Christian TraditionsPhilosophyRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Sublime and the Sacred, Part II

This is the second post in a series examining what the New Evangelization within Roman Catholicism can learn from the aesthetics of Burke, Kant, and Malick. To read the previous post, click here.

This sublime, one should note, is not a kind of masochism. Rather, it is something which catalyzes an awful delight from the passions. On how sensations of pain and pleasure integrate, Burke writes, “The person who grieves, suffers his passion to grow upon him; he indulges it, he loves it; but this never happens in the case of actual pain, which no man ever willingly endured for any considerable time.”1 This passion is a catharsis—akin to the tears a mother joyfully sheds after giving birth to her first child. Imagine if the new father stares at his fearfully and wonderfully made child, thrown into his arms, in terror. This terror is fear and awe: he should be fearful for what he is around, i.e. his child, and recognize the awesomeness of his new creation. The mother’s tears and father’s fears is not pain per se, but a catharsis of the passions.

For instance, Burke approvingly quotes Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, as our title hero speaks of his fallen friends:

Still in short intervals of pleasing woe,

Regardful for the friendly dues I owe,

I to the glorious dead, for ever dear,

Indulge the tribute of a grateful tear.2

Odysseus’ pathos is not a pleasure derived from pain, rather a catharsis that occurs in human mourning. Burke’s understanding of the sublime is derived from his understanding of human psychology. So, if accented human emotions are different from actual pain (torture for instance), then the intensity of the sublime is more in the category of religious feeling.

The sublime, according to Burke, does not just originate in human psychology. The soldiers’ deaths, or the child’s birth, are events natural to humans, and may well be caused by humans (usually so for birth!); such activities however find their root in the natural order. Birth and death are not events of human psychology, but catalyzers of it. And it is in nature that Burke finds the grounding of the sublime. He “marks out the sphere of artistic imitation only to describe the true sublime as that which looms beyond its boundaries.”3 Art imitates what we see in the created order; art’s primary interest is intimating with beauty.

For Burke, such external objects which catalyze a feeling of the sublime are often found in nature. In a letter to his friend, Richard Shackleton, from June 14, 1744, Edmund Burke notes that “beauty,” which is more pleasing rather than cathartic, “consists in variety and uniformity and is not found that abundantly shown in the motion and form of the heavenly bodies.” Later in the letter, Burke shows his fascination for “infinite and boundless space,” his wonder at the sight of the cosmos covered with “innumerable luminaries at such immense distance from us,” and awe which is analogous to the awe of the logos or “word of the Creator sufficient to create [the] universe from nothing.” And, James Boulton notes, all of Burke’s youthful “reactions to grandeur” were each “to be connected systematically with the sublime.”4

One illustration of such sublime religious feeling via nature is found in John Keats’ poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816). Keats compares his discovery of George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey to astronomy and nautical discovery:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.5

In the poem, both the astronomer and Cortez’s men have discovered objects completely new to them, but ancient to nature: a planet, and the Pacific Ocean. Keats has just come upon an epic poem ages old. It is like the other ventures which bring ancient objects newly into the sight of women and men. The Pacific is seemingly “infinite and boundless in space”, while the planet is at “such immense distance from us.” Such an inspiring “wild surmise” seems equivalent to what Burke calls “delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with terror.”6

Immanuel Kant, in his early aesthetic work, Observations on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1764), does not primarily chronicle the emotion of the sublime like Burke. Rather, Kant traces how aesthetic judgment and moral judgment relate.7However, an interesting parallel exists between Kant’s understanding of the sublime and its Burkean religious connotations. Kant writes that “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.”8 That is, as observers of sublimity we have a dignity in our rational powers in comprehending mightier things. It reminds one of the Job-like ethos in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry. Burke comments on one passage of Yahweh’s response to Job: “Who hath loosed (says he) the bands of the wild ass? whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the voice of the driver. The range of the mountains is his pasture.”9Burke observes:

The description of the wild ass, in Job, is worked up into no small sublimity, merely by insisting on his freedom, and his setting mankind at defiance; otherwise the description of such an animal could have had nothing noble in it.…In short, wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power we shall all along observe the sublime the concomitant of terror, and contempt the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious.10

Job was tested by God, confronted by His dominion though not dominated by it. Rather this passage from the Book of Job, like Keats’ lines, accent the humility and ultimate dignity felt at being an observer of such sublimity.

Ian Harris observes that Nature, “properly understood, implied a God who acted in the manner disclosed by the Old Testament. Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry…accents sublimity. Sublimity was taken to imply power, and the exercise of power through nature was described in terms that invoked Job.”11 One episode from the Book of Job illustrates this well. The pious Job, having suffered God permit the deaths of all Job’s children, the perishing of his crops, and the plague coming upon his body, questions God in the wilderness: “Why?” God answers out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38: 4, 7). Job is confronted with a grand tour of the cosmos, and finally relents that he spoke without understanding. Burke notes this pathos in his Enquiry: “the scripture alone can supply ideas answerable to majesty of this subject. In scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, everything terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the divine presence.”12 For Burke, the Sublime in nature is necessary to experiencing the sacred of religious sensibilities.

Kant seems to correspond to Burke’s belief that sublimity implies “power, and the exercise of power through nature” when he writes of the power of Nature’s dominion, and our powerlessness. But Kant rightly picks up on the dignity as a creature before nature and the paradoxical strength Burke observes. We experience our own power to observe nature’s power, becoming stronger in the Biblical humbling before it.

The Sacred is that which in human experience is set apart from the ordinary. Rene Girard writes that it “is possible to distinguish the finite quality of sense – of structure – from the infinite quality of the sacred, that inexhaustible reservoir from which all differences flow and into which they all converge.”13 The sacred manifests itself in nature as the infinite quality, while in human artifacts like art there is the finite quality “of structure.” This distinguishes the sublime, as we hunger for it in art and religion, from the sacred things, like cathedrals, prayer, or the Catholic sacraments, to signify the infinite quality of the sacred. It seems that Burke’s conception of the sublime is the aesthetic cousin to the sacred, since we experience the sacred as sublime. As Scruton writes, “Sacred things are not of this world: they are set apart from ordinary reality and cannot be touched or uttered without rites of initiation or the privilege of religious office.”14 Yet the radical thing about the sublime is that is also invitation: the Real Presence in the Catholic Eucharist is otherworldly, as Botticelli’s Juno is otherworldly yet still incarnationally breaking into the world of the everyday. As Beatrice says in the Paradiso, of an ecstatic vision of Christ:

What overcomes you here [Dante]

Is a power against which there is no defence.

Here is that wisdom and that power

Which opened the roads between heaven and earth,

For which there had been such longing so long.15

Burke’s sublime is something against which “there is no defence” because it is a reflection in the created order of what he believed to be “that wisdom and that power,” i.e. God, who lays the foundations of the created order. The natural order points to the sacred, and is itself sublime.

Burke affirms that nature gives us that fearful delight since its “visual objects of great dimensions are Sublime.”16 As noted above, the Sublime gives us no pleasure, and calls us not to intimate with it. Yet, it seems nigh impossible that a man or woman ever looked at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope and denied their beauty. Such pictures call us to set apart, but also call us to explore the heavens and seek adventure in a spirit of inquiry, science, and voyage. They produce a feeling of beauty so that we do not worship nature as something sacred. How can Burke’s aesthetics reconcile with this tension? I believe it lies in his religious understanding.

For instance, Burke writes: “To represent an angel in a picture, you can only draw a beautiful young man winged; but what painting can furnish out any thing so grand as the addition of one word, “the angel of the Lord?”17 An angel is beautiful—entertaining and pleasing to the eye. But the addition of “Lord” to the picture makes all the difference from the beautiful to the sublime. As Burke mentions above, only the Bible “can supply ideas answerable to majesty of” the sublime. One biblical passage has this Burkean phrase during the annunciation to the shepherds of the birth of our Lord:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people…a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.’18

The angel of the Lord, through whom God’s glory shines, terrifies the shepherds. Yet such a terrifying figure brings to them “good news of a great joy,” i.e. the birth of Christ. The subliminal angelic body, otherworldly and set apart, invites the shepherds to intimate in the experience of the most sacred happening: the beginning of the Incarnation. When one has a religious understanding of where nature and the sublime originates, and then understands how this Origin has revealed itself, the created order no longer seems to be estranged from our being. Rather, we are invited into the beauty of the sublime heavens by the Source of the heavens.

This exegesis of Burke and Kant highlights the need to understand how the encounter with beauty catalyzes a conversion from relativism. My own reconversion to the Catholic Christianity of my youth had these elements to it, specifically one particular scene from Terrance Malick’s 2011 film, Tree of Life. When I watched and meditated upon its sublime religious sense19—that each of the two Genesis creation stories are retold through contemporary astrocosmology and biology and a childhood in 1950s Waco, Texas, respectively, each as an answer to mother Jessica Chastain and son Sean Penn’s Job question, “Where were you?”—my materialism encountered the beautiful, shatteringly so. I had been for two years previous the village skeptic of my beloved catholic high school because for all practical purposes I found Christopher Hitchens funny. Yet witnessing the birth of the cosmos with Mozart’s Lacrimosa triumphing, I saw the stars sing together. This encounter with the Platonic beautiful in my sublime experience of Malick’s opened me up in many later viewings of Tree of Life to the Love shining through all things, particularly this film. It actually may have been the beginning of the breaking in of grace into my own life, thanks not just to the beauty of this film, but how it was able in my experiencing fear and awe of the cosmic imagery that channeled God’s speech to Job (the film actually begins with God’s speech to Job in 38: 4, 7).20 After many repeated viewings, I became more in tune to Biblical sensibilities, as exhibited by Malick; to quote Hart,

“the ingenious subtlety of the scriptural allegories around which the film is built, and of the film’s meditations on the mystery of God’s silence and eloquence, and on innocence and transgression, and on the divine glory that shines out from all things…The Tree of Life is profoundly, if mysteriously, scriptural—with its images of Eden, Cain and Abel, God speaking out of the whirlwind, divine Wisdom dancing at the heart of creation, Christ the man of sorrows, and so on.”21

I experienced not the high and lofty, rather peaceful fear and awe that is the sublime. The only way to describe properly is the end of the Paradiso, when Dante paradoxically writes of how he is unable to speak of the Beatific Vision’s ineffability and its intimacy:

So I was faced with this new vision…

At this point high imagination failed;

But already my desire and my will

Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,

By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.22

Basically, Terrence Malick evangelized me. The faith surely is a medium for beauty (e.g. the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the writings of Hart, Balthasar, and Jacques Maritain).23 Yet as Burke, Kant, and Malick show, the experience of the Sublime causes a painful delight, a delight from the Trinitarian love affair that moves the heavens in infinite expansion and beautiful scope, moving the heart to encounter the world as a cosmic love-affair.

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Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel is a current undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, studying philosophy, creative writing, and literature. He aspires to be a philosopher and a writer. Ryan is a Christian believer. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, 'I am a Roman Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a Burkean in politics.'

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