When I introduce students to the emerging disciplines of theology and the arts and theological aesthetics, I become quickly aware of two issues in our collective scholarship to date. The first issue that becomes readily apparent is that we lack a concise, published introduction to either field. The second issue is related to the first. There is not wide scholarly agreement on how to map these distinct but related disciplines. On the one hand, because our field is relatively young, it is not surprising to encounter these issues. Indeed, these lacuna point to an exciting future with fertile ground for our collective research and conversation. On the other hand, if we are going to reach the next stage in the study of the arts and aesthetics in theological and religious studies, development of a classic overview and some degree of scholarly consensus on a map of the field would serve us well.
Three articles have done admirable work in attempting an overview of these areas of study. Perhaps the most classic treatment yet is in James Alfred Martin’s Beauty and Holiness: The Dialogue Between Aesthetics and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1990). In accessible language, he gives an overview of theological aesthetics from Plato to Tillich, with a decidedly Protestant bent. In a more concise way, in her book on the mural programs in Philadelphia, If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2012), Maureen O’Connell publishes a helpful historical overview; in order to help her readers trace how ethics and a study of “the good” shape a moral imagination intrinsically linked to a study of “the beautiful,” she points to major figures and seismic shifts in approaches to an understanding of “beauty” in the Christian theological tradition and von Balthasar’s eventual creation of “theological aesthetics” as a distinct methodology. Likewise, by editing a volume published earlier this year, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts, Frank Burch Brown has moved us forward in the effort to create a classical overview. Richard Viladesau’s contribution in that volume on “Aesthetics and Religion” (in addition to his books on the subject) enables us to begin to see a skeletal structure for how a comprehensive essay treating historical developments and theoretical issues might eventually take shape. Moreover, in his introduction to the volume, Frank Burch Brown himself uses language borrowed from topography in an attempt to “map” the discipline.
At the third bienniel conference on theological aesthetics held in Berkeley, California, in 2008, and called “Beauty: The Color of Truth,” Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, Bobbi Dykema, and the other conveners of the conference developed a helpful rubric for thinking about the burgeoning field of the arts and aesthetics in religious and theological studies. They organized the conference around five broad themes, putting theological aesthetics and its central concept of “beauty” in dialogue with theory, justice, interreligious dialogue, science, and spirituality. Half a decade later, I can remember Alejandro Garcia-Rivera’s presentation on his then newly published book, The Garden of God, and Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu’s methodological work on “interlacing” the disciplines. I remember Chris Pramuk’s presentation on protest music: “Biko,” “Strange Fruit,” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” I remember listening to Basanta Bidari’s report on Lumbini, as he was the principal archaeologist excavating the temple complex at the site of Buddha’s birth. I remember with fondness exclamations of wonder as Carl Neumann showed a video recording of cells of zebra fish under a microscope; the cells, when separated, ceased their forward movement in an attempt to reconnect with those which had been cut off. Neumann queried whether this is scientific evidence of an inherent relationality in biology, as he explored, too, the beauty of elegance as a criterion or proof in scientific and mathematical theory. And I remember Betty Rothaus’ presentation on the beauty of healing as she worked with residents in a home for elder persons who were experiencing memory loss. These presentations treated philosophical and theoretical approaches to theological and religious issues, ethical questions, contextual studies, scientific findings, and matters of ministerial practice.
This conference, in combination with the typology that Wilson Yates developed for theology and the arts (see ARTS 10.1 , 17-27), has shaped my thinking about these areas of study. In numerous places, Yates discusses multiple intersections between theology and the arts, but arguably in no place more profoundly than in this article from 1998, where he reflects on works at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), outlining five “points of intersection between art and religion where art plays powerful roles in the life of the religious tradition” (20). He writes first of the relationship between art and the ritual life of the religious community, noting the dependence of worship on the arts, from architecture, choreography, and music to the fabric arts, stained glass, and sculpture adorning many places of prayer. He writes next of the power of art to raise religious questions about the meaning and purpose of life, matters of ultimate significance: birth, death, order, chaos, being, nonbeing, love, hate, alienation, wholeness, and so on. Third, he writes of the power of art to reveal the character of a particular religious tradition and its historical development. In this section, he enters into the medieval gallery at the MIA, and speaks of the symbols through which the faith of the community was expressed. He writes, too, in conversations with pieces from the period of the World Wars, of a fourth intersection, and of the power of art to speak prophetically and to enliven our own prophetic consciousness. And, lastly, he speaks of the sacramental power of art, and of the power of art to mediate divine truth and grace.
I tend to see theology and the arts and theological aesthetics as two distinct yet related and still emerging disciplines of study. Theology and the arts enjoys interdisciplinary affinity with art history (as well as with the study of other artistic forms: literary, musical, dramatic, film, dance, and so on), and within Christianity, this academic work has been undertaken primarily, but certainly not exclusively, by Protestants, something that Pope John Paul II recognized in his letter to artists in 1999. Theological aesthetics enjoys interdisciplinary affinity with philosophy, and in the Christian world has been undertaken primarily, but certainly not exclusively, by Catholics, perhaps because the analogy of being operating within Catholic sacramental theology provides the scaffolding upon which a theology of beauty relies, and the publication of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “analogy of beauty” tends to be referenced as the inaugural date for the emergence of theological aesthetics as a distinct theological method. Sometimes, folks engaging in theological aesthetics will engage with the arts, and sometimes folks engaging in theology and the arts will address philosophical questions and matters pertaining to the question of beauty; but there are important distinctions between the areas of study that are not, finally, it seems to me, addressed by locating theological aesthetics as a subdiscipline under the wider umbrella of religion and the arts. Likewise, it seems that religion and the arts does not properly fit beneath an umbrella of “aesthetics,” particularly since so many artists in the modern and contemporary period have self-consciously moved beyond a primary interest in the beautiful.
We may be at a critical juncture. Several years ago, those of us who primarily identified in theology and the arts talked about merging into a single academic society with folks who identified primarily on the side of theological aesthetics. Quite cleverly, I thought, such a move would have required us to expand our Society’s acronym to SAARTS (for the Society for the Arts and Aesthetics in Religious and Theological Studies). Eventually, as I recall, due to fears among some that the arts would be lost to theory and among others that classical philosophical discourse would give way to critical theory and modern art, the groups decided not to merge officially. Alternatively, it was decided that a seat on the SARTS Board of Directors would be dedicated to an aesthetician among us. Alejandro Garcia-Rivera occupied that seat for a time; after his passing, Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu took the seat. This move ensures that theological aesthetics always has a voice within SARTS, but a part of me laments that we did not merge into a single society when that historic opportunity presented itself. As Wilson Yates will emphasize again at his upcoming lecture at the annual meeting in San Diego (November 22, 2014), theologians must take the work of the artist and artistic intention seriously when engaging in the arts; so, too, it seems to me, must artists and art historians be conversant with the philosophies pertaining to aesthetics, at the very least to distinctions between analogies and metaphors and to the inherent possibilities and limitations within each, when publishing in theology and the arts.
I am rehearsing this history here in order to invite us to participate in a public discussion about the arts and aesthetics in religious and theological studies. Because of its developing online infrastructure, ARTS now has a blog which can provide us with a forum for online conversation. This editorial will be posted as a blog at https://theoarts.wordpress.com, and your comments are invited and encouraged. What articles do you assign to students when you are teaching courses on theology and the arts and in theological aesthetics? How do you “map” the discipline(s)? What are your thoughts about the areas of the arts and aesthetics in the larger academic society? Ought the disciplines develop independently of one another? Or should we foster cross-fertilization? If so, how so?
In This Issue . . .
In this issue, Wilson Yates reviews the 2014 meeting of ACE: Art and Christianity Enquiry International in London. Jason Steidl reflects on “Sacred Harp Singing and the Christian Eschatological Imagination,” and suggests that a community formed around the tradition of Sacred Harp singing is an inclusive community that mirrors several elements of heaven in the Christian eschatological imagination. Art historian and cultural theorist Jonathan Koestlé-Cate provides us with a look at Patrice Moor’s Stations of the Cross which, while not precisely seasonal, provides an opportunity for reflection on the occasion of All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day. With this issue, it is also my pleasure to welcome Mark Burrows as an associate editor; he will take the lead on reviewing submissions for our “in poetry” feature, and so we are in his debt as he offers us, in this issue, poems by Jane Hirshfield, Fr. John Julian, Sofia M. Starnes, and Diane Vreuls. Eric Worringer invites us to consider the pastor as curator of encounter in “Encountering the Other: Curation and Pastoral Identity.” In “Little Is Much When God is in it: The ‘R5’ Visual Arts Seminar and Studio in South Africa,” art historian Rachel Hostetter Smith identifies some key strategies for transformative travel programs. She has now led faculty seminars to Indonesia and South Africa, and has curated art exhibits stemming from each immersion. For another installment of “in the gallery,” John Shorb interviews Jennifer Scanlan, the curator behind “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden,” mounted at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. And, to round things out, Lynda Sexson reviews Brent Plate’s, A History of Religion in 5½ Objects, and Mark McInroy offers notes on five new titles in theology and the arts. We hope that you will participate in the blog discussion about the arts and aesthetics in religious and theological studies, and we hope that this issue has you singing with harps, if you will, examining the state of your soul, considering anew the possibilities of ministry as curation, and dreaming about planning a study abroad experience for social transformation. Our next issue will be guest edited by Maureen O’Connell, and will consider critical race theory, theology, and the arts. —kv