In Tents #27 Ethics and Aesthetics Part 5

Last night at dinner my sister Krista asked what I was presenting at the AML symposium. She was trying to distract me from mourning the impending loss of our mother’s four last infected teeth, with nothing left to anchor lower dentures to. (Last Tuesday, March 19, I heard Ron Chernow talking on the radio from BYU about George Washington’s ivory (not wooden) spring-loaded dentures. How difficult and painful they were to wear–how hard to keep them in his mouth and do things that required an open mouth, like talking. Perhaps that was the reason, he said, for the brevity of Washington’s speeches.)

I said I would be talking about aesthetics as a reflection of ethics. “Do they have the same root?” she asked. “I don’t think so. The root of aesthetics has to do with feeling. An anaesthetic is something that deadens our feelings. As soon as you start talking about feelings, you raise the question about whether the feelings are genuine, whether the way a work of art appeals to your feelings is genuine or false.”

My father and others of my teachers used to define sentimentality as unearned appeal to emotion. I looked for a non-controversial example for a long time. Not a work of art I figured everyone would agree was sentimental and not very good, but an example of appeal to feeling that is not earned. I found a lovely example of a character appealing to unearned emotion in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s picture book The Wicked City. To demonstrate how wicked Sodom was Singer tells about the man who murders his parents then argues in court that the judge should let him go because he is an orphan.

But I didn’t know I had found my example. I remembered that story from Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor (read twice in two successive teenage summers working the ancestral dryfarm), and was disappointed that Singer would be using a joke and asking us to take it seriously.

A few years later I read a review of Singer’s Stories for Children, and the reviewer singled out that anecdote as an example of how bitter Singer could be—or perhaps how bitter the world felt to him. Singer understood what I didn’t, that the joke wasn’t just a joke about Sodom, but a social comment about modern life.

I told my sister what has occurred to me over and over as I’ve thought through these posts, and at other times, that the vocabulary of aesthetics comes from ethics. We think of aesthetics as dealing with proportion and beauty—hence a person who specializes in working with the beauty of the human face is called an aesthetician. But the question of whether something is truly beautiful is unavoidable. (I could qualify that last sentence and say “almost unavoidable,” but I know full well that anything I find ugly is beautiful to someone and much that I find beautiful is ugly or offensive to other people who appreciate beauty and good writing just as fully as I do.)

And if we talk about whether something is both true and beautiful, or has literary value or worth, we’re talking ethics: truth, values, worthiness. But there’s a darker side to equating ethics and aesthetics.

My sisters started talking about the ethics and aesthetics of converting geological features into roads and non-ferrous metals and other forms of profit, and how companies divert attention from the ethics of removing mountain tops to the aesthetics of boasting about riverfront restoration.

That’s not the darker side I was thinking about though. The point I’m moving toward is a question. Most of us consider our actions ethical, or need to find some way to think of them as ethical. If we think of ethics and aesthetics as the same thing, does that mean creating bad art, or inferior art is unethical? A lot of artists would say yes: Our integrity requires us to create the best art we can.

But turn the question 90 degrees or so. Since I’m an ethical person and make ethical judgments, if I don’t like your work, if it doesn’t meet my aesthetic standards, does that make you unethical?

That’s what I’m leading up to, but I don’t reason in straight lines. I learn and understand things from stories. And for me the stories are as important as the conclusions they lead to. So it’s going to take me longer to finish this digression than I thought.

About 30 years ago I heard a prominent New Testament scholar visiting BYU say that it is best to consider the strong anti-Jewish sentiment in Acts and some epistles as squabbling among family members.

That story of sitting in the Little Theater (back when the Wilkinson Center still had a Little Theater across the lobby and up a flight of stairs from the Varsity Theater) listening to the scholar has guided my reading off and on. That is, when I read the New Testament I try to imagine what I’m reading as members of a family arguing with each other, rather than as a guide to how I ought to think about other people.

The Christian ethic of blaming the Jews likely started in stories like this from Acts 3. Peter and John have just healed a lame man begging alms from those going into the temple, which healing has drawn a crowd.

12 ¶And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?

13 The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go.

14 But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you;

15 And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.

16 And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.

17 And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.

18 But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled.

Interpreting Peter’s sermon as a statement of blame to the Jews ignores the next verse. The purpose of a Christian sermon is to convict people of their sins. “I’ve been to your church and your preacher doesn’t make me feel half sinful enough—not by a longshot,” a woman told me on my mission. But the sermon doesn’t leave us in our sins. Bringing us a conviction of our sins is only half the purpose of a sermon. The rest of the purpose is to offer us deliverance. So Peter begins by convicting his audience of their sins, then spends 13 words offering deliverance:

19 ¶Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,

As the comma indicates, Peter gives more detail as he continues. The detail is less important here than the fact that the convicting of sins part of the sermon is over. He is not denying the efficacy of the Lord’s covenant with the Children of Israel generally and the Jews particularly. Indeed, before the temple officials arrive and interrupt him, Peter reaffirms the covenant.

25 Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.

26 Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.

In a lot of important ways Christian exegesis stopped at verse 18, read the first part of the sermon as a rejection. Eventually anyway. But if aesthetics reflects ethics, I can hear someone say, does that necessarily mean that ethics reflects aesthetics? What do the ethics of the interpretation have to do with aesthetics?

This. Scriptural and historical interpretation are aesthetic matters because they deal with how we shape stories. Part of the point of this year-long digression has been to glimpse the intents behind the way Christians have told the story of Pilate’s trial before Jesus, and to suggest a way to reshape, reunderstand that story, and by extension the story of Jesus and the Pharisees. To which we will eventually return.

Your turn.

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2 Responses to In Tents #27 Ethics and Aesthetics Part 5

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I recall a talk in stake conference by a therapist who argued that from a gospel perspective, all of us are broken. If we claim to be without sin, the truth is not in us.

    So from that perspective, the gospels are antisemitic not in the blame they put upon the Jews, but in holding the gentiles blameless. Except that I think part of your project has been to demonstrate that a close reading of the gospels shows that Pilate is *not* represented as blameless. Which leaves us with the possibility that what is antisemitic in the gospels is not their content so much as how they have been read by Christians as texts that justify putting Christians above Jews.

    We are all guilty in that we attempt to justify ourselves. And all scripture has the message of calling us to repentance. Or something like this. Is this part of where you’ve been going? (And I can’t help but note the resemblances to Rene Girard’s thinking…)

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    I think, Harlow, that you have pretty well covered the matter of the shaping of the story of Pilate and Jesus. I think we, as Mormons and as Christians, get into trouble with these stories when we try to abstract from them principles or meanings, or yoke them into servitude to our pre-determined doctrines, a major fault in my mind with all of Bruce R. McConkie’s work.

    As you have demonstrated, we need to understand the stories deeply before we can draw from them any principles to apply to our lives. The same is true of such stories as Nephi’s slaying of Laban. The rationalization Nephi employs, and attributes to the Spirit, echoes and is echoed by the words John puts into the mouth of Caiaphas: “Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:49-50, but 47 through 53 is all germane). We may never understand those stories, or the story of Abraham agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, but we should try much harder than we usually do.

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