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.