0. Contributions to a Spiritual Aesthetics: Definitions

The critique of of religion that might yield a theory of spiritual aesthetics must begin before the true inception of religious processes in the mind. Since we are closed to the spiritual experiences of the creators of what would come to be religions, we must begin with the evidence that their creations supply. Creation, however, is a slippery term in the religious sense; beyond the evocations of divine cosmogenesis, we surmise that few of the makers of religion conceive of their creative process as truly creative, and instead often see themselves as mere vehicles of [what they perceive to be] a greater truth. Beyond this, it’s clear that all religions rely on traditions and customs that derive both from previous religions as well as general folk-cultural memory, which differs from religion in that it lacks conscious organization. Already the ambiguities inherent in such a discussion become apparent: it is unclear what, exactly, to include in the theory, since the boundaries of religion blur and shift against the realities of culture. Before the beginning then, in order to clarify the aim of these essays, a brief set of definitions are required. These are working definitions and will likely shift in the course of this series.


a) A religion is a system of ideas, practices, texts, objects, places, events, and persons that provokes in its participants the performance of rituals, the pursuit of specific values, the genesis and maintenance of communities dedicated to the system, and recursive belief in the ultimate supremacy of the system itself as a means of explaining existence. Note that this definition is highly inclusive and may apply to entities such as cults, some historical and possibly contemporary states, and even localized intentional communities.

b) Spirituality is the search for a supreme account of existence and the trappings of such a search. I am purposefully allowing this definition to include the whole of philosophy and much of art.

c) A spiritual aesthetics would explain the means through which ideas, practices, texts, objects, places, events, persons, and other experiences provoke a sense of the supremacy of an account of existence, especially insofar as they enhance the supremacy of a system that provides this account. This intentionally includes large portions of rhetoric and general aesthetics.

The crucial piece of each of these definitions is the notion of supremacy as it is evoked in the participant or audience. The notion of supremacy is what distinguishes these terms from other terms within aesthetics and indeed from other kinds of experiences and phenomena. Though debates about the hierarchy of greatness of, for instance, specific works of art are common enough in practice, few would submit Ulysses or Beethoven’s 9th symphony or even the Sistine Chapel as utterly supreme in its account, no matter how many lists of bests and greatests they top. No award can announce this sort of supremacy. Even if adherents of a religion merely believe that their religion is the “best we have,” they are attributing to it a supremacy above all other accounts and allowing it to shape their lives in profound ways. It’s even possible to hold that one’s religion is incorrect on certain issues and still believe in the supremacy of its account. Where religions fail, they fail at provoking this sense of supremacy. This is how we murdered God: by attacking his supremacy on the very grounds on which he was declared supreme (we might then arrive at a preliminary definition of a kind of nihilism: a belief in the impossibility of supremacy).

We might call this belief in the supremacy of an account faith. It should be clear now that the terms that this series will require are fraught with inappropriate connotations, contradictory definitions, and most problematically, nebulous, feelgood associations from mainstream sects. This should not deter us from the investigation. The value of an aesthetics of faith cannot be overstated. Though these contributions to that project can’t hope to exhaust it, an initial foray into this realm seems crucial to any further approach toward an answer to the question posed by modernity.



Post-script on the supernatural:

It should be clear that there is no requirement that religions address themselves to the supernatural in the above definition. Though scholars do sometimes make a distinction between so-called “philosophical systems” such as Stoicism or Confucianism and systems that address themselves to gods or other supernatural entities, it’s not clear that such a distinction is useful for the discussion of spiritual aesthetics (though Stoicism might be disqualified on other grounds in that it didn’t tend to generate communities). Religions don’t necessarily present their supernatural elements as trans-real. Even when they do, supernatural beings are often presented as the true reality, and it’s unclear that the word supernatural should even apply to these concepts from an insider’s perspective (and in this investigation the insider’s ​perspective is all-important; how else might an aesthetic of faith be pursued but through an examination of faith itself?). It may be that some religions use supernatural elements as a kind of method for generating faith (i.e. it might be easier to convince someone of the supremacy of a being when that being transcends all space and time) but it’s not clear that all religions have employed this strategy. Finally, the notion of the supernatural is yet another concept in this discussion that conjures imprecise connotations that invite scorn from certain peanut galleries; but even robust philosophical systems address themselves to the supernatural. Platonic forms are supernatural, as is, in most senses, Kant’s notion of the noumena.


Contributions to a Spiritual Aesthetics: Introduction and Meta-post

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.

0. Contributions to an Aesthetic of the Spiritual: Definitions

I. Sanctified Technologies: Forms within the Spiritual Aesthetic

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.