Arts / Entertainment

The Power of a Beautiful Old Church

The futurist and host of "Brain Games" discovers the pull of the sacred as he contemplates the beauty of architecture

Like any restless idealist, the host of Brain Games, Jason Silva, has some dubious ideas about mankind, which he sees as hurtling toward a “technologically mediated” utopia where human beings have merged with their machines to become like gods. In fact, his brand of futurism — a marriage of Nietzsche’s will to power with Kurzweil’s “singularity” — very well might be one of the most volatile ideas on the market.

Still, I keep getting drawn back into Silva’s “Shots of Awe,” a collection of espresso-like videos on YouTube packed with meditations on creativity, meaning and human existence.

If nothing else, these videos are worth studying just for their aesthetic approach to exploring big ideas in a short amount of time. Like a good movie trailer, they’re quick on their feet, filled with pathos and leave you wanting more.

But they also tend to downplay or even bracket Silva’s futurism. Videos like “Existential Bummer”  find Silva exploring the perennial problems of existence — our brokenness, our passions, our endless exploration — while sparing us the trippy transhumanist tour of the future. It’s a place that anyone interested in continental philosophy or philosophy of religion (or maybe just the psychology behind transhumanism) will find valuable.

One of his most recent videos, “Why Design Matters,” is a perfect example. The video opens with Silva contemplating the beauty of architecture. “I think a lot about the psychology of spaces,” Silva starts, “the intention of architecture, the capacity to design dwellings that inform our inner world.” Suddenly, we cut to an image of a woman walking into a church. Another woman blesses herself and lights a candle, and images of the cross, a stained-glass window of Christ and light pouring through the church’s dome all flood the screen.

Meanwhile, Silva goes on:

“You walk into a room, and you start feeling better, and you don’t quite know why. Then you realize the lighting, the shapes, the lines, the shadows, everything about how we’ve installed, impregnated, mind and intention and agency into the physical form, shows us the ways in which architecture, in which design, is really about the design of the inner spaces. When you design the without, you design the within.”

Taken in by Silva’s restless, panoramic stream of consciousness, the church becomes just one pit stop among many. Still, the encounter is a striking one. In an age of soaring skyscrapers, it’s a testament to the power a beautiful old church can still wield over us. Author Peter Kreeft recalls that it was walking into St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the age of 12 (and “feeling like I was in heaven”) that turned him toward Catholicism. Participation in outer spaces — whether structures, images, rituals, symbols or sacraments — really does reflect, inform and shape who we are and what we believe.

But Silva’s conclusion, which he articulates in another video, is where he derails. “We can become paradise engineers,” he says, quoting David Pearce. “It is our moral responsibility to create these prescriptions of mind for ourselves, to basically deconstruct and engineer nirvana, to create virtual realities that we can inhabit and believe in.”

In other words, to immanentize the eschaton, once and for all.

Like Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace,” the beauty of the church becomes “cheap beauty”, a self-appropriated happiness carefully calibrated to maximize our own spiritual revenue. He wants to capture that beauty, deconstruct it and use it to enhance our own chemistry and/or “mind stuff.” But when the game is rigged — and the design is by us, about us, for us and nothing else — what is there to be in “awe” of?

Nicholas Cabasilas, on the other hand, defined the contemplation of beauty as a holy ache for what is beyond us:

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound.”

If Cabasilas was right, Silva is wasting his time by trying to reverse engineer the call of beauty. That ache points beyond itself by definition, and the search for its source never ends.

At least, not on this side of paradise.


Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.