Seeing and Savouring


At the moment I am working on a paper about theological and ecclesiological aesthesis – the way our physical and spiritual “senses” are involved in seeing, hearing, touching and tasting the rich repository of words, images, sounds, tastes and even smells that together make up the body of Christian tradition. (In brief, it’s a reminder that faith is not all about assent to logical “propositions”!) Although I’m trying to draw a number of sources together (including von Balthasar), one of the books that has been particularly helpful in thinking through this area is John Dillenberger’s A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities, which I wish I had read several months ago. For one, he makes some very helpful comments about both Barnett Newman and the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela!

Taking a cue from Paul Tillich, Dillenberger sees a place for multiple “sensibilities” in theology; our minds approach the divine in one way, but so too do our affections, our wills, and the various components of our sensory apparatus:

There is a division in our very nature, an affinity with a difference among our sensibilities – sight, touch, taste, hearing, speaking. These modalities, understood from the standpoint of creation, define our full humanity in relation to God…

Attention to art, music, and other media provide expanded horizons for a theology that addresses the whole human being – our physical and spiritual senses. Dillenberger (along with his wife Jane) writes as an art historian, narrating the whole story of Christian art from the converted synagogue at Dura-Europos through to the pre-Raphaelites; he continues the story into the 20th century in a wide-ranging essay on “Perceptions of the Spiritual in American Sculpture and Painting,” which gives a wonderful overview of the history of the relationship of abstraction to the spiritual from Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove through to Newman, Pollock, and de Kooning. (Unfortunately, he purposely skips over Pop Art – mostly because he feels it is out of his area of expertise. I’ve never let that stop me before!) Without drawing things into too neat of a conclusion – he resists the Hegelian urge to synthesize art history, theology and all other disciplines into a single Theory of Everything, preferring instead the penultimate practice of “interdisciplinary” conversation – he offers some tantalizing prospects for a new, artistically-inflected theology:

We have the possibility of a series of “as if” theologies, of approaches from differing angles of vision – all for the explication of the variegated texture of what humanity may be in the presence of God. (249)

What humanity “may be”… the language is that of Tillich and Rahner, who emphasized man’s “openness” to the transcendent. But is this such a bad thing? Possibilities, “as if” theologies, “analogical imaginations” (David Tracy)… when it comes to art, I would suggest that these are not necessarily signs of a too-optimistic theological anthropology, but genuine means of expressing the subtle (and not completely obliterated by sin) orientation of homo sacer towards the Creator.

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