Friday 5 September 2008

God and the artist - Part 3

New College (the home of CASE) has an annual public lecture series, which I convene each year with two fellow Trustees Bishop Rob Forsyth and Professor Christine Alexander. The Lectures are in their 22nd year and this year occurred on the 2-5 September 2008. Their purpose is to bring together the college residents, University, Church and wider community to discuss significant issues of common concern. This year the theme is God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective and our lecture is Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

The third lecture delivered last night was:

“Givenness, grace and gratitude: creation, artistry and eucharist”

This post is my summary of what Professor had to say. While I have tried to faithfully report the summary of the lecture, and present his views (not necessarily mine), and I have used many direct quotes, any inaccuracies are my responsibility not those of Professor Hart. The asides in brackets are some of my reflections and questions.


Professor Hart’s third lecture focussed again on the work of a few key scholars but asked broader and more complex questions than on any night, and for me (at least) it raised more questions than on previous nights. He started by suggesting that what is lacking in the Christian church’s ability to make sense of the arts and to see it as an important and relevant part of the human condition, “Is any positive theological evaluation of the arts and human artistry as something good and important in their own right.” He returned to Sayers in taking the discussion further and acknowledged some common ground in her lament that for centuries the church had not developed a proper Christian aesthetic that “…took seriously and engaged directly with core creedal claims of Christian faith in the world.” Of course while valiant, her attempt Professor Hart suggested failed in finding a way towards seeing the arts as something essential rather than peripheral to what it means to be human (Lecture 1 provided a critique of her attempt).

The rest of the lecture was devoted to Professor Hart taking us further in this direction. He used two writers to help him, C.S. Lewis and Rowan Williams.

C.S. Lewis - Not a ringing endorsement

C.S. Lewis he suggested offers at best “a fairly modest” defence of the place of the arts. He recounted how Lewis who after bringing a fairly ‘high culture’ view of the arts to his conversion to Christianity later in life, had to reconcile where he’d been in seeking almost to worship creative works, to knowing from the Scriptures that his chief end was to glorify God and enjoy him forever, not Mozart, indeed, not anything else. Lewis sought to find reasons from the Scriptures to support the active participation of Christians in the arts, and concluded that he could find little to support his view from the New Testament, and only a modest list of more general reasons to affirm the arts; reasons of pecuniary worth; their place as part of our engagement in the world as ‘salt and light’; their role in enjoyment; culture as a pre-evangelistic device; and one more way to glorify God (no more worthy than the way the charwoman did it, but no less). He suggested that it was a positive account of the place of art in the church, but not a ringing endorsement and not far on the path to a theology of the arts or a Christian aesthetic.

Rowan Williams -"Artistry as value added"

Next Professor Hart turned to Rowan William’s book “Grace and necessity: Reflections on Art and Love”. Williams he suggests offers a more positive account. Williams suggests that God created the world out of his goodness and gave to us a world pregnant with potential, brimming, teeming with as yet undisclosed possibilities and meanings….crying out for us not to stand back and appreciate its existing aesthetic charms like a viewer….but to roll up our sleeves, wade-in, and get our hands dirty in taking what God has given and bringing more to birth from its potential. This Professor Hart suggested is an “open givenness” one with boundaries, constraints and trajectories of possibility, but “leaving plenty for us to do in and with the world”.

Williams notion is of an ‘unfinished’ world but surely Scripture teaches that it is a world subject to decay that will be replaced with a new earth (as well as anew heaven) when Christ returns in his glory. [An Aside: For me this raised lots of questions, I need to read Williams to see how he derives his view from Scripture; his notion that there is a ‘finishing’ to do now with us as participants? How does he get from man’s place in Genesis as stewards of this world subject to God’s curse to one of adding to creation? How does he justify the notion of us taking the world as we find it and through working it “…hand it back enhanced, ‘improved upon’, adding value to it rather than devaluing it, granting it something more and something better than was there in the first place.” How do Rowan William's ideas sit with Tolkien’s notion of man as “sub-creators”? And how do we avoid the path that Sayers and others slide down towards a view of man as co-creators, where too much is assumed of mere humanity, mere specks of dust?]

Professor Hart then visited the work of Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, who writes of mankind as “partners in the work of creation”. [An Aside: Is this a bridge too far?] Professor Hart helpfully pointed out that such arguments (for him at least) must not go too far – “the enhancements or developments that we contribute can only ever be ones lying within the purview of God’s sovereign vision.” He continues “It’s not that God somehow needs us to do this, but that he chooses to make creative creatures whom he then calls to do it, fulfilling their own creaturely nature by their active engagement with a world the possibilities and richness of which are still unfolding and being fashioned, by human hands as well as by the movement of God’s Creative Spirit in the world.”

Artistry as obedience

Hart then moved to artistry as a form of obedience. He suggested that as a response to the divine call to human beings to work creatively with the world and to offer it back with value added, artistry is a form of obedience. In citing Williams he suggested that in obedience we are to respectfully and responsibly work with the creation God has given us, which respects the materials God has given us, and which “pursues an artistic vision in accordance with the shape and tenor of God’s own vision for the world, and those possibilities intrinsic within it which are for its blessing rather than distortions or abuses of it.”

[An aside: The notion of artistry as a form of obedience was helpful. For me this at least positions the intent of the artist as ideally aligned with God’s purposes. But this raised a question for me: how do we ensure that purposes and intent of man relate to the sovereign intent of God; and how easily are they misaligned, and what is the consequence? Surely, sin. This in itself helps me with my ongoing debate concerning Bill Henson’s photographic work – brilliant in technique but surely inappropriate in content and perhaps even in purpose. A struggle at this point – how far, in the light of Scripture, can we push this point? Are we not close to making Sayer’s mistake of suggesting that God needs us to be creative? Surely, no act of human creativity can impede or advance God’s sovereign Kingdom purposes. Scripture does guide us towards areas where God expects obedience from us, for example, in making his Son known, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). But for me a question still to be answered is where in Scripture are we commended in obedience towards creative artistry? Lewis clearly struggled with this, hence his seemingly ‘soft’ justifications (e.g. art as work; art for evangelism etc). Can our creative efforts point others towards our Creator God; can they bring glory and honour to his name? I think so. I am sure that the musician and the artist can argue this case and I have argued myself for the role that literature can play here. But are they just helpful and good, or are they required? I support the former but am struggling to see the Scriptural evidence to support the latter.]

"Arts, grace and gratuity"

Professor Hart then suggested “arts’ enhancement of the world belongs decisively within the logic of economy of ‘grace’. We take and transform things and offer them back, not because it serves some human need to do so….but because, as an act of sheer gratuity, it seems right, good, fitting to do so.” Art in this sense is inherently eucharistic, a gift freely offered in thanksgiving, “a gift freely offered in thanksgiving, because the one who gives it has him or herself first freely received.” [An aside: Once again, I suspect that our musicians could identify this purpose as central to what they do when they make and perform music.] Professor Hart then considered the possibility that even those outside the Kingdom of God might be used of God through their creative activities and suggested that they could.

A Trinitarian account

He then turned from William’s attempts, which he suggested do not go far enough, to Sayer’s once again to revisit a Trinitarian account of Human artistry. Can human creativity and the arts be grounded in the Christian doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Of particular interest to me in his analysis here was his discussion of the distinction between God’s ‘creative’ action in calling the world into existence and his “sustaining or preserving of that same world, holding it in being from moment to moment.” But he suggested that God’s ongoing work should not be seen just as sustaining what he had created, but of “drawing out” establishing a set of possibilities for flourishing and enrichment, the revealing of things hidden in the depths of creation as potential futures….”. This he suggested does not exclude our participation but includes our responsible participation.

Professor Hart then moved to Jurgen Moltmann’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit whose concern he suggested is not just “….the generation of faith and the inner lives of believers, but with the sanctification of the creation, establishing the forces of life and resisting death, and drawing ‘all things’ into conformity with the character of their maker.” He suggested that again human creativity is an enhancement and enrichment of the given world.

He then moved back to look at the work of Spirit with the Son. Jesus taking on flesh, assuming “our fallen nature in order to refashion it, putting to death in it all that is unworthy of God’s holiness, and establishing in it, all that reflects that same holiness.”

[An aside: While this notion correctly accommodates the sense of ongoing sanctification in the lives of believers, there is obviously a need to keep in balance Christ's work in our redemption and justification at the point of acceptance of Christ. While Hart didn't suggest otherwise, any Trinitarian theology of the arts needs to start with the redeeming grace of God in sending his own Son in human form to become an atoning sacrifice; it must consider the fullness of Christ's work]

Professor Hart then posed the question, is not the whole life of Jesus (conception, birth, baptism, ministry, death, ascension and return) “one long creative and artistic engagement”? Hart asked the question “is what…the Church celebrates week by week in its liturgies and proclaim in its missionary activities” artistry?

The end times

Finally, Professor Hart looked at the end times. He started in Lecture 1 with Genesis and ended with Revelation. He reminded us that “the world as we find it is in an ambiguous state – created, and reflecting the goodness of its origination with God, yet fallen, and reflecting the distorting presence within it of sin and evil and death, a condition from which it requires finally to be rescued. No amount of ‘enhancement’ or ‘enrichment’ or ‘added value’ will do. Something much more radical is called for and, by faith, hoped for.” There will be a new heaven and a new earth (Is 65; Rev 21:1, 5). And the one seated on the throne says “See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). Here Professor Hart suggests there is radical newness which only God can establish, there is a balance of “discontinuity with one of continuity”. It is finished Jesus cried at the Cross, Sin and death are defeated, the kingdom is at hand, and yet it is still to finally come. In the meantime he suggests there “is a history of transformation and redeeming renewal of the world to be lived out” and artistic and imagination endeavour has a place in this.

This has been an excellent series of talks which we may publish at some future date. As well, Professor Hart is working on a larger book that addresses the them of the lectures. I appreciated his generosity in sharing his ideas, his work in progress so to speak. It has been a stimulating week.

You can find all three summaries of the Lectures via this one link here.

Please note that the full text of the lectures plus MP3 files should be posted by the end of next week.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all these summaries I found them helpful

Anonymous said...

Thanks Trevor for the precis of lecture 3. I'll download the original lectures when available. Cheers, Claude.