My personal search for “God” inevitably involves going over ground long since tilled by others. Some of them and their findings I am aware of; many others, not. That’s not a problem. This is not an academic paper. It is merely an opportunity for me to track my own ideas about this mystery, feeding on others’ work where it seems right to do so. Continue Reading »
At this point in my personal search for a “God” to believe in, I need to stop and review briefly where I have got to. It’s the equivalent of ‘the story so far’; an opportunity to pause, take stock and look ahead. What is becoming increasingly evident is that whatever I think I have discovered up till now has implications. Some of these are bound to be trivial; others, not so.
This is the moment when the law of unintended consequences kicks in. It is all very well coming to the provisional assessment that the “God concept” is too ineffable, too far beyond all our frames of reference to aver even that “God exists.” If we couple this finding with the other one arising from this series of posts – that religion and faith need copious infusions of metaphor, allegory and symbolism in order to work properly – then we have to ask how far this can be taken before it poses a threat to core principles which we assume (if we are religious in any way) are essential components of our belief system. To look at how this works in Christianity for example, we have only to compare the essentiality of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with that of the central tenet of the Christian faith, that Jesus Christ died for our sins. The one of these is, in my view, something we can take or leave; the other is very different indeed (to be continued).
Every religion allocates space and time to the exercise of the spiritual. Right across the worship spectrum, from hermits fleeing from the ordinary demands and offerings of daily life, to the crowded charismatic gospel halls in every megacity, the desire to make a connection, however inchoate, with the divine is given full rein.
This quest, rooted in the community and its experiences, is fuelled by the prevailing Weltanshauung of the group. How does it feel? How does it express how it feels? The sociocultural element provides the worshipper with emphatic access to the archetypes and rituals embedded in the community’s collective unconscious. This enabling is continually and imaginatively pressed into service in the creation, deployment and renewal of its art. This, whether in painting, sculpture, costume, music, poetry, drama, other literature or ritual, takes many forms.
Art is powerful. At its best, it discloses, explains, warns, chastises and moves us. It clarifies in special ways: Clive James describes it as the coal of truth compressed into diamonds. It also makes demands, and reflects back to the viewer. This is true of all art, religious or not, but it embodies and reinforces the spiritual experience and perception in particular.
In religion, art commands respect as a multifaceted medium in which to undertake and sustain the pilgrimage. But it is not always easy. Some believers find it literally unbearable, which is why the austere Doppers, for example, have no music in their worship and Islam forbids the depiction of living creatures.
There is indeed a spectrum of intensity here. Christianity occupies only a part of it but that segment ranges from the anodyne to the mighty. Some simple religious art does little more than illustrate stories; think of pictures in family bibles. More ambitious art functions as a portal to the reality beyond (“A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye…”: George Herbert’s version of 1 Cor 13); this I take to be the function of the iconostasis in Greek Orthodox churches, about which I have written before.
At the top of the range stand the masterworks of Christian belief, where faith intersects with art-bearing truth to ignite something magnificent in the soul: the Bach cantatas, Brahms’ German Requiem, Michelangelo’s Pietà; the first few verses of St John’s Gospel.
The list is endless. In each case, the two components, art and faith, amalgamate with lived experience and detonate. The product is a new way of ‘looking’ which equips the onlooker with the means to encounter and relate to a spiritual dimension impossible to avoid.
This is not to suggest that art can be a substitute for belief but rather that we should see it as a channel for the exercise of belief, one that authentically combines and enhances the elements of our transaction with whatever lies ‘beyond’ or ‘within’.
If, as we have seen, our language is inadequate to the task of connecting with ‘God’, and art can help us but only so far and no further, then we still have recourse to analogy, metaphor and simile. [To be continued]