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The Aesthetics of it all!

Posted by nebula0 on October 22, 2008


In my time discussing Mormonism over the years one of the biggest misconceptions that Mormons have about traditional Christianity isn’t so much over a particular doctrine or a ritual, but a whole feel that they have for the thing.  So many Mormons see traditional Christianity as oppressively bland.  You can tell if a Mormon harbors this bias by their overuse of the word ‘Platonic’ in describing Christianity.  By Platonic they don’t mean technically Platonic as much as they mean empty, vacuous, words cleverly hidden under more words crafted together in impossible creeds.  They may tell you that the Christian God sounds like a no-person and that Christian heaven sounds like a hell with its clouds and harps and unending hymn singing.  In fact, look at a recent Sunstone article, issue 150, “Of Time and all Eternitiy: God and Others in Mormonism and Heterdox Christainity” by James McLachlan- a well crafted, interesting article whose premise is just this very false notion.  Let’s face this bias head on.

After I finished my physics degree, I had the opportunity to work at CERN (yes, I knew I’d get to brag about that one day) and so lived in Switzerland/France for several months.  One thing that I quickly discovered would be a favorite pastime was looking at the glorious churches all around.  Even the smallest chapel was full of charm, usually stone, usually old, usually with stained glass.  The Mormon chapel I attended in Geneve on the other hand, was well, typically Mormon.  The biggest thing that sticks out in my memory is my visit to the cathedral at Milan.  What a truly awesome sight.  Not only is the exterior a monumental work of art to behold, but the inside… is the very definition of sacred.  I knew as soon as I stepped inside on an ordinary summer day why Catholicism has such a strong grip on the heart of humanity.  The space seeped with sacredness.

Or, I think of a more recent visit to a Presbyterian church (before I made my final decision to leave Mormonism, by the way).  The space is nice, large, with stained glass windows.  It sets the stage.  But that wasn’t what I was thinking of this time.  It was the music.  There is a giant pipe organ in that church, and it was played by a professional, and she played who else but Bach.  Unless you’ve listened to Bach played in a church with a good organ by a professional you can’t relate.  I highly suggest it.  The beauty of it is nothing short of sublime.

When I think of the richness of Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in particular- the vestments, the decorated, large spaces, the music- and then I hear a Mormon complain about the emptiness of Christianity, I don’t know whether to laugh or wring my hands.  Really?  Have you never heard a Gregorian chant or listened to Bach?  Have you never stepped inside a Cathedral on Easter Mass and saw the candles lite up the darkness?

On the other hand, let’s look at Mormonism for a second.  The Salt Lake temple is an inspiring building.  There is not question about that.  But most temples feel like what a mansion would feel like if it were decorated by hillbillies who just won the lottery.  Most Mormon chapels feel sterile and popped out of a cookie cutter.  Sure, the Tabernacle Choir can do some great stuff, but the stuff Mormons are usually subjected to Sunday by Sunday is less than inspiring and I know as a fact I’m not the only one with that opinion.

You may say, hey nebula, that’s not what we’re talking about.  We’re talking about the belief system.  The theology.  In Mormonism we know all this stuff about the afterlife.  We’re married, we have families, we’re resurrected!  Well many Mormons don’t seem to be aware that orthodox Christianity teaches of the resurrection of the dead.  I agree, Mormonism does spend much more time thinking about the specifics of the afterlife, but a lot of that I don’t personally care for.  If the Celestial Kingdom really looks like an ostentatious living room in which we all have to whisper- no thanks.  If I really have to continue to be subjected to Home Teaching in the Spirit world- no thanks.  Frankly the orthodox Christian notion of glorious union with The Bridegroom sounds much more interesting.

The next time you feel the urge to paint traditional Christianity as vacuous, empty, Platonism, remember the cathedrals, the vestments, the music, the paintings, the sculptures, and ask yourself, would emptiness have the power to inspire such beauty?

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9 Responses to “The Aesthetics of it all!”

  1. Seth R. said

    Actually, I think “Neo Platonic” would be more accurate.

  2. Seth R. said

    Actually, I do envy the ritual of E. Orthodoxy and Catholicism quite a lot. Not mega-churches though. Don’t envy anything there.

    But I do find the ultimate cosmology rather empty.

    But that’s an entirely separate issue from the richness in the life of the worshiper.

  3. nebula0 said

    But that’s my point Seth. If it really were so empty as you say, how could it inspire such beauty? You are missing something profound, the empirical evidence suggests it.

    Neo platonism is a little late… better to keep it platonism and cover all your bases ;).

  4. Seth R. said

    Really? How much later?

    I think there is a lot of profound material in traditional Christianity. But it ain’t in the cosmology. Rather, it’s in the themes that Mormons actually hold in common with traditional Christians.

  5. nebula0 said

    Plotinus died late 3rd C, so there you go.

    I suggest the cosmology is richer and more interesting than you give it credit for. Honestly, I think the Mormon cosmology though well described is very sterile and dreadful. That’s no joke. I never liked it. But I’d be mistaken to claim that therefore the cosmology IS sterile and horrible just because it doesn’t appeal to MY tastes. I hope you get my point.

  6. Seth R. said

    I imagine that many things are sterile and superficial until you take the time of actually understanding them.

    I do not view the Celestial Kingdom as a living room with white carpets. Rather, I view it as a state wherein the entire cosmos is before one’s view. You can see what you wish to. It’s a universe of infinite possibilities. It’s kind of silly to mistake the human attempts at symbolism for the reality.

  7. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    As to your last post… EXACTLY my point. In my case, I thought that Mormon cosmology ought to be rich and interesting, and I always thought it was extremely interesting but never appealed to my tastes (no accounting for tastes, they say). And that is a reaction that sprung from thinking, reading, studying more about the topic- not just a knee jerk reaction against the decor of the temples (which normally isn’t very good, still…).

    Is it possible that a similar thing happens to you when learning about traditional Christianity? that there is something about the way it is presented that just isn’t doing it for you and it doesn’t have anything to do with the intrinsic ideas in play?

  8. Seth R. said

    I imagine so.

    I will say that a large portion of online Christendom seems to be too preoccupied with telling me I’m going to hell, to take much time helping me understand why their heaven is so nifty.

    Not that I can blame them too much. Our education is our own responsibility.

  9. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    That’s because trying to describe the greatness of heaven to convert someone misses the point of traditional Christianity (that goes with fear of hell too). Love of God is supposed to be the focus. On that, I can agree. If you love God, you simply trust that he knows what he is doing and will give us good things. We don’t need the details laid out for us to reject or accept this or that about heaven, we accept that God knows us better than we know ourselves and knows what will complete our joy and just trust.

    I guess given that I’m not sure I even understand your preoccupation.

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