger commitment to an ethic of love which forms a circle of coherence for it--and yes, that context makes right and wrong, true and false, applicable, but on a higher level.


  2. Richard, thanks for the links. Sorry for overloading.

    I’m studying the linked materials on implicit association and On Herbie. And will try to get to Blink.

    En route, I greatly enjoyed your game theory musings. Thinking ugliness. I’m testing failure to embrace ugliness as a weighted scale (redux Axelrod). “We rarely defect on people if we are going to see them again tomorrow. The repeated contact and the concern over retaliation makes most of us cooperative.” Pace: Jesus fed 5,000. They sought Him for “repeated contact.” Game is on. Their animus was perceptually “cooperative” (their perception), that is, cooperative to make Him king. TFT – “Thanks for the food. We’ll cooperate. Help You along. Make You Drive-Through Window Fast Food King (Burger King: ‘have it your way).” And, “So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15). Objectively in TFT, Jesus betrayed. He hid. End game for that one frame.

    TFT breakdown for failure to accept His kingship through the steps of ugliness to the Cross?

    You wrote: “.... since these beautiful things are already owned by me they ask nothing of me, spiritually speaking ... ugly is a different story. Under that umbrella are all the people and situations I find myself more than happy to avoid, ignore, or hate.”

    Ugliness of the Cross as a weighted scale TFT?

    Hope this isn’t off topic distraction. Sufficiently TFT. If not, this distraction is just plain ugly. Back to study and work. Implicit association.



  3. from since I can remember I thought I understood black and white, right and the last 2 years I have found out or because of circumstances have found myself in a different place and its all sort of gray now.

    Being divorced just sort of puts you in a different class..its okay..its just been quite a revelation..

    As I have been rereading the word I have found that all who Jesus touched were ugly to someone in the world..and I think that's beautiful..

  4. Marvelous re-framing of the problem though Id wish you'd chosen another label than aesthetics which tends to denote "art". Not sure of an alternative per se but you seem to be referring to innate preferences and choices. So "Innate Value" perhaps ?
    Not surprisingly this seems to echo much of James, at least for me. His comments on Habit and the challenges of change for example and particularly his essay on the "Energies of Man".
    So at the end of the day can one boil down your argument to being that we all tend to go thru life making unconscious choices based on our accumulated but not thought thru values and inherited beliefs ? And that the real challenge is to undergo the extraordinarily difficult challenge of grounding our choices and values in conscious choice ?
    That at least might be one interpretation or complementary extension of what I think I read.

  5. See the Wiki post on "Perspectivism" for some relevant commentary.

    It seems that black and white thinking is used for what should be seen as a continuum between objective/subjective, cognitive/aesthetic, etc., in thinking through this question--including by Nietzsche (see Wiki on "Perspectivism").

    BTW: it is nice that no one has pointed out that I mistakenly left out the "not" in describing Russell's paradox above: Should have been whether the set of all sets that are NOT a member of themself is a member of itself...

    Whether ugly or untrue, my pespective is often flawed.


  6. Thanks all for the great comments.

    During the class on Wednesday night at church some similar issues were brought up regarding the relationship between this "aesthetic" formulation and ethics. That is, some concerns were raised about the relativism in my model. Similar concerns are being raised here. So, in my next post I'll try to clarify the relationship between the ugly and the ethical.

  7. Consider Zelazny's "Lord of Light" as supplementary reading material. When one of the original starship crew - who turn themselves into "gods" from the Hindu pantheon - objects to their autocratic suppression of progress he adopts Buddhism as his revolutionary doctrine. After being electrochemically translated into the van Allen belts his consciousness is recovered and re-starts the revolution but this time enlists the peaceful monks by appealing to their sense of the Beautiful.

  8. Dblwyo, awesome connection to Buddhism. In Vajrayana Buddhism and its sub-families of traditions, there are wrathful-only, and integrated peaceful-wrathful heruka deities (a branch of Buddhism with deities), whose graphic ugliness and ferocity in iconographic images aims to keep novitiates on paths of enlightenment. Here, ugliness, and even violent ugliness in images are intentional mediations of enlightenment.

    See one iconographic image (Nyingma family) and the essay:

    The Tantric Buddhist tradition isn’t textual, and can’t be mediated textually by study (like Theraveda), nor is it truly iconographic (like Eastern Orthodox Christianity) but rather, it’s mediated by ordained and recognized mentors who make assessments of all novitiates, before prescribing the visual heruka-deities as meditative aids. The gods have no objective existence. The mediation of the tradition happens not through text nor icon, but through the body, the physical human body of the ordained mentor, who can mimic ugliness as a meditative technique. My father was ordained in this tradition in Tibet, and as an ex-Lutheran minister, turned neuroscience professor (now retired) and occasional college lecturer on comparative religions, he adeptly retained a Buddhist-version of Luther’s social habit of “Table Talk,” which meant our dinner time was for less talk, and not for text, and more for making funny faces, or ugly ones. No reflection on Mom, as chef. I’d hope.


Leave a Reply