Essay: Natural and SuperNatural

Natural and SuperNatural: Art’s Relationship to the Metaphysical [2010]
Essay by Justyn Zolli
It took me many years to unwind and finally toss out the historical yoke of Western religion’s relationship to western Art. And with it went any notion of the general conceits of religion in the West. When I was younger, it seemed that since so much of the western world’s art was religious in subject, then it stands that Art itself must be a vehicle for religious ideas and thought.  Indeed, our history is overflowing with incredible works from the age of Faith, and earlier, and it seemed to me that the works of today perhaps lacked the gravitas of those earlier expressions.  In the years after Art School, I traveled on a Grand Tour to almost every major cathedral in France, the British Isles and Italy, witnessing firsthand the tall spires of stone and the radiant kaleidescope of colors streaming in from the stained glass windows. It seemed that no other places could compare with the immense beauty of such places as the cathedrals of Amiens, Rouen or Chartres, or the magnificent frescoed walls of the Italian basilicas.  However, it was not until my first meeting with a coast Redwood forest did I know the true definition of the Sanctum Sanctorum.  There is an energy there, a deep green hum of a more ancient order. Standing among trees that were themselves alive before the time of Christ, it became clear to me a grove of tall pines is a far better cathedral than any the ancients had thus devised.  For this was and is a LIVING place.  Within its leafy and sweet smelling shade one can study life itself.  One can hear the trickle of the creek, the call of the birds, and listen to the rustle of the boughs in the wind. It is the experience of such nature that allows for the gentle truth to emerge within one’s own being. This is not to say that I have abandoned morality, however now my morality derives from an inner revelation, borne of a compassion for others brought about by a recognition of the ‘One-ness’ running through Nature, a nature of which man is an essential part.  Nature is the teacher of this one-ness.  It is no accident that Jesus went to the desert to pray, and the mountaintop to be transfigured, nor that the Buddha was to achieve his insight anywhere other than under a living tree and to preach in a park full of deer. To live with true religion, to have the religious ‘sense’ is really to live within a constant state of awe at the majesty of existence and our world.  It is not simply to believe in some supernatural being or beings that may or may not intercede on your behalf or for your sole benefit.  The crux of my basic problem with metaphysics and religious superstition in general is this:  If one posits that there is a ‘supernatural’ aspect to Nature and the universe, such that the immutable laws of physics and universal law can be bent or broken at will by extra-dimensional beings, or bent by persons with access to ‘special’ spiritual knowledge, then it stands that those laws are not really laws at all, and thus Nature itself can then never really be known. And we know from empiricism that this is just simply not the case, for we are constantly finding out more and more about our unfolding universe. If something can be proven to falsify what we know, then its truth is incorporated into our Science. There is only one Science, with many branches.
Within metaphysical thinking’s framework in fact nothing our reason or senses tell us can be known.  For the very metaphysical premise itself denies our own powers of reason and intellect and our ability to ascertain what is truthful. Henceforth, it places greater importance on Faith than intellect.  Nature’s laws thus become arbitrary.  It is a sorry ‘god’ indeed who would gift his ‘creation’ with the highest faculties of reason and intellect, then require us to abandon those faculties in order to know him.  The only intelligent response to the reality of metaphysical thinking is to understand/couch it in terms of personal ‘psychological’ development, or poetic symbolic content only.  The symbols and scripts should be understood as a way of ordering or reordering the mind along metaphoric understanding only, and absolutely not as a genuine literal truth extant in the physical reality. If a ‘miracle’ or ‘God’s punishment’ occurs, it really is not because the laws of physics have been broken for our benefit or chastisement, but because there is a perfectly natural law that is at work that we have not fully understood rationally yet. ( For example, we once believed that a solar eclipse was a dragon eating the sun, and now we know about the orbits of the planets.)  Alas, this is the assumption that all who hold superstitious beliefs have- from the most banal astrologist to the most fervent jihadist. It may have inspired some amazing art, but to confuse the symbolic, metaphoric reality as the reason for being of the literal world of Nature is to truly not see Nature for what it is.
This is the reason that ‘poetry’ and ‘Art’ are of such equal and great importance to an educated civilization as its science. It is because a healthy society fosters the necessary ability to read a symbol or creative language with the ability to distinguish between its ‘connotation’ and its ‘denotation’, and thereby avoids the imbalance that confusing the two thus creates.
It is also observed that although Man is capable of great love, for us that which ‘cannot be known’ cannot be truly loved. If the vast ‘Unknown’ remains, with no path by way of reason, intellect or emotion to actually knowing it, this typically then gives birth to the emotion of fear. What Man fears he then typically seeks to conquer, in order to thus make it known to him. Failing that, he will then typically proceed to try and destroy it to assuage that fear. The truth of our Reality is thus: Nature should not be feared. Nature MUST not be feared. It must be known and then understood and then cherished and worked WITH.   This feeling in time grows to one of love. Our world must be understood as an extension in scale and impulse of the same forces that shape and condition we, ourselves. For we are also products of its principles. The Earth ‘fruited’ us as surely as an apple tree fruits an apple.  The very elements in my body were once, billions of years ago, fused together in the furnace of a star. When we work with nature, then the whole universe will hold and support us by its own organizing principles. When we work in opposition, then we are destroyed by its own inner imbalance, not by the wrath of some deity standing outside it.  Nature will eventually find equilibrium, for that is in its very structuring principle.  That is why the scientific study of nature, ecology, living systems, and the poetic expressions found in true Art are such worthy subjects to devote one’s life and time to. Such study bestows upon us an understanding of our interconnectedness with Nature. Such study brings us a natural integrity, an in-borne compassion, and a wholeness of life. It is a shared reality, with all manner of extra-human intelligences surrounding us. Furthermore, within the realms of Art, there is true and lasting meaning, pleasure, and insight to be derived from intelligent responses to one’s own experiences of our beautiful and fragile Earth.