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Aesthetics and Religion

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

At a time in our American history when we are being constantly assured, perpetually warned indeed, that faith is withering and dying in our midst, that the “younger degeneration” regards religion as something like an old-fashioned practical joke, and that the churches are not only places of rest, but of sleep also, it is not remarkable that (taking these assumptions to be partly true) we should seek to penetrate behind these masks of change, to search out some reason for this attitude—yes, attitude, if a rather dangerous trend of the modern mind can be called such.

Well! provided we seek, what do we find? That religion in this country is organized to the point of the miraculous, that churches are managed with a financial acumen that would do credit to Wall Street, that sermons have enormous “selling values,” and that ministers are trained and attuned with infinite care to realize every psychological reaction of their audiences, and to play up or down, as the case may be, to the level of the collective intelligence. There are these, certainly, and more—amazing qualities! Indeed, in the House of God there is everything—but God. In this business of religion there is everything—but religion.

But from what source this lack of faith and God, and in how far? What price this lack? These, in an age when formal religion has become theatrical and removed from the really intimate associations with the soul of humankind, are the inevitable questions that spring into the mind. Your cock-right idealist will come forth with an answering shout of “Materialism!” and a sneer on his lips. Material security, he will inform you, has robbed men of their need to believe. But how far has he really gone? His experience is oddly limited, I should think—limited, actually, by a commonplace defect in perception when he comes to regard the very basic principles of his faith.

I grant him that there may be a certain type of materialism without spirituality. But that there should be spirituality without materialism is inconceivable. For the material is essentially at the bottom of the spiritual, as its initial thrust and impetus. It is only through the refinement of the senses, which are certainly material things, that we can come to need and assert our spiritual claims. “Material America!”—that unending diatribe in two words signifies, perhaps, a kind of perverted excess, but more definitely it means, to me at least, a certain immaturity in balance, a power unregulated, but a gigantic power nevertheless, holding a promise of huge and beautiful performance. To-day it is perhaps unformed, directionless, but when man learns to put it to the right uses, it will grow, I am confident, as an instrument of his ever unsatisfied longings towards beauty and the complete life.

So that if we take materialism, then, to be what I believe it obviously is—the backbone of spirituality, rather than a hindrance—how are we to account truthfully for certain manifestations of revolt in the modern world?—the scepticism of the clergy itself, the agnosticism of the intelligentsia, and the “atheistic societies” of our modern college youth, so deplored in the newspapers? The excuse of materialism, if it could be made to work, would be an easy one. Its only defect is that it refuses to work, save on the merest surface. In some strange way it turns on its own nature, as we understand that nature, and gets to the desired goal before the fleetest runner of the spirit.

That is perplexing; but beyond it lies the greatest and most confusing question: why do so many of our college youths, passing through a to-be-expected stage of atheism, often remain doubtful, sceptical and agnostic even when they advance into middle life? Is it that Christianity, primarily so naive, has lost its hold upon the sophisticated modern world? Is it out-modd, a mere survival out of time? Is it Christianity, or simply our present-day conception and practice of it, that is at fault? Religion, we know, is primarily the result of man’s eternal search for some lasting truth, some definite reassurance, about himself and the mysterious conditions of his life. Philosophy and aesthetics are results of that same need. But are these three things— religion, philosophy, aesthetics—separate and apart from one another, or are they but different manifestations of one great tendency, arising, as they do, all from the same source ?

A man’s answer to that question is a portrait of himself, with his background; a significant indication of all that he is and can be. The American mistake since the days of the Pilgrims has been to regard these three possessions as separate entities; it is only lately, very lately, that we have come to see any bond of solidification. For all three are forms of ecstasy—aesthetics and religion in particular.

And this brings us to our chief point—that religion is essentially a problem in aesthetics. Indeed, in the final reckoning, a man’s life and all that is of value in it can be said to have their basis in aesthetics—in aesthetics as a motive force, as a regulating principle, or as a self-conscious intellectual theory. The beginning of aesthetics is the beginning of religion, the beginning of philosophy—man’s* constant desire for a sense of completion in life, a sense of beauty, a sense of some definite meaning and direction. “Belief,” says the great Swiss writer, Carl Spitteler, “means a firm conviction of an ever-present and effective spirit of beauty.” A man who lacks that essential conviction can under no circumstances be religious, for to be truly religious one must be something of an artist and poet, both in thought and emotion. It is just because the people who have led churches in America have lacked that much-required nature that the sense of religious life has weakened and become sickly. They have been good humanitarians, good evangelists, good philanthropists; but of natural religion there is almost nothing in these qualities. Charity is not faith or religion; it is only charity; and a spade should be called a spade. Or when they have not been pure humanitarians, they have tried to live and believe by the sole dint of some already-formulated creed. But this kind of creed is insufficient; it cannot satisfy an honest man for long. Whether you believe it or not makes little difference; a creed is worth nothing in itself, unless one has gone through all that stands behind it; or at best it is but a definite articulation of personal experience. For, in fact, religion is by no means a matter of belief entirely; it is, for the most part, a matter j of perception and emotional reaction, of “intelligence et sensibilite” or the development of extreme “consciousness.” The younger generation—and it is a very charming and interesting generation—has wearied of creeds simply because it has failed to find in them what, either consciously or unconsciously, it has always searched for. Do not imagine, however, that they, are irreligious; as a matter of fact, they are highly and intensely religious, but strictly in their own way, which is the only way one can be religious. They have simply discovered that faith must have a foundation in living, and they have tired of formal declarations, of sermons and dogmas. They have discovered that the spirit, in order to become full and vital, can deny nothing in this material existence. It is said that to be a good Romanist a man must once in his life have been a scarlet sinner. Well! this principle, apart from jocularity, holds good for all religions; for religion is, at its basis, a philosophy of life, an aesthetic attitude. “Intelligence et sensi-bilite!”—from these main forces in life everything springs. The mistake of most modern protestants is to try, to solve an intellectual problem by denying the free use of the intellect. The failure of the evangelical type of Christianity is merely in the fact that, for the most part, it is not a religion at all, but a Society for the Suppression of Vice. It has regarded religion as a matter of good and evil, or the triumph of good over evil; whereas the primary mission of religion is not to make man good but to make him complete. And the complete man, intuitively seeing life from an aesthetic standpoint, will do good naturally, and regard evil as something interfering with his progress, or as a kind of vulgarity. That all should be in good taste!—that is the essential beginning of his outlook. The man who does good only because he fears God is worthless to himself and his world; his aesthetic foundation, if ever he had one, is crumbling ruin, and he feels no obligation towards his own nature, no emotion save cowardice. The first step is to develop discrimination; once that is had, the rest will become a matter of instinct, or second-thought. For the service of Christianity is to excite and elevate the spirit, to bring it into a state of intense and concentrated beauty; never to cow or terrorize it. If it were this last, there would be little use in writing on a dead issue.

As i have said before, religion is but a problem in aesthetics. Life also is but a problem in aesthetics. When a man makes a failure in life and degenerates, the only conclusion is that there was something drastically wrong with his aesthetics from the beginning. If religion has, more or less, lost its hold upon modern man, as we are constantly assured, then the trouble must be somewhere in the aesthetics. In sight of that, then, it would seem that behind every important function in our lives, lies the aesthetic “cue.” Well, why not? Man’s first desire is to make his passage through life something vital and fine—a gigantic symphony, so to speak, drawing its music from every farthest island of experience. And being in possession of what I like to call the aesthetic foundation, that greatest of sins, bad taste, will be at variance with all his aims.

Our first instinct of nobility is our love and search for beauty. Different men will find it in different ways and forms, according to their aesthetic property and needs, even though the hunting-ground be necessarily restricted to the sphere of “intelligence et sensibilite.” It is a man’s reaction to impressions and experiences that determines his religious sense and the nature of the earthly things through which he finds and cultivates it—it making little difference whether it comes from art, thought, or a mere enjoyment of life. In fact, it is hard to make distinctions between them, since, for the most part, they are one and the same thing. Art that is not also a religion—in the broad sense—is but a piece of weak artifice, the superficial structure of a mind without background. A life that is not a work of art cannot be of much value in the world. A religion that is not a combination of life and art is but a form of spiritual death. They work together, inseparable: they all amount finally to the same thing—man’s eternal worship of beauty. For they are all, primarily, utterances of the personality; and the strange rare forces that go to make up the personality contribute to one another.

Religion is, first and last, a creation; and creation is a form of religion. As a matter of fact, it is the only form of religion. For what we call religion is no set and definite thing, nothing you can get out of a book, or from the pulpit; there are only the suggestions of it in this world, and the rest—the really vital part—is left for the individual to create for himself in his own way. For the uncreative man is left only some hackneyed conception second-hand, which is, perhaps, better than nothing; but he can never be truly religious; he can never know the hot thrill of the senses, the ecstasy of a thing made, which in themselves are a sacrament! Revelation, conversion, faith—they are all forms of creation, sudden visions of high poetry in the world.

Perhaps the greatest drawback in the religious life today is in the clergy. How few of them are creative men, creative thinkers, creative artists, as the real “spokesman for God” must be! True religion in a man implies a constant change of attitude, because belief must have food and out-door health, as it were, to exist; but it cannot surfeit on the same monotonous diet always, any more than can the physical body; and its new food must come from life and the experiences of life. Take Leonardo da Vinci, for example. He never gave us a definite statement of his belief, and yet he was one of the most religious men the world has known, because his life was in itself a religion—a heightening of every moment in the mortal span and a rare intensification of man’s natural forces. Walt Whitman, though possibly not so large a soul, was very like Leonardo in this, I think.

And yet neither spoke very much of what they believed; they did not have to; they lived it, because they were creators. How different from our pulpit-pounders who still say at sixty what they were told to say at six! Their mysticism is dead; they are mere professors; and there is nothing professorial about religion, except from the historical standpoint. They are simply out of place, most of them, men who have made a mistaken choice of work. They are honest enough, no doubt, about all this that they cannot understand; but they are useless and perhaps not altogether harmless; and the pity of it is that, were it not for their obliged sentimentality, they would be able to recognize this.

The true mission of the clergy and the church is to assimilate the qualities and forces of life, and to turn their, for men into materials of beauty. The failure to do this is incompetence, the failure to face life eagerly and with insatiable curiosity. Always, though not always with conscious intention, man is dividing precious stones from their places in the mortal earth; for his greatest and his only joy comes from the beautiful and the pursuit of the beautiful. I say his only, his one, joy: when this statement is analyzed, even to its most minute manifestation, it is but the more impressively true—little matter whether his joy be in art, in science, or even in a fine game of tennis. For beauty is genius, prowess, strength—all that contributes to the general bien-etre of man.

It seems, then, that a primary and vital emphasis of the church must be on the importance of outward beauty and aesthetic ritual—without which no faith can survive for long the onslaughts of modern logic. For man must build into his churches the essence of all the beauty that he knows, that which gives his soul its clear delight—the beauty of far sea-coasts, of deep, majestic forests, of mountains and streams and sunlight, and long, strange nights when there is a moon. It is a memorial to his capacity for love. And it returns all that he has put into it—as a legacy for future generations.

To anyone who reflects for a moment, the manifest fact must appear that the people on the Continent are much more naturally religious than we in America. Yet why should this be? The immediate, superficial answer would be, probably, that in Europe the faith has grown up with the soil, that it has always been; whereas in this country, it is a thing transplanted, an imported product, so to speak, which has not yet had time to take deep root. Well, that is possible, but it is a most unsatisfactory answer. When the soil is right and the removed plant strong, it generally takes root at once and flourishes in the new ground as before.

Certainly we like to flatter ourselves that the soil is right; we like to be sure the plant is strong. Why, then, does it appear so sickly, so uncertain and disenchanted of life, compared to what it once was? Why are we so incorrigibly given to new cults, new protests, and the thousand and one varied forms of faith, while in Europe they follow, to an almost absolute degree, the grand tradition? The reason why—if I see it rightly—is the vital point, the essence of this discussion.

And that reason why is a matter of aesthetics, both inward and outward. The European notion of aesthetics and ours are not to be mentioned in the same breath: until only recently we have been the most blundering of amateurs. Our protestants—barring, perhaps, the Episcopalians—have noisily, concluded that a formal pronouncement of belief (provided it is believed and acted upon) is the only requisite; and meanwhile they have stood aghast at the progress of Roman Catholicism in America. They laugh at its occasional absurdities, its almost grotesque superstitions, its frequent lack of reason; they rather indignantly deny it. But they cannot laugh at its charm, they cannot deny that; they cannot, in fact, understand it. And because it comes from a depth of human nature that has nothing to do with creeds, a depth from which all true religion springs, they do not care to probe it. And yet they have to face it, however begrudgingly, as the strongest religious force in America, the strongest in the world— and almost the first known to Christian man.

To those of us who identify ourselves with no definite sect, and yet have the need of religion, Roman Catholicism brings the greatest comfort, the greatest joy—for, after all, it should be a kind of joy or ecstasy. And this because it has what primitive man gave to his religion (in the forms of festivals and dances) and what modern man has always searched for—the presence of outward beauty and aesthetic understanding. We may not be able to accept all the premises of the Roman church; we may not, perhaps, be able to accept any of them; but we can and do accept this magnificent transformation of the baser metals of life into what Pater loved to call “the beauty of holiness.” The appeal to the senses and to the emotions is stronger in most of us than the appeal to the intellect. To the first, Catholicism directs its best energies: the first is what American Protestantism comparatively denies, and instead attempts to make its address to logic and the moral ideal. But no logic can prove the truth of so delicate a thing as faith; it can only serve to help direct our attitude towards life, to purge impurities of reception; it is, in short, but a branch of aesthetics. And as for the moral ideal, without the aesthetic background (which so few moralists have), it is either impossible, or else but a process of suppression. For religion, as I have already said, is a matter of perception and reaction—things which lie beyond cold reason.

Man loves ritual; it is the outward manifestation of his j inner holiness. “Decoration,” said Cariyle, “is the first ) spiritual want of the barbarian.” The mistake of most j sects, and of bad taste in general, is to look upon this as a | mere formality not intimately connected with the great j mystery, of man’s life. The conception of God Himself, as I the Father of men, is but another form of ritual. Man, | conscious of a guiding spirit (which is, of course, but his ! better self), found need of a beautiful symbol, and, natural poet that he is, gave birth to this exquisite interpretation, j We like to think of God as an omnipotent Entity, shaping our human destinies and making our lives a promise of something higher and finer; but how often do we reflect j that he is but the solidified conception of all that is good f and beautiful in our own natures? Take our conception of Immortality, for instance. It cannot be reasoned out; j it cannot be proved as a theorem; it is only the result of man’s love of the great beauty that is himself, and his de- ! sire to hold it forever. j

I do not wish to exaggerate the importance of aesthetic ritual; but if I should, it would be a rare error indeed, for the general tendency in America is to underrate it ad ab-surdum. I would not say that the lack of it is the main weakness of religion in our country; I say it is one weakness; but I say further that almost the whole weakness is in some defect in the larger aesthetics. I do maintain, however, that the material beauty of the church—the beauty of the music, of the liturgy, of the flowing garments of the priests, and certainly the beauty of the architecture—is a vital essence of faith which it is totally mortal to ignore. Jesus knew its importance; He is one of the few men who have. Of all people, He would be the most disgusted with the charity-organizations which modern men call religions. You will remember how, shortly before his death, Mary Magdalene came to Him and poured priceless perfumes in His hair; and when the disciples protested, saying that its cost should go to the poor and the sick, Jesus waved them away and spoke of how much greater were the spiritual needs of man than the material, and pointed out how the woman’s act was a form of religious love. That is a vital starting-point of Christ’s outlook. But many people do not like to hear of that incident; they do not wish to understand it. They think that if a donkey lives in a bare stall, there is no reason why he should not worship in one also. The logical followers of creeds of morality are satisfied at least with lecture halls, wherein to expound the gospel. But Bible-bouncing is not faith, nor a means to faith; it is only a piece of unintelligent hokum. Misconceiving the very basis of their religion, these people only serve, for the most part, to make it ugly and rather repellent; and of all religious sins, I can imagine none so unforgivable.

That is a failure in outward aesthetics surely; but principally it is a failure in the inward, or spiritual, aesthetics, thus affecting the outward. It is not good logic even, because logic is impossible without a background of governing aesthetics to direct and temper the materials of thought. It is simply bad taste, or what I like to call vulgarity.

A famous Church of England man, whose life had been almost entirely spent among the social workers of London’s haunting East End, said to me once, while we were listening to the organ at St. Thomas’, that church music is “a sacrament—one of the greatest of all sacraments.” All the suffering and hideous mortality he had seen had not killed, but only strengthened, his faith in that.

Now, i have not said that I consider outward aesthetics anything like the foundation of faith, for I do not; I consider it merely an artistic expression of the inward. And it is the inward which I consider the foundation itself, the only possible foundation. The outward beauty is simply assurance that the inward lives and has its being, for beauty cannot come out of nothingness; and also the outward serves as an inspiration, just as a great work of art, like El Greco’s “Crucifixion,” or Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” or Shakespeare’s “Sonnets,” may serve, partly at least, to inspire another work of art. But they will not inspire it at all, of course, unless the aesthetic sense exists in the individual in order to receive the impetus; just as the example of Christ will not serve to make a man good unless he has as fine an aesthetic nature as Christ’s own. For Christ was primarily, a great artist; Lie could not live in men’s admiration so vividly and so long had He not been. That is His fine distinction; it is the fine distinction of every great man the world has known.

But what has all this to do with the drag that seems to have been laid so heavily upon religious life in America? A great deal, I think. If I did not think so, I should never have bothered to write about it. But what is the nature of this drag? Well! to me it is merely the presense of over-zealous “organization,” the loss of the ability to build from bed-rock, the loss, in a word, of aesthetics. For religion is a very simple matter, but still something that every individual must work out for himself according to the powers and demands of his own unique nature. You will remember Anatole France’s exquisite little tale of the Queen’s jester, who gave up his juggling to enter a monastery. But he had not been there long before he discovered that the only way he could get close to God was by doing what he had always done—his acrobatics—the thing he could do best. One morning, then, while he was juggling before the altar, a monk espied him, and just as he was about to give the sacrilegious impostor a good whipping, he was arrested by the appearance of an angel who blessed the sweaty forehead of the little jester. And the monk retired, saying: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall see God.”

That is a simple tale, but it perfectly, illustrates my meaning—that religion is but the spontaneous expression of man’s natural gifts, the giving of the best he can, als ich kann. Christ only poured out His contempt on those who went into the temple and shouted long, ostentatious prayers, and those who spoke of their own goodness. “Hypocrite!”—it was a favorite term with Him. When He spoke of man’s natural goodness and urged that it be brought out, He did not mean that it should be brought out by threats, as if it were some tedious duty or dusty obligation to his fellows; He meant simply that it should come as a natural flowering of the spirit, the result of man’s love of beauty and his desire to make his own existence as monumental as possible. Any other kind of goodness would be the hypocrisy that Christ feared and loathed.

But in an age when Paganism has come, in the popular apprehension, to be almost synonymous with Atheism, what are we to expect? It takes courage for one to have hope under these skies. For Christ’s point of view, when completely carried out, means something very much like what we might call a Christian Paganism. I do not mean the worship of idols; I mean the free and unharassed expression of man’s natural self, which is exactly what He most desired. “Be thyself!”—and by that is meant: Trust yourself and your own individual way; for “success” solely implies a mastery of self in the face of the world and its conditions. That each man should develop his own self to its farthest limits!—that was Christ’s first and chief requirement; for He knew that all would follow naturally when that was done, as surely as day follows the night. He knew that everything great springs from the Ego, and that in the Ego is the first honest need of faith, and therefore the foundation of faith. Man is primarily a proud creature; it is his Ego which makes him proud; and moreover, it is his pride turned introspective, that brings him to faith for some satisfactory answer about the mysteries of this great thing he calls his being. Christ saw this, even though He did speak of humbleness (which is simply a detached form of pride) as a virtue. He saw that all great and generous men are egoists; He saw Himself an egoist—and one of the first water.

All that is very simple. But modern Christianity (or what we call by that name) has conceived a mass of “outside” obligations, a mass of moralities, a mass of “surfaces.” But we do not reflect that this is probably just as far from the real Christianity as were the contorted and grotesque superstitions of Medievalism. Perhaps the advance of science will show this much to us; perhaps not. At least it will serve to destroy some absurdities. The people who fear science are only those whose whole faith is based upon religious conventions and formalities. The people who do not fear science are those whose faith is based upon what science cannot touch—the mystic experience, the adventures of the soul, and the needs of man’s aesthetic nature.

It is on these last things that the edifice of religion in the modern world must stand. The artificial foundations and the jerry-built houses of those who professionally misconceive the mission of faith, science will sweep away. Perhaps when the storm of modern revolt has cleared the sky, we may see much that we thought holy devastated, and we shall have left only the great, eternal properties, on which we may build anew our belief.

And the ground-work of all our building must be aesthetics. Beauty is the only permanent, yet ever-exciting, satisfaction known to man; and religion, to endure, must be exactly that satisfaction. If it were not, and had not always been, beautiful—and had depended instead upon mere transitory misconceptions of it, like philanthropy or social service—it would centuries ago have been ancient history; for it would have been a duty, not a creation; and no duty, however seeming-noble, can hold men’s minds for long. But the creative process (which religion must be) has the fascination illimitable and undefinable, and in it man finds his profoundest ecstasy and “that content surpassing wealth.” Our whole skill lies in sifting the best from our spiritual and material being, in a kind of Epicurean discrimination, and then erecting our true life upon that.

There is nothing new in all this; in fact, it is so old that man has come perilously near forgetting it. For I have spoken only of what is the basis of every religion from the earliest day known—as one may see by studying the primitive forms of worship; of what is the basis of all sincere modern belief—as one may see by studying the life of any honestly and deeply religious man; of what is the means of all natural religion, because it presupposes and forces nothing, does away with the absurd “will to believe,” and leaves man to his own resources and desires, to build for himself what pleases and satisfies his questioning soul.

As St. Francis found God in his beloved birds and fields, so we can find God in what we love best among the functions and adventures of this life, and only there. For what is true of life is true of religion also; and there can be no true life or religion without a vital “starting-point,” or what I have called the aesthetic foundation. For when our aesthetics falters, our religion falters also. It is only at the point where life may be conceived of as a great work of art, as a labour of the artist’s hands, and as an ever-lasting memorial to the spirit of beauty in all things—it is only at this point that man can find at last his religion and his only true salvation.


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