Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Augustine on God and Aesthetic Atheism

Augustine has an interestingly ambiguous attitude towards aesthetics.  At one point he writes:  "But what do I love, when I love Thee? not beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs acceptable to embracements of flesh. None of these I love, when I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God." The Confessions of Saint Augustine  tr. E. B. Pusey (Edward Bouverie) 

From the perspective the aesthetic atheist, the list of things Augustine gives that he does not love when he loves God is precisely what he projects onto God and what he really, in a way, loves after all, except transformed now --- made extraordinary. The aesthetic life which focuses on such things as varied songs, wonderful food, and positive sexual encounters, provides the preliminary material for this transformation.  These sensuous things are just made internal and unchanging in the imagined transformation.   And this is what is meant by "God": when the ordinary things of aesthetic life become extraordinary..or at least that is a non-traditional way of reading Augustine that works for the aesthetic atheist.  

I ran across this passage recently while reading All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Free Press, 2011)  They give another translation:  "When I love [God], it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace, but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self."  (117, R. S. Pine-Coffin translation, 1961) )  Could it be that "inner self," here, really means what is experienced when we experience these things as having another dimension, as having aura?  Could it be that seeing the "inner domain" as something literal is a displacement of seeing the beautifies of voice, perfume, good, embrace and so forth in a way that treats them as if eternal?  Can one, in short, reincorporate the vision of Augustine via this rereading into something post-theological?

Dreyfus and Kelly speak of Augustine as trying unsuccessfully to synthesize the ladder of love in Plato and the vision of Jesus, but perhaps in a way that goes beyond Plato.  They write: "what Augustine loves and longs for is not something abstract and eternal, but something that has a delicious fragrance and that he wishes to eat."  (115)  Augustine, when he is converted to Christianity says to God "You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor.  I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you."  (115)  That is, as we said above, he interprets his experience of God in sensuous terms.  Dreyfus and Kelly see this as "the kind of sensuous experience of agape love that one would expect from an early Christian, an experience that takes seriously Jesus' incarnation and the importance of His bodily presence in one's salvation."  (115)  Given that, to aesthetic atheists, the notion of bodily presence of a man who once lived but no longer does (Jesus) does not make sense, although his imagined bodily presence does.  The sense that can be made must be that the intense religious experience described here is one based on an intensification and transformation of embodied aesthetic experience fictionalized into the imagined living-again body of Jesus.  This is a powerful aesthetic experience, one that gives meaning to the lives of many, and perhaps to be recommended over Plato's abstract non-embodied "Beauty itself" found at the top of the ladder of love.