While hiking in the Julian Alps of Slovenia this summer, I had an epiphany involving the Mona Lisa, nature, and religion. It wasn’t quite a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, but the insight was better than most of my fleeting realizations. Let me explain.
In my university course on aesthetics, I challenge the students with a thought experiment about the Mona Lisa (or whatever painting they like best). Imagine being provided the option of receiving as a gift the original painting or, by virtue of a newfangled technology, an atom-for-atom copy of the original. Which would you prefer? The only difference between the two is how they came to be.
Classes are often split on this decision, with each half flummoxed by the other. Some strongly desire the original while others don’t care which they receive (nobody seems to definitely prefer the copy, which is revealing). The central question is: Does it matter how artwork is made? Is the story of its production relevant to its value? For some students, all that matters is the object itself and in my hypothetical scenario there is no basis for preferring one over the other. But for others, the context of creation—the journey as well as the arrival—is absolutely crucial.
Midway through an arduous hike in the mountains, we came upon a hut where the proprietors provided simple, hearty meals. It was two o’clock and our stomachs were rumbling, as were the gathering storm clouds. We dropped our packs, went inside, and feasted on a dish of goulash and polenta. The lunch was judged to be the best we had in our week on the trail. Was the food really that good? Maybe, but the homemade meal being served in a snug, dry hut after scrambling over scree and anticipating a drenching mattered greatly.
Another time, we made it to a high pass after a long climb. While catching my breath, a movement caught my eye. We’d stumbled upon a group of ibex making their way across a windswept ridge. I snapped some good photos of these remarkable creatures. But the same pictures could’ve been taken if I’d been dropped onto the pass by a helicopter or even if I’d managed to find just the right angle at the Slovenian national zoo. But the “how” of the moment—the thigh-burning climb and the thrill of coming upon these marvelous animals—was as important as the “what” of the animals.
When it comes to valuing the natural world, the trek to a place, encounter of a creature, or arrival at an event matters. Nature films and National Geographic photos can evoke a sense of wonder. But I doubt that these images are as profound or moving as the journey of whoever took the pictures. Virtual realities are better than nothing in cultivating appreciation of nature, but they aren’t the stuff of deep memories. So it is that going into the mountains is much like going to church. You can listen to a podcast of a sermon while Facebook-chatting with the congregants and drinking of cup of coffee at your kitchen table. But being at church matters greatly.
Our Unitarian sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, argued passionately for the primacy of lived experience over book knowledge. He advised us to “refuse good models,” and to “insist on yourself; never imitate.” Institutions and scriptures are secondhand and therefore inauthentic. But he also purportedly said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
I know that how we come to value nature and our fellow humans matters. As much as UUs focus on the Seven Principles, these are somewhat akin to forged art, decontextualized goulash, and photographed wildlife. They are provided to us. The core of my faith lies in the “how” of our religion, rather than the “what.” The story of belief lies in the less heralded Sources of Our Living Tradition.
Even more than the famed First Principle (the inherent worth and dignity of every person), I resonate with the First Source: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Emerson would be pleased—even though this is a quote.
My students learn important lessons about ascribing value from the original/copy thought experiment. When we later discuss environmental aesthetics, some of those who see no difference between the original and duplicate artwork contend there is an important distinction between the experiences of a mountaintop after having reached the peak through a climb versus a helicopter. Same “what” but different “how.”
So consider this choice. If you had to decide whether to express the essence of Unitarian Universalism to a friend via the First Principle or the First Source, which would you choose?