I may be speaking of something that escapes exact definition here, but it seems to me that the special delight experienced in the encounter with beauty is an immediate sense of the utterly unnecessary thereness, so to speak, of a thing, the simple gratuity with which it shows itself, or (better) gives itself. Apart from this, even the most perfectly executed work of art would be only a display of artisanal proficiency or of pure technique, exciting our admiration but not that strange rapture that marks the most intense of aesthetic experiences. What transforms the merely accomplished into the revelatory is the invisible nimbus of utter gratuity. Rather than commanding our attention with the force of necessity, or oppressing us with with the triteness of something inevitable, or recommending itself to us by its utility or its purposiveness, the beautiful presents itself to us as an entirely unwarranted, unnecessary, and yet marvelously fitting gift.
David Bentely Hart, The Experience of God.
The goodness of beauty lies in its unnecessariness. Now there’s a lovely and deep though worth considering.
I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they passed through the world were not great enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand of ones faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.
I have struggled with this my whole life.
This is Rev John Ames in a letter to Lila, the title character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Early in the book Lila says to Ames, “I just been wondering lately why thing happen the way they do.” She’s looking for some kind of help and the pastor struggles to answer. But here, when he finally does, is one of the better replies I’ve heard to this unanswerable question.
Q: Some Christians talk about experiencing God. Do you experience God in some way?
A: I assume that experience is the experience of God. If you think of experience as what is given to you—I mean day to day, the weather of your existence—that, I take it, is intelligible, and has purpose of a certain kind. One of the things I like about John Calvin is that he always talks about people as being presented to us, or even given to us. What he means is that any encounter with another human being is like God posing a question. The answer is what God wants, assuming that God loves and is loyal to the person he has presented to you, which is a very profound ethical question. This might seem over-intellectualized, but to me it’s much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It’s not a place of refuge, it’s a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.
I picked up Robinson’s new book, Lila, at our local bookstore the other day without knowing when I’ll have time to get to it. Now it’s sitting on my desk tempting me away from other reading assignments.
The language of prayer occurs primarily at one level, the personal, and for one purpose, salvation. The human condition teeters on the edge of disaster. Human beings are in trouble most of the time. Those who don’t know they are in trouble are in the worst trouble. Prayer is the language of the people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe or hope that God can get them out. As prayer is practiced, it moves into other levels and develops other forms, but trouble – being in the wrong, being in danger, realizing that the foes are too many for us to handle – is the basic provocation for prayer. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time, and so I pray all the time.” The recipe for obeying St. Paul’s “Pray without ceasing” is not a strict ascetical regimen but a watchful recognition of the trouble we are in.
-Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (1989).
The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”
– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).
Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.
But I have a better reason than mere prejudice for choosing pastry as the epitome of baking: It illustrates one of the chief paradoxes of life. If you were to poll the man in the street on the question: Which is harder to accomplish- something simple or something complex? you would no doubt find that most people take it for granted that simple things are easy and complex ones difficult. Yet if you were to ask the question of knowledgeable men in respect to their own trades, you would find that the reverse is true. The writer would tell you that he wrote 5000 words because he didn’t have the time to write 1500. The decorator would inform you that she worked longer and harder to produce her dramatically simple window treatment than the dabbler in the next apartment who spent one hour and produced a splendid complexity of chintz and gingerbread. The monk might tell you that he had a simple life, and the married man that he had a complex one; but the married man has bought cheap what the monk has sold dear- he proves the point as well as anyone.
It is simplicity, therefore, that takes the most doing, even though complexity has more going on. Take cake as opposed to pastry…
-Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (1969).
Maggie and I have been reading (meaning, she reads out loud to me) this strange and wonderful book for a few months. It’s a cheerful manifesto of sorts; a call to take up spatulas and butter in the kitchen. It’s great and I’m not sure how we’ve made it this long without having read this priest-chef. This bit on the difficulty of simplicity is the sort of thing the reader finds throughout the book: discursive observations that wind back, eventually, to the primary subject of cooking, food, and eating.
“I’m not the president of black America,” Barack Obama has said. “I’m the president of the United States of America.”
Precisely. And the President of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country’s heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America’s heritage is kleptocracy–the stealing and selling of other people’s children, the robbery of their fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, the taxing of black citizens for pools that will not have them, the taxing of black citizens for police who do not protect them, the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.
The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging “positive habits and behavior” while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men, may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman, and our ancestors who fought for the right of family, is true. In the fight to preserve the black family, America has rarely been an ally. Very often it has been an enemy.
-Black Pathology And The Closing Of The Progressive Mind by Ta-Nehisi Coates.