To sublime

The short story of how I came to Christ:

Today I awoke late, around seven thirty, and I read a few pages of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, the book which played such a great part in my Christianity.

When I was about fifteen, the title, The Sickness Unto Death, by the same author, attracted me when I happened to see it at Barnes & Noble. I asked my mother to buy me the book, as well as another which had something to do with Hinduism, an interest of mine at that time. Mother made me choose only one, and I can still remember how surprised she seemed that I chose the Kierkegaard title. The cover described the book as a “psychological exposition from a Christian perspective,” or something close to that, and my mother must have realized how (unfairly) biased against Christianity I was. She bought me the book.

One book led to another, and I found myself reading Works of Love. Around that time I was also taking a humanities class which required me to read several passages from the Bible in order to learn about the ancient Hebrew culture. Together, Kierkegaard and my teacher, Mr. Stewart (I use his real name because I think it is sufficiently common to maintain his anonymity), pried my mind open to just read about Jesus of Nazareth. Just read. Find out about the man. I began to read the Gospels.

I went to school one day after having been absent for a few days, and had to be excused from a biology exam. The teacher let me study on an old couch in the back room. I guess it was typically me not to study biology, but instead to casually read whatever I wanted, in this case, Works of Love. By that time, I had read enough of the Gospels to begin to understand. I remember the ratty couch, and that it was in a little corner, with a window behind it. There were all sorts of animal specimens in jars on the shelves nearby. It was quiet. I don’t remember the particular section of the book I was reading–though perhaps I will rediscover it soon, since I have begun to read the book for a second time–but I believed Jesus was the Son of God. In a moment, I believed it. It was perhaps the least complicated event of my life, profound.

St. Augustine wrote something about believing being like a man finally deciding to get out of bed, but I would rather describe my experience almost in a chemical sense of spontaneity. A flame suddenly burned. I was conscious of it being my individual choice to believe or not to, but it seemed inevitable almost, as if now I knew the truth–and Jesus Christ was the truth. Whether I believed or not, whether I worshiped or not, I felt that what I had learned about Jesus was the truth, and one day this would become impossible to deny; so although it was still possible for me to choose to deny the truth for the time being, it seemed like a foolish and futile thing to do. So I was given the gift of faith, but it was a separate action for me to receive it.

To sublime:

As I said, I read a bit of Kierkegaard this morning. Oh, what wonderful things were stirred in me! Have you ever read or heard something that you knew was true? Something you needed to hear from someone’s voice besides your own? Something that made you say aloud, “Yes! Yes. Yes, that’s right!”

Have you ever loved an unpopular book or an obscure movie or band, and met someone who loved it too? There is a certain joy in finding out that the object of your love is also the object of someone else’s love! Of course there is, for if you love something, of course you believe it is worthy of everyone’s love! This is a basis for friendship, as C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves. (He also writes in the same book about the type of “love,” I am talking about in this paragraph, which is really, “intense like.”)

There are sublime thoughts and feelings. Ideas or sights or smells or sounds, etc., that seem to elevate one into a greater sphere of existence. The transcendentalist writers wrote about the beauty of nature, of various social and economic ideals. The Romantic painters crafted great images, full of symbols and ideas and ideals. In America particularly were painted epic landscapes, scenes of nature–of storms on the sea or sunrise over a mountaintop–which still drop jaws today, and remove the viewer for a few moments from his or her existence. The viewer forgets he is standing in a gallery and he might’ve worn more comfortable shoes. Perhaps she even forgets to look at the work critically, for she is just rapt by what she sees: How can it be so beautiful? she thinks.

Similar things happen for some of us when we spend time alone in nature. For others it happens listening to certain music, or looking at an infant’s tiny hands, or inhaling the gentle scent of roses in the morning.

In chemistry, to sublime is to change directly from a solid to a gaseous phase, without ever being a liquid. Dry ice is perhaps the best known example. I learned the term at school with some solid iodine. The substance gains energy, breaks bonds, and becomes a gas, which generally have greater entropy than solids. Now it isn’t my point to rewrite all of my general chemistry notes, but it is interesting to me to compare the two definitions of ‘sublime’ that I know of. The universe tends toward greater entropy just as water tends downhill, and here we can simply think of entropy as a measure of how much freedom something has to move.

How much freedom. The greater the entropy, the greater the freedom–might as well just say freedom generally, since it isn’t like atoms and molecules have much use for any freedom besides ‘freedom of movement.’

To me it seems that a sublime experience is no different than this. Isn’t it just a little gift of freedom? When I listen to blues, it frees me to forget that I am even sitting in traffic. When I read Kierkegaard or study physics or mathematics, it frees me from the box my thinking has been confined to–it does not force me to think in new ways, it helps me to do so. When I love God or other people, it frees me from self-centered anxiety.

I think of the Biblical phrase, “hearing, they do not hear,” or “seeing, they do not see.” It may be that a certain openness is needed in a person before she is able to experience something so wonderful. There are people who are perfectly indifferent about baby’s hands or the smell of roses. They could walk right by a sunset still thinking about what an ass Mike from HR was this morning. They see the sunset, but they do not see it; and they miss out on something valuable.

And so there are two sides:

There is you, and there is the rest of all that is (what is I’ll let the philosophers argue about). There is you relating to God. You relating to your own idea of yourself. You relating to you mom. You relating to a stray animal, a meteor, a chilly gust, a disturbing new idea, a familiar scent, a man outside the convenience store.

Is it a choice to hear and yet not hear? To see and yet not see? Certainly it is sometimes. The story of The Good Samaritan is evidence that it is no new phenomenon for men to find excuses to look away when they see someone else in need. We all have a friend who refuses to read or watch the news because it is all house fires and wars–and a part of us does not blame our friend’s refusal because we understand it!

But while there is little mystery in humans avoiding what is unpleasant, what can we say when people seem to be avoiding beautiful things? What can we say about the man who misses out on sunset while thinking about Mike from HR? What can we say about the woman who has a hundred surgeries because she couldn’t see she was lovely to begin with? How am I to understand my brothers and sisters who are not only indifferent to, but who actually abhor being outside?

I can’t answer these questions completely. I suppose they can be accounted for in some cases by differences in taste. There are people who take joy in studying bugs after all, while for most of us the presence of a bug would only add disgust or heebie jeebies to an otherwise sublime scene. There is more to it though. There is the interaction, the relation, the decision.

Beauty is everywhere, like the gift of faith. But it does not force its way into your heart or mind. Rather it says, “Here I am,” and waits patiently for you to take ownership of it. You do not have to take it, but if you do, you’re glad. If you do, you think it would’ve been terrible if you hadn’t. When you take ownership of faith, you become a new person; to your bodily existence is added a new, spiritual dimension (and this is higher freedom). When you take ownership of beauty, you feel something similar because via your physical senses, you spirit is awed or inspired; to the spiritual life you already had, more is added, though nothing is taken away from the physical in doing this.

I don’t know why some see it and some don’t. I don’t know why some grab hold of faith or beauty when they do see it, and why others don’t. But here I have written about seeing and embracing both. It feels right.

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