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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

Oxford Handbooks Online


Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith
Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts
Edited by Frank Burch Brown

Print Publication Date: Feb 2014


Subject: Religion, Art, Theology and Philosophy of Religion, Literary and Textual Studies
Online Publication Date: Feb 2014 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195176674.013.004

Abstract and Keywords

The central role of the imagination in theology and religion has often been neglected by
theologians. The chapter considers how the imagination and, in particular, artistic
imagination, faith and theology are related. It provides a brief outline of perspectives on
the meaning and function of the imagination in relation to faith and art by leading
philosophers and theologians in history from the Hebrew Bible, Plato, and Aristotle to
Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Kant, Burke, Schleiermacher, Schelling, and
Kierkegaard. The chapter discusses the act of imagination as a fundamental source and
requisite in faith, art, and creativity, in beauty and the sublime, in aesthetics, and in any
development of human knowledge. The role of art is explored as a locus theologicus with
reference to Tillich and contemporary theologians. Finally, the eschatological dimension
as the ultimate link between artistic imagination and Christian faith concludes the
chapter.

Keywords: art, beauty, Christianity, creativity, eschatology, faith, imagination, philosophy, sublime, theology

5.1 Introduction
WHERE would we be without the imagination? Or rather, could we exist at all? Would
human life, relationships, or any kind of development in the personal, societal, artistic, or
scientific spheres be possible without the imagination? In this chapter our assertion is
that the faculty of the imagination is essential to human living and growth. Our particular
focus will be to explore its relationship to religious faith and its role in the artistic and
religious realm.

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

It is the creation and re-creation of images that form a vital link between artistic
imagination and religious faith. The creative imagination is central to the work of the
artist and in the expressions of religious faith, i.e., in sacred writings, theology, liturgy
and worship, and in music, art, and sacred dance, etc. It is the power of the imagination
that enables us to perceive something of the transcendent, to deal with and transform
reality, to pray, and to disclose glimpses of ultimate reality. While the imagination and
images have concerned Christian theologians since the early church, in recent years
with the rapid expansion of the field of theology and the artstheir role has been
considered by a number of theologians, such as Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, John McIntyre,
Horst Schwebel, Frank Burch Brown, amongst others.

In the following, I will focus on matters of the imagination and art as engaged by notable
theologians and philosophers of the Christian tradition. I will reflect on what it means to
imagine, i.e., the act of imagination, and look at contemporary writers and issues on the
relationship between theology and art. Finally, I will consider the eschatological
dimension as a vital connection in the relationship between artistic imagination and
religious faith.

5.2 Imagination and FaithPhilosophical


(p. 78)

and Theological Perspectives in History


The place of the imagination and images in the Judaeo-Christian tradition has been
ambivalent and controversial. The prohibition of making for oneself a graven image in
Exodus 20, 45 and other such passages in the Old Testament were instrumental in the
iconoclastic outbursts in the Byzantine Church in the eighth and ninth century and during
the Reformation. While Jews in ancient Israel were forbidden to embellish their
synagogues with images of the divine, we know today that synagogues, such as in Dura
Europos, were adorned with biblical scenes and sometimes illustrations of pagan images,
like the Zodiac. The Torah forbade images of the divine as God was beyond and greater
than any image could capture; yet it is clear that through history both Jews and
Christians ignored such prohibitions.

God created humankind in his image and it was very good (Gen 1:27, 31). Thus God
created humans with the ability to imagine. However, this was to be a mixed blessing as
the human imagination becomes subject to evil in that it falls victim to its own idolatrous
creations,1 starting with the Fall of Adam and Eve in their wish to eat of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). After the Fall, therefore, the imagination would

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

often be seen in negative terms. However, to imagine and to choose to do either evil or
good was ultimately left to the decision and responsibility of the individual.

Moving into the Hellenic world, it was Plato who was to provide the first properly
philosophical and critical account of the imagination.2 In fact, Plato had a deeply
ambivalent attitude toward the imagination, the arts, and artists. At the same time he laid
the philosophical foundations for aesthetics, which have been supremely influential, both
in philosophical and theological aesthetics. Plato affirms that reason attains truth, and he
relegates the imagination to the lowest of human thoughtillusion.3 He considers the
artist as pretending to know more than he or she does, and claims that art has no didactic
value. The artistic imagination is irrational and the creating of images has the power to
corrupt humans. Art therefore has an immoral aspect and can be idolatrous. Art is
essentially mimetic, i.e., mirror-like image-making; it creates appearances. The
demiourgos, the divine maker, composes the universe as an imitation, a mimesis, of
unchanging and ultimate forms. The poet imitates the divine demiourgos. For Plato,
however, the truly real is not matter and image but ultimately it is the ideas that make
them real. Images are only imitations of these ideas. Thus artistic images are twice
removed from the plane of the forms, i.e., from truth.

Poetry was Platos favorite art form, even if in some ways he was reluctant to consider
poetry as genuine art. While he thought that it could bewitch the soul and subvert
reason through arousal of the emotions, he still would admit to the attractions of poetry.4
Plato speaks of techne, the know-how and skillful use of materials, and of poiesis, i.e.,
(p. 79) aesthetic making, craftsmanship, and, more particularly, the making of plays,

poems, pictures, or sculptures. In the Septuagint (Latin version of the Bible), poiesis is
the term that denotes divine making or creation of the world proclaimed in the Book of
Genesis. This association of divine creativity with human creativity was to lead later
philosopher-theologians to incorporate Platonic theory into their thought on the true,
good and beautiful.

Plato contemplated the nature of beauty and developed aesthetic criteria that were
foundational to the whole development of aesthetics and the arts, especially the notion of
what constitutes an object as beautifulradiance, proportion, harmony, unity. For him
the highest idea is that of the good, which is the form of forms. The chief propaedeutic to
the good is the beautiful. It is through the beautiful that we see the good. This inherently
moral dimension, the idea that the good, the beautiful, and the true always belong
together, was to be paramount to subsequent aesthetics until Kant. Both Platos
ambivalent attitude toward the arts and his love of the aesthetic were to play a central
role in Christian life and theological aesthetics through history.

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

With the beginning of Christianity, the notion of a trinitarian God and faith in Jesus Christ
as God incarnate were to be momentous in the development of the relationship between
faith and art in a Christian context. The incarnation was vital in developing a positive
attitude toward the image and in the idea of seeing the divine, the logos made flesh.
Christology encouraged and sustained the hope for the vision of God and provided the
very basis for art in sacred settings and hence for a theology of the image. In Christ the
invisible, inconceivable, transcendent beauty of God had been revealed; thus we are
allowed to have images of the divine. The Eastern Church went so far as to assert that
both the icon and the word are of equal status in revealing the truth of Christ.5

Christian theologians, from Irenaeus, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa to Augustine and
Thomas Aquinas emphasized that only those who are pure at heart and desire the good
will see God. Like Plato, they saw truth, goodness, and the vision of God as intrinsically
related. Seeing the divine glory was understood primarily in spiritual terms. Yet, while
this emphasis on the spiritual could easily imply the denigration of the physical-sensuous
aspect of seeing, patristic and especially medieval mystical theologians frequently applied
highly sensuous imagery in their theology.

Following Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and the Neo-Platonists, the Church fathers and later
medieval scholars would refer time and again to the transcendentals of unity, beauty,
truth, and goodness in their notion of God. While theologians, poets, musicians, painters,
and sculptors strove to give witness to God in their respective medium, they were fully
aware that no word, image, or hymn could ever capture the unfathomable beauty of
God. Still, the creative imagination was the means and grace that would at least enable
artists to attain such glimpses.

Some of the early and medieval Christian writers contemplated not only beauty but also
art. Artists during this time were understood as craftsmen; their names remained
anonymous. Interest in individual artists and their lives only arose during the
Renaissance. Ambrose and Augustine considered the imagination and images in terms of
mimetic representation. They saw God as the supreme creator, the divine artist, and
(p. 80) the artist as Gods co-creator. Augustine regarded the arts not only as

embellishment but as a direct means of participation in the divine. If the artist is guided
by the divine will, art can become a reflection of the divine. He wrote on numerous
occasions about Gods beauty, and even addressed God as Beauty in his doxologies.6

For Aquinas, the contemplation of the good as beautiful provides knowledge of the good.
In the Platonist-Aristotelian tradition, for him, clarity, proportion, and integrity are the
marks of beauty. In his work on the Trinity, Thomas discussed whether image is a name
proper to the Son.7 He maintains that it is the Son, as the absolute Image of God, to
whom beauty may be most fittingly attributed since in Christ there is integrity due to the

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

fact that he is perfect in himself. Proportion may be ascribed to Christ as he is the


express image of the Father. And he is radiant as he is the light of the world that
enlightens all.

In order to understand how the Reformers viewed the role of the image and of artistic
creativity in the context of faith and church, a glance at church interiors of the Lutheran
and the Reformed traditions will provide definitive clues. While Lutheran Churches kept
crucifixes, images, and statues of biblical saints, churches in the Reformed tradition are
noted for their austerity, lacking pictures, statues, and even altar crosses. Luther
considered religious images a small matter; they are neither good nor bad. At times
he viewed them positively and defended them against the more radical reformers, like
Karlstadt, who, in Luthers absence from Wittenberg, had embarked on destroying
artworks in local churches. The essence of the matter for Luther was not whether artistic
images of Jesus and the saints were to be permitted in churches or in homes, but the
idols in ones heart. These false Gods and false images, created within the self, ought to
be destroyed.8

Zwingli and Calvin thoroughly disproved of art with Christian subject matter. Calvin
maintained that if the clergy had taken their task seriously of instructing the faithful in
their faith, images would be superfluous. In the strongest polemical, even arrogant, terms
he refutes any kind of image-making for the religious sphere, as all such images are
worthless in matters of faith. The word of God, as proclaimed in the Bible, preached in
worship, and taught among the faithful is sufficient in mediating Christian revelation.9

With Luther and Calvin we approach modernity with its turn to the human subject. As
Richard Kearney points out what most distinguishes the modern philosophies of
imagination from their various antecedents is a marked affirmation of the creative power
of man.10 While in Greek thought, in the early church, and in later medieval times
imagination and images were generally perceived in mimetic termsat best as an
imitation or copy of some truthand as subordinate to reason, in modernity the mimetic
paradigm has been replaced by the productive paradigm.11 The imagination now
becomes the hidden condition of all knowledge. It is acknowledged as being capable of
inventing worlds, and not simply as a mirror and source of reproduction (Kant, Fichte,
Schelling). Thus images and, more particularly, works of art were to be increasingly
valued for their originality. The imagination would be hailed as the divine spark in the
human being. The possibility of original creation was no longer seen as exclusive to the
divine creator.

(p. 81) In the Enlightenment, criteria were developed for subjective experiences that
could not be quantified, in particular, experiences of the beautiful and the holy. Terms
such as feeling and sensibility were used to describe aesthetic and religious experiences.

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In the mid-eighteenth century, the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten


coined the term aesthetics as the science of sensitive knowing (Aesthetica, 1750/58,
par. I). He emphasized that this knowledge has its own autonomy and is not to be seen as
subordinate to logical knowledge.

However, it was Immanuel Kant who was the first to develop a systematic theory of
aesthetics as an integral part of philosophy. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) he
writes on the imagination. He sees the work of the imagination as ranging from a basic
intuition or an awareness of bare sensation to the reproduction of images. Unlike Locke
and Hume, he considered the imagination as having a rather active role in human
knowing.12 Kant distinguished between the reproductive and productive imagination.
The productive imagination makes a unity of our sense experiences, while the
reproductive imagination, dependent upon prior unified manifolds of sense, completes
the work of sense by imagining what is unavailable.13 In his Critique of Judgement
(1790) Kant focused his attention on aesthetic judgment and on the sublime. Here he
assigns a mediating role to the imagination between the speculative and practical
reason.14 He affirms that an aesthetic judgment is expressed when we describe
something as beautiful. Beauty is the central category in his aesthetics. He applies it first
of all to natural objects and then to works of art. Beauty is manifested through a pattern
or an inner finality of form without use (Zweckmssigkeit ohne Zweck). As he sees it,
the goal of art lies within the artistic experience itself, within the free play of the
imagination. Kants view that the object is to be perceived with an aesthetic attitude of
disinterested interest has played a pervasive role in philosophical writing ever since.
The object is to be enjoyed for itself, without moral or practical implications; aesthetic
value therefore is autonomous. Unlike tools or other practical instruments the work of art
has no purpose outside itself. It was this dimension in Kants thinking that was to prepare
the way to the modern notion of lart pour lart, art for arts sake. However, aesthetic
judgments, Kant claimed, are subjective and particular yet also necessary and universal,
a notion that in some ways seems contradictory to what he said about the autonomy of
art.

Kant examined the sublime as an aesthetic category. This had already been discussed by
others, notably by Edmund Burke. In his book Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of
Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke writes on the nature of the
sublime which, according to him, is present in objects that are perceived as being in some
way terrible, thus instilling fear and awe. However, these experiences of the sublime
happen at a remove from an actual experience of terror where one is personally
threatened. Feeling the sublime is therefore a sort of delightful horror that is
principally produced by images that are evocative of unfathomable dimensions and
overwhelming power. Influenced by Burkes Enquiry, Kant noted that the sublime

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performs an outrage on the imagination. The sublime is awe-inspiring since, unlike


beauty, it is not formal or related to discursive understanding, but experienced as the
overpowering (p. 82) or the infinite. This interest in the sublime puts both Burke and
Kant into close proximity with the Romantic thinkers and artists in whose works the
sublime and an emphasis on the free play of the imagination found particular expression.

Schleiermacher, often perceived as the first modern theologian, was at pains to make
religion once again attractive to its cultured despisers. Influenced by his contemporary
Romantic philosophers, he located religion primarily in the realm of feeling, and famously
pronounced that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence. As finite things were
essentially believed to be related to the infinite, the sense and taste for the infinite, for
the sublime and transcendent, was sought no longer in an unquestioned Christian faith
and in images with explicit Christian subject matter, but in private experiences of
religious feeling, especially through nature. Paintings by Friedrich, Runge, Blake, and
Turner serve as prime examples of these sensibilities. A free, apparently unlimited,
imagination, and a sense of panentheism, transience and melancholy were evoked by
these artists. At times reality is extended by the fantastic in their works, such as in The
Cathedral by Friedrich or Morning by Runge.

In his Transcendental Idealism (1800), Friedrich Schelling proposed that [t] he


productive and synthetic imagination is the organon and pinnacle of all philosophy.15
This book was to become a sort of manifesto for the Romantic artists. Schelling defined
the imagination as the creative power that reconciles the opposites of being and
becoming, freedom and necessity, the particular and the universal, the temporal and the
eternal, and perhaps even the human and the divine. In a sense, the imagination becomes
the panacea of all our problems. Moreover, Schellings highest claim seems to have been
his identifying of the human imagination with the divine mind. As Kearney observes, this
elevation of the imagination signified the collapse of the onto-theological dichotomy
between divine and human creation, as the imagination was now seen as being within
the rank of divine omnipotence. Implicitly, it thus also challenged the Enlightenments
insistence of the imagination remaining subservient to reason.16

Sren Kierkegaard was a pioneer of the existentialist movement. Arguing against Hegels
ideas of the ultimate character of reality, he insisted that the quest for truth and for an
authentic life is grasped existentially and to be experienced. He concedes that the
aesthetic attitude is the first stage of existence in which the human discovers the powers
of her or his imagination as infinite desire. Kierkegaard tends to equate the aesthetic
stage with that of Romantic Idealism and points out that to remain in that stage of
creative imagination means that one remains inauthentic as one does not face the either-
or experiences of daily life. The artist, as he sees it, lives an illusory existence as he or

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she evades the suffering of reality. It is the ethical and religious stage that present limits
to the aesthetic stage. The ethical stage demands responsibility of a person to another or
to society. Finally, the religious stage requires a radical transformative leap of faith
toward the absolute. This leap is existential, a leap into the dark, an absurd faith that
risks uncertainty as there we have no objective evidence of a divine being. Kierkegaard
did not deny the aesthetic attitude. We may enjoy it; but we should not see it as the way
of salvation.17

5.3 The Act of Imagination in the Context


(p. 83)

of Faith and Art


In recent post-modernist views, the very idea of originality and of the imagination has
been challenged or even denied by way of deconstruction, which, for example, finds
expression in (self-)parody in art. But one would hardly question Kearneys view, that it is
precisely in a world deprived of all certainties and in which the experience of immense
human suffering is brought to mind daily through the media that the imagination is
urgently needed. Indeed, the power of the imagination as a creative faculty is requisite in
order to perceive anew, to imagine the as yet unrealizedwhether in human
relationships, politics, economics, or the arts. This act of imagining, especially in the
artistic realm in relation to faith, happens predominantly through symbols and
metaphors. We only need to recall the iconographical signs and imagery applied in
Renaissance art, which make apparent just how much artistic imagining of religious
subjects was dependent on symbols so as to mediate theological meaning. No longer do
we live in that age when art functioned as the biblia pauperum, but symbolic expression,
metaphors, and allegories are still cardinal to the production of art.

Sartre, one of the foremost thinkers in the twentieth century on the imagination, went so
far as to state that the imagination is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its
freedom.18 Sartre emphasized that the imagination is not a characteristic of
consciousness but rather an essential and transcendental condition of consciousness.19
Thus imagination as the ability to think of what is not (Sartre) is all-pervasive. It is
urgent in developing positive, life-enhancing relationships, societal structures, and
alternatives to the continuing destruction of our natural environment. Imagination then
has essentially to do with possibility. It is this sense of the possible, of transformation,
that presents a fundamental link between imagination and religious faith. The
imagination allows us to ponder realms from the most trivial to the most profound, from
the fanciful light-hearted to the depths of human existence. The imagination makes all

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things possible, even if sometimes only for a moment in our minds. We imagine the good
things we hope to achieve and enjoy in our lives, and we can also imagine the suffering of
famine, war, long illness, and death. Further, in its extreme forms the imagination
culminates in fancy and can take us into realms that we will never experience. One may
never be an astronaut, but one can imagine what it might be like to set foot on Mars.

From the profound beauty of Beethovens symphonies to the ugliness of horror films and
war, the scope of the human imagination seems without limit. Yet, most of us tend to
avoid imagining the ugly, and rather prefer to focus on what makes life pleasant and
meaningfulfriendships, good food and wine, holidays, lovely scenery, music, the arts,
etc. Thus it becomes apparent why the imagination has often been regarded as of
ambivalent value or even as dangerous: it can inspire the most wonderful acts of human
(p. 84) goodness, faith, and artistic creativity as well as the lowest, demonic outrages of

destruction and exploitation.

At the same time, the imagination is indispensable in any form of knowledge or


understanding. In the act of understanding we are dependent on experience, conceptual
knowledge, empathy, and the imagination, all of which are essential to the creative,
artistic process as well as to the life of faith and to doing theology. The symphonic
interplay of skill, knowledge, empathy, and imagination are central to the creation of a
work of art. In fact, one would suggest that the more deeply the artist engages with
matter, words, or sound, the more her work may approach and reveal glimpses of the
transcendent. The artist through a heightened power of imagination, sensation, and
intellect may perceive in the world around and within her things that might bypass the
ordinary observer.20 As John McIntyre has shown, the imaginationespecially in artists
and those who work creativelyhas the functions of being selective and integrative,
constructive as well as interpretative. It has a cognitive and also a communicative role as
artists must choose and develop their subject matter, material, and style, and must
integrate and interpret it, thus communicating the work to their audience.21 In that way
the imagination, moreover, includes an important conspatializing function in that it can
make the absent present.22 For example, the portraits of a historical saint, queen, or pope
can evoke something of their lives to us, as the image of the crucifixion or of the Buddha
will hint at the life of Christ or the Buddha.

Further, the ethical role of the imagination, and for that matter of art, is not to be
underestimated. The artists work is capable of revealing through the very particularity of
the subject matter universally held values and aspirationse.g., justice, peace, the
integrity of creation, the transforming power of love. As Gilkey has argued, art like
religion can heal and re-create, as well as cut and cauterize.23 Picassos Guernica, as a

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

radical image against war, comes to mind, as do Gauguins paintings of a lost paradise
in Tahiti, or Rodins Kiss.

A faith that seeks understanding and illumination through the work of art, i.e., which
acknowledges the revelatory power of art, will appreciate not only the role of the
imagination in any artistic creativity, but imagination as being a very attribute of God. As
Christians believe God to have created everything ex nihilo, one will hardly doubt that it
is God whose act of imagination is infinitely supreme to any human imagining. Human
imagination and creation are finite and always limited; Gods power of creation is free
and without limit. We enjoy Gods creation of nature and may even see in a flower, or in
the power of the sea, or in the beauty of a sunset sacramental signs of revelation that
enhance our faith; but Gods supreme imagination excelled when God revealed the Son to
the world, to live and die and be resurrected from the dead for the salvation of
humankind. It is this story of the incarnation and resurrection that, more than any other
event, was to continuously animate artistic imagination from the early church to the
Enlightenmentand beyond into our own times.

(p. 85) 5.4 Art as a Locus Theologicus


It was Paul Tillich who was the first theologian to engage with the modern, autonomous
work of art from a theological perspective. His many articles on the subject are witness to
his lifelong love of art. Tillich, in his theology of culture, emphasized that the religious
domain is present in all spiritual and intellectual life. In Art and Ultimate Reality,24 his
foremost article on this field of study, he establishes five types of religious experience
that he correlates with five artistic styles. Here he clearly favored the ecstatic-spiritual
type of religious experience, which he saw manifested in Expressionism, his favorite
artistic style. In expressionist works of art, he believed, both human estrangement from
ones own being as well as the hope of salvation come to expression. While Tillich has
been criticized for his methodology, including his lack of detailed engagement with
individual works of art, his influence and status as a pioneer in the dialogue between
theology and visual art remain unquestioned.

After Tillich, the dialogue between theology and the arts expanded rapidly from the
1980s onwards. The leading voices in Europe include Horst Schwebel, Gnter Rombold,
Friedhelm Mennekes, George Pattison, Jeremy Begbie, David Brown, Patrick Sherry, and
Richard Harries, and in North America Doug Adams, Diane Apostolos Cappadona, Frank
Burch Brown, John W. Cook, John Dillenberger, Jane Dagget Dillenberger, Alejandro
Garcia-Rivera, and Richard Viladesau.

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

What distinguishes all these scholars from Tillichs approach and marks a clear
development from the pioneering work of Tillich is their in-depth engagement with
artistic images, avoiding preferences for any particular style. Further, they have
acknowledged more emphatically than Tillich the subjective element in works of art.
Hence they (and the present author, too) go beyond Tillich and take each work of art and
draw theological implications from it rather than imposing a preconceived theological
view on paintings, sculpture, or music of a particular style. But like Tillich, they agree
that the spiritual, transcendent, or specifically Christian dimension in art experienced by
the recipient, is notor at least is not necessarilydependent on religious subject matter
and/or the artists personal adherence to organized religion. This was, in fact, one of
Tillichs major insights.

Today the recognition that artistic imagination and religious faith are linked in various
fundamental aspects provides abundant questions and themes for discussion both in the
academic arena of expanding theological faculties with specific departments devoted to
theology and the arts as well as in the wider church: faith and arts search for meaning,
their heightened use of images and the imagination, their employment of symbols, their
revelatory, prophetic, political, social, and moral dimensions, and their eschatological
hope for a world that could be but which is not yet. A variety of questions about
methodology in developing theologies of art, hermeneutical concerns, aesthetics, (p. 86)

iconoclasm, as well as high and low art, taste, and the mediative role of artistic
revelation in sacred places of worship continue to occupy contemporary scholars.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that the theology of art has found interest in a range of
churches. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian scholars engage in this
subject. In this way it has a clear ecumenical dimension, even if this has not been
explicitly intended. In the context of a world dominated by images and of globalization, it
is quite likely that art with religious subject matter will become a more relevant source
for discussion and intellectual-spiritual enrichment in the growing dialogue between the
religions.

Finally, the idea of the true, the good, and the beautiful, and in particular the notion of
God as supreme beauty has been addressed by theologians from Augustine to Barth, von
Balthasar, Frank Burch Brown, Hartshorne and Chittister. Indeed, this theme has been
constant throughout the history of theology and continues to hold its fascination among
contemporary scholars. Art reveals such glimpses of divine beauty to the beholder and
thus sustains, challenges, and enlightens the life of faith as well as theological
scholarship.

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

5.5 Imagination and Faith: The Eschatological


Dimension
In this final section I want to reflect on a theme that has been implicitly or explicitly
reverted to by most scholars who have dealt with the role of the imagination and of art
from a theological perspective. It thus deserves special consideration.

While the imagination plays its part in memory and in dealing with immediate reality, it
functions in particular in the perception of what might, could, and will bei.e., in
perceiving the possible. In more theological terms, it is the power of the imagination that
allows the followers of Christ to envision and comprehend something of the meaning of
the kingdom of God. It was hardly accidental that Jesus chose to mediate to those who
had eyes to see and ears to hear the presence of God through highly imaginative,
communicative means of image-filled stories and parables. As James Mackey has noted, it
was through the poetry of parable, of prayer and of dramatic action, that he elicited
recognition of, and encounter with, what he called the reign of God; and in this way he
made new perceptions possible, marshaled emotion and moved people to action.25 This
sense of change and of transformation is what associates the creative imagination with,
and makes it essential to, eschatological concerns. Without acts of the imagination and of
vision, hope for transformation is unthinkable.26 Transformed being, glimpses of the
kingdom of God realized through liberation, justice, peace, and the care of creation, as
well as eternitys ultimate transcendence and fulfillment, have to be imaginedwhether
in the worship of the faith community, in works of art, or in theological endeavor. In this
context David Tracys observation that religious language occurs basically in two forms,
(p. 87) the prophetic (proclamation) and the mystical (manifestation), is crucial.27 In fact,
it is in both their mystical and prophetic dimensions that the artistic and the religious
imagination are essentially connected.

Even Marcuse spoke of the meaning of art in eschatological fashion. According to him,
truth in art is encountered in the estranging language and images which make
perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and
heard in everyday life.28 He asserted that art is therefore fictitious reality, it is not less
but more real than actual reality and therefore contains more truth than present reality.
The utopia in great art is never the simple negation of the reality principle but its
transcending preservation (Aufhebung) in which past and present cast their shadow on
fulfillment.29 It is significant and relevant to the whole dialogue between theology and
the arts that the religious dimension in artistic imagination, particularly its transcending,

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transforming, hence its eschatological aspect, has been even acknowledged by thinkers
from a non-theological, even atheistic, background.

Through the gift of the imagination we may conceive of the possible, of an ultimate
wholeness in ever-new ways and in all the different spheres of life. Here again we have to
remember Paul Tillich, the pioneer of the modern dialogue between faith and art. It was
he whoin his appreciation of art, especially of expressionist workspointed out the
salvific, i.e., eschatological, dimension of art. Art can express what concerns us
ultimately, our longing for revelation and salvation.

It is in their prophetic, mystical, and eschatological dimension that the artistic


imagination and religious faith travel an often remarkably intertwined route toward the
transcendent other. This journey is ultimately one of hope, namely a hope for the
transformation of our daily experiences of suffering and fragmentation. It is the work of
art that can concretize and give shape to such hope.

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Notes:

(1) . Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination, Towards a Postmodern Culture, 43.

(2) . Kearney, 87. Plato, The Republic, Book 10. For Platos ideas on aesthetics see also
his Symposium, Hippias Major, and Phaedrus.

(3) . Kearney, 90.

(4) . Plato, Book 10. Cf. Stephen Halliwell, Plato, in David Cooper, A Companion to
Aesthetics, 327330.

(5) . Here, however, one must take into account the special role of the icon. For the
Orthodox it is not so much a work of art, but primarily it has sacramental-theological
meaning and status. Icons were produced in an ascetic context in monasteries with strict
rules regarding their production. What matters in the icon is not so much artistic
originality and creativity but highly spiritualized images of the biblical figures presented
in a specific format, inviting the worshipper to prayer.

(6) . See, for example, Augustines Confessions, Soliloquies, The Book of Psalms.

(7) . Summa Theologiae, Father Son and Holy Spirit (Ia33-43), Ia q.35, q.39.

(8) . See my book, Theological AestheticsA Reader, for a more detailed discussion of
this subject, 124129. See also Luthers Works, vol. 40, Church and Ministry II.

(9) . See relevant text passages from Calvins The Institutes of the Christian Religion in
my book Theological Aesthetics, 136-142.

(10) . R. Kearney, The Wake of Imagination, 155.

(11) . Ibid., 130, 155.

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(12) . Cf. Stephen Happel, Imagination, in Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins, Dermot
A. Lane, eds., The New Dictionary of Theology, 503.

(13) . Ibid.

(14) . Ibid.

(15) . Schelling quoted in Kearney, 178. Cf. also Friedrich Schelling, Smtliche Werke,
vol. 3, 349ff.

(16) . Kearney, 178181.

(17) . For Kierkegaards ideas on the three stages see my Theological AestheticsA
Reader, 198201. See also Kearney, op. cit., 201211.

(18) . Jean Paul Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination, 270.

(19) . Ibid., 273.

(20) . Cf. John McIntyre, Faith Theology and Imagination, 159.

(21) . Ibid., 160163.

(22) . Ibid., 165.

(23) . Langon Gilkey, Can Art Fill the Vacuum?, in Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Art,
Creativity and the Sacred, 187192, at 191.

(24) . Cf. Paul Tillich, Main Works, 317332.

(25) . James P. Mackey, Introduction in Mackey, (ed.), Religious Imagination, 2223.

(26) . Cf. Dermot Lane, Keeping Hope Alive, 123131.

(27) . David Tracy, Dialogue with the Other, 1726.

(28) . Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, Toward a Critique of Marxist


Aesthetics, 72.

(29) . Ibid., 73.

Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen

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Artistic Imagination and Religious Faith

Gesa E. Thiessen studied theology in Tbingen and Dublin. She was awarded her
doctorate from Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy on an interdisciplinary
study of theology and visual art. She is Programme Leader of theology at the Priory
Institute, Dublin, and visiting lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin. An Honorary Fellow
of the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of
Wales, Trinity St David, she has published Theology and Modern Irish Art (1999),
Theological Aesthetics A Reader (2004), Theology in the Making Biography,
Methods, Contexts (ed. with D. Marmion, 2005), Trinity and Salvation Theological,
Spiritual and Aesthetic Perspectives (ed. with D. Marmion, 2009), Ecumenical
Ecclesiology Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World, ed. (2009), and
Apostolic and Prophetic Ecclesiological Perspectives (2011).

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