“The Void is the only great wonder of the world.”
– Rene Magritte
AN EXPLORATION IN NINE MOVEMENTS
Nate Allen, the creative lead behind Chicago’s visionary House Theater, has, over several years developed what he calls “his project,” a miniature worldview that informs the way that his company makes things. It’s an organizational, orienting framework that latches onto useful words and ideas to create a value system for the creative process.
As someone who makes things, a value system like Nate Allen’s is attractive. But as someone of faith and of a Judeo-Christian tradition, I value particular things in different ways. So I’m taking a page from Nate’s playbill and building a miniature worldview of my own for the way that I think about and make things. This “Project” is something I’ve been tinkering with and adding to for several years now, and it’s something I might still be tinkering with for years to come. It’s messy and unfinished. But it’s almost gotten to the point of being useful.
This is not a theory as much as it’s a collection of hunches. It’s a big-picture shot-in-the-dark at the way the world works. I’m conjecturing about the way things fit together. The framework I use to organize ideas is neither predictive nor parsimonious. And it doesn’t have a reason to work. It’s more of a painting in broad strokes than it is a logical formula. Like art, it recombines the ingredients of the revealed world into something zesty. I believe that the human creative process is a process of exploration, recombination, and discovery, not fabrication ex nihilo. All I’m doing here is synthesizing the work of other, far smarter folks. This Project has been and continues to be a process of exploration.
In the following months, it will be fleshed out into a nine part essay paired with a photo series and signposted with fun graphic design and lots of juicy quotes from all across the realms of communication, theology, and philosophy. I’m super excited to share it. For now, here’s a teaser of what’s to come.
THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
“What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.”
– Christian Wiman
The poetry and the prose of knowing. That’s what we’re after. The bold claim I’m making is that there is a thin dividing line that runs through the world. And it divides the poetic from the prosaic. This distinction between poetry and prose surfaces in more places than just literature. We find it in language and in politics, in the way that we talk about love, rhetoric, and history. We find it in the profundity of the sacraments and in the mundanity of our daily routines. Both poetry and prose are important. But if the world is divided along this line, does anything exist that is poetic and prosaic at the same time?
The Project tries to answer this question. It proposes that the created world can be divided into these two orders of being, and then it seeks to reconcile them. These categories are hard to name. A writer might call them “prose” and “poetry,” but a philosopher might call them “known” and “unknown.” A media ecologist might call them “message” and “medium.” But in this essay, I’m trending theological and veering into more controversial territory by labeling these two orders of being “feminine” and “masculine.” If they were planets, they might be Venus and Mars. They are dyadic, in tension with each other. And the goal is to turn the dyad into a triad—to find the unifying or balancing force that can harmonize this bisection in the created world.
It’s useful to illustrate this organizational idea and plot out the rest of The Project. And what better illustration than astronomy—what the founders of classical education considered the chief among the sciences. Astronomy was a discipline on the same plane as metaphysics. Plato and his enthusiasts believed that the study of number in space and time was the study of the divine. I suspect they were closer to the truth than we give them credit for.
In most normal planetary systems, like the earth and our moon, the smaller body orbits around the bigger one. But in some solar systems, including our own, there are cases where two celestial bodies can orbit each other. Pluto and its moon Charon are an example of this. The two bodies are close to the same size and mass, so their center of gravity gets pulled out of one of the bodies and ends up up somewhere between them. This is called a binary system or a “double planet.” The two planets spin around this invisible center of gravity in a cosmic dance. This invisible center of gravity is called a barycenter. It’s a funny word and a great metaphor for the dyadic-triadic construction I’m using in the Project.
We can envision these two orders of being, masculine and feminine, as planets in a binary system orbiting a barycenter. I articulate the idea of the barycenter between categories as “void,” a word bandied by architects, artists, and cosmologists in reference to an emptiness that has strong rhetorical, psychological, or theological power. Like gravity and God, the binding agents of the universe are often invisible.
I believe deeply in a universe that is ordered. And not just the mathematical ordering of innumerable galaxies and star systems. I believe in the ordering of the thoughts and experiences of all human history and the unheard worship of stones and blood. I believe that the nitty-gritty of chemistry, physics, and math are inextricably linked to the spiritual mysteries of miracles. I believe in a universe that can and will be fully understood, but will never become commonplace. When heaven and earth are remade and restored, when the faithful are raised imperishable, I believe we will have the souls of children and the minds of philosopher kings. Maybe then we will be able to perfectly reconcile our knowledge with our wonder and maybe then we will thoroughly see the symphony of heaven and earth—the musica universalis I know is out there. In the mean time, we are compelled to find the stories and the moments of unexpected clarity that open windows to the world to come and point us in the direction of that coming union of heaven and earth.
That’s a big-picture look at what we’re after. In a nutshell, we’re after the kingdom of heaven on earth. But because that hasn’t happened, were left diagnosing a problem: the rift between prose and poetry, masculine and feminine, medium and message. And we’re left to seek a solution which allows us to live fully into our relationships and make things that point toward that one tiny but important anomaly in the history of our rifted universe: the incarnated, fully God, fully man, Jesus Christ. Yeshua of Nazareth.