I have been reading Theological Aesthetics: A Reader for a book proposal I am working on for a publisher. It is going to be a book about beauty and aesthetic spirituality inspired by an article I wrote once and I am very excited about this project.

The book is a reader which means many of the selections are rather dry and dull, the book overall is very academic.  But there have been several gems I have discovered here and there such as Basil, Augustine, and Ambrose who all describe God as the Supreme Artist.  Or Gregory of Nyssa who writes: “every person is the painter of his own life and choice is the craftsman of the work.”  I imagine in the coming days I will write a post about what it means to be the artist of one’s life.

My favorite essay from the whole book, however, was a selection from 20th century Lutheran theologian Langdon Gilkey.   Some favorite excerpts:

“This is the first and utterly essential role of art and the artistic: to re-create ordinary experience into value, into enhanced experience; to provide the ends–the deep immediate, present enjoyments–for which all instruments exist and from which alone they receive their point. When an event that we label art stops the heedless flow of time in an enhanced moment, a moment of new awareness of understanding, a moment of intense seeing and of participation in what is seen, then (as the Zen tradition has taught us) the transcendent appears through art, and art and religion approach one another.”

Art’s other equally significant role is “in making us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up hidden truth behind and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance.”

He discusses the prophetic role of art: “it tears off the mask covering ordinary experience to expose its disarray, its disastrous waywardness, its betrayals, its suffering. Here it has–possibly unconsciously–a ‘prophetic role,’ denouncing the culture it lays bare. . . When art condemns present reality in the name of humanity and justice and seeks for its transformation, it becomes itself the vehicle of the transcendent and approaches the religious.”

“Art, however, provides more than negative images of ordinary reality. It gives us most of our creative images of ourselves, our world, and our relations to one another. Human life is lived in and through symbols that shape and guide us in all we are and do: symbols of nature, symbols of ourselves,–who we are, what we can be, what we ought to be–symbols of community and society, symbols of the sacred that permeates all. Works of art set these symbols into images, through them we can see ourselves and our world, possibly for the first time.  ‘In art we find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time’ said Thomas Merton.”

In light of this role of art, he talks about the artist as “an outsider, as condemned to be on the boundary rather than in the comfortable, powerful, or acclaimed center of a culture’s life. Artists have few of the traits that the culture emphasizes, applauds, or rewards: they are not experts; their importance is not that they know how to do anything useful to anyone but other artists; they don’t make instruments foranyone else’s use, or even make money or jobs for others. They say: Stop, look and see what is real, and be.  In our rushing world, no one has time for this.”

What is the role of art in your life?

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

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