Thursday, September 22, 2016

All This Useless Beauty (September 18, 2016)

The title comes from a song by the same name by Elvis Costello

Reading: from Denis Dutton “A Darwinian theory of beauty

… the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Beauty is nature's way of acting at a distance, so to speak. I mean, you can't expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape. It would hardly do to eat your baby or your lover. So evolution's trick is to make them beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.

Consider briefly an important source of aesthetic pleasure, the magnetic pull of beautiful landscapes. People in very different cultures all over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape, a landscape that just happens to be similar to the pleistocene savannas where we evolved. … open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery and finally -- get this -- a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don't have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.

Reading : From Braiding Sweetgrass “ASTERS AND GOLDENROD”

People flock to our hills for the fiery suite of October but they often miss the sublime prelude of September fields. As if harvest time were not enough—peaches, grapes, sweet corn, squash—the fields are also embroidered with drifts of golden yellow and pools of deepest purple, a masterpiece.

If a fountain could jet bouquets of chrome yellow in dazzling arches of chrysanthemum fireworks, that would be Canada Goldenrod. Each three-foot stem is a geyser of tiny gold daisies, ladylike in miniature, exuberant en masse. Where the soil is damp enough, they stand side by side with their perfect counterpart, New England Asters. Not the pale domesticates of the perennial border, the weak sauce of lavender or sky blue, but full-on royal purple that would make a violet shrink. The daisylike fringe of purple petals surrounds a disc as bright as the sun at high noon, a golden-orange pool, just a tantalizing shade darker than the surrounding goldenrod. Alone, each is a botanical superlative. Together, the visual effect is stunning. ... I just wanted to know why.

Why do they stand beside each other when they could grow alone? Why this particular pair? There are plenty of pinks and whites and blues dotting the fields, so is it only happenstance that the magnificence of purple and gold end up side by side? Einstein himself said that "God doesn't play dice with the universe." What is the source of this pattern? Why is the world so beautiful? It could so easily be otherwise: flowers could be ugly to us and still fulfill their own purpose. But they're not. It seemed like a good question to me. [p. 40-41]

Sermon -All this Useless Beauty

As I drive down 34 winding by creek beds from Ithaca down into the Valley, I think that maybe we live in the most beautiful place in the world. Especially on a day like this, when the hills are green, and the fields are filled with yellow. Last night's rain has left everything fresh and shining.

I’m not going to try to define beauty today, I’ll leave that to the philosophers, but we know it when we see it, don’t we? Take a moment and call to mind something you find beautiful.

Robin Wall Kimmerer asks “why is the world so beautiful? It could easily be otherwise?” It's a good question. Let’s start with evolutionary biology, because scientists like Denis Dutton have wondered this same thing and answered:
“ the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. … evolution's trick is to make them beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.[iii]
Scientists tell us that beauty- our capacity to experience some things as beautiful, is an evolutionary adaptation that grabs our attention, that redirects us towards conditions necessary for life.

Take, for example, that combination of flowers that Dr. Kimmerer finds so beautiful, the goldenrod and the asters:
“… the visual effect that so delights a human like me may be irrelevant to the flowers. The real beholder whose eye they hope to catch is a bee bent on pollination. Bees perceive many flowers differently than humans do due to their perception of additional spectra such as ultraviolet radiation. As it turns out, though, goldenrod and asters appear very similarly to bee eyes and human eyes. We both think they're beautiful. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them the most attractive target in the whole meadow, a beacon for bees. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone.” [p. 47]
So beauty is not an accident of biology, it’s part of how we survive as a species and as individuals.

In his recent Encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis writes:
“By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” [p. 140]

Lets go back to the beautiful landscapes Dutton described in our opening reading. Human beings naturally look out over the endless mountains in the growing season and experience beauty. We experience it as beautiful in part because we can see just by looking at the landscape that this is a good place for humans to be- fertile plants and eco-systems sustaining abundant life, many sources of fresh water, and trees for shelter. The oldest part of us experiences the rightness of this place. We don’t need to teach our children to stand in wonder before the beauty of the endless mountains in autumn, but we can encourage them and affirm this natural inclination in them. Because if they only hear voices telling them the hills are only valuable if they are clear-cut for timber and drilled fossil fuel, they may stop listening to the deeper, older voice which sees the goodness and rightness and beauty of this land just as it is.

As Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes “awe is the beginning of wisdom”- awe teaches us humility, and gives us the space for circumspection. Appreciating the beauty of these hills is not a frivolous act, it is a wise act, good for not only the survival of our bodies but our souls.

We know somehow that beauty feeds the soul. That is why we have music during worship. That is why we have stained glass windows in our churches, why some of the most beautiful buildings in the world are houses of worship. Beauty stirs something deep in us, wakes up not only a longing for beauty, but empowers us to find beauty in ourselves, in our own lives.

What is the difference between something merely pretty and something beautiful? Perhaps beauty is deeper than the merely pretty. I believe it is the capacity to hold pain. Beauty does not tell us “cheer up and be happy”. I have a lingering memory from a spring long ago when I was a young adult, still planning to be an opera singer. I was walking across campus to the student medical center to meet with a counselor as I did each week, because I was depressed. I was lonely, and I didn’t really know it then, but I was coming to the end of my time as a singer, letting go of a dream I had dedicated my life to for many years. The path led through a grove of trees that were, covered with the first cherry blossoms of spring. The grove was big enough that I could be wholly surrounded by them for a few moments as I walked, and I was filled with gratitude, and awe, and sadness at their beauty. In that moment I felt cherry blossoms were the most poignant of flowers- because they are so fragile, so ephemeral; they bloom so quickly and then become a rain of petals on the ground. It occurred to me that sometimes beauty makes pain more bearable- it somehow gives the pain context and meaning. Life is so precious, and beautiful, and fragile and bittersweet I felt as I walked.

Consider today’s story- the story of a woman turned way at the village forced to sleep out in the cold, that’s not a happy story. But it is a beautiful story. Imagine that moment, laying on your back, waking up to moonlight reflected in the cherry blossoms. And such a moment, where the moonlight is reflected in the newly open blossoms. How fleeting and special a moment. Truly once in a lifetime. The beauty caused Rengetsu to pause in wonder and awe. Such is beauty. It transforms a moment, it transforms us.

When I used to live in Baltimore Maryland, I used to drive by the ugliest public housing building I had ever seen. I would say it looked like a prison, but I also drove by the prison on my way to work, and the prison had much more dignity and architectural integrity. After a year of driving by the building each day, and feeling my heart sink each time, it occurred to me “whoever designed that building had no respect for the inherent worth and dignity of the people who live in it.”

By way of contrast I’d like to show you a video to give you a sense of this center Strickland built. This is from his 2002 ted Talk

Strickland said on the Ted radio hour,
“ I have 400 kids from the Pittsburgh public school system that come to me every day of the week for arts education, and these are children who are flunking out of public school. And last year, I put 88 percent of those kids in college and I've averaged over 80 percent for 15 years. We've made a fascinating discovery. There's nothing wrong with the kids. For that, I won a big old plaque, Man of the Year in Education. I beat out all the PhD's because I figured that if you treat children like human beings, it increases the likelihood they're going to behave that way.”

 “When I think of beauty, I think of life and hope in all of its enormous possibilities. So that this beauty is not just for the imagination, it actually is a way of altering human behavior for the better. And so, this is a real practical example, a living example, of how beauty and aesthetic can transform a community that had literally been, in some ways, been given up on for dead.”[iv]

I want to show you another video, this one is about an artist Lily Yeh.

Lily began her career transforming an abandoned lot in the most disenfranchised part of Philadelphia, working with children and folks living on the street, empowering them to paint and sculpt and build an oasis with their own hands and hearts, using the most basic of materials - often recycling cast off materials. Lily demonstrated to that community that transformation was possible. She helped them find the beauty in themselves, and in their neighborhood.

In 2005 Lily went to Rwanda after their horrible genocide, believing, as you heard her say in that video ““beauty is intimately engaged with darkness, with chaos, with destruction. You need to walk into the darkness and hold it in your arms” So she went to Rwanda to walk with darkness and hold it in her arms. Much of what you saw in that trailer was about creating a proper place for the remains of villagers killed in the genocide. She said, seeing the concrete shed which housed those remains when she first came to Rwanda “It cannot be a grave- you cannot heal by looking at it. …There was no poetry, there was no beauty. I said, to truly honor the dead, we have to bring beauty and to remember them in that light…”[v]

And so she worked with the local government and with the local communities organizing the people who had suffered so much to transform the village of refugees, strangers to one another, into a place of color and vision.

She created a memorial for the dead where people could finally begin to grieve their unimaginable loss. Though years had passed since the horrific violence, the creation of a sacred space, made beautiful through hundreds of hours of the work of caring hands, allowed a new layer of healing to happen.

Part of what makes Lily Yeh’s work so special, is not simply her skill and vision as an artist, nor the fact that she chooses to make beauty in struggling places, but that she puts paintbrushes into hands that have never held brushes before. Lily Yeh is special because she empowers us to make the world more beautiful.

What good is beauty? Beauty has the power to invite us to look at the world in a new way, it invites us to awe and humility. Beauty is a balm for the healing of the soul.

Beauty’s invitation is simply to stop and stare. I encourage you today to give in to its seduction. You live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Just look up in gratitude and awe. Listen when the wise evolutionary voice in your bones suggests the beauty of these endless mountains is good not only for lifting the spirit, but for the health of body and eco-system. Cherish and defend that beauty for your children and grandchildren.

In keeping with our mission, to live ethically, grow spiritually and serve lovingly, let us create beauty for and with our whole community. You already do this- the beautiful worship we offer each other, a salad with colorful vine –ripe tomatoes and vibrant squash blossoms. A front yard full of sunflowers. The vigil we held last spring for the shootings in Orlando- that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been part of.

In gratitude for the beauty we experience, let us also advocate for beauty in our community, for art in our schools, for sunlight and sunflowers in dark places. Beauty it is not a luxury for the rich, but nourishment every soul needs.