Tag Archives: Jonathan Edwards

Beautiful life project, with heavy books.

After a brief introduction to Japanese literature and culture for a few months of 2019, when I joined a Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided to leave behind the aesthetic vision of Japan, so to speak, and explore the reality and idea of Beauty in a less specific and encultured way.

My remodeling project and accompanying disorder are the reason, I believe, that I haven’t been able to concentrate on this extended philosophical reading project. It could be also that the topic is just too out-of-sync with the situation in my (indoor) living space. The chaos results from having none of the planned-for storage finished — that’s closets and cabinets in six or seven rooms — and that situation is abetted by the pandemic shutdowns of various sorts. The pandemic itself taxes the mind and emotions, and lately I’ve been reading more children’s books than anything.

But, the planned exploration looms large in the background, and its bulk has increased in a physical way, by means of big books. (I consider The Book of Tea to be about beauty, and it was by contrast such a slim and elegant item!) I’m not going to tell you about all of my Beauty books yet. Goodness, I haven’t begun anything in earnest. But the last one that came into the house was only recently published, and I may be most excited of all about it.

It’s The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, and it “weighs in” at over 700 pages. Professor Patitsas explains in the first sentence of his Preface what he is about: “…to recover a lost way of doing Ethics, one in which love for Beauty played the central and the leading role.” He shows how the definition of contemporary ethics, when seen in terms of Socrates’ three transcendentals of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (ethics being the study of Goodness), is biased against Beauty. A little more from the Preface:

“The central text about Orthodox Christian prayer life, The Philokalia, itself means ‘the love of the beautiful.’ The Ethics of Beauty is best conceived as a prose companion to that spiritual collection — certainly not on the same level as that classic text, but hopefully recognizably in the same family. Where The Philokalia is an aid to the pursuit of the Beautiful Way in prayer, The Ethics of Beauty is a discussion of why the Beauty-first Way is preferable, and an examination of the Way within as many areas of life as possible.”

“I would never have set out upon the journey that led me to The Ethics of Beauty had I not read Jonathan Shay’s observation in his Achilles in Vietnam that contemporary analytical psychotherapy has been largely unable to heal the suffering of the soldiers afflicted most severely with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have slowly come to see that… the initial focus of soul-healing must be on Beauty rather than on truth, on a living vision of a loving and crucified God, rather than on an autopsy of the broken self.”

Hmmm… I wouldn’t be surprised if Dee Pennock talks about this healing effect of Beauty in her book that I recently mentioned.

But, going back to the beginning of my vague plan, about a year ago I brought a fat book about Beauty and Truth into the house. The priest who lent it to me said he’d been unable to penetrate it. I knew it would likely be as heavy for me intellectually as it was in poundage, but it seemed a work I should at least have at hand when I began my study of Beauty.

This one is The Beauty of the Infinite, by David Bentley Hart; I had never yet opened it to read a line, but it’s been sitting on my mobile bookshelf in the kitchen/family room. When the Patitsas book arrived, I took Hart’s book off the shelf behind me and set it on the table so that the two could meet. And a few days later, avoiding some work, I’m sure, I opened Hart randomly in the middle, and my eyes landed here:

“…theology owes Nietzsche a debt: I intend nothing facetious in saying that Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself — of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity….

My own philosophy and theology were settled already on this source of Beauty: the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A few years ago Jonathan Edwards put me in mind of it in his thoughtful way, and maybe I should go back and read the extensive quotes I transcribed on the subject. But if I never get around to reading all these pages of words that are waiting for me in books, it’s okay. My heart knows the story.

Bridges and Streams

Great-grandparents

Last week was filled with historical talk and images – even theology. First there was the cemetery where we had buried my father-in-law in January. We checked to make sure that the gravestone had been cut and set properly, and then we visited the graves of Mr. Glad’s great-grandparents and grandparents on both sides of the family, and several aunts and uncles.

Above is a photo of one set of the great-grandparents whose graves we visited, people born in Cornwall in the mid-19th century. They came to California to work in the New Almaden quicksilver (mercury) mines near San Jose, where the wife Eliza gave birth to my husband’s grandmother and several other children.

When I look into the bright eyes of that face I just wish I could hug her. Why do you focus on her and not him, my husband asked? Because she’s a woman and I’m a woman, I answered. I feel strangely connected to her across the years and in spite of the fact that I never knew her nor are we even related by blood. I wonder if she is praying for her descendants, including my children and grandchildren? I can’t see and touch her right now, but (Matthew 22) “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” She is a real living person, not an idea.

New Almaden Englishtown

The novel Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner tells the story of a miner and his wife who lived for a time there in Englishtown, with tales involving Mexican miners in the camp’s “Spanishtown.” The Cornish people attended the Methodist Episcopal Church on the hill and Eliza is remembered as loving to read her Bible.

When her children were grown and the parents had moved into San Jose, she still prepared a large spread every Sunday afternoon and expected all the children and their families to come for Sunday dinner. She was especially fond of her grandsons.

Many of the women those days kept chickens and cows but Eliza was the only one in her family who had the gumption to kill a chicken. When any of the others wanted chicken for dinner they would take their bird to Eliza to chop off its head.

A mother and father not ours

On the first night of our trip to these forbears’ old stomping grounds we had dinner with a dear cousin who also is linked and indebted to them. We came bearing gifts of photographs of some relations who have passed on, and we talked about our family — and of course, our own childhoods.

Next day the Mister and I ate a picnic next to the Felton Covered Bridge in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s the tallest known covered bridge in the country, built of redwood in 1892 to span the San Lorenzo River. No one knows why the builders made it so high.

I started thinking about bridges as a metaphor, as in “Bridges to the Past”….What would be the thing to be bridged, the gulf over which we can meet on a bridge? If we are on this side of the bridge, what or who is on the other side?

Burned redwoods at Henry Cowell.

The bridge lies near the Mt. Hermon Christian conference center, where my husband from his earliest days enjoyed the creeks and paths, and sleeping on the porch of his grandmother’s cabin.

He and I spent our brief honeymoon in that cabin, and strolled dreamily around the redwoods of Henry Cowell park nearby. It was drizzling that day in March 41 years ago and we had the park to ourselves, no doubt breathing the same woodsy, cold and moist air that we drank up on this trip.

Our marriage has endured to the present; it’s a continuing thing, so the bridge idea doesn’t exactly fit in that case, but it was pressed back into my mind a few more times anyway.

Mr. Glad and “The Giant” redwood tree.
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Our cabin in the old days.

From the covered bridge and the park we drove up a hill to the neighborhood of the old cabin where we’d spent so many happy times with several generations sleeping in nooks and corners and beds tucked into closets. Another cousin and his wife live around the corner in a cabin that’s been in his family for many decades, too.

 

We two couples walked up and down all over the place remembering the fun and family going back 60 years. Mr. Glad and I hadn’t visited “his” cabin since 23 years ago it passed from our family. We saw that trees and ferns and birdbath have been taken away, to make space for parking trucks.

 

 

 

 

 

That’s too bad. Well, let’s keep going downhill toward the kind of landmarks that don’t change so easily.

 

Two Cousins on New Swinging Bridge

The natural beauty endures – some of these redwood trees have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. The unnamed tall tree above looked to us as large as The Giant we had seen a few hours before in the state park. We were gazing up at it from the Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge that still sways when you walk on it, though it has been improved from what it was in Mr. Glad’s younger years.


Cabin Cousin named this scene “Stumphenge.” People are always making structures and arrangements that are symbolic of the most meaningful things in their lives. Some of those structures, as I was to reminded the next morning, are intangible.

 

It’s obvious I love a good bridge — some of them are majestic works of art, and even the less dramatic show the human need and desire to go from here to there on the earth, to interact with the natural landscape in practical and artistic, and sometimes playful, ways.

I am often more comfortable on a sturdy bridge than I am down in the canyon or river below. Two creeks come together on the Mt. Hermon property. This confluence of Bean and Zayante Creeks is just about The Most Favorite Spot from the Mr. Glad history files. I have waded in the creek here too, with our children, and have sat picnicking on lovely warm summer days. We looked down from the swinging bridge and sighed our contented memories.

At this time of year we didn’t want to be down there in the chilly water. From the bridge, wearing our cozy jackets, we could get a wide view. You feel that you know where you are, and there are no sand or pebbles scratching between your toes.

The next day as we drove home Mr. Glad and I listened to a discussion about a famous theologian who is now acknowledged to be a BRIDGE between East and West, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, and other disparate groupings. If I tell you his name many of you will feel an immediate urge to click away to another blog, because the Unitarians have done that to you.

When they controlled the educational system of this nation Unitarians worked hard to steer young people away from the Puritans, and one small tactic in this program was to inoculate them against a man who preached a lot on themes like humility, beauty, and the sweetness of the Love of God. They did this by making sure that schoolchildren had in their curriculum one of his worst and least representative sermons.

In our usual intellectually focused condition we search for these rational bridges to connect us to our roots and to each other. I’m afraid the Unitarians were trying to keep us on a platform without even a good view of the life-giving stream. If I stay in my mind and only think about God, it is like looking down from a bridge at the river, when what I am dying of thirst to do is splash and drink and be refreshed by the Living Water.

But in the presence of God, living our theology by prayer and love to one another, we can be part of a continuum, like the earthly water that over the millennia constantly comes back to us as rain into the streams and snow on the mountains, evaporates from the oceans to make clouds that float inland again….

If Jonathan Edwards and I both live in Christ, who said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” then we are in the same vital current. And that’s the important thing.

One of my dearest and most influential friends, Anne, gave me a copy of Edwards’s Religious Affections more than twenty years ago, and I spent a while this morning becoming re-acquainted. But I don’t think it’s likely that I will read much more of the works of this brilliant thinker who is for some people a bridge. I already spend too much time standing on and studying bridges and platforms.

Instead I want to live in communion with God and with His people — including my distant-but-near relations from the 19th century, the 18th century — even the Holy Apostles, and all of that Cloud of Witnesses who (I Corinthians) “did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”

San Lorenzo River

Possessing Beauty

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us the one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things  are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast, and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

      –John Ruskin, quoted in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

John Ruskin

Ruskin is one of the “guides” the author takes as a teacher in his study of this art of travel; this particular guide yearns to give us his students the tools to understand and possess beauty. Ruskin believed that we can only understand beauty by paying close attention to it, and that attempting to describe nature through writing or drawing was the surest way to focus the mind sharply enough.

On the topic of drawing Ruskin published two books in the 1850’s and gave lectures in London, but the point of his instruction was never to produce students who could draw well. He wanted to teach people to notice, and to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.”

Right here is a good place to propose that we who believe in God the Creator also take as our teacher John Ruskin, rather than Mr. de Botton, because I doubt that we can learn much directly on the subject of beauty, especially on how to possess it, from a man who doesn’t understand that beauty, and in fact all that he possesses, are gifts from his Father God.

De Botton’s most recent book is Religion for Atheists, which he wrote from the conviction that a disbelief in God should not prevent atheists such as himself from making use of various aspects of the major world religions to better their lives. No doubt many professing Christians have a similar pragmatic outlook, and are missing out on the essence of the faith, Who is Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, the Glory of God the Father.

In musing about the beauty of God, I came upon a website with that title, featuring quotes from Jonathan Edwards. Many people have caught a bad impression of Edwards from those who speak of what they know not, but long ago I learned that the most frequent word in the preacher’s sermons was “sweet,” in reference to God and fellowship with Him. It’s not surprising that he had something to say about beauty as well. (The following paragraphs from Edwards were taken from his writings “The Mind” and “True Virtue” and bundled on the webpage with the added headings.)

God is Beautiful: “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent; and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory.”

Jonathan Edwards

Beauty is a kind of consent or harmony: “[Beauty is] a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony, &c. . .”

“One alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such case there can be no manner of relation no way, and therefore no such thing as Consent. Indeed what we call One, may be excellent because of a consent of parts, or some consent of those in that being, that are distinguished into a plurality in some way or other. But in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be Excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.”

Love is the highest kind of beauty: “The reason, or at least one reason, why God has made this kind of mutual agreement of things beautiful and grateful to those intelligent beings that perceive it, probably is, that there is in it some image of the true, spiritual, original beauty, which has been spoken of; consisting in being’s consent to being, or the union of spiritual beings in a mutual propensity and affection of heart. . . . And so [God] has constituted the external world in analogy to the spiritual world in numberless instances. . . . [He] makes an agreement of different things, in their form, manner, measure, &c. to appear beautiful, because here is some image of an higher kind of agreement and consent of spiritual beings.”

“When we spake of Excellence in Bodies, we were obliged to borrow the word Consent, from Spiritual things; but Excellence in and among Spirits is, in its prime and proper sense, Being’s consent to Being. There is no other proper consent but that of Minds, even of their Will; which, when it is of Minds towards Minds, it is Love, and when of Minds towards other things, it is Choice. Wherefore all the Primary and Original beauty or excellence, that is among Minds, is Love.”

God is beautiful because He is a Trinity: “As to God’s Excellence, it is evident it consists in the Love of himself; for he was as excellent before he created the Universe, as he is now. But if the Excellence of Spirits consists in their disposition and action, God could be excellent no other way at that time; for all the exertions of himself were towards himself. But he exerts himself towards himself, no other way, than in infinitely loving and delighting in himself; in the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This makes the Third, the Personal Holy Spirit, or the Holiness of God, which is his infinite Beauty; and this is God’s Infinite Consent to Being in general. And his love to the creature is his excellence, or the communication of himself, his complacency in them, according as they partake of more or less of Excellence and beauty, that is, of holiness (which consists in love); that is, according as he communicates more or less of his Holy Spirit.”

Jonathan Edwards did not have a perfect understanding of Trinitarian doctrine, but I am still very blessed by his giving glory to the Holy Trinity for Beauty, which of course can have its source and perfect demonstration no where else. For readings on the Holy Trinity I commend to you these pages.

Above a storefront in Carmel, California

Now, back to the subject of travel…I suppose no one wonders what all this beauty-talk has to do with our goings, because don’t we all like to look at beautiful things when we travel? And when we have to move on, we also like to keep something to take home with us. How to not lose everything of the experience of a new place?

De Botton suggests three ways that we often try: 1) Taking pictures with a camera, 2) imprinting ourselves physically, as in carving our names in a tree trunk and thereby leaving a bit of ourselves behind, 3) buying something, “to be reminded of what we have lost.” And none of these actions can have as much effect on the whole person as drawing.

In explaining his love of drawing (it was rare for him to travel anywhere without sketching something), Ruskin once remarked that it arose from a desire, “not for reputation, nor for the good of others, nor for my own advantage, but from a sort of instinct like that of eating or drinking.” What unites the three activities is that they all involve assimilations by the self of desirable elements from the world, a transfer of goodness from without to within. As a child, Ruskin had so loved the look of grass that he had frequently wanted to eat it, he said, but he had gradually discovered that it would be better to try to draw it: “I used to lie down on it and draw the blades as they grew — until every square foot of meadow, or mossy bank, became a possession to me.”

De Botton chronicles his own efforts to follow Ruskin’s advice, and when he attempts to draw a window frame in his hotel he finds that he had never actually looked at one before, in all its complexity of construction.

Many passages in the book also paint exemplary word-pictures, such as a paragraph on olive trees, of which the author at first “dismissed one example as a squat bush-like thing.” On closer consideration, with the help of Van Gogh’s art as well as Ruskin’s tools, he sees the trees in all their magnificence, telling us that “the taut silvery leaves give an impression of alertness and contained energy.”

There is another way that this description by de Botton follows Ruskin: in his anthropomorphizing of natural objects, attributing to them qualities that only humans or at least animals would actually have, and feeling that “they embody a value or mood of importance to us.”

In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: “I can never stay long without awe under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other. You cannot reach them, cannot cry to them; — those trees never heard human voice; they are far above all sound but of the winds.”

My two-year-old grandson Scout is already a traveler following in Ruskin’s (and his mother’s) footsteps. He loves to hike and to stop and look at everything. On a recent outing he said, as he wandered off, “I’m going to climb up here, Mama, and the rocks will take care of me…”

That’s what I call the spirit of good old-fashioned traveling. Not the sort that Ruskin himself decried, in the 19th century: “Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” 

When I am loaded on to a jet plane, I confess to feeling a bit like a parcel squeezed into a big crate of parcels. But Ruskin, and yes, even de Botton are helping me to be a more joyful and observant traveler, even if it’s only on a trip down the neighborhood footpath.

Before I had read just the small number of Ruskin’s words that are in The Art of Travel, I didn’t have the nerve to try my patience with drawing anything. But the man who wanted to teach me to notice has given me a vision of myself drawing a flower or a rock or a building. On my last car trip, I was even so bold as to pack into my bag a box of colored pencils.