We are able to notice, to observe, to perceive in a purposeless way that we call aesthetics. In German, the verb "to perceive" is wahrnehmen. Its literal meaning, which is "to take something is true," demonstrates that perception is related to truth. Our aesthetic perception lures us into truth. "When the doors to perception are cleansed," as Blake put it, we see more and we perceive the created world in a different way. The world appears no longer as disposable dead stuff but as a vital living organism. In aesthetics we are all animists who believe that there is a soul in every living being. Our perception of aesthetic objects makes them responsive. A dialogue ensues between the perceiver and the otherwise inanimate object. We grasp the interrelatedness of creation in this dialogue between the sun and me, birch and me. Perhaps then we see as God saw in the beginning when she said, "It is very good." . . . . To believe in creation is to perceive and engage in the aesthetic mode of perception. One cannot love God if one does not know what beauty is . . . .I'm struggling with what Soelle means by this. Part of my difficulty is with the terms she uses. "Perception" means something different in English (and perhaps also in contemporary German, as well).
One definition is "the collection, identification, organization, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment." [Schacter, Daniel (2011). Psychology. Worth Publishers]. Its primary goal is empirical observation and knowledge, rather than aesthetic or philosophical apprehension. Although the two can be juxtaposed, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard, they are inevitably in tension and sometimes opposition. [See, e.g. Jane Bennett, Thoreau's Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild; Pamela A. Smith, The Ecotheology Of Annie Dillard: A Study In Ambivalence; Margaret Loewen Reimer, The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek].
Soelle, however, seems to frame perception in terms of a Kantian view of aesthetics:
Kant argues that such aesthetic judgments (or ‘judgments of taste’) must have four key distinguishing features. First, they are disinterested, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable….
Second and third, such judgments are both universal and necessary. This means roughly that it is an intrinsic part of the activity of such a judgment to expect others to agree with us. Although we may say ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that is not how we act. Instead, we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments – and especially about works of art -and we tend to believe that such debates and arguments can actually achieve something. Indeed, for many purposes, ‘beauty’ behaves as if it were a real property of an object, like its weight or chemical composition. But Kant insists that universality and necessity are in fact a product of features of the human mind (Kant calls these features ‘common sense’), and that there is no objective property of a thing that makes it beautiful.
Fourth, through aesthetic judgments, beautiful objects appear to be ‘purposive without purpose’ (sometimes translated as ‘final without end’)."Kant's Aesthetics" (International Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Perhaps Gestalt psychology also comes into play. [See Arthur Brühlmeier, Psychologie der Wahrnehmung].
The notions that aesthetics involves something universal (in the perceived and/or the human faculty of perception), that the process of perception and/or the quality of the perceived is "purposeless," that this kind of perception leads to "truth," that such truth is or points to "God," are simply beyond my experience and understanding of "nature," science, mysticism, or God. Add to that Soelle's declaration that one cannot love God without knowing beauty (or know God without loving beauty?), and her suggestion that such knowledge requires education and practice, and I'm left puzzled as to what on earth she means by "cleansing the doors of perception." It seems to me that she has clogged them up with almost as much idiosyncratic, cultural debris as she wishes to discard.
I can only speculate that the kind of "cleansing" she is talking about involves two (or three) different things. First must be the ways in which past God-images and conceptions have blocked the view. Blake's use of the phrase suggests a "cleansing" that "expunges" with "corrosives," "melting apparent surfaces away":
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged: this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.The Marriage of Heaven Hell (at Plate 14). Both Blake and Aldous Huxley (who later wrote his essay "The Doors of Perception" in 1954) had axes to grind against orthodox and institutionalized religion, and presumably that perspective resonated with Soelle. She certainly echoed it in the passage she quotes from Alice Walker's The Color Purple about giving up on a God who is "big and old and tall and graybearded and white" who "sit up there glorying in being deef...." But the connection with God came not from education in the science or art of aesthetics, but rather from paying attention to the color purple in a field when "sometimes it [God] just manifests itself even if you are not looking, or don't know what you're looking for." While Shug found a "God-talk" that had nothing to do with the old, white man, there was no suggestion that she could not see or would not have noticed the purple flowers in the field before she discarded him.
Luis Alberto Urrea (a writer whom Soelle probably did not know), has written and talked about the garbage pickers in the garbage dumps in Tijuana, Mexico, where he worked with them as a missionary for four years and has traveled back to visit since. There are no fields or flowers there, just an awful stench and a wide variety of organisims, such as lice, scabies, tapeworm, and ringworm, rats, flies, and mounds of maggots. Yet what he found there was
"a kind of an absolute faith that is based on experience rather than church. They feel that they see God everywhere in every way and that God loves them perhaps because they have to." .... "Where else do you turn? You can't just absorb and swallow the belief that you're nothing. That you don't have right to your place on this earth and that you know, you are completely abandoned in the universe. And so they cling to God. You know, you need someone to hold on to."(interview with Bill Moyers). I don't know if the people of the "dompes" regularly experience awe, wonder, or the "reasonless joy of being alive," but it seems as if they know God one way or another.
Soelle, of course, is not presuming to tell slaves or garbage pickers how to find God. What she is doing is expressing her own indefatigable love of creation, how it inspired her political activism, and how she believes it might inspire others, to know God, revere Creation, and, perhaps, be willing to fight to keep it alive. I just think she's got things terribly confused by talking about cleansing of mental images and outworn theological concepts without any coherent explanation or description of how or what we should be "seeing" through those cleansed, bare doors. Instead of reaching outward, she seems to have collapsed inward, with her words about creation failing at every turn.
Annie Dillard speaks of two different kinds of seeing (at least two) in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. There is the passive kind of falling in, an almost mystical merging with the world around her, and the active, observing, inquiring kind. Soelle's awkward use of language ("the world" as "vital growing organism" rather than "disposable stuff"; "the interrelatedness of creation in this dialogue between the sun and me"; and the "dialogue" between "the perceiver and the otherwise inanimate object") suggests she has little understanding or intimate experience with the geobiotic world -- mud, marshes, insects, reptiles, rock, canyons, deserts, or mountains. She speaks as an outside perceiver, conceptualizing and admiring some aspects of non-human nature, but does not observe anything in it with any kind of consciousness of her role as both a human observer and a participant in the whole (in the words of Aldo Leopold, as inevitably both a "conqueror" -- whether she wants to be or not -- and "plain citizen" of the geobiotic community). The best she can do is see herself as "interrelated" to at least the "living" parts of the whole.
There's nothing wrong with that as an approach to spiritual practice -- in fact, there is much to commend any way in which we might periodically try to empty ourselves of "self," to give ourselves over to something Other than human, to quiet the inner mind-voice, to focus on the present, and set aside the petty and mundane concerns of everyday life. Meditation, prayer, and the mystical traditions of various religions have long been recognized as vital to spiritual life. More recently, scientists have recognized that some of these practices promote mental, physical, and emotional health, as well. While my more ecological frame of mind may bristle some at the Kant and Goethe cocktail she seems to be suggesting as preparation for an experience with "nature," I can and do regularly delight in the wonders of my immediate surroundings, with the sounds of the birds, the wind rustling in the trees, the view of the hills afar, the flowers in the garden and growing wild on the side of the road. (Though it doesn't necessarily bring me joy, especially in the winter, with the brutal, icy west wind piercing through).
What bothered me was Soelle's suggestion that her kind of experience leads people "to a deep trust and a belief in the goodness of creation," and that what is essential is satisfying a "need to wonder, to be amazed, to be in awe, to [be] renew[ed] in the rhythm of creation, to perceive its beauty, to rejoice in creation, and to praise the source of life." On its own terms, it does not make a lot of sense.
If it is so important, in Soelle's view, to dispense with a conception of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, how can she reconcile "cleansing" religion of such a God with creating another one personified as someone one can (and presumably must) "trust"? How can the woman who struggled with finding meaning and hope after the Holocaust talk about the "goodness of creation"? Does she believe that the Holocaust happened somewhere other than in the midst of creation? Did anyone but the creatures, the living organisms, of that creation cause all that sorrow, cruel dying, death and destruction?
What I expected from Soelle was something more like Bonhoeffer's words from prison:
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge, July 16, 1944, from his Letters & Papers from Prison).
If God is weak and powerless in the world, forsakes us, yet is with us in our suffering, we can still love God, trust in his faithfulness, and embrace the power of love that he has shown and shares with us. But trust in the "goodness" of creation? I don't see how (or why, for that matter).
Creation -- that is, all that is, human and non-human, organic and inorganic matter, energy, stars and black holes, the whole shebang -- is neither good nor not good. It is. It may well be of God, suffused by, and infused with God. We have our creation myths, our human attempts at imagining what creation was and is like in our own, very human terms. We like the idea of God, imagined as a woman stopping after a long hard day of baking, drying, pickling, and storing, saying, with some quiet satisfaction, "It is good." But how, here on earth or by the sun and the moon and all the stars above do we know, let alone trust or judge, that there is "goodness" in it all, bound or boundless by time and space?
When it comes down to it, maybe we are best served by myths and poetry and the fanciful constructs that we use in science, for awhile. Maybe we just have to understand that we do not and cannot understand, that whether we experience joy or sorrow, we must keep taking risks, on account of, beside, and before our God. As C.S. Lewis once imagined it:
"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I’m dying of thirst", said Jill.
"May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?", said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
"Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?", said Jill.
"I make no promise", said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls?", she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms", said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren’t come and drink", said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst", said the Lion.
"Oh dear!", said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream", said the Lion.
C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair.