Art And The Varieties Of Religious Experience

The plurality of Christian religious styles naturally goes well beyond anything suggested by the simple distinction between the arts of 'more' and 'less'. The wider spectrum of Christian aesthetic expression becomes visible if one observes that contrasting kinds of art potentially mediate a sense of divine transcendence, and do so in at least four different modes: negative, radical, proximate, and immanent (see Brown 1989:115-30).

As regards the first mode, it can be said that certain works of holocaust literature, for instance, raise the question of God's sustaining presence so painfully and powerfully that they convey to Jewish and Christian readers alike a sense of what Martin Buber terms the 'eclipse of God'—a sense of terrifying yet holy absence (Buber 1952:23-4). For many listeners, overtones of negative transcendence are also produced by Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses and Aaron, left unfinished at his death in 1951. This work, which demonstrates the full expressive range of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, revolves around the desperate struggle of Moses to be the prophet of the utterly inexpressible, infinite, incomprehensible God. Whereas the efforts of Moses to give voice to the unutterable truth manifest themselves in a far from ingratiating Sprechgesang (midway between speech and song), Aaron adapts to the needs of the people by singing in a lyrical tenor voice; but in the very act of trying to make the Holy Word accessible, Aaron propagates idolatry, adulterating the very truth he professes. Hence what the opera discloses is the profound hiddenness of the one God, whose omnipresence is unmanifest.

A different kind of art is allied with what can be called radical transcendence. This is art that creates a sense of the profound Otherness of a God who nevertheless can at any moment reach across infinite distance to address, judge, and transform human life. In musical art, radical transcendence resonates today in the contemplative spiritual minimalism of Arvo Part, as heard for instance in the quiet intensity and occasionally hair-raising outbursts of his Te Deum (1986). The radical character of God's transcendence is expressed in another but related way by the interiors of early New England Puritan meeting houses. By their conspicuous plainness they show that they were not meant to be temples, because nothing made by human hands can become the habitation of the Almighty God who wills nevertheless to enter the hearts of the Elect.

Proximate transcendence starts from a point nearer to the world of human reality and enters it more completely. One thinks of the warmly radiant frescoes that Fra Angelico, in the quattrocento, painted for the friars at San Marco in Florence—one of the scenes being a vibrant Annunciation in which angel and virgin lean towards one another in mutual acknowledgment and anticipation. The alternately tender and invigorating melodies and rhythms of African American spirituals likewise give aesthetic body to a transcendence that readily comes near, both sharing in human suffering and liberating life from oppression and captivity. For many listeners, today's popular 'praise choruses' tend to mediate a sense of proximate transcendence as well—but transmuted into a feeling of casual closeness to God.

Last, there is an art of what, speaking paradoxically, we can term immanent transcendence. It is not surprising that, in the modern era, the sense of immanence exists alongside the widespread denial of any transcendence at all. It is a thin, though significant, line that separates an entirely sacred world from a world emptied of all sacrality. But certainly from the perspective that embraces immanent transcendence, which is sacramentalism pushed to the limit, all human life and indeed all creation is envisioned as holy. This is a vision sometimes re-created and celebrated, for instance, in the poems of William Wordsworth and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The motif of immanence appears, too, in contemporary hymnody concerned with social justice and liberation, conceived of as harbingers of the reign of God on earth. Immanence has a close connection with ecological spirituality as well. This is plainly audible in the blend of Franciscan and 'New Age' spirituality pervading the Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) that was presented and recorded in 1981 by Paul Winter and his Consort. In the final portion of this work, the text of the 'Canticle' of Saint Francis is woven into a musical fabric that incorporates the voices of whales and wolves, together with a song paraphrasing the scriptural passage in which Job is instructed to learn from the beasts and birds and fish. Here no clear distinction is made between God and world; or, if there is a distinction, it is panentheistic in nature, seeing the world as God's body and therefore as inseparable from God.

Although tensions clearly exist between the four basic types of religious aesthetic experience examined above, none need be accorded a position of absolute priority in Christian theology and spirituality. Whereas Paul Tillich gave a privileged position to expressionist art, as compared with naturalistic or idealistic styles, the present analysis is consonant with a more pluralistic approach. This is not to say that, in the realm of theology, all artistic styles are to be affirmed uncritically; nor is it to say that the various kinds of religiously significant art lead in different ways to the same goal: a common, unitary vision of God and of human transformation. It is rather to say in aesthetic terms what theologians have increasingly recognized—namely, that Christian experience is genuinely varied, however common its primary elements. Christian spirituality therefore elicits and depends on various aesthetic styles, each of which becomes integral to a particular sense of divine transcendence and of human possibility.

It would be misleading, however, to conceive of the import of a particular style or work as something static and invariable. Just as religious significance is not directly correlated with religious subject matter, neither is it inevitably correlated with a particular style. Many factors enter into the impact of a work of art, including the context in which it is received and perceived. A given work of art can thus have many kinds of religious import, or none at all.

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