Theology is Art
To be a successful theologian, one must do more than reproduce and restate what has come before. As artists, successful theologians must push boundaries and add to humanity’s awareness and understanding of God’s work and relationship to us.
Just like other artists, it is acceptable (for a time) for new theologians to mimic the work of theologians whose work has come before. In many ways, this is the way that one learns to do theology. Particularly in formal settings such as seminary or divinity school, we repeat what we have been told. We demonstrate that we have understood the boundaries of the ideas we have been taught. But also, this dynamic takes place in the Sunday School classroom: We ingest what our pastors and teachers have taught us and try to work out our understandings of what these theologies might mean for our lives.
To do this, we must make statements. We might have occasion to write them down or we may just profess our thoughts during conversation, but both instances afford us the opportunity to take something from the abstract and personal and bring it to the realm of concrete and public.
To do this effectively, we have to “give answers to questions that are actually being asked.” 20th century theologian Paul Tillich called this the “theory of correspondence.” Tillich’s contention was that if theology wanted to be an effective tool in the change of human life it must attend itself to the issues that present themselves in our daily lives. Theology should not address concerns that none of us have. Theology’s purpose is to answer the questions that life naturally raises.
To answer these present questions means that theology has to be done in the present. It has to be done publicly, and it has to be done right now. I have to speak out loud to these questions and issues which are pressing. I have to write and publish words and ideas which are timely and relevant. I have to create forms which serve this purpose.
This ability to public answer questions raised by reality is happening all the time. My friend Carol Howard Merritt consistently uses her blog to give a theological response to a pressing issue she has heard of in the church or read int he paper. Likewise, former Presbyterian Church Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow has made a regular habit of recording videos in response to trends like kids bullying one another to the point of suicide. In a more traditional vein, professor and theologian Andrew Root has chosen to write a book giving a theologically informed answer to the question of what children endure when their parents divorce. Yet, in all cases, someone produced something. Be it speaking or writing, something potential and private became a concrete reality. This is the first way that we know that theology is art: Form has been created.
We also know that theology is art because the words that we use are metaphorical in nature. They are symbols.
I know that many will want to push back and insist that theology is not only done with words. Many will claim that theology can be “embodied” or “non-verbal,” and I can imagine cases in which I would be inclined to agree. Yet the vast majority of theological work is done with language so that is what I chose to address here.
It may sound silly to say it, but words are not actual objects. They do not exist self sufficiently. When we use a word we are choosing to employ a verbal place holder that is intended to remind us of something else.
When humans first learned to communicate, they did so with pictures – a particular drawing represented an object in the real world. If I drew you a picture of a buffalo or a flower, there was a corresponding reality to associate it with. And yet, even though that was the case, looking at my picture of the buffalo or flower was not the same thing as looking at an actual butterfly or flower. You had to know that I was referencing something else, an actual thing.
To be sure, I could strive to be as accurate in my depiction as possible if I was trying to get you to think about acertain object, but even if the graphical representation I created was as accurate as possible it would still just be symbol.
With the introduction of the alphabet, our method of communication became even more symbolic. No longer was my intention to draw you a picture of a buffalo, I now wanted to use a combination of pre-defined characters (symbols, in their own right) to remind you of the object I wanted to bring to your awareness. In these paragraphs, when you read the words buffalo and flower you saw an image in your mind of what I was referring to. But what if the buffalo you saw in your mind was not the buffalo I was referring to? What if you saw a large buffalo and I was speaking of a small buffalo? What if the buffalo I was wanting you to imagine was brown all over with a tuft of white fur in the middle of its forehead, right between its horns (horns, I might add, which were actually quite long for a buffalo)?
My guess is that if I showed you a picture of the buffalo I was trying to describe, it would share some similarities with the buffalo you had drawn up in your mind, but would most likely look very different. Proportions would be different. Shading of the fur color would be different. Again, not drastically so, but different enough to be noticeable.
This is both the blessing and the curse of language. Not only did we discover that there was more than one way to interpret the statement about “horns which were actually quite long for a buffalo,” but we discovered that there was more than one way to interpret the statement. No matter what words I chose to use, there was no way that I could pick the absolute correct ones which would enable you to bring to your mind exactly what I was bringing to my mind. Even if we were both looking at an actual buffalo, the words I might use to describe it will prove to be different than the ones you would use. I might say “massive” but that might be too much for you – you generally prefer the word “large.” And even if we both agreed to use the word “fluffy” to describe the quality of fur, what prompted us to pick the word could very well be different.
I’m not suggesting that we give up on the ability of language to communicate. Far from it. What I am suggesting, however, is that we recognize that even at its most precise, language is just a place holder which refers to another reality. While you and I may have different reasons for coming to decide that the word “fluffy” is the one we would like to use, language provides us with a way to form an agreement that (for whatever reason) we are going to refer to that particular quality as “fluffy.” Anything else is weight that language cannot sustain.
In the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the only thing that one must affirm in order to become a member of one of our congregations is the statement “Jesus is Lord.” This is the truth that we have designated as the center of our life together. We have decided that whatever else we do and whatever else we say, it must always be consistent with the centrality of Christ in our loves. This seems simple and innocuous enough until one discovers what someone else means when they say “Lord” or the qualities they bring to mind that allow them to affirm that “Jesus” is qualified to be their Lord. What is required, though, is not that we both exactly agree on what the word “Lord” means, but that we strive to come to a place where we can both affirm the importance of the claim that the reality to which the word points holds over us. We should not pretend that we are all holding that same understanding of the idea, but that we are agreeing to enter a provisional agreement where the idea is given weight above everything else and where continual engagement will reveal new facets we had not known before.
Going back to the example of the buffalo, our entire conversation is predicated on you having actually seen a buffalo. You have to know what a buffalo is for my description of it to not only make sense, but for to compel you to care. Interestingly though, unlike a buffalo, I have never seen Jesus of Nazareth, let alone the Father he is claiming (in the Gospel of John) to be an image of. I have surely had an experience of something I‘m calling God, but it is categorically not the same as my having seen a buffalo. Not only will the words I use to describe God and my experience of God be symbolic and limited, but I will be referencing something that I can only claim to have glimpsed (and then, only in passing) not something I have conclusive, concrete knowledge of.
This is the second way we know that theology is art: Our words are symbols.
Finally, art must always come from somewhere. The formula goes like this: I have an experience, which produces a response (thoughts and emotions) and when I create form using the tools I have at my disposal (which can only symbolically refer to the response), art is the result. For our purposes, we know that theology is art because theology concerns human feelings, specifically feelings about God. The word “theology” is actually derived from the combination of two Greek words (theo = god, divine; logos = words, speech). Our divine art – our “God talk” – has its genesis in our experience of God.
Theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher addressed this idea most clearly in his seminal classic On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.
In response to his friends (whom the title references – educated artistic types who could not understand how he could see the world in so many of the ways they did, and yet could live with integrity as a confirmed Christian and ordained minister) Schleiermacher sought to offer a defense of the religious life that was not easily dismissed for being rigid and dogmatic, nor hypocritical in its piety. Schleiermacher sought to offer an account of the religious life that was true to his tradition as well as resonate with the ways that the learned critics had come to see the world. (By some measure, he succeeded quite well, in that his best friend choose to return to a life of faith.)
Schleiermacher’s contention was that the genuine core of the religious life was not to be found by moral action nor by reason, which were the bases of his friends critiques. He disputes moral action by making clear that morality cannot and does not exhaust the sphere which his friends would have it govern. Something else is at work, he says, beyond our ability to behave according to a set of principles. Likewise with reason. When religion is reduced to “thinking” it becomes a discussion of either the ways we conceive the world to be constituted or about the ways in which we should behave. In other words, religion becomes equal to science/philosophy and ethics. Why then, Schleiermacher asks, do we call it something other than that? Why call this thing “religion” at all (and beyond naming it, practicing it) if nothing distinguishes it from other disciplines?
What Schleiermacher proposes is a radically new approach to thinking about religion. He contends that the essence of religion is not found in acting or thinking, but in feelings and intuition.
To be honest, his use of the word “religion” is a bit confusing. He wants to be clear that there is a difference between religion and the outward forms of religion. For instance, he is not talking about structure or polity a particular church employs, but would contend that those are expressions of religion. Rather than formal trappings, his use seems to suggest more of an ethos - a way of being together, a corporate spirituality. And this ethos comes into being because of the connection of each of our feelings and intuitions.
These are the places where religion comes from. According to Schleiermacher, religion comes into being because we each have come to an awareness of “the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things, in and through the Eternal.” (Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, (PUBLISHER< YEAR), PAGE NUMBER) The impulse, upon coming to this awareness, is to seek out others, and see if we are alone in this experience. What we call religion is the co-existing and cooperation of our various feelings of God as we bring them together. What is important to note is that what we are calling religion is not an expression of just your feelings nor of mine, but, rather, what is common in the feelings of both of us.
You will recall, it is precisely this shift from the individual to the corporate that allows art to be recognized as such. If one were inclined, I believe religion could be conceived of as a form of performance art. Yet, our task here is not to consider religion as a whole, but theology and the role it plays in relation to religion. Whereas, when human feelings manifest as religion, they produce a culture of interaction and interdependence which is always in flux, when they manifest as theology something more concrete is brought into being, something which can be named as our attempts to describe the feelings we had as a result of our experience of God. These descriptions we create serve as a call to others (of sorts), a way of making known what it was we encountered so that we can gather with others who have experienced something similar.
Theology is art because it concerns human feeling (even if a specific kind of feelings), and, like all art, it will not and cannot be restricted to one form or structure. Because we each have different sources of authority and different contexts from which we derive our “vocabularies,” we each will see the world through particular lenses. These will affect how we construct our theology. To use our terms of art, we each have access to different materials from which to create our art, and different systems of symbolic logic which set the boundaries of our art. No two pieces will be the same, and one cannot say that this is art and that is not purely due to personal opinions.
Therefore, we should stop our search for the one, true, correct theology which will put to rest all disagreement and bring us to glorious unity. In truth, there will be many theologies which will allow different unities to thrive at different times.