God’s death has invited much reflection on the nature and history of religion. This process has unfolded across a great many camps and in the thought of a variety of disciplines, but especially in history and meta-historical theory and more prominently within psychology and psychoanalysis (not to mention the New Age spirituality and self-help industries that have cherry-picked the easy elements of these works). But much of the critique of religion has focused primarily on religious contents or their realization: the comparison of mythic themes, the genealogy of specific rituals or even specific spirits, the inadequacy of specific cosmologies in the face of developments in science, the critique of the contemporary and historical political and social power of specific religious communities, the crimes of religious institutions, the list goes on. However, the critique of religion in terms of its forms is rarer, and attempts at a theory of the aesthetics of religion have tended toward myopic focus even where they have been illuminating in specific aspects. Of course, such a theory would face countless obstacles within the academy and even in its own genesis; we can already hear the rebuttals of multiculturalists, decrying the flattening of the aesthetics of specific communities or the privileging of data from larger systems, and the denials of the empiricists, claiming that the data is incomplete or that the theory is untestable or too large to justify. But might such a theory prove useful, even in an incomplete and working form? The development of a model for spiritual aesthetics could even prove testable in its performance as a tool for engineering new possibilities within the vacant realms of the spirit, should such opportunities arise.
The project of engineering these possible worlds indeed rests on such a theory; in fact, the primary value of such a theory is in its contribution to this project. In this light, one might imagine this hypothetical theory of spiritual aesthetics as a mere handmaiden of a much greater project: the development of a response to the death of God that can generate communities, values, and perhaps most importantly, a telos towards which its participants can aim. There should be no illusions about the ephemerality of such a response, but the handmaiden, sharpening the tools and weaponry of analysis in the rise and fall of new paradigms, can remain ever present, guiding further visions into future realizations. In this way, a working theory of spiritual aesthetics could lay the foundations of a response to modernity by uncovering processes by which meaning coalesces in the communal mind. Even those skeptical of the future power of religious models could find value in this theory, as it would partially serve as a rhetoric for the generation of ethos, an appeal that the scientific community often fails to realize in its quest to inform the public. Further, this procedure has already begun long ago in an unconscious form in the arts and may serve, at least, to inform the self-critical gaze of art with further methods of cultivating power for aesthetic visions. At very least, the project of generating a religious response to modernity will provide an alternative to war as a teleotic process, even if war is the more likely to arise.
As a contribution to a theory of spiritual aesthetics, this series will explore a variety of features across as many religious traditions as my research will allow. As mentioned above, these essays will be ancillary to more constructive efforts (and within the series, it’s likely that the essays will suggest handmaidens even to the handmaiden). However, these essays will form, I hope, a kind of foundation for PHANTOM CELL on which the rest of the project will rest.
This post will also serve to chronicle the articles in this series, which will number at least seven. As each is finished, I’ll link to them below (titles and subjects will likely change while writing). Addiditionally, I expect that this post will grow over time as additional need for introduction arises.
II. The Teleotic System: Functionalities and Significances of Sacred Works
III. Power Users: Entities, Beings, and Names
IV. Divine Privilege: Sacred status and Methodologies of Enchantment
V. Navigating the Celestial Bureaucracies: Organizational Models and Hierarchies
VI. Psychogenesis: Values and Power
VII. The Hypostasis of Eternity: On the Temporal Unfolding of Spiritual Systems
Let the lightning strike where it will.