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Posted August 2, 2005

Book: Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination
Author: Michael Austin
Equanox, London, pp.178

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

There have been many Christian interpretations of art from a variety of theological perspectives. The direction of these critiques has invariably been from theology to art. Theological (even dogmatic) presuppositions have determined the way in which art in general or movements in art or particular works of art have been interpreted. There is now need for an understanding of art which affirms the crucial importance of art for theology. The direction of the critique must be from art to theology, rather than the other direction. Christian theologians must at the very least appreciate and affirm the value of art for the religion of the Incarnation.

This book sets out some steps towards such an appreciation through the exploration of three interconnecting themes. In his exploration of the first theme, Embodiment and Incarnation, the author argues that Richard Wolheim’s statement that ‘Art rest on the fact that deep feelings pattern themselves in a coherent way all over our life and behavior’ (Art and its Objects, 1980) applies equally to religion. With the second theme, Similarities and Differences, the author notes the way each can act as a critique of the other. Christianity had, particularly though not exclusively in its reformed and evangelical traditions, tended to over-value the word of Scripture and of dogma, with the result that the non-verbal arts have been at best ignored and often feared. Generally, on the their side, the arts have asserted their autonomy and have generally rejected notions of responsibility to social, ethical or religious principles or ideals. Finally, in treating the theme Faith and Imagination, the author argues that art can serve as an agent of salvation by helping theology to create frames of reference for the interpretation and fuller experience of personal life.

An Excerpt from the Book:

That central truth of salvation — that it is practical earthed love by God whose very nature is love — is celebrated from strikingly different viewpoints by two of the most imaginative theologians of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton and Teilhard de Chardin.

The last page of the final meditation in Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation has these words.

What is serious to me is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the ‘newness’, the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, and thus a member of a world-renouncing religious Order. Monica Furlong, one of the best because one of the least hagiographical of his biographers, suggests that Merton was drawn to the disciplines of his order because he was so personally susceptible (as was Augustine of Hippo) to the attraction of people and the world. Perhaps so, but he never lost his warm love of either. On the contrary, from the security of his faith and religious tradition he actively engaged with the world in all its political and religious diversity. He died in Bangkok on one of his journeys of exploration into Eastern spirituality of which he wrote with so much theological openness. He was supremely a man of this world.

Teilhard de Chardin, a member of another religious order, the Jesuits, was one of the finest palaeontologists of his age. One day, while on a scientific expedition in the Ordos Desert, he found himself unable to say mass. It was the Feast of the Transfiguration – a special feast for this gentle priest. What this denial called forth from him was The Mass on the World in which he celebrates the real presence of the risen Christ in the whole universe. The Offering contains these words:

Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

My paten and my chalice are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces wich in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit. Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is awakening to this new day . . .

Those are just brief passages from the pens of these two men. What poetry they contain, and what a passionate affirmation of the reality of the heart of love which beats at the center of all things. They were poets with a breadth of vision deriving from a Christian faith illuminated by the imagination. They expressed themselves simply, but, as the Austrian writer Hugo Hofmannsthal has said, powerful imaginations are always conservative.

Merton’s vision saw the hand of redeeming, saving love in the microcosm. Everything that is, he said, is holy. . .Teilhard de Chardin’s vision saw the hand of redeeming, saving love in the macrocosm.

. . . we have in these two poet mystics a still remarkably daring theology, at least in the West and at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is daring because it rebukes that still strong Christian puritan tradition, owing much to alien Greek notions of the corruptibility of matter, that sees all matter and especially all flesh, as essentially and originally sinful. We have seen this strong tendency in Christian attitudes to the arts. Because it is biblical to the core it is remarkable that the notion that flesh is God-created and redeemed is regarded as suspect by many Christians.

Table of Contents:

1. Art for whose sake?

2. Art and the theologians

3. Making new worlds

4. Art and the philosophers

5. As the bird sings

6. Tossed clean into the new

7. Did I love a dream?

8. The reality of the really new

9. Symbols of the sublime?

10. The time came and the man

11. A glimpse of the cosmic dance