With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, May 18, 2007

Pavel Florensky and the Aesthetics of Morality: Part I


Although moral theology has the potential of bringing an inspiring, practical dimension of theological investigation to our lives, it is a lamentable fact that this potential is rarely met. Sometimes, if not most of the time, it is carried out as if all that people need to know to be good, moral persons, is a list of obligatory commands. While it is true that the Church should express the norms by which people should live by, it is also true that there is a large number of people who feel that these norms do not properly address how they should live in the world today. The rules offered do not seem to address the moral quandaries people face in their daily lives. Indeed, one can say that the rules are increasingly difficult if not impossible to follow. The societal environment needed in order to follow them is just not there. The question of “what ought I to do” really can never be fully answered by a a list of “do not do this, nor this, nor this.” Indeed, while we have free will, at a given moment we cannot do everything we might want to will: I can’t fly into the sky just because I will to fly. People might will to do good, but they might find themselves in a situation where they believe every possible choice or action they could make would break one or more of the moral laws they have been told to follow. After experiencing much frustration, they do as one expects them to do: they give up. They feel that the Church is no longer in touch with the real world and the choice of actions they have set before them. In the end, they begin to look elsewhere for answers.

Moral theologians have to provide meaningful answers to the moral questions which are set before us today. It is a very difficult task. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II noted both the increasing difficulty that the Catholic Church has in teaching its moral norms to the laity, but also the increasing need for moral theologians to effectively express the Church’s morality in a way people can understand and follow it. “The service which moral theologians are called to provide at the present time is of utmost importance, not only for the Church’s life and mission, but also for human culture and society.”[1] But the question is – how are they to do this? What ways can they integrate the norms of moral law with the increasingly difficult living conditions and moral dilemmas that Christians face?

Father Kenneth Overberg reminds us that, “Deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition is the conviction that morality is based on reality. Reality is God, human beings and the rest of creation – all in relationship. Every moral dilemma presents a small but real slice of this totality.”[2] Questions of morality reflect questions about the whole of reality. When we ignore the relationship that our actions have with the greater whole, it might be easy for us to find ways to justify those actions we like to do. However, it is easy for us to see how this insufficiently addresses the morality of the action is, because the moral consequence of any action extends beyond the limited framework of the individual who act: all actions have an effect, however slight or great, upon the whole of creation.

The priest-martyr Pavel Florensky offers us another way to address moral questions. Like Father Overberg, Florensky believed that moral theology can only be adequately addressed by understanding its proper position and place within the whole of reality. What is moral theology but theological reflection which looks upon the question of goodness? Then then, what does it mean to be good? What, exactly, is the good? Victor Bychkov explains Florensky’s basic view: “In Florensky’s understanding, the metaphysical triad of Truth, Good, and Beauty is formed not of different principles or aspects of being, but of one principle. It is one and the same spiritual life considered from different angles.”[3]

In this way we can say that one of the many problems of how moral theology has often been done is that it has taken itself, and its principle questions, as independent investigations separated from the rest of theology. It has lost is spiritual center, and with it, the core by which it is able to provide for us a way of life. Its reflections tend to become legalisms; it provides to the one searching for answers a Pharisaical letter that kills their human spirit. In order to put a life-giving spirit back into moral theology is time to put back into its reflections that which has been most neglected: the aesthetic dimension of being. Aesthetic theology, and its livelihood, can be used to encourage a more organic, more holistic moral theology – it can create a theology that inspires, just as beauty attracts the one who views it. Or, in a similar vein, it can be said that moral theology should be examined and within the lens of aesthetic theology: if what we find is unappealing, if what we find can be said to be “ugly,” then there should be no surprise why it does not encourage people to following its principles.

The question can easily be asked: even if the good and the beautiful are one and the same principle under different angles of investigation, is it possible for moral theology to be judged by aesthetics? That is, can aesthetics be used to set up practical moral principles? As an example where this has been done, let us turn it upon the life and teachings of Pavel Florensky. Since he is the one who suggests to us that it should be possible, and that it is necessary for morality and aesthetics to intersect, it would be interesting to see how he demonstrated this in his own life and work. From there, we will readdress this question, taking Florensky’s insights, and see that although they offer a direction for us to move, his own principles needs further elaboration and development before it can be fully used within the scheme of moral theology. They are useful, they point us to a new way to look at the issue, and they raise raise the right question, but it is a project left incomplete by Florensky. Perhaps if he had lived longer, he would have been able to provide for this as well. Even if he did not, we can recognize in his thought a kernel of truth which can be useful in further investigations into moral theology.

[1] Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth. Vatican Translation (Boston, Massachusetts: St Paul Books and Media, 1993), 111.
[2] Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., Conscience in Conflict: How to Make Moral Choices; revised edition (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1998), 5.
[3] Victor Bychkov, The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 28.

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