Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

A Trip to Aalst

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This weekend I took a day trip to the city of Aalst, Belgium — just a few miles west of Brussels.

I took the trip because someone suggested there was a dance festival in Aalst that day.  But when I arrived no festival was to be seen; so instead I headed on lto the town center to explore.

Almost immediately I was struck by general ‘personality’ of the town. The people there seemed like the most hard-working and unpretentious I’ve seen anywhere; it’s hard not to like people like that!

The sight of an impressive church tower above the rooftops caught my eye and I headed that direction, soon finding the impressive church of St. Martin. American’s who haven’t traveled in Europe can’t imagine how many of these churches there are in Europe. It’s amazing. Aalst has a population of a little over 75,000. But the church is magnificent, filled with absolutely beautiful works of art. I wonder if anyone even knows how many of these “little” churches there are throughout Europe, each one worth visiting and inspiring in its own way.

Yes, visit the great cathedrals, too. But something about these smaller churches reveals more about the soul and heritage of the European people: generations of devout people, working, suffering great hardships by our standards, hoping, and moved by an inner conviction that somewhere things are, can, or will be better and more beautiful than in this ‘vale of tears.’

Near the church is a statue of Dirk Martens, a man renowned for having brought the first printing press to the region. A sad detail of his life is that all four of his children died before he did. Such was the way of life then.

Yet such people as this in olden times, despite their hardships, produced this remarkably beautiful and enduring church. It is their gift, their legacy to us.

A Church as the Image of the Soul

A writing project of mine, much delayed, is an essay “On the Magnificence of the Human Soul.” While other tasks compete with this for completion, let me use this opportinity to at least sketch the basic idea.

We are taught — and I think most people seem to accept implicitly — that we are made “in the image and likeness of God.” Few, however, really understand the full implications of that statement. For while we are not equal to God, to merely carry His image is something too wonderful for words. Now an image is generally considered to be inferior to its original. But here the original is Perfection itself. To be even a very limited image of Infinite Perfection and Infinite Goodness is — one can see by mathematics alone — very great indeed.

Simply put, to accept that we are made in “God’s image and likeness” is to admit a far greater view of human nature than people ordinarily acknowledge. The great mystics seem unanimous on this point: if we understood the true greatness of the human soul we might never cease rejoicing!

My aim with said essay is partly to produce something like a logical proof to demonstrate the magnificence of the human soul. Here let me supply just one piece of the entire argument.

It is supposed that the reader knows what it is to be awed by a beatiful work of art: to be struck, inspired,  or reminded of the transcendant nature of Beauty by art. This is an experience which most cultured people share.

One may well praise artists for having the ability to produce such works. But praise too is due the viewer — for were our soul not innately beautiful, it would not resonate to the work of art.

Art cannot produce in us an aesthetic, emotional, or religious response that is not already latent within our nature. We have the innate capacity to recognize, appreciate, and respond to beautiful art. It is not something acquired or learned. It is intrinsic to us.

Moreover we have the latent ability to respond not just to works of art we *do* see, or *have* seen — but to any possible work that could ever be produced. Tomorrow, next week, or next year you will see some wonderful new work of art — and you will have a deep, immediate, aesthetic reaction to that. This can, and perhaps willl, happen over and over again for you. One-thousand or ten-thousand artists could produce as many great works of art, and each would produce in you a unique aesthetic experience. Each would reveal to you some new facet of who you are — who you *already* are.

This is a very Platonic notion. Plato repeatedly emphasizes the nature of anamnesisan-amnesis or un-forgetting. His view is that, at some point, perhaps just prior to birth, our soul experiences something like the Goodness of God in all its glory. Or perhaps we accurately perceive the goodness of our own soul, which is the image of God. But either at birth or some time thereafter, we forget this all — it becomes unconscious. From that reservoir of latent knowledge our dreams are fed. But little by little, for the dedicated seeker, remembrance of one’s true nature comes back — one insight at a time.

Anyway, this is enough to explain the general nature of the “argument” I’m working on. If it is correct, my guess is that perhaps some people will see where I’m trying to take it.

Meanwhile, why not keep this idea in mind next time you visit a museum or a church like this. What is the art saying about the people who made and preserved the art? What is it saying about your soul? And what is it saying about God’s providential designs in history that people in one age are able to supply such a gift for those in another?

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Written by John Uebersax

July 27, 2008 at 6:49 pm

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