Japan’s yearly ritual of hanami – cherry-blossom viewing – coincides this year with the Western feasts of Easter and Passover. It occurred to me that Pope Benedict XVI would benefit from a few days of leisure beneath the sakura in Japan. The display of blossoming sakura is an event of note, but it is even more fascinating to view the Japanese as they view the cherry blossoms. Two years ago I took to task the so-called “theological esthetics” of Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of pope’s great influences. [1] A day in Japan is worth a million words on this subject.

It probably is true that the Japanese have a unique sensitivity to nature, as Professor Masahiko Fujiwara claims. Fujiwara is the author of a nationalist tract, The Dignity of a State, now a best-seller in Japan. Viewing cherry blossoms, he remarked to a Financial Times interviewer on March 9, expresses something essential to the Japanese character, which prefers the fleeting sakura to the more durable rose beloved of the English. It is the same as hearing the music of crickets: “When we listen to that music we hear the sorrow of autumn because winter is coming,” he said. “The summer is gone. Every Japanese feels that. And, at the same time, we feel the sorrow of our life, our very temporary short life.”

Japanese culture, Fujiwara added, makes everything into art. In that respect Japan is unique, seeking to incorporate the fleeting beauty of the moment into the most commonplace features of life. Faust bet his soul that Mephistopheles could not tempt him to try to grasp the passing moment. The art that is Japanese life only knows the passing moment. It is an attempt to immortalize the moment; that is why the Japanese are always taking pictures.

From the Japanese viewpoint, life should be beautiful. But it is not necessarily good, a circumstance of which Fukiwara himself is a horrible example. His nostalgia for bushido and samurai values repels Japan’s neighbors, who suffered unspeakably the last time Japan turned in that direction. It is quite possible for evil men to appreciate beauty, and not just the beauty of nature. Adolf Hitler loved not only Wagner, but also Beethoven, and the great Wilhelm Furtwaengler stood under a giant swastika to conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for the Nazi leader’s birthday in 1943.

It is a common observation that a sense of the natural, or the spontaneous, uniquely characterizes Japanese art: the unpredictable patterns of ash glaze in ceramics, the freedom of calligraphy, the impressionistic representation in painting, the allusiveness of poetry. Nature is cruel as well as generous, but always beautiful, and this balance and tension pervades the Japanese esthetics that Professor Fujiwara associates with samurai ethics. If nature is as cruel as it is spontaneous, then men also may be spontaneously cruel.

The comparison may seem peculiar, but the Japanese in a way resemble the Jews in their passion to bring something of the eternal into every detail of everyday life. As Franz Rosenzweig put it, the myriad laws regulating Jewish prayer, diet, marital relations, and so forth all stem from a single motive, to import eternity into daily life. As Fujiwara avers, that is what the Japanese do by making every aspect of life into a work of art. But the contrast is as sharp as the parallel. Jewish food generally is unappetizing as well as visually unappealing, as opposed to Japan’s magnificent national cuisine; Jewish manners are brusque, while Japan has made an art form of courtesy; and no aspect of Jewish religious life is concerned with visual beauty in any way at all.

On the contrary, Jewish practice subordinates human instincts to revealed commandments. Dietary laws derive from recognition that animals also are close to God, if not as close as humans. [2] Marital relations put the human sex drive at the service of family and children. Prayer places every human action – waking, sleeping, eating, and so forth – in the context of the presence of a personal god. One of the most ancient Jewish teachings states that the world rests on three things: Torah (the revealed code of behavior), worship, and acts of kindness.

The notion that the natural world, the world of crickets and earthquakes, of cherry blossoms and volcanic eruptions, rests upon “acts of kindness” presupposes a god who cares about his creatures, for whom nature is merely a cloak, to be discarded and made anew when it wears out, as the psalmist said. Nature to the Jews is not real; it is a veil, the dark clouds that obscure the throne of a Creator. Its beauty is not to be disregarded (the Jews have a blessing to be said when perceiving natural beauty), but it is ephemeral, whereas acts of kindness are enduring.

One might argue that the surface beauty of nature is of less import than its recondite beauty, the inner harmony that is visible not to the eye, but rather to the mind. That appeal to the mind’s eye over surface perception we associated with Plato. Albert Einstein and many other great scientists were Platonists. I was reminded of Einstein’s view of the religious character of science by the following, quoted by John Updike in a review of a new Einstein biography:

The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation … His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systemic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. [3]

The harmonies that so moved Einstein, to be sure, not only cannot be perceived by the naked eye, but cannot even be comprehended by more than a tiny fraction of humanity. That is very different from the song of the cricket or the colors of the cherry blossom, which anyone can perceive.

Yet I do not think that Einstein’s invocation of natural harmonies suffices to define the Good. It certainly would not do so in Japan, for Einstein’s work aided the invention of atomic weapons, whose development Einstein personally urged upon US president Franklin Roosevelt at the outset of World War II. As the world’s only victims of atomic weapons, surely the Japanese must have mixed feelings about equating the recondite harmonies of nature with the Good. For my part, Mephisto’s taunt suffices: man uses the spark of heavenly light he calls Reason to be beastlier than any beast.

As it happens, the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Platonist like Einstein, led Hitler’s program to build nuclear weapons. It happens that the forces of evil failed to construct a bomb before the Allies did so (if the Allies were not quite the forces of good, they were at least capable of good on occasion). Things turned out this way not because one side had a more rapturous perception of the inner harmony of natural law, for Platonists led both atomic-bomb programs. The Americans got the bomb first because Hitler was a monster who drove away scientific geniuses like Einstein, who had happily spent World War I in Berlin. As the old joke goes, there is no way Hitler could have lost World War II if only he had the Jews on his side. That is little comfort to the Japanese, who had no reason to be happy that the United States got the bomb, but that is another matter.

Neither Japan’s spontaneity before nature nor Einstein’s appreciation of nature’s inner harmonies need coincide with the Good. Acts of kindness are good, but they are not necessarily beautiful. There is nothing esthetically pleasing about cleaning bedpans, but it is a kind thing to do. Unlike sakura, acts of kindness are not fleeting, but enduring. The Good is sui generis, which is to say that it is not derived, but revealed.

It is beautiful to view cherry blossoms; in a way, it is even more beautiful to view the Japanese as they sit under the blooming cherry trees, for their unique affinity to nature’s moments of beauty constitutes one of humankind’s most exquisite protests against mortality. But it is not the Good; and thinking about Professor Fujiwara makes me wish that the Japanese were better than they are, for example, in acknowledging various outrages during World War II.

1. Why the beautiful is not the good, Asia Times Online, May 17, 2005. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian.
2. In this I rely on Michael Wyschogrod’s presentation in Abraham’s Promise.
3. In The New Yorker, April 2. Walter Isaacson’s biography is titled Einstein: His Life and Universe.



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