Better Theology, Better Aesthetics

Here is a quote for the day from a 1957 article by Amos Wilder, New Testament scholar (he taught at Harvard Divinity School), poet, minister and leading figure in what has come to be called “theopoetics.” (See his 1976 book of the same name.) He was also Thornton Wilder’s brother! I think his insights in this piece regarding the troubled relationship of religion and the arts are still of importance today… we need a more careful, complex understanding of how these two cultural activities relate to each other, one that does not degenerate into a simple identification of art and religion or a permanent gulf between the two:

“Any true bridge-building today between religion and the arts will require a deeper grasp of what religion is and what art is: a better theology and a better aesthetic. A better theology will not identify religion or Christianity with any and every fervid or didactic impulse, nor with any and every experience of Beauty or the Spirit. And a better aesthetic will not be satisfied with a view of the imagination which exiles it from the real world, from the World’s Body, to use Ransom’s phrase.”

Good advice, especially for theologians (like myself) who might be tempted to blur the lines between art and faith – what is needed instead is a deeper understanding of both on their own terms before any dialogue is possible. Wilder continues:

“It has been possible for modern romantics to unite religion and art because they were both romantic. When religion and poetry become ivory tower activities – exiled from the business of the world – when religion is assigned to a shrine and poetry to a pedestal, they console themselves by becoming confederates. Shrine religion becomes aestheticism. Pedestal art takes on a pseudo-sanctity. But when religion and art are rebaptized in a total life experience they are first set apart according to their distinct roles and then may be drawn together in a valid interrelation and interpenetration.”

from Amos N. Wilder, “Christianity and the Arts: The Historic Divorce and the Contemporary Situation,” The Christian Scholar 40:4 (December 1957): 261-268.



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