I am pleased to announce the release of my new digital monograph, “Theology is Art.” I originally intended this to be the first chapter of a larger work, and I posted some drafts of that on this site under the title “Freedom and Fellowship Chapter 1: A Case for Theology.” Quickly, I discovered that this subject wanted to stand on its own, and I am happy to oblige.
The entire text is available below, and will take you about 45-60 minutes to read in its entirety. Please do feel free to share the link with anyone you think will enjoy it.
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“Theology is Art” by Landon Whitsitt
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For most of my life, I was punished the same way that most children raised by parents in the “Fundagelical” world were punished: I was spanked. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” was the battle cry of child rearing, and my parents took it to heart. Not that I didn’t deserve it… However, when I was 11 or 12 years old, my parents stopped using the form of punishment with me. It was at that moment that I started becoming a theologian.
I remember clearly the last time I was spanked. It was Spring Break of my Sixth Grade year. I’m not entirely clear anymore as to what I did, but it was bad. At the moment of truth, my dad gave me a choice – I could receive a spanking or I could be grounded for the entire week. Considering that it was the beginning of the week and there was a lot of fun to be had, I chose the spanking. It was a very odd experience.
In our family, there were gradations of corporal punishment, both in severity and in implementation. My little sisters, you can imagine, were spanked fewer times than I was, and they were also subject to a different “stick.” While theirs was just a tiny, little foot long piece of cardboard tubing that my parents removed from those old hangers used for slacks, my nemesis was much more fierce. I was never told to go outside and cut myself a switch. No, I was merely sent to my room to wait. Down the hall from my room, in the coat closet, is where the tools of task were kept. I would listen intently until I heard one of my parents open and close the closet door, and then, like a reveler in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, I would count down the number of steps they took until they reached my bedroom door. The door would open and there would be my dad or mom brandishing a two and a half foot long dowel rod.
I admit, when I was seven or eight, this scene was terrifying and certainly deterred my punishable behavior. However, when you’re twelve, it’s just…well…not.
I think my dad realized it as well. I had been a while since he and I had met this way, and I honestly think that, when he saw me sitting on the edge of my bed with a look of utter boredom on my face, he knew that we had come to a crossroads.
Up until this point, groundings were used in our family, but they were seen as “less than.” They didn’t carry the heft that a good old-fashioned spanking did. They were for moments when a punishment needed to be dealt out, but my parents didn’t have time to fully deal one out. They were fillers, stand ins, understudies to the real thing. But, even still, neither method seemed to be working lately.
When the choice was handed down I truly think it was because neither my dad nor my mom were too interested in having a whiny, rambunctious tween in the house for a week. So, in what I’m sure was a split second decision, my dad decided offer us both a way out of this debacle as quickly as he knew how: let the kid decide, and let everyone get on with their week.
However, the ramifications of that decision were huge, and I don’t think it is overstating to say that it changed the course of my life. Part of what my father had done was to acknowledge, even if only tacitly, that I was somehow responsible for my life and could play a part in determining its course and the meaning it had. In allowing me to decide my fate that day, authority was given over to me on a matter of real importance for the first time. I began to own the way I saw the world and the way in which I wanted to move in it. The fact that I got to make that one choice carried over, and suddenly I was drunk on the ability to own the choices I made and ways that I thought in the other areas of my life. That was the day that began my realization that I was no longer subject to the way that my parents saw the world. I had my own point of view, and I could construct the world in a way that was different from theirs. To bastardize Robert Frost, I made a choice and it “has made all the difference.”
The other part of what my father had done was take two, previously very significant tools of punishment out of my parent’s tool bag. If there was even only an implicit acknowledgement that grounding and spanking were not going to work on me any more then something had to be done. No parent worth their salt was simply going to allow their child to run around wild. Even though overt, coercive forms of punishment seemed to be off the table, I was not going to just be let loose to roam free. I was not an animal in a safari.
What my parents ended up deciding to do was, I’m sure out of some amount of desperation, but utterly consistent with their view of the world at the time. The next time that I did something which warranted punishment I was told that I had to sit down with a particular passage from the Bible which applied to the issue and write an essay on the scripture and how it applied to my situation.
After the Spring Break Ultimatum, the first chance my parents got to use this new form of punishment on me was after I had lied about something. I don’t remember what I had lied about, nor what passage I was given to reflect on, but I do remember the reaction my parents had to the essay I handed back to them. I seem to recall going through several drafts to make sure that I had down exactly what I wanted to say. Still, I remember feeling like what I wrote wasn’t good enough. I was, honestly, afraid that I was going to have it handed back and be told that I obviously did not understand either what I had done nor what the Bible had to say on the subject. It is an odd thing to recognize that I was more concerned about the reception of my scriptural reflection than I was about the fact that I was a liar, whose pants were on fire. It is an odd thing to realize that my concern had less to do with the welfare of my body than the reception of my thoughts.
After a while, my parents called me out of my room to speak with them. They sat me down and immediately addressed one of my fears. “It’s obvious that you understand what you have done and why it is wrong.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “I hope that this will serve as a lesson to you.” I assured them that it had.
My dad pointed to the bookshelf that held both the 1964 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia as well as all manner of bibles and other religious books. “Landon, in writing this reflection, did you – by chance – use the bible commentary?”
I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. I had never heard of a bible commentary before.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a book that tells you what the different passages in the Bible mean. Some preachers use them to write their sermons.”
I must have looked worried. Not that anyone could blame me. It seemed to me that my dad was accusing me of cheating while writing a reflection on a Bible passage about lying as a result of my chronic inability to tell the truth.
“Don’t worry,” my mom assured me. “Even our pastor needs to use one. The Bible is very hard to understand.”
Well that was something. “Oh. Well, I didn’t. Those were all my words. That’s what they teach us in school – use your own words.”
My parents exchanged a glance.
“What?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
My dad smiled. “Not at all. It’s just that what you wrote sounds a lot like what the Bible commentary says about this passage. Um… Good job. I think you learned your lesson.”
What is Theology?
I’m sure that this seems like a weird story to tell when beginning a monograph titled Theology is Art, an odd one to tell when making a point about becoming a theologian. However, through a very circuitous route, this experience taught me two very valuable lessons about theology and my relationship to it. First, I discovered that “doing theology” requires a fair amount of creativity and imagination. In order to do what my parents wanted, I had to use my creativity and imagine what the biblical writers would have said to me if I was standing in front of them. Secondly, I discovered that I could actually accomplish that task. A few factors contributed to this newfound ability.
One, I didn’t even know I was reflecting theologically. If my parents had instructed me to “develop a theological response” to lying in general and my penchant for it in particular I would have froze. Even though this experience sowed the first seeds of my theological exploration, there was still present in the worldview of our religious community that theology was something huge and important, done by those who knew what the hell they were talking about. Theology was not done by just anyone, let alone a 12-year-old liar. If I to have been told to write some theology, I would have been caught up in the minutiae of the work rather than the end product.
Instead, I was encouraged to use the “stuff of my faith” to say something about a problem I was having. I seemingly couldn’t stop lying. What did the stories of my faith have to say about that? Who else in the Bible had this problem? Based on what we knew about Jesus, what would he have said about me? In being asked to offer a response as a Christian, I was given rein to use the different pieces and parts that make up the Christian faith to do so. I was being asked to be creative and imagine what one situation would say about another. By this time I had already begun my involvement in my life-long passion of theatre, so I saw this as little different than preparing for a play and trying to suss out a character’s motivations.
As such, I wasn’t expected to do anything perfectly. Precision is good, yes, but I was not being graded on my orthodoxy. The purpose of the task was to see if I could comprehend my actions in light of what we had been taught in the Bible. In order to satisfy that concern, I merely had to be able to express myself adequately and maintain a working understanding of the pieces and parts that made up the faith I had been taught. For example, I had to demonstrate an understanding of the particular role Jesus plays in the life of our faith. I wouldn’t have been able to get away with using Jesus as the foil or trickster.
Lastly, I was being asked to reflect on a particular idea at a particular time in my life. This theological work I was doing (which I didn’t know I was doing at the time) was not me coming up with a crazy, abstract idea that had no application to anything. This work was the result of trying to say something about my experience of God and what I understood to be my obligation based on that relationship. I wasn’t talking about “liars.” I was talking about “Landon the liar” with, I’m sure, references to other such liars like Jacob and Peter. What I was doing was personal, with reference to my own lived life. If I had written with someone else, even though there would have been a more expansive and accommodating nature to the writing, it still would have concerned two people and their thoughts and ideas about particular experiences.
For most of us, these are not the ways we were taught to think of theology.
We might be comfortable with the use of theology to inform how we live our daily lives, but, when we’re honest, calling our daily “God reflections” theology seems to lower the standard a bit. We do not believe theology should be such a casual affair, a project even remotely suggesting whimsy. We believe that theology is special and revered, not to be taken lightly, and should not be able to be reduced to the everyday living of our lives. We believe theology is for special times, intentional times. And we believe theology is to be holy and set apart, able to judge the rest of life with a cool objectivity and indifference.
We were taught that theology should be exhaustive, and we find any posture other than that to be unnerving. Theology should be our rule and our guide, and to suggest that it is anything other is insulting. As such, we cannot bear to attach the proper name of “Theology” to anything that has not overturned all rocks or asked all questions. We like our theology to be multiple volumes and perfected. We like it to be cross-referenced and precise to a disturbing degree. Frankly, we would be more comfortable to distinguish between “theologically informed reflections” and “Theology.”
Likewise, we consider theology to be important enough that it should be done with the long view in mind. If we are going to spend time saying something about God shouldn’t it be something that applies to everyone everywhere and at all times? Why should we waste our time unless that is our aim? We like to think of theology as something universal, and the notion that theology is for the purposes of particular times and particular places seems to many of us to be patently absurd.
We also dislike the idea that what we are doing in these particular times and places is merely using the “stuff” of the Christian faith to interpret our experience. Yes, we appreciate that one should know the different pieces and parts well. We like the idea of an engaged relationship with the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, but to suggest that those are just fodder for the fun game of “Figure Out How the World Works” is an insult. We do not (or should not) use theology as a tool to gain clarity – theology is what brings the clarity. We do not use theology to construct the lens through which we see the world – theology is the lens.
No, we do not like any of these ways of thinking for they change what theology is. If these ways of thinking are allowed to stand, theology becomes a creative, expansive, and expressive project rather than one that seeks to preserve the stability of the Christian sub-culture.
I want to submit that, rather than view theology as a set of boundaries which we dare not cross, we should view it as a “malleable idiom one lives within” which results in “surprise, or the possibility of the unforeseen.” In other words, I would like us to consider that theology is at its best when viewed as a creative, artistic pursuit open to any and all, rather than as a corpus of data to be memorized, collated and organized for the purpose of allowing some to (even if unintentionally) control others.
Theology is not law. Theology is art. To proceed otherwise removes any potency theology ever had. And, yet, this is precisely the way most of us proceed, because we suffer from an irrational fear of art and creativity.
The Fear of Art
Long before I ever thought of darkening the doors of a seminary campus, or stepping foot in a pulpit, I was convinced I was going to make a life in the theatre. I averaged four productions a year between the Fifth Grade and my senior year of college. Towards the end of that range, several of those were shows I produced with friends and classmates, and I not only acted but also found a passion for directing and writing.
I was also in a band. After learning to play the guitar during college, I have played a lot of gigs, have been closer to a record contract than many would-be rock stars, and have recorded four albums worth of original music. I even went to seminary ostensibly to learn good theology so I could write worship music that wasn’t vapid.
I think it is fair to say that, for a while, art was my life.
Yet there was something significant that separated me from many of the other artists I knew: While I was no doubt interested in consuming and producing high quality art, I never considered myself a “snob.” I could never understand the impulse to hold the audience in disrespect, believing that what I was doing was somehow above their ability to comprehend. I believed that if they didn’t “get it”, then it was my fault. Yes, there is something to be said for a maturing cultural literacy, but if we, as artists, were going to consider ourselves to be the ones who revealed the truth about life then we should be earning our keep based on how well our revelations we received. On the whole, I discovered that we artists were failing in this task, and had been for a long time.
But, beyond a noticeable trend towards audiences not responding favorably to the art we produced, the worst of it came in conversation with “non-artists” whom I observed to be creative. On more than one occasion I would ask someone if she was an artist, and she would flatly and quickly tell me that she was not. Often, she would inform me that, at one point, she had tried to paint or draw or take a photograph or sculpt or sing or act, and it had turned out horribly. She told me about how she felt like her insides had been exposed and of how she was embarrassed when it was her turn to show off her creations. Even though no one probably actually ridiculed her, she seems to remember how she was the laughing stock of the entire place for that day.
And it was because of those kinds of experiences that the people I spoke with swore off art and creativity in favor of something more easily empowering. Rather than giving into that feeling of sensitivity and expression that they were not able to harness, they would go the opposite direction and engage areas which reward simple tenacity and mastery over exploration and experimentation. Rather than allow themselves to be laid bare, they would settle for pursuits that allowed a person to protect herself and destroy anything that would seek to overtake her or make her to seem weak.
This impulse of retreat can take on several disguises. I have known several people who seem to have spent inordinate amounts of time committing an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge to memory so that they are always armed with the latest and truest facts and figures, information that cannot be disputed and cannot be ignored. To their minds, they have mastered whatever topic you are debating, and their hard work has guaranteed that they will be protected and not look foolish. You will be defeated, for you cannot dispute them.
Others have retreated to physical activity. I spoke to an ex-football player who had obvious tendencies towards creativity about why he pursued athletics rather than art, when it was clear that he had gifts for both. His response was telling: “No one makes fun of you when you can flatten them.” Whether it is a team sport or an individual hobby, rather than be subjected to the possibility that they could be taken advantage of because of a weakness, these athletes decides to push themselves to the point where they are able to bring either their own body or someone else’s under submission. They will defeat you, for you cannot best them.
These disguises have some things in common. Most notably and importantly, they are disguises that presume to control the world around us. In the physical realm, a body is a body. It is no more and no less than what it is, and even the most unobservant human believes that we know more about our bodies than our souls and spirits. We know how to make the body increase and decrease in mass. We know how to make it work better and how to make it suffer. Although we readily admit that we don’t know everything there is to know about our bodies, what most of us learned in health class and PE is sufficient to get us through pretty much all of our lives if we follow it: Eat right, get sufficient sleep, exercise regularly, etc. Our interactions with our bodies are scientific experiments, which we can run and re-run. Even if we are not up to snuff, we can easily figure out what to do. If someone makes fun of us for being overweight, we can lose it. We know how. If we are looked down on for being weak, we can gain strength. We know how.
It is the same with mental disciplines. We have taken Descartes to heart and have bought into the idea that simply because “I think, therefore I am.” Reason, logic, and observable fact are all that matter as we consider our way in this world. We find ourselves in a constant pursuit of the Truth, continually searching for the key to explain and make sense of it all. In other words, we are using the mental faculties we have at our disposal to gain mastery of and control over the world in which we live. We are running not physical, but mental, scientific experiments in the hopes of establishing some certainty – certainty that we hope and pray will alleviate our fears about our life and it’s living.
So, it makes sense that we would have an irrational fear of art. Art is not so certain. Art is not so controllable.
To say that art is uncertain and uncontrollable is not to say that art lacks logic. For art to be effective it must, at the least, suggest a system of understanding that a recipient can reference in their engagement with the symbolism of the work. Art cannot be devoid of this symbolic logic. And, to be clear, I’m not saying that it is the wisest course of action to include a system for understanding within the art. I am saying that art cannot be created without such systems. Not every piece of art will employ a system that you know or are familiar with, but it will, by its very nature, employ one because each artist is a product of a cultural context. These cultural contexts predicate the artistic “vocabulary” that an artist uses.
In some cases, the artist is mimicking her context, merely offering representations of the world she lives in – simple and straightforward. Other times she is offering an interpretation of a context using the logic allowed by the symbols she employs.
As modern psychology has shown us, often we communicate things we do not mean to communicate and the same is true for the artist. Even though the intention of the artist is to communicate X, a close observation of the ways in which she uses her symbols suggests that she is (without realizing it) trying to communicate Y. This, of course, can also work in reverse, with an interpretation saying more about the recipient of the art than the artist herself. Regardless, in both cases, even though the “art” is found in something beyond a conscious use of systems of symbolic logic, there would be no art without such systems.
To say that art is uncertain and uncontrollable is also not to say that art neglects form and structure. Form and structure are the bedrock upon which art is built. While art is certainly more than the sum of the pieces and parts that make up each work, there is no art without these pieces and parts. True, while the form and structure of art is (in some senses) “manipulated” by the systems of symbolic logic, these systems would be pointless without them.
The Creation of Forms Symbolic of Human Feelings
And yet, even while acknowledging these levels of dependency that make up art, it still must be said that art is something more. Art is something more that its form and structure. Art is something more than its systems of symbolic logic. Art goes beyond the realm of certainty and control into an uncharted place.
Philosopher Susanne Langer believes that art’s existence both arises from, and serves to lead us back to, the very primal place of “feelings.” She offers as a definition of art: “The creation of forms symbolic of human feelings.”
As Langer’s definition suggests, art is not merely something abstract and private. Art comes into being when the abstract and private moves beyond potentiality and becomes something concrete and public. Art comes into being when someone has an intention to create something.
Also, art is not restricted to one form. A variety of forms and structures will contribute to the whole of art. Art will be musical, linguistic, or performative. Art will be representational, realistic, impressionist, expressive, abstract, or surreal. We can never say that this is art and that is not based on form alone, because, in strictly a formal and structural sense, many words, melodies, objects, and movements will be, can be, and are considered art.
Art, according to Langer, is also symbolic. It is not denotative, but connotative. While art is concerned with that which is good, beautiful, and true, its purpose is not to define, lock down, or restrict any understanding of these. Rather, art wants to suggest, set free, and expand on these ideas. While precision may have a role to play, ultimately, art wants something more not less. Art wants abundance, not scarcity.
Langer’s definition also suggests that the feelings art is symbolic of are the ones that are common to humanity. There is no article present, modifying “human.” The feelings are the ones common to us all. It does not matter, for the purpose of art, that you or I each have our own feelings. To be art, the feelings symbolized must be common to humanity. According to Langer, art is not symbolic of a singular human’s feelings, but human feelings.
This is, of course, a bit of a shell game (and highlights the symbolic nature of the form and structure of language) – human feelings are not unique to just one of us. We are not that different. However, in designating a corporate nature to the object, Langer’s definition helps us to further distinguish between art and its systems of symbolic logic.
While a piece of art you might create may arise as a result of your response to a specific person, place, or event, it becomes art when the feelings you are suggesting connect with another human. While the experience of a broken relationship with another person may provide the impetus for the creation of a work of art, the specific elements of that relationship that are reflected in the piece are not themselves the art, but provide the system of symbolic logic from which the art is created.
Given Langer’s definition, when asked, the painter cannot really say that the painting is about his break-up with a long-time girlfriend. I have never broken up with his longtime girlfriend, and so this subject remains an event that is singular to a person. What would constitute art in this instance is the creation of a painting that symbolically references or suggests the feeling(s) that can arise from a broken relationship, using the system of symbolic logic provided by the artist’s break-up with a longtime girlfriend. Broken relationships are common to humanity and so are the various feelings that spring from them. The painting is art because it symbolizes those feelings; the break-up merely provides the pieces and parts for the artist to do the work.
Good Art, Bad Art
Inevitably, the question is raised: What makes some art good and some art bad? Or, rather: Is some art good and other art bad? And, again: Is it possible to judge the worth of a work of art?
All of us have encountered art that we did not care for. We have all seen the painting, photograph, or sculpture that was “art” and were convince that our children could do something “better.” We have all watched a film, play, or television show that we could only describe as “a waste of time.” There is surely a piece of music that we were told was the best song ever written, but was like listening to nails on a chalkboard or, worse, left us feeling quite indifferent. It is situations such as these that convince us that some art is good and some is bad. In truth, there is no such thing as good or bad art. There is only “art” and “not art.” Was form created that symbolizes human feeling? Yes? Then it is art. No? Then it is not. The line is simple and easily drawn. Not everything that uses form and structure can be called art. Likewise, art is not the only field to reference a system of symbolic logic.
However, instead of judging a piece’s “goodness” or “badness,” what can be established is the degree to which a piece of art succeeds. Here are four basic criteria (but not an exhaustive list) that can be used to determine the success of a piece of art.
- Generally, did the artist fulfill her intention for the piece of art?
- To what level of sophistication was form and structure utilized?
- How clearly was a system of symbolic logic used?
- Did the piece do anything new?
The first three criteria (while they are a bit subjective) primarily point to the aspects of the artist’s work involving skill and discipline. To render judgment on whether an artist was able to achieve concretely what she had conceived of abstractly, how well she manipulated the form and structure she chose, and in what ways she used a symbolic “vocabulary” is to say something about the level of understanding and mastery she has over the established elements of her field. Can she achieve what she set out to achieve?
The fourth criteria, however, offers us an even more subjective reality to face. If an artist were only to explore themes that had been explored many times over, and in ways that had already been utilized, we would certainly say that she had created art, but it would not be interesting because it would be boring. It would be art that had already been tried. It might be art, but it was tired art. There would be nothing interesting about it, it would add nothing new to our understanding of its theme because we had already visited the same theme in the same form several times over.
In the beginning, when an artist is learning his craft, this is acceptable. When an artist is beginning his work, it is good and appropriate for him to copy the masters. In fact, this is the way that successful artists used to learn their discipline – they were made to copy the works of the masters. These exercises provided the young would-be-artist a way to study first hand how the elements of a piece were in relationship to one another. By trying to achieve a particular visual effect, the apprentice learned about brush strokes and the consistency of paint. By recreating the composition of works that have endured over time, the apprentice began to internalize the relationship between the different elements, as well as opinions and understandings of why certain compositions were well received and why others were not.
Yet, all this is but a staging ground and a training program. The copying, mimicking, or memorizing all serves as a way for the apprentice to become familiar with the discipline. If the apprentice spends his entire career producing simple recreations, I’m not sure he can ever be called an artist, let alone a successful one. To be a successful artist, one must do more than reproduce and recreate. To be a successful artist is to go beyond and push boundaries. One must acknowledge the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, yes, but we must also be committed to describing the landscape that we can see which the giant cannot. A successful artist adds, if even only a fraction, to the whole of human history.
Theology is Art
To be a successful theologian, one must do more than merely reproduce and restate what has come before. As artists, successful theologians must go beyond and push boundaries. Theologians must add to humanity’s awareness and understanding of God’s work and relationship to us.
“The creation of forms…”
Just like other artists, it is acceptable (for a time) for would-be-theologians to mimic the work of the great 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. 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 the concrete and public. We are taught to “create form.”
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 issues that none of us are concerned with. 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 that are pressing. I have to write and publish words and ideas which are timely and relevant. I have to create forms that 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 in the paper. Likewise, former Presbyterian Church (USA) Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow has made a regular habit of recording videos that theologically respond 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. 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. 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 placeholder 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, you knew enough to know that there was a corresponding reality to associate it with. You knew I was referencing something else, an actual thing. 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. 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 a certain 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 wanted 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 would we discover that there was more than one way to interpret the statement about “horns…which were actually quite long for a buffalo” (blessing), but we would discover that there was more than one way to interpret the statement (curse). No matter what words I chose to use, there would be no way that I could pick the absolute correct ones that 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 personal 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.
Recently, singer/songwriter Josh Garrels released what I consider to be a magnificent work of art, a collection of songs titled “Love & War & The Sea In Between,” which succeeds masterfully at revealing new facets about God to me. While I find his musical arrangements to be some of the most creative I’ve heard in years, it is his lyrics that leave me dead in my tracks, unable to do anything but ponder their depths. The lyrics he has written for this collection of songs are perfect examples of form that has been created in order to suggest, set free, and expand. (And this is coming from a decidedly “non-lyric” person. I don’t care what you sing, as long as I tap my foot while you do it.)
Many people deride Contemporary Christian Music, and with good reason. Legend holds that the late Christian musician Rich Mullins commented that most music associated with the church is “fifth rate lyrics set to sixth rate music.” Louisville, KY songstress Heidi Howe has even written a song titled “Why does Jesus Music have to suck?” Saddled by the twin forces of capitalism and a stringent orthodoxy, CCM musicians have consistently produced music that is inoffensive to both ear and soul. Tired musical arrangements provide the foundation for tired “theological” conventions.
Yet Garrels has taken these once tired ideas and given them fresh life. In one song, “Father Along,” he sings
…And one day when the sky rolls back on us
Some rejoice and the others fuss
Cause every knee must bow and tongue confess
The Son of God, he’s forever blessed…
All good Christians know the actual line Garrels is referencing here, “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:10-11) But Garrels has cleverly reminded us of why, exactly it is that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord because God has blessed him. What might have simply been the result of a songwriter trying to conform to a rhyme scheme has reminded us of a truth we didn’t know we had forgotten.
In other places, Garrels goes far beyond simple turns of phrase to offer new insight. In “Resistance” he connects the ideas of Sabbath and simplicity with resistance and revolution, while musically nodding to “resistance artists” such as Rage Against the Machine. In “Pilot Me,” the listener is treated to a musical landscape which suggests the Hawaiian islands while witnessing the singer asking his Savior to direct his actions as if here were a boat speaking to a pilot. In “Ulysses,” the narrative of the Odyssey is refashioned as a narrative of redemption in the vein of Augustine’s confession that “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their place in Thee.”
In all cases, there were much simpler and more precise ways to communicate. If Garrel’s goal was to define, lock down and restrict truth about God, his compilation would be considered “mushy theology” at best. However, when understanding his work as art, this mushiness becomes, instead, a doorway to a fuller view of God.
Recalling 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.
“…of human feelings.”
Finally, art must always come from somewhere. The formula goes like this: I have an experience, which produces a response, and when I create form using the tools I have at my disposal (symbolically referencing the response), art is the result.
For our purposes, we can comfortably say that theology is art because theology concerns human feelings, specifically feelings resulting from an encounter with 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 same 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 or 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 that 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 fair, 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 the structure or polity a particular church employs, but would contend that those are expressions of religion. Rather than formal trappings, his use of the term 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.” The impulse, upon coming to this awareness, is to seek out others to 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.
Author, pastor, and theologian Marcia W. Mount Shoop has accomplished this in spades. In her book, Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, Mount Shoop allows a wide range of feeling producing experiences to inform her about who we are as embodied children of God. Starting from the conviction that Western theological traditions have thoroughly erased the body from the sources of revelation, she drags us back into a consideration of our bodies and vehicles which can point to something of who God is and who we are to be as the Body of Christ.
To do this, Mount Shoop uses rape, pregnancy, and motherhood as prisms that reveal something about the nature of tragedy, relationality, and ambiguity. Herself a rape survivor and mother, she deftly guides us through each of these human feelings, using her own experience as a backdrop. In naming her own experiences and what they might mean for her life and faith, she offers us a window into our own considerations of tragedy, relationality, and ambiguity. Like all great art, Let the Bones Dance suggests ways of engaging the world, sets us free to consider new reflections, and invites us to expand our consciousness.
Theology is art because it concerns human feeling 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 that 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 that will put to rest all disagreement and bring us to glorious unity. In truth, there will be many theologies that will allow different unities to thrive at different times.
Theology’s Challengers: Dogma and Piety
However, if we are to begin engaging theology as a rightful and proper art form then we are required to address a reality currently prevalent in the Christian faith: that theology’s purpose and potential has come under scorn. This reality is both caused by and has resulted in theologians being replaced in the Christian’s mind by two separate (though related) groups: the dogmatists and the pietists.
Just as humanity has reacted in fear to other forms of art, Christians have become fearful of theology and have retreated from this art that seeks to suggest, set free, and expand. In running away from theology we have, instead, run into the arms of dogma and piety, because they appear to be (and, in some ways, are) more controllable.
The Establishment of Dogma
One group that has sought (over the last century, at least) to take the place of theologians is “the dogmatists.” Almost all of what has been produced in the name of theology in recent memory has been, in actual fact, dogma. Rather than seeking to suggest, set free, or expand, the dogmatists seek to establish an authoritative set of principles that are to be taken as incontrovertibly true, yet can never be ultimately proven (as evidenced by appeals to “taking things on faith” and myth-like understandings of revelation). This dogmatic reaction finds expression in two forms–religious and philosophical–with the later springing from the former.
Religious dogmatism finds its grounding in a particular epistemological perspective. Informed by the work of psychologist William Perry and, later, Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberg, and Jill Tarule, we can observe that religious dogmatists demonstrate characteristics of a perspective based in dualism as well as the (limited) ability to receive information from authorities and then reproduce those results.
At this point in a person’s development, they do not have the authority to generate/discover/discern knowledge on their own. Rather, the method by which they come to know what they know is through interaction with an established authority figure (in these cases, most likely a pastor or author). Our reference to artists “mimicking” the great masters earlier is very similar to the way that knowledge is transferred in this relationship. Knowledge only has value if it originates (or is, in some other way, blessed) by the authority figure. Previously, the epistemological perspective of these dogmatists had been one labeled by Belenky et al as silence, the denial of an ability to direct their selves in any meaningful action, depending instead on external direction. As such, the shift from silence to the perspective of received knowledge brings one an amount of pride and results in fervor and zeal.
Further, because the knowledge that religious dogmatists possess comes from an authority, and is dependent upon that authority for validation, the dogmatist has no capacity to creatively pursue nuanced solutions. All that one can do is consult the rubric set out by the authority figure and pass judgment upon the validity of the object or issue in question. In other words, to the religious dogmatists, there is only right and wrong. All life is dualistic. As one demonstrates the ability to correctly adjudicate between right and wrong, reward is given. Correct judgment and reward are a cause and effect.
Because this is the way that the religious dogmatist’s brain is wired to receive information (or, in many cases, they way they choose to gain knowledge despite the ability to inhabit a more mature and complex epistemological perspective), one can easily see how they might (and do) describe the structure of reality (their cosmology). First, there is always a singular authority. Someone or something has to be in charge. If there were not someone at the top of whatever pyramid we were considering, how would anyone know anything? How would anything ever get done? Secondly, there are only two ways to approach life: the authority figure’s way or the wrong way. In fact, they do not consider that this is merely the way they see reality. They operate with the belief that there is no other way reality could be constructed (presumably because the authority figure said so).
To take yet another step forward, upon these epistemological and cosmological bases is built their description of God and God’s interaction with creation. This description is well known to many as “religious fundamentalism,” and supposes that God has instituted, from on high, that there is a certain way in which life will be conducted, and has given the power and authority to carry out that way of life to certain individuals and groups. As such, there are rules that everyone is expected to follow and roles that everyone is expected to play (enforced by the appointed arbiters). The “cause and effect” of this worldview is obedience and sacrifice resulting in eternity in Heaven.
However, this way of thinking and communicating cannot be considered theology, for theology supposes symbolism and a genesis in feelings. Ask a religious dogmatist whether referring to God as “Father” is symbolic and you might well have a fight on your hands. And to suggest that feelings should be the impetus of theology runs directly counter to their epistemological perspective. Especially when considering God, theology cannot proceed from the religious dogmatist’s self, only from the authority.
Philosophical dogmatism rises in response to religious dogmatism and also finds grounding in a particular epistemological perspective. Perry and Belenky et al allow us to observe that this group demonstrates characteristics of multiplicity and subjective knowledge.
This shift in perspectives is usually brought about due to a failure on the part of authority figures to adequately provide for a person’s (perceived or actual need for) well being. Rather than just one perspective holding sway, the philosophical dogmatists begins granting power to different sources. This is due, in part, to the recognition that one can produce or discern knowledge in and of themself–something can come to be known “in my bones” and does not require the validation of an authority figure.
Cosmologically, this does away with the need to have one source of authority. For example, no longer should religion be allowed to dictate the terms by which science does its work. Ethical stances can be arrived at independently as well. (This is not to say that religion will never again have an influence in these areas, just that the final say does not reside within the religious framework.) Without an ultimate authority to guide us, responsibility shifts to the individual members of society to determine the best course of action. When required, these determinations are arrived at with others, but each individual is responsible for her own achievement.
The effect of this shift on the consideration of spiritual matters is great, and in the case of philosophical dogmatists this shift is evidenced by a comfort with a broad range of spiritual sources. It is not uncommon to hear a reference to Jesus Christ, followed by references to the Bhagavad Gita and the rabbinic tradition of Judaism. The defense of this practice is found in the philosophical dogmatist’s appeal to failures of the particular religious tradition they have inhabited.
However, the irony of the philosophical dogmatists is that their attempt to reject the dogmatic convictions of their religious counterparts actually serves to solidify dogmatic convictions of their own. Even though the claim that a philosophical dogmatism is more inclusive can be sustained, part of what drives the project to so many sources is an attempt to find certainty. Discontent with the well from which they have always drawn, they are on a quest for something more true, more pure, more complete.
Of necessity, then, they must use language that is not symbolic. As they survey the breadth of religious and wisdom traditions on which they are drawing, translation must occur in order to achieve their goal of a broader spiritual view. In order for that to occur, an intermediary must be in place: an operative philosophy of religion. For the philosophical dogmatist, the particular claims of a specific tradition have value only in so far as they can be measured according to the categories set out by a broad philosophy of religion.
Again, as with its religious counterpart, philosophical dogmatism cannot be considered theology. While the case can certainly be made that the project concerns human feeling (in the corporate sense), it fails the remaining criteria of creation of form by way of symbolic language. For the philosophical dogmatist, form is never created, only found and appropriated for one’s own use. Even then, the language is neutered of its symbolic power in order to ensure compliance with broad, yet specific, categories.
The Demonstration of Piety
The second group attempting to replace theologians is known as “the pietists.” Unlike their dogmatic sisters and brothers, the pietists are not engaged in a project of ideas but of action. They seek to demonstrate the Christian faith with external, performable religious acts. As such, they are not interested in passing off their work in the name of theology, but in establishing their work as more important and foundational.
The broad appeal of pietism lies in its apparent simplicity and low threshold for success. Those drawn to piety (to the exclusion of theology) do so under the impression that all that God requires of us is that we “do the right thing.” Conveniently, they also believe that the “right thing” is simple to determine. The external and observable qualities of pietism seem to aid us in this mission, for piety portrays itself as easy to quantify, codify, and regulate. While new theories of how to best “do the right thing” will always arise, once the new method has been accommodated it is relatively simple to return to the work of quantification, codification, and regulation.
As with the dogmatists, there are two basic expressions of pietism: judicial and devotional.
Judicial piety is concerned with the pursuit and establishment of justice. They are drawn to piety because they want to obey God’s call, yet find little to no value in pursuing theology. To them, it is a waste of time. They have experienced theological discussions as being places of argument and strife, and wonder why anyone bothers because no good can come of it.
I once heard a colleague of mine preach a sermon on the passage of James in which the readers were admonished to not just be “hearers of the word, but doers also.” As a way of illustrating one take on this passage, my colleague told a story of a seasoned pastor who was counseling another regarding the problems that a church was having in trying to agree over certain points of theology. The solution the seasoned pastor offered was to “get those people out of their heads and go do some mission work together.” The underlying assumption of the pastor’s advice is found in the belief that we may have little hope in coming to agreement on doctrine, but we can all agree that the hungry need to be fed and the naked clothed. As one strain of Christian ecumenism during the last century used to say, “Doctrine divides, but service unites.”
While the desired outcome of justice is vital to a faithful Christian life, we should be careful not to pursue it to the detriment of theology. Even so, judicial pietism is prevalent and it undermines theology at every turn.
In my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church USA), we have recently officially settled the question of the place and role of homosexual persons in the life of our community. As we pursued the debate over ordination standards, I and others noticed a new and interesting twist we had not seen during any of the times we had debated the question previously. Those who favored not allowing the ordination of LGBTQ persons made their appeal based on productivity and witness.
”We should quit discussing this. People are tired of talking about the issue, and there are so many other important things to do.” And to further try and make their case: “Besides, we really need to quit arguing. We’re becoming known only as ‘that church that argues,’ and it’s driving people away.”
The subtle relationship evidenced here between pietism and dogmatism is striking, and we can begin to see how a misunderstanding of the two leads to an undermining of theology. Demonstrations of piety are founded on the conviction that our doctrines have long been established and are unassailable. Recalling our earlier discussion of the religious dogmatists, the questions the pietists seem to be asking is, “Why are we wasting our time on things long settled by ‘theologians’? Shouldn’t we spend our energy on something we can and should actually do something about?” One version of this argument draws upon the Hebrew prophet Amos’s declaration that God wants nothing to do with Israel’s solemn assemblies if the poor are not cared for to subordinate (or even eliminate) what might be considered “spiritual navel gazing.” The belief is that Christians spend way too much valuable time on conceptual questions long answered when actual work needs to be done.
The other form of pietism – devotional – is based on the conviction that the practices of our faith are its most important and most foundational aspects. Some devotional pietists share judicial pietism’s conviction that “theological questions” have already been answered, and do not, therefore, require our attention. Others insist that we will never be able to come to a consensus on right belief (orthodoxy), so we should, instead, focus on right practice (orthopraxy). Regardless, the devotional reaction as a whole expresses itself not in pursuit of justice, but through devotional behaviors.
One example of these behaviors can be seen in the Liturgical Movement. What began as a movement of reform in the Roman Catholic Church to rediscover the riches of medieval worship has since branched out to other Christian churches and is now considered an attempt to bring about reconciliation between the different streams of the faith. The underlying assumption is that, because what we believe is not as different as we might think, what we do in worship will have the power to overcome what differences might remain.
Another example is personal acts of devotion, such as prayer and scriptural meditation. For instance, much has been made in recent years of the benefits of praying through the Daily Office (reciting prescribed prayers and the Psalms at set times during the day) or some form of contemplative prayer or meditation. Undergirding the conviction of many proposing this action is a belief that these acts will actually produce the desired effect of union with God that “theology” promises. “You cannot think your way to God,” they say. Similarly, others hold the conviction that daily meditation on scripture is required. Regardless, the constant is a belief in the power of personal devotional action over and above “theological” inquiry.
The Communion of the Body of Christ
Of course, in truth, there are no such groups called the “dogmatists” or “pietists” who are at war with the “theologians” over the love of the Christian soul. However, this exploration has revealed that theology is a very particular (even if far reaching) project, which seeks to give shape and meaning to our world using the symbols of the faith we inhabit. While we cannot deny the importance of dogma and piety, we should strive to be clear that these disciplines are related to theology in particular ways.
Even though dogma establishes the systems of symbolic logic that theologians use, and even though piety provides form and structure for our common faith, these systems and demonstrations do not have the capacity to reveal anything new about the God we know in Christ. Only the art form of theology gives us a way to respond to God in a way that constantly and consistently transforms us. Only theology requires that we take advantage of our imagination to discover truths previously unknown. Only theology can teach us how to be unafraid when we are confronted by new experiences.
So even though we are indebted to dogma and piety, we should never lose sight of the importance of the project we are involved in. Those who insist on defending dogmatic assertions or requiring particular pietistic behaviors have effectively cut themselves off from the rest of Christ’s Church. In drawing lines in the sand, neither of these disciplines can span the chasm between persons. Only theology has the capacity to bring us together as the Body of Christ, for it is only this literary and poetic art form that can give us opportunities to search out new understandings of our creator, arm and arm with another.
 Langer, Susanne K., Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, (London, Scribners) 1953, pg. 40
 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,” 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.
 Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, (Trubner & Co., 1893), 36
 Epistemology: the study of knowledge, or “how we know what we know”
 Piety: the quality of being religious or reverent.