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Not long ago, while in London, I passed by two street singers. A young man and woman, red-faced and with a smiling ­seriousness, were performing a version of the sixteenth-century song, “John, Come Kiss Me Now.” The small spectacle was wonderful: ­gentle, lilting, innocent, and mischievous all at once. I was captivated by their voices, and a familiar sense of joy bubbled up within me.

Delight is among the greatest gifts. In fact, delight is what distinguishes a gift from a payment. ­Augustine saw delight, the “delectable,” as love’s power to bind us to another, and to God. While being a priest and theologian can occasionally wander into the precincts of delight, the ecclesial career involves pursuits that, like most professions, are generally goal-oriented, however morally positive. Tasks are ordered by ends to be achieved according to a program. There are parishioners to counsel and sermons to write. Even the essential imperative “Bring people to Christ!” fits into this pattern. But as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once argued, “delight” is, at least in its experience, free from activities of “enterprise,” and this freedom uncovers a world of wonder.

Oakeshott wrote what I consider to be one of the great essays on art, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” In this essay, Oakeshott subtly and courageously (for a political thinker) delved into the human and moral need for practices that have no purpose beyond their enjoyment. According to Oakeshott, delight and contemplation are equivalent. Gently taking issue with Plato’s notion of contemplation as something aimed at a truth beyond images, he defines contemplation as “an activity” of “imaging and moving about among images,” by “entertaining” them, following their leads, nudges, and suggestions, and gathering their implications. All of this we do without “destination” or achievement. This resting with the images themselves is what brings delight. Although poetry, in which other art forms are included, is understood as delightful contemplation, it is not without engagements of other practical forms of thought, such as science or politics. But poetry is essentially distinct from these activities, because it has no teleological end.

Oakeshott tended to stress the untethered character of delight, which, in his more political perspective, helped to loosen our slavery to the tyrannous demands of enterprise. Un-purposed contemplation is a good in part because the tasks of life—community, work, and family—require free delight in order to function truthfully, responsibly, and modestly. Nevertheless, pure aimlessness remains the central feature of delight in a godless world, and a delightful world without God can easily lapse into simple hedonism.

Although Oakeshott seems to have been a believing Christian, as his recently published Notebooks indicate, God does not figure in his public writing on delight. This is an unfortunate omission. His insistence on delight bound to images, and images, of course, tied to experience, meant that delight was, in his view, at the center of existence itself. The point is crucial. Because God is the maker of all the world’s things, involved with and present in them, delight can never be free-floating and, with respect to a human life, completely aimless. In a ­created world, delight fuels the energy of our lives and, rightly understood, marks their governing purpose.

Every moment or thing of delight is a sign, indeed, the incarnate articulation, of God’s glory. This intuition undergirds the vision of great theologians such as ­Augustine and Jonathan Edwards. Delight is intrinsically bound to the whole of our created existence, not just to a certain pleasant realm of our experience. Delight is always “about” something else. It has the quality of “looking beyond” to the fact that what we delight in has been given by God, since everything we have is given by him. As Oakeshott’s image of “conversation”—so very different from “argument,” which drives to a conclusion—suggests, everything is about everything else, woven together in the comprehensive tapestry of divine grace, the ultimate substance of delight.

Delight, then, takes in the world and its forms, including those of our own experience. For this reason, the notion that music is the purest kind of art because it is the least confused with the forms of the world is a fantasy. Music always has a history that is peopled and felt; we listen with a store of memory filled with the world’s forms. One needn’t know the story of Count Keyserling’s insomnia, which Bach tried to appease, to take delight in the Goldberg Variations; nor need one be familiar with performance debates pitting Glenn Gould against Gustav Leonhardt. Whoever hears the Goldberg Variations will bring a landscape of place, person, and previous song. The genius of the Variations lies precisely in elevating our world and its impress upon our memories into an enthralling place of gratitude. My delight in East African Taarab music and its offshoots like Bongo Flava, however alien they may be to my Western-trained musical grammar and lexicon, does not arise from nothing. It is populated with remembered persons, places, and sounds of my experience living there. However historically confused the elements may be in my mind, once stirred and grasped, held up and caressed, gazed upon and turned about, tumbling into and among the abundance of my created being—contemplated—these shards of the created world gleam with a light that only God can offer.

Our lives, taken in themselves and as a whole, have no obvious purpose. This is why philosophy is a Sisyphean task. We are not born to build a dam, to draft a blueprint, to write computer code or political opinion pieces, to administer antibiotics, to right wrongs, or to teach reading. And even if, in some sense, we are made to multiply and populate the earth, to live, not “alone” but with others—and thus must enterprise to support our families and communities—there is no great end wrapped up in such a path. We do not “fill the earth” so that some goal, some x, will prevail. In this sense Oakeshott was surely right to see life as a great “conversation,” not as a building project, an activity without “enquiry or a debate,” where “there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.” There is, instead, the simple and enveloping glory of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. To be born is to delight in this simple and exhaustive truth.

The small delights of our lives are emblems of this great fact, and they draw from the same source as the delights of song and other forms of crafted beauty. They are innumerable: the slant of light on an afternoon walk; a meal with friends (or with enemies!); the brief remark, insightful or humorous, from a fellow bus passenger; a moment of satisfaction at one’s desk or at a work site; sleep after a hard day. And, of course, there are the more trained and often wrenching delights of another’s forgiveness, undeserved compassion, inexplicable comforts, or unwavering encouragements. All betoken the fullness of this world whose God-givenness delectably possesses us.

When my grown son asked me the other day whether there was a “road not taken” in my life, at least in some imagined sense of happy possibility, I did not hesitate: “I would have been a street musician.” I’d had a taste of this one summer when I was twenty-one. Planted often in the fog and cold, and sometimes in the crystalline sunshine, of San Francisco, just by the Bay where tourists flocked, shivered, or took off their shirts in the occasional heat, I sat with my violin and worked my way through bits of Telemann, Renaissance airs, and folk tunes. I remember some dreary labor on my part; but I also recall those who stopped before me, lingered, with broad grins or peaceful gazes, some holding hands. In those moments, ­gloriously sentimental, everything about life was worth it. As I told my son, “There is nothing better than bringing delight to another person.”

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Hippo PX via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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