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GTU Voices - Spirituality x Beauty

Spirituality x Beauty

By Christopher J. Renz, OP

In the worldview of Greek classical philosophy, there would be no concept of “spirituality” as we think of it today. Instead, there was the idea of “soul,” though, too, not understood as today. The ‘soul’ of an animate being makes the thing “be what it is.” Thus, the concept of “dog soul” or “horse soul.” Humans are unique because we have a “rational soul,” with powers for discursive thinking and self-reflection. We can “think about thinking;” we can imagine things that don’t yet exist; and we can think “forever.” This capacity for imaginative and creative thinking places humans in the particular category of “spiritual beings” because it allows us to transcend the physical limitations of time and space. 

The engagement of our imagination to create useful things – like a boat – sets us apart from most other animals. While there are a few other species that use tools, only humans enhance tools to a level that renders them either impractical or useless. Consider a functional boat versus a “miniature boat in a bottle.” In this classic distinction between craft (making a boat that floats) and fine art (the making of a beautiful boat) the person elevates a skill beyond practicality. This type of creativity belongs to the “liberal arts” not because of a political alignment, but because in its exercise the artist becomes “liberated from” the physical and practical limitations of the craft. Thus liberated, the artist is now free to engage the powers of the rational soul to a “higher” terminus, the Transcendentals:  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, whose attainment requires the life-long habituation to certain behaviors and ways of thinking – virtues. The person who is a practitioner of liberal (fine) arts must develop not only technical skills related to the craft, but also the intellectual skills required to recognize and behold Beauty. If they achieve the capacity to consistently create beautiful things, this artist is called a virtuoso, someone habituated to a virtuous life focused on the cultivation and expression of Beauty.  

In contrast to our contemporary use of this term, the virtuoso is someone who is capable of expressing the very essence of what it means to be human through a relentless and loving pursuit of Beauty. As the 20th century philosopher Jacques Maritain noted, “left to its own devices the [human] soul strives to engender in beauty.” We do this because the striving leads to a profound self-awareness: that we long for beautiful encounters (whether it is natural or created beauty) because there we realize our own inherent beauty. 

In contemporary cognitive science, encounters by test subjects with beauty induce an experience of awe, an “aesthetic emotion.” A complex emotion, awe engages both the body (physical feelings) and the mind (wonder) which together draw the subject into a deeper awareness:  of their own subjectivity (the “small self”) and the need to accommodate their worldview. Put another way, experiences of awe induced by beauty activate the “spiritual self” and the possibility to admit that “the world is not as I thought it to be.” 

Through this lens, to speak of “spirituality in art” is to encourage people to cultivate a life that is “free” (liberal) enough to see beyond the confines of a spatio-temporal existence towards a world inhabited by Beauty. For those skilled at a particular craft (visual art, music, writing, architecture, dance, etc.), this habituation will be driven by Beauty, producing not simply “objective creations” (the piece of beautiful art) but also “invitations” for spiritual encounters between persons – a shared experience of awe and wonder that invites a revelation of a new way of being human. 

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