The Rainbow Connection

A bit of time off over the long weekend gave me the chance to finally dig a little deeper into Calvin Seerveld’s classic Rainbows for the Fallen World, which I bought for $1 at our church book sale a few weeks back. Seerveld was the philosophical aesthetician at the Institute for Christian Studies in the 1970s, and reading the book you get a feel for what it must have been like to be interested in theology and art in those days. The first half of the book is practical, pastoral, and downright whimsical in its exposition of the “aesthetic” dimension of life, complete with 70s-era pictures illustrating the value of a leisurely bike ride and the existential danger of kitschy lawn ornaments. The second half of the book recapitulates the same themes as the first in a more technical manner, developing a “full-orbed” Reformed aesthetics in conversation with not only theologians but a range of ‘secular’ art theorists (George Dickie, Tatarkiewicz, etc.).

There is a lot to chew on here for me in terms of comparing approaches to theology and art. In reasoned but firm opposition to writers like Maritain (and, implicitly, von Balthasar), Seerveld characterizes art not as the pursuit of transcendental Beauty but within the Reformed concept of the “cultural amplification of creation.” (This is a departure not only from Catholic theology but even Reformed thinkers like Gerardus van der Leeuw and Abraham Kuyper!) For Seerveld, art is first and foremost a human activity – the “aesthetic” component of the fabric of lived existence – no more and no less than an act of responsive praise. Rather than separating art off into the “high” realm of museums and galleries, ars is linked to techne, taking its place alongside craft, cooking, carpentry and all the diverse practices of human “making.”

Kuyper, Maritain and van der Leeuw… each in their own way, seek divine sanction for earthly art by giving it a heavenly meaning, you could say, working with an analogical metaphysics partial to an erotic ladder of Being, amid shadows of natural theology tinctured with mysticism. And no amount of Bible quotes can rescue any similar aesthetics of Beauty with such apokatastatic paraphernalia, and make it a “christian” aesthetics! (p. 122)

I think Seerveld’s deep concerns about Eros, the analogia entis and apokatastasis (all terms which play important and intriguing roles in Balthasar’s work) are well worth noting. Although I still find myself leaning toward a more theo-ontological, participational model of art and art-making even as a (semi-)Protestant, it’s easy to see how “Christian mysticism” can turn into a vague, generic “mysticism” that leaves little room for biblical revelation.

No matter what vantage point you are coming at the problem from, it’s hard to think of another book that so naturally moves between theoretical decisions about the “work of art” and the concrete realities of art and the church in contemporary culture.

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