A Beauty First Approach To Truth
Deconstructing a Faith I Didn't Know I Had
Everyone is looking for answers they can extract from a sentence, or simply read in a book and have it all figured out.
Of course, this inability of nuance and desire for certainty are typical for a Western mind like mine. The reality is there can be no objective moral truth applicable to all under every circumstance.
If the complexities of the world can teach us anything it is that objectivity is hell itself.
But it is also true that morals are not subjective in the sense that they are completely made up by us in whatever fad we find ourselves. At the same time they are not completely objective in the sense that a machine would be able to calculate them. The balance matters. Leaning toward objectivity not only leads to harmful crusades but it also obscures the rich truths already out there. But leaning toward absolutely no truth and believing everything is totally isolated and subjective is just as harmful. If there was no truth at all we would not be capable of acting in any way, we would not know how to do or say anything at all.
Without truth, we would be completely paralyzed.
So, like almost all things, there is a middle ground. In trying to find this middle ground we often forget that it is the context that matters. Context is the great differentiator. We tend to focus on the things that seem isolated from their backgrounds and appear clearer to us. Not realizing we are neglecting the context from which they came and from which they will never be separate. In order to find out what is true it is necessary to look deeper into that background we often neglect and factor it in.
Given your background, your relationships, your experiences, your cultural upbringing. When taking these into account, what rings true?
School, for someone with a no real convictions of the divine, can be much more spiritually formative than even a church could be. At school there is a vision of reality that is offered. Though never explicitly, there are patterns in the teaching that can be picked up on. Things like “intuition” & “instinct” are useless in the “real world”, and the future was going to be technical and rational, and if you want to survive in college then certain principles needed to be followed. This isn’t what they are saying but it is what they were meaning, so I started believing them thinking I had to if I were to make it in the real world.
But the application of this vision of reality is disappointing at best, in applying this hyper-rational way of living in everyday life your vision of reality is only distorted. The world becomes a project, and in the project everything has to be done efficiently. No one can exist with an emotionless hyper-rational utilitarian trying to operate like a brain in a vat, cutting off all emotion, doing things as “rationally” as possible. Relationships with other people and with the divine are dramatically perverted when this is the lens through which the world is seen.
I find that the materialist-rational person does not know how to view the world properly, the foundation of its reality is always wavering, its relationship with nature, with the divine, and with other people is almost impossible to maintain.
Losing faith in the isolated mind’s ability to offer a proper worldview is not the same as gaining an appreciation of the isolated mind’s ability to delude. If solid footing is what you’re after, it must include something other than just rationale. After all, the mind is innately embodied, while the soul is immaterial, so everything in between ends up largely being metaphorical, something that cannot be understood by literalist means.
My way to truth does not come from any book or theory, I am far too uneducated and inexperienced for it to happen to me that way. Virtually everything that happened to me was luck, or too obvious to ignore.
My way to truth came from having experienced beauty. I mean true physical, objective beauty, in the form of a city. After high school I lived in southern Italy for quite some time, and that is really all it took. Having spent my life in a predictable suburb of Southern California, I had never seen a town square where you could sit all day and get every item you needed to survive within a 10-minute walk. This was baffling. I could not believe people did not need cars to survive. This may sound simplistic, and frankly it’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but it was the beauty of the ordinary that really stirred up some sense of divine in me. There was so much I had never seen before - everything that makes a city beautiful, the narrow roads, the cafés. And the people chilling! Oh, the people loitering! It was as beautiful of a sight I had ever seen! It was man at his peak! I saw sacred religious monuments that had something in them, almost some kind of pulse. They were alive in a way I had never seen before. The apartments, the town squares, all being older than my home country (!), all had a sanctity.
And just like that I was converted to beauty, whatever that meant I would have no idea. At the time I did not understand every implication of what this experience would fully entail but it was the closest to reality - true reality - I had ever been.
My fondness for beauty in the physical form of the city came back to me when I returned to my suburb in the US, and felt the contrast between the two. The contrast was almost stronger than the initial experience itself. I remember thinking, why does it look like this here? Nothing was organic, there was hardly any life anywhere, everything felt forced, it was hard to have a real connection to everyday places. I had never noticed this before. This was the first time I ever thought things didn’t have to be the way they are, and that maybe things would be better if they were different. It’s simplistic, but before feeling this contrast between my hometown and the streets of Sicily, I wasn’t even aware of the worldview I held. Which I now know is how many modern people operate. But before my encounter with beauty, there was no real questioning, no nuance, there was no deconstruction of what I thought, which is mostly because I didn’t know what I thought in the first place.
This experience of walking into every Cathedral I could find - on top of my newly gained appreciation for the shortcomings of the human mind - sparked some curiosity into the spiritual realm so I thought some context would be helpful. After all, I had some familiarity with a Christian worldview, so I figured I’d start from the beginning of that narrative. Which is when I found Tom Holland’s Dominion.
A history book, written from a secular point of view, completely flipped my world on its head. Everything I ever thought I knew about Christianity was corrected. I was given a greater background for something I had vaguely known, but turns out what I had known wasn’t really accurate at all. But above all I was made aware of the Christian values I had, but was not conscious of. For the first time ever I was learning about the history of Christian morals and their historical context. All of the basic fundamental beliefs of Christianity were all made clearer to me. These were things I believed subconsciously but wasn’t exactly sure what they were, but more importantly they were put in a historical and theological context that showed me just how different they were compared to what I had assumed.
In Dominion, I was shown the consuming beauty of the Christian story and the beauty of all of these beliefs I had apparently already had but wasn’t aware. As I was reading this and taking in this vast history, I realized the feeling I had standing in La Cappella Palatina was indistinguishable from the beauty I had felt familiarizing myself with the Christian story. I was exposed for the first time to the genesis of my values, which in and of itself was extremely compelling. I saw the historical Christian belief and compared it to the Christian belief of the world around me and I felt that contrast so deeply. I had the same thought again, maybe I can see the world differently. The two feelings of beauty I had were suspicious to me at first. I have a lot of questions. Were the physical and spiritual that different? Why were these different experiences so similar in resonance? Is the physical world we create a manifestation of our belief? And with these questions the rabbit hole is in process, what Dominion did to me was start a deconstruction of a faith I didn't know I had.
Initially I didn’t want to go any further, mostly because I thought Christianity was cringe. Mostly because the American brand of Christianity is what it is, and my fascination lies more with the wisdom of the Zen tradition, and with the east more generally. After all, it was my experience being a westerner that made me doubt the western rational-centric mind in the first place. I was hesitant, but to move on down the rabbit hole made too much sense to me, and I was curious. Abandoning the Christian narrative didn’t seem right, since it was already the water I swam in. The one thing that keeps me engaged is that it makes sense for me given my experiences & my nature, it is at least worth investigating even if only for curiosity’s sake.
The ramifications of it all were the most telling. I am not sure what it all means. Does this make me a Christian? I already believe in ideas which have no empirical quantifiable evidence, like human rights. What else is going on that I don’t know about?
Lately I am always asking myself; ok so what do I do with this information? The implications of witnessing beauty firsthand are drastic, as they have been for me. My entire moral compass has been flipped on its head. Every possibility needs to be considered. The experience has brought me to believe in things I never thought were possible, but it’s even crazier because I was already believing in them without knowing it! After encountering beauty I now need to completely reorient myself and my position in the cosmos and how I view the cosmos itself.
My exposure to truth had to come through beauty first, or it would not have happened at all.