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An Anatomy of the Spirit, Part 2

Part 2 of the article we started last week on the subject of spirituality, religion and art, written by the Judge.

The similarities, though extensive so far, do not end there. Our relation with the brand name of any given art or religion is always understood as a matter of profound intimacy, which brings with it an expectation that we should treat it with great respect. The typical case-scenario, with the arts, is that of an adolescent bringing you his / her poem or song or painting and asking for feedback. In all cases (and especially with poetry), responses will be subdued and hugely diplomatic. Similarly, when talking to a friend about religion, one tends to coat any criticism in layers of softening disclaimers: “I hope you’re not offended by this, but…”. This is what Dawkins protests about in The God Delusion when he claims that cooking criticism, for example, is much harsher than anything he writes in his books, yet people still get offended by his work. But this very social norm is also what produces the inevitable dissidents and demagogues, those people who brazenly remark that this great painter or that great composer is ‘crap’, or that all religion is a load of rubbish.

The diplomatic aspect of engaging in dialogue with people about the art and religion produced by their culture is delicate in precise proportion to how distant their culture is. It is especially marked when it crosses that great (and unfathomable) geopolitical divide, that of the West and the East. It is a common cliché to say that the West is less ‘spiritual’ than the East, or at least more materialistic. What this slogan fails to consider, however, is that the discourse of the arts represents precisely the West’s forum of spirituality. Most of the discursive elements we find in, say, Buddhism or Confucianism are given voice in the West by the philosophies, critiques, models, meditations, catharses staged within the world of the arts (even if the methods and the conclusions may be very different).

The trope of spirituality is helpful when trying to understand the binding thread between art and religion. The term is chosen only for convenience, and I don’t mean for it to refer to any particularly complicated concept. Spirituality, as it is expressed in our religious and artistic discourse, refers simply to the way that we relate not to what is unknown, but to what is unknowable. The positing of an epistemological trope which is always one step beyond our available methodologies is what defines the concept of the transcendental. From this point of view, religious enthusiasts are right in saying that human beings are inherently spiritual creatures. For any form of knowledge must also be a knowledge of its own limits; and it is the projection of these limits that inevitably gives a specific form to our understanding of the transcendental.

The transition from religious to artistic discourse – for the transference of spiritual qualities from the saint onto the artist should indeed be interpreted as a transition, and not as a form of decadence or progress – can only too easily be interpreted in reductionist or dismissive terms. But to say, for instance, that art is no more than religion for those who do not believe in God (an example of an easy aphorism) would be to miss the point. Art and religion belong to the same immortal myth that fuels or provides an outlet for man / woman’s spirituality and that resists even such radical cultural processes as the ‘death of God’. By the latter Nietzschean expression I am not referring simply to a decline in church attendance or in declared faith – this subject has been mined extensively, by Dawkins among others. The meaning of the original expression refers to a process that is cultural, discursive, even memetic, and not social or sociological. It implies that the idea itself of God’s existence, of what it means for God to exist, has been culturally transformed to the point of having little or no meaning at all – in this sense God is supposedly ‘dead’.

This is best exemplified, ironically, by one of Dawkins’ most successful antagonists. Terry Eagleton’s attempt to define / describe God in his famous riposte to The God Delusion is worth quoting in full:

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

Inevitably, Eagleton concludes his tirade by throwing us back to the dichotomy of art and science. But what his finely articulated argument indirectly suggests is that the question of the existence of God has become a rhetorical one – intended as a question that allows for the exercise of rhetoric, and not one that actually necessitates or invokes answers. Theologians are dishonest who claim that this has always been the form of the question, as this cultural ‘death of God’ can only be traced to a few centuries ago, not so distantly separated from the rise of Romanticism and the production of a genuine mythology of the arts.

It has often been noted that Dawkins only divulgates arguments that were established for centuries among the intelligentsia, and this is why he is usually scoffed at by the academics. Yet amid the educated, very few people still believe in God in the original sense of the expression. Even the declared Christians normally reformat their faith in terms of a God which has no form or agency – God as some abstraction, as love, as the condition for things to exist, and so on. Thus, the expression ‘to believe in God’ is used as the platform or pretext for spiritual systems which subsist perfectly well without the notion of God (and which can even be informed by modern godless ideologies, like existentialism or socialism). More often than not, these spiritual systems will find expression in the arts, as they are elaborated in paintings or poems or films.

This invisible collapse (or transformation) of theocentric ideologies has been attended by the collapse of the religious mythologies which, in turn, have been replaced by those of art. The once-pervasive figure / myth of the saint, for example, is evanescent in modern-day culture. When was the last time that someone made a film about one? Compare this to the number of times that a movie is produced about some great writer / musician / painter / dancer, or about some kid aspiring to become one. There are always several titles per year.

Religious discourse itself is now reactive rather than proactive, a sure sign that its mythopoeic power has been dissipated. Its interpreters will take a stance against stem-cell research, against pre-marital sex, against abortion, against, against, against. And while there is much going on within the confines of religion itself, its activity remains nonetheless endocentric – that is to say, while discoveries in science will affect literature and developments in music will affect fashion, religious discourse affects no other discourse outside of itself – if not in repressive terms.

Artistic discourse is, however, no more adequate than traditional religious discourse as a spiritual platform. It promotes false gods in equal measure, so much so that an artistic ambition in a young person – something that is usually celebrated, cherished and admired by the surrounding adults – can actually be a symptom of psychological ill-health. Only too frequently, it can lead to attitudes of elitism and narcissism, an inability to properly develop one’s social skills (resulting from – and in – a damaging self-ostracism), and, most worryingly, a certain disinclination to engage with the social realities of one’s generation. Fortunately, these are issues that most good artists will grow out of as they mature, going to show that our spirituality is indeed something to be cultivated individually, and not imposed by doctrines or dogmas or schools – however well-meaning these may be.

Still, in fairness to artistic discourse (at least, to its vivacity and flexibility), it can be pointed out that ‘Art’ has already been questioned. In fact, postmodern artists have been questioning it for several decades, though they never really debunked it as a dominant myth. They probably won’t, at least until art as a concept becomes genuinely disassociated from spirituality. Much like war is contested by great artists from every generation, but its myth has never stopped producing endless (and sometimes wonderful) stories and books and plays and films, so the power of ‘the spirit’ as a source of inspiration remains measureless, as it is given by the primal, indispensable reality of our relationship with the transcendental. This relationship needs no more than time and sincerity to be cultivated properly, but it does exist; and an inability to understand our inherent spirituality represents the greatest failure of the New Atheists. God, for the most part, seems to have been put aside for the purposes of spiritual development. It is no stretch to say that Art could end in the same way, long before Dawkins decides to write The Art Delusion.


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