Sunday, 24 March 2013

The inadequacy of textual descriptions

I'm currently reading John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and coming to the end of the first part where Christian and Hopeful have reached the border of the Celestial City. Like many of the books I collect this is a real keeper. Naturally, I've been reading up on this great original classic of the English language: One analyst suggested that because of the book - especially because of the individualistic (protestant) take on the notion of salvation - England didn't go the way of the French Revolution...other compared the differences between Catholic and Protestant faiths...and yet another the differences between the first and second parts of the book itself.

What struck me, and has always struck me, is the description of the "shining city of the hill", and the use of 'precious' metals and others considered 'luxury' materials (woods, gems, etc.) to describe the holy city. Bunyan's description got me thinking this morning whether the materials in the description are desirable because the Lord has made them so, or whether they're just allegorical devices.

See, to me, a more satisfying description of the holy city would have to do with the architecture and the landscape and not just the materials. I've had this deep fascination with cathedrals and other older forms of architecture since I could remember. The St. Paul's cathedral, the Chartres cathedral, the Notre Dame cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, Michu Picchu, Angor Wat, even unto ancient and modern cities...and I tend to think (forgive me) what are called 'precious' materials actually detract from the beauty of such things and make them contrived, gaudy and cheap (sort of like the technicolor Wizard of Oz type thingy, fascist and soviet architure). I guess some things don't naturally lend themselves to textual descriptions.

Having seen Picasso's and Kahlo's sketchbooks, I think context, geometry, balance, proportion, broken and unbroken symmetries are extremely important...hidden dimensionless numbers (constants) that only appear in contemplation of structures and architecture all require an active seeking of simplicity and elegance...all the physical universe, its governing dynamics, is perfection itself - the wondrous miracle hidden in plain sight - the varying of the flow of time itself adumbrate the deeper, unfathomable mystery of God. Even dirt itself has witness to the glory of God if we would seek to examine it.

There is a beautiful passage in Bunyan's book that speak to the inadequancy of the human heart alone to understand the glory and promise of God, that humility and admission of our error-prone ways (our arrogance, prejudice and impatience) are required of us to see and partake in the miracle of the Celestial City. The Law in itself, as Christians say (sometimes without much appreciation), is not enough; the fulfillment of the Law (Jesus Christ - ie, the perfected love and grace of God) is not about punishment and reward (our righteousness are like filthy rags, quotes Bunyan) but becoming simple enough to see and appreciate the glory of God (if even for short moments in time). Though, I think, Bunyan falls short in his description of the Celestial City the central message (the Law in itself is incomplete; it requires love and acceptance) rings clear.

It is said of Darwin that he spent his last days in great, palpable sadness; methinks he saw only the Law, and not the beautiful mystery that animates and necessitates that Law. The seven cardinal sins are deadly not so much because they are "moralistic" sins (and this dogmatic view tends to trap and double-bind fundamentalists of all faiths, anyhow), but because they have real-world consequences: just look at our present state of affairs in the world's economy to see the consequences of greed...our addictions (gluttony), likewise, lead to sadness and depletion because they disrupt the natural balance of our bodies and make us do things that sacrifice our dignity.


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