Surf at Moonstone Beach, 2016
"… [W]hatever is and whatever comes to be, is and comes to be on account of the beautiful and the good. All things look to it; all things are moved by it; all things are held together by it. Every source…exists for the sake of it, because of it, and in it; simply put, every source, all preservation and all ending, whatever is held in being, derives from the beautiful and the good.
Hence, all things must desire, must yearn for, must love the beautiful and the good; because of it and for its sake, the weaker is returned with yearning to the more powerful, equals keep fellowship with equals, the more powerful become providential toward the weaker, and each brings forth itself; everything does and wills whatever it does and wills by desire for the beautiful and the good."
--Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, The Divine Names, 4.10, unpublished translation by Kendra G. Hotz
In the writings of the sixth-century Christian mystic known as the Pseudo-Dionysius (or "Denys"), we find a suggestive vision of the human condition. When Denys surveyed the human landscape, he concluded that our condition is one marked by a fragmentation and restlessness that undermine stable, integrated personhood. The tragedy of our condition resides not so much in disobedience and guilt but in pervasively distorted desire. To be human is to be an erotic being, where eros refers not primarily to sexuality but to the integrative pattern of yearning and desire that draws together our identities and orients us to all reality. Denys claims that before our fall into this tragic state, the desire that constitutes our personhood was like a single mirror that reflected a unified vision of life focused on the Divine. This singularity of focus ordered our identity so that the various desires of the soul and body were brought into homeostatic balance and harmony, ensuring, for example, that our sexual desire, our desire for food, our desire for companionship, our desire for work, our desire to own, use, and enjoy things, and our desire for God, were integrated into a carefully orchestrated, interdependent unity that brought wholeness, beauty, and harmony to all of life.
The Fall shattered that mirror into thousands of disconnected shards, each reflecting a diverse, discrete object of desire. A unified, integrated self became a fragmented, dislocated self drifting anxiously among a variety of disconnected things desperately investing each of them with an ultimacy that none of them could bear. The tragic consequence of this is not primarily guilt but personal disintegration, chaotic restlessness, contradictory and confused desires, alienation from self, and exile from the world of authentic relationships with God and others.
What has come to interest me as a theologian and photographic artist is the way that consumerism as the prevailing meaning-making system of our world reflects and answers to this ancient theology. Consumerism is more than an economic system. It is the totalizing ideology or, if theologian John Kavanaugh is right, the prevailing religion, of American life that has soaked deeply into our bones, shaping our individual and communal perceptions, values, actions, and assumptions in ways we usually remain blind to.*
Consumerism depends on the fragmentation and distortion of our desire, the elusiveness of fulfillment, the addiction-producing ache of incompleteness, and the illusion that finite objects will do for us what only the Infinite can do. To produce, buy, and consume are its ethical mandate. Competition, possession, and egocentrism are its cardinal virtues. Shopping is salvific, and cheap, fast, and convenient are the tropes of its over-marketed liturgy. More is its great eschatological hope and Santa Claus its patron saint.
A constant stream of new and improved products are paraded before us, each promising to do for us what the last one failed to do. Each reminds us of our insufficiency even as it offers a faux redemption from it coated with ersatz ultimacy. Infiniti is yours as a luxury sedan made by Nissan, and Eternity is bottled as a $42 cologne by Calvin Klein. Buy her earrings from De Beers Jewelry and like the silhouetted selves in the televised commercial you and your beloved will slip into the dark bedroom lit only by the sparkle of diamonds and rediscover your lost intimacy, sexual passion, and marital concord. You'll be a real man again, a provider for your woman, and she'll rediscover the power of things to narcotize the pain and diminishment of selfhood required by patriarchy.
I am more and more convinced that the pursuit of creativity and beauty in the arts can be one of the ways back to a unified, concentrated form of desire where integration overcomes fragmentation. Like prayer, sacraments, and other contemplative practices, artistic creativity and viewing works of art can become effective, albeit clumsy, efforts at coherence, wholeness, and connectedness in a consumerist world governed by divided desires, transient allegiances, and false objects of ultimacy. To be sure, efforts at creativity and beauty can be and often have been co-opted by consumerism, but at there best, they can form part of our strategy for resistance and the rediscovery of wholeness, well ordered living, and authenticity.
Artistic creativity and the thirst for beauty emerge out of an ordinary person's longing for connectedness and coherence, out of a longing to discern and bear witness to a larger underlying unity capable of stitching the fragmentary episodes of our individual and shared lives into a single, grand epic penned by that mysterious Other "in whom we live, move, and have our being." Art and beauty are an invitation to see, hear, touch, move, and ultimately live differently.
Good photographs or other good works of art can serve as portals through which we briefly glimpse the primordial unity that upholds and expresses itself through all things. But even this glimpse, brief, distant and oblique as it is, is enough to teach us that beauty is not simply there to entertain us. It is there to restore us, to occasion both the reintegration of the self and our reconciliation with others and with the Wholly Other that always seem to elude us in the fragmenting world of consumerism. Beauty has this power because it is ontologically real and because it is a concretization of divine grace.
Artistic creativity can be a gesture, albeit a halting, partial, and clumsy one, that points us toward the simple truth that beauty is Gospel spilled lavishly on the world.
*John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (25th Anniversary Edition, New York: Orbis Books, 2006)