Prospects

If theology, as classically conceived, is the pre-eminent means by which Christian faith seeks to understand itself, and if the arts afford insights and experiences significant to Christian life and faith, then it might stand to reason that the fullest Christian understanding of the arts would be found above all in the works of professional theologians. In actuality, however, the arts have been marginal to the study and practice of formal theology. This does not change the fact that some sort of dialogue has continued throughout the history of Christianity. But it means that, if one is to understand the peculiarities of theology's dialogue with art, one must pay attention to several factors that until recently have tended to keep the arts out of the mainstream of theological discussion.

One obstacle to dialogue is simply that theology and art rarely speak the same language. A large part of theology—academic theology—is highly conceptual in nature, striving to keep aesthetic imagination at a safe distance, or at least under careful control. It is true that theology has its own rhetorical and aesthetic features. In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury deemed it fitting that his theological treatise Cur deus homo be beautifully crafted; at points he even compared his efforts to those of a painter. Even so, for the purposes of rigorous and intricate argumentation, he could never have been content with pictures.

The arts, by contrast, tend to be low in logical, conceptual clarity and high in sensory and imaginative qualities, thriving on the particularity of images and on the evocative power of symbols and stories. These give form to the life of feeling as well as to ideas, constructing overt fictions and entertaining new possibilities. Thus, as Immanuel Kant recognized, the thinking that transpires through aesthetic symbols lacks intellectual precision; yet it glimpses more than concepts can encompass, thereby challenging thought to transcend itself (Kant 1987:181-6). This being the case, it appears that neither art nor theology can fully comprehend or translate the language of the other, although each can be transformed in response to the other.

The second deterrent to theological dialogue with art is this: academic theological education belongs to a long tradition of learning which assumes that the highest and most complete form of understanding is intellectual and rational. The liberal arts of the medieval university were not the ones that eventually came to be called 'fine arts'; nor did the medieval university cultivate the criticism and interpretation of such arts. Although music appeared in the medieval university curriculum, it did so not in its audible form but in its theoretical guise, as a mathematical art related to astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry. Literary art was approached only as part of the study of grammar and rhetoric, or in later times as a historical document. Arts such as painting or sculpture had no place, being manual and 'servile'.

It is only in modern times that arts other than classical literature have been given concentrated attention in institutions of higher education. Even then, there has often been a question as to exactly what the study of literature and the arts might contribute to the 'life of the mind'. John Henry Newman, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, felt it necessary to explain and defend the importance of literature within university education, basing his defence on the plausible premise that literature is a major means by which human beings can gain insight into themselves, their history, their moral and social nature, and the texture of their lives (Newman 1982:173-4). (The more playful or potentially subversive side of literature was something he could not afford to emphasize.) Soon, however, the major apologists for literature and the arts would take a different tack, misapplying Kant in order to argue that art properly occupies its own sphere—the aesthetic—which is supposedly divorced from anything moral, cognitive, or religious. In being thus liberated, art was also isolated and could therefore hardly be expected to occupy a central place in the life of learning, whether humanistic or theological.

There has been a third hindrance to theological dialogue with art. Christian theology has in varying degrees been influenced from the beginning by Platonic and Gnostic ontologies that depict the sensory, material, and bodily world as at best inferior to the world of the intellect and incorporeal spirit. From this point of view, things that are sensory and material are either corrupt and seductive or, if essentially good, are nonetheless transitory and subject to decay. The most that one can hope from them, therefore, is that they will provide a first step on the spiritual path. This does not bode well for art, which is sensuous even in its appeal to the mind and imagination.

Christianity, despite its Jewish heritage, has imbibed a good deal of this attitude. Thus Augustine in Book Ten of his Confessions worried that the music of the hymns he sang in church, though previously it had moved him to tears, might distract him from the truth of what was being sung. And he congratulated himself on having arrived at a state of spiritual maturity in which he was in fact moved not by the chant or by anything sensory but by the words, with their eternal, non-sensuous truth (Augustine 1991:10. 33 [207-8]). Echoes of this line of thought can be heard in every century of Christian history, creating a profound suspicion of things artistic.

The deprecation of the senses is not always cancelled out when beauty is celebrated by theologians, as it is by Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, or Hans Urs von Balthasar. As is well known, certain of these theologians go so far as to declare Beauty to be one of the names of God. In doing so, however, the theologian (particularly in the past) has typically urged the lover of sensuous beauty to ascend towards the non-sensuous, invisible Beauty that alone is eternal and true. It is less common for the theologian to linger with things of this world or to regard them as imbued with beauty transcending anything that the intellect alone could contemplate. It is true that, as Balthasar has amply demonstrated, theology has made extensive use of aesthetic categories to carry out its work (see Balthasar 1982-91). Under the influence of Romanticism, theology has even been known to conflate the religious and the aesthetic, thereby obliterating distinctions that it might have done better to qualify and refine. Nevertheless, art and sensuous beauty have by and large been treated with great theological ambivalence.

Visual art in particular has often been relegated to the level of the spiritually immature or illiterate. Thus the Western Church, taking its cue from Gregory the Great, has most often justified visual arts as a Bible for the poor and uneducated. At other times these arts have simply been banished. Karl Barth spoke for one major part of the Protestant tradition when he declared that images and symbols 'have no place at all in a building designed for Protestant worship' (Barth 1965:93). Even the Eastern Orthodox tradition, when in the eighth century it ultimately gave approval to the use of icons, offered theological justifications that had little to do with specifically artistic values. The iconodules argued that the veneration given to the image would transfer to the invisible, spiritual prototype behind the image. And they claimed that the Incarnation showed the spiritual worth of material things, including material images of Christ. While this line of thought resulted in a sacramental view of sacred images, it said nothing about the special power of the images as art. Moreover, the principle of sacramentality was applied selectively. It did not extend equally to sculpture or dance (or indeed to instrumental music).

In fact the use of the arts in the Eastern Church, however rich and intense, has been tightly governed by theology and tradition.

Finally, it must be said that Christian reservations about art have not been only theological in a narrow sense. The sheer costliness of much art and architecture, for example, has added fuel to the periodic fires of iconoclasm and asceticism. The concern over cost has been moral as well as pragmatic. Over the centuries there has been a recurrent tension between giving to the causes of art and giving to the poor—a tension only partly mitigated by the joy and spiritual satisfaction that the poor have been able at times to derive from impressive churches and sacred art.

Having spelled out reasons for art's historically marginal status in the realm of theology, it may be necessary to reiterate that, in practice, the Church has made much of the arts. Equally important, it has become clear that, ever since the beginning of the Romantic era, the bases for much of the theological neglect and suspicion of art have gradually (though by no means steadily) eroded.

For one thing, within constructive or fundamental theology there has occurred a significant shift in ideas of epistemology and language. Many-perhaps most—leading theologians today have rejected foundationalism, whether in the form of rationalism or positivist empiricism or religious dogmatism. Like some of their nineteenth-century predecessors, such theologians now tend to see understanding (theological and otherwise) as something always in process, relying at crucial points on metaphor and hypothesis, and inevitably retaining degrees of ambiguity and incoherence.

Over the last fifty years or more, in the world of thought outside theology per se, considerable support has built up for such a shift. Whether one turns to Martin Heidegger, Alfred North Whitehead, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Richard Rorty, or indeed to scientists studying the hemispheres of the brain, one finds in these quite heterogeneous and often antagonistic sources a shared emphasis on the role of the hypothetical, the figurative, the narrative, the poetic, the tacit, or the truly ambiguous in making thought possible, and thus in constructing any fabric of meaning or framework of interpretation.

Specifically in the realm of aesthetics and hermeneutics, most theorists have jettisoned the modernist purism that has seen art as most fully itself when completely autonomous and hence free of moral, cognitive, or religious associations. Theorists now readily acknowledge that art, for all its fictive, affective, and playful qualities, can affect and reflect larger patterns of thought, discourse, and discernment.

Related shifts in orientation have occurred in other fields within or adjacent to theology. The artistic and literary features of Scripture itself, which have long been recognized in some degree, have more and more captured the attention of biblical scholars and theologians. In historical studies of the Church and doctrine, greater attention is now given to the place of story and art in the formation of faith and of Christian identity—including its diversity. As a result, certain historians see artworks as having become, for many Christians, significant religious classics—sometimes in opposition to a verbally articulate dominant tradition. Practical theologians, for their part, now widely reject any sharp split between theory and practice, or between body and spirit, and have set aside the dualistic hierarchy in which things having to do with the body and the senses are relegated to an essentially inferior rank. Finally, specialized programmes in the study of religion and various arts (particularly literature and the visual arts) have enjoyed at least intermittent success in universities and theological schools—especially in North America, but now also in Great Britain and in continental Europe. So it is that dialogue with the arts begins to seem increasingly integral to the practice of theology in many of its modes.

Even apart from such developments, however, the dialogue between theology and the arts is unlikely to abate. It occurs throughout history in theologically reflective art (such as T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets) and in artistically creative theology (such as the visionary writings of Hildegard of Bingen). It occurs when a work of secular art affects the perceptions of the theologian and when a religious idea affects the perspective of the secular artist. Finally, and most significantly, the dialogue between theology and art occurs informally and spontaneously in the experience of people who are not themselves either certified artists or accredited theologians—people whose lives are touched by art and by religion and who daily approach the world in aesthetic and religious ways, and frequently in both ways together. That this commonly happens in human life provides, finally, the best warrant for theology's more formal dialogues with art and culture.

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