The Primacy of Appreciation

I approach Biblical stories, parables, or narratives the way I approach the greatest literature and art.  Usually, I just read, pausing with one, skipping to another. I might return later. But what brings me back over and again to Biblical passages — say, in The Book of Job?  There is  no “divine urtext” here, deemed infallible by authority.  The passages are in the same general region as legend or folk tale: not true or false but profound, gripping, or if not, then dull. 

Not being true or false doesn’t deflate them. They maintain a vibrancy — full of wisdom and provocation, like a Beethoven Sonata, Van Gogh self-portrait, or Dickinson poem. They can be true to our sense of the world or reality without being statements about some independent reality. Their wisdom and provocation are, in a sense, self-certifying, resting on no basis other than their own immediate impact and appeal.

With the scientific revolution, starting in the 16th century, narratives are put on the defensive. Science gains authority at the expense of art and religion.  Factual truth-and-falsity and the authority of culturally prevalent values, become measures of importance and reality.  This leaves Biblical stories and other narratives and dramas out in the cold, versions of mere fairy tale or entertainment. They certainly can’t be verified by “Hard Facts” and they often seem to stand apart from, or challenge rather than reinforce cultural values. 

Yet . . . Our appreciations — neither knowledge of facts nor explicit embrace of values nor ‘mere opinion’ — give us a powerful and indispensable access to the world.  

We are moved by drama, liturgy, folk tales, or ‘stories my uncle would tell.’  This brings us close to pre-literate peoples. To be preliterate isn’t to be ignorant or barbaric. It’s to rely on something apart from book learning. It’s to rely on ‘an ear for things’  — the ring of a poetic line, the authority of a great-uncle’s voice, the amorphous sense of a generation or the sensibility of a region.  As ‘pre-literates,’ we attend to the stories of elders, companions, and ancestors, and to stories of and about culture heroes and literary figures, and to the sensibility of the streets or of high society. 

These stories and underlying sensibilities possess worthy standing until proven otherwise. They become displaced often through friction with another story or sensibility that acquires a more vibrant ‘ring of authenticity.’ Stories needn’t always be subordinate to articles of faith , to facts that might be true or false, or to values that might be valid or invalid.

Nuance and meaning are central in life. How diminished our world would be if nuance and meaning, conveyed in story, were set aside as frivolous distractions like casual summer reading.  When pressed to account for my interest in this story or that, in this parable or that, in this sensibility of the street, I don’t appeal to some impersonal fact or theory or customary value.  Often I can do little more than recite the  poetic line again, or tell the story in bits and pieces, hoping my would-be skeptic will hear — appreciate — the allure I hear.

We are knowledge-seeking creatures. We are equally creatures of appreciation. I appreciate things I often know very little about — a sunset or smile.  I appreciate music, art and narratives — novels or Biblical stories. They reside in a space of appreciation rather than knowledge. I become who I am through love, community, great art and rustling leaves — through webs of shared appreciations. Appreciations can grow without knowledge.

A world of multiple revelations just isperiod. Revelations-appreciated need nothing ‘behind them’ for certification. The profundity of a Dickinson poem is self-sufficient, resting on nothing deeper.   “God” often serves to block infinite regress.  God makes love of infinite value. We can’t ask, “But what makes God valuable?” “God is a ‘regress-stopper.’ Thunder-clap-Glory also blocks infinite regress. I needn’t find out what underlies that Glory.” It “just is!” You can’t, and needn’t, get deeper.

Appreciation is our primary way of being in the world. It’s responsiveness  to textures of life, textures displayed in stories and narratives, music and paintings.  In the region of appreciation the smile of a child can be more powerful than E=MC/Squared. Facts, theories, or values don’t give us the intimate radiance or horror of the world.  Narratives, grand, petite, or middle-sized, do this. 

Biblical narratives often invoke and deliver God and revelations of God. In my view, we don’t have God first as a fact, and then discover his/her revelations. We have revelations whose appreciation circles around a second narrative of their being propelled from a divine source. But appreciation does not await certification or authentication by a divine source.

As I see it, to worship God is to appreciate, kneel before, be ‘blown away by’ an endlessly revelatory world. Creation is not an event in historical time. It’s the endless unfolding of the beautiful, holy, and good, and the dark shadows of each. If we have no space for appreciation of beauty, glory, or the world’s darkness, we have no space for God or the Devil; no space for radiance or terror.  And this just opens the door to our being ‘blown away’ by Mozart or Van Gogh, and discovering in their revelations an access to reality.


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