Thursday 28 May 2015

Taking Flesh: Christology, Embodiment and the Arts

Recently we hosted the 29th annual New College Lectures. This event seeks to explore the importance and place of Christianity in today’s world. While speakers present their ideas from a Christian worldview, the lectures seek to engage people of all faiths as well as people with no faith commitment. This year our lecturer was Rev Professor Dr Trevor Hart. The lectures were concerned with a consideration of the relationship of the arts to faith and worship. The theme was titled, ‘Taking Flesh: Christology, Embodiment and the Arts’.

The Lecturer

Prof Hart is Rector of Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church, St Andrews (since 2013), and Honorary Professor of Divinity in the University of St Andrews where he has held posts since 1995. His life is now one of Rector and scholar. As a scholar he is interested in the contemporary reformulation of the Christian tradition and the engagement of Christian theology with other disciplines, especially philosophy, literature and the arts more broadly.

His has written many scholarly articles and book chapters and written or edited 14 books. His most recent books are:
Professor Hart also delivered the New College Lectures in 2008 with the theme ‘God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective’. You can still listen to these lectures if you visit the New College website HERE. You can also read his article in the edition of Case Quarterly that we published after the lectures titled ‘God, creativity and creators’.

The Lectures

The first talk was titled ‘Clayey lodging’: on the predicament of being human and why matter matters’. In this talk Prof Hart spoke of the ambiguity with which we understand our bodies and challenged us to remember that our humanity straddles the spheres of material and non-material creaturehood. He called on us to avoid the tendency towards dualistic thinking - of favouring mind over body.

On night two his talk was titled ‘Earthy epiphanies: the incarnation of meaning and the meaning of incarnation’. This explored meaning and its relationship to and place within the arts. He traversed the struggles we have to articulate the meanings or significance that music and art have for us. His talk included the role of metaphor, the relationship of meanings to matter, the body and the mind. He concluded by briefly considering the ambiguity of meaning itself.

The third and final lecture was titled ‘Heavenly bodies: why Wagner was right about art and wrong about God’. Professor Hart began by speaking of Wagner’s unorthodox theology - he had as an outcome of his radical vision for his music - that demonstrated his belief that music and the arts offered much more than mere narrative. He argued that music for Wagner was a manifestation of reality in the world NOT in the head, BUT in the heart, ‘gut’ and body. He then connected Wagner’s view of music’s potential with a discussion of James Smith’s argument that he developed in the NCLs in 2012; that is, the driving force of human existence is not the intellect, but focus or telos of desire or love – the ends or purpose of desire, that shape our outlook and vision of the future.

Prof Hart ended the evening by challenging the audience again as he more specifically addressed the embodied practices of Church worship. He argued that the arts have the potential to reshape our imagining and our desire. Music he reminded us has played an important role across the centuries in worship. This he contrasted with the impoverished liturgy of many churches, which he described as “a wordy and intellectual experience that fails to acknowledge the fully embodied nature of worship”. The church he argued should be a total aesthetic encounter that engages us at many levels – mind, heart, soul, senses, body and imagination.

The lectures were a stimulating event that led to vigorous discussion and many questions – surely a sign of a good lecture! They certainly raised some questions for me. I commented in my conclusion to the lectures that while he had helpfully (and deliberately) centred very much on worship within the church, what Professor Hart had said surely implications for the worship that is seen in all of life? That is, worship of God is part of all of life, not just what we do in church on Sundays. How do we reconcile these excellent lectures with Paul’s injunction? Professor Hart touched on this near the end of his 3rd talk; this is an exploration for the future. The challenge of Romans 12 must be heeded. How can this be reconciled with the lectures given and the corrective Prof Hart offered to engage the complete embodied experiences of believers in worship, as part of the renewing of minds?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12:1-2)

Finally, the lectures left me wondering about the role that Christian community plays. That is, the church as the body of believers, living, serving, worshipping, loving and growing together – not so much what we do on Sundays, but what we do in between Sundays.

The lectures were a marvellous exploration of the topic and can be found as MP3 files on our website HERE.  The audience gathered over three nights was stimulated and grateful for an outstanding lecture series. Enjoy them online!

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