Christianity and the Arts

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Christianity and the Arts

This discussion of Christianity and art was translated by Steve Griffin and published by our First Hour in 1996.


It is often assumed in our day that as one enters the world of Christian ideas and spiritual life that one should from that moment (as though there were a clear dividing line) renounce all works of art as sinful, and think of creativity as something belonging to the fallen world. Accordingly the true Christian should not paint, write, or engage in any other creative enterprise. The only exceptions, of course, would be ecclesiastical art or architecture. Considering the fact that this notion is so widespread I would like your views to be informed.

To begin we might ask: what gives birth to art if not a spontaneous, internal stirring in the soul which causes the desire to create the new world which is developing within, and to fuse an internal experience (or vision) with one’s social and natural environment?

This desire, quite naturally, has always been organically linked with the philosophical and religious life of humanity. Man stands before eternity and undergoes the deepest, most acute crises because when he seeks the Absolute in things of earthly value he is usually disappointed, and comes to the sad conclusion that it was something else he sought. The cult of art, love, or any other limited cult more often than not leads to crisis because deep inside, in his unconscious, man seeks the absolute. But in creation the absolute is only partially embodied. But when art, or any other form of cultural creativity, assumes its proper, organic place, this disappointment does not occur: there is neither illusion nor internal cataclysm. Then we come to the wonderful and well-known fact that wherever we turn in the past, whether to the bison and mammoth drawings in the caves of Altamira, the Parthenon on the cliffs of the Acropolis, the intricate patterns weaved on Indian pagodas, or to the play of the sun on Byzantine mosaics or the stained glass of a Cathedral of the Middle Ages, we always find there a reflection, a human embodiment of spiritual life. It is always a phenomenon which springs from a deep religious awareness. As man perceives himself, his environment, and indeed eternity so he designs his house, temple, painting and even household articles. Florensky, for example, remarked that women’s fashions can be a basis on which to judge the essence of civilization.

The spiritual kernel which we speak of is manifested in every realm. A study of the evolution of particular ceramic forms, or the forms of ordinary dishes, will show that the form is not accidental, but expresses the spirit of the age. It might seem strange, but the form of a vessel can, in some mysterious way speak of man’s world view or religion (if we take religion in its widest sense, as a perception of the world, eternity nature and man). When Christianity came into the world it stood in opposition to all forms of nature worship. And the process which began even in the Old Testament times was very painful. After all, for millennia man had sensed a oneness with nature and saw in her the divine source. Then at a singularly celestial moment in human history, for yet unknown historical, social or economic reasons, the Spirit came upon the human race. And man suddenly became aware of this. Great teachers of humanity--Confucius, Lao-Tse, Chuang-Tse, Mahavira, Buddha and Zoroaster--came forth, as did the biblical prophets of Israel and Greek and Roman philosophers. This entire pleiade, emerging almost simultaneously in various countries of the world despite geographical, social and cultural barriers, set in motion the hardened lava of human culture, as it were, and that lava began to flow. Then there appeared a new form of spirituality which proclaimed above all that behind the bright and (on the surface) diverse reality of nature and life there stands an invisible spiritual reality which cannot be described in any abstract positive terms. One could only say wha t it is not. For this reason the authors of the Upanishads speak of the Absolute as “neti-neti”, that is to say, “neither this nor that”, while the biblical prophets say that God is “hadosh”, Holy, not to be measured by any created means. Similarly Chinese teachers say that the “highest”, or the “Tao”, cannot be named with any earthly name because any name which is uttered can only be earthly not eternal. The Tao-te-Ching begins with this very affirmation, and it is to be found throughout that culture. This form of spirituality is deeply mystical and philosophical; it is the final word of human efforts to grasp deepest truth.

But, having opened the eternal Kingdom of the Spirit with this powerful cultural current, man did not refuse to speak of spiritual things in symbolic language. For this reason a sort of explosion took place, and a new artistic current sprung from the Buddhist, Hindu, Indo-Grecian and other traditions, so that what existed before (old prints, or fragments of small figures) was, for millennia, insignificant. In this way that great explosion (“axial time”, as the well-known philosopher Karl J aspers referred to it), or era of great teachers, produced a new current of culture and new forms of art. Biblical teaching, however, spoke of the supreme spirituality of the Divine, and required that the fine arts not encroach upon that height. So there emerged a dialectic between the symbolic representation of the Divine and the iconoclastic old-covenant reaction to it, which served as the new soil on which the flower of Christianity grew. Christianity is a religion of incarnation: it does not reject matter, the world, nature or the value of creation. Buddhism, on the other hand, considers creation a mistake, something unnecessary and transitory which will in the end disappear completely. In Krishna devotion even the will to live is evil, for it prolongs existence. In the Bible and Christianity existence is a Divine creation, made by the will of God, and permeated with Divine love. In the Old Testament we read that the lions ask God for their food, and all that has life gives glory to God, whether consciously or unconsciously. In the New Testament we find that in God’s eyes every bird is valuable, for “not one sparrow will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” This is symbolic, of course, but the meaning is clear: the world is lovely because God has made it! And from the moment that God assumed the flesh of the earth He sanctified it; not simply in creating it, but in becoming immanent to the world. “And the Word (Logos) became flesh (“basar”, in Greek “sarks”, that is, man), and dwelt among us.” The perpetual dream of the Old Testament was that God would live among men (for “Eskinoze” in Greek means “He pitched his tent among us”) in his sanctuary! And thus life was sanctified. Inasmuch as Christ placed his foot upon the earth He sanctified it. Inasmuch as He is man and our brother, He sanctified the human race. Inasmuch as He loves flowers and every created thing, He sanctifies all creation. The parable of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep teaches us that He approves of man’s risking his life for his sheep.

Anyone who is acquainted with the Gospel tradition knows that on many occasions Christ referred to his followers as a flock. For us “flock”, might refer to a “herd” that moves along mindlessly. But one can turn outside one’s own context and note that in all the world’s pastoral societies “flock” refers to children, one’s object of love, even sacrificial work. The true shepherd in reality ought to give his life for his sheep. In this way Christ compares people to sheep, which he loves. He likens the beauty of a flower to the magnificence of King Solomon’s palace. The religion of incarnation is the religion of creation’s adoration. If paganism (in the broad sense of the term) deified nature and became lost in it, and if its antithesis (in mystical teachings) tried to cast away nature and the flesh, then Christianity brings an end to the conflict by raising itself above the flesh while at the same time sanctifying it. It takes two steps: away from, then back to, nature. Let us examine how this occurred historically. The Gospels say nothing specific about creativity and art; they speak strictly to the internal, spiritual and moral life of man. But even as Christianity begins to develop and the Gospel is spread, the Fathers of the Church affirm creativity, art, literature, and poetry. And in, this affirmation a truly Christian spirit would appear in the future. Following Greek models, many Church Fathers composed hymns, while Christian painting appeared as early as the second and third centuries A.D. Henceforth art is always a part of Church history. Even those Christian movements which rejected iconography and painting maintain a link with art, whether through music or architecture.

When people quarrel about Christianity’s relationship with art, painting or what have you, it seems to me that it would be better to simply look at the tradition of the entire Church, at the entire two thousand years, or even just the thousand years of the history of our own Church. When has she ever existed without creativity, art, painting, architecture or music? And although a great deal was destroyed, as long as a spiritual epicenter remains it will create and produce new works of art. One might ask, naturally does not art carry with it temptation, is it not a source of pride, and does it not contain an element of the demonic? Of course, and examples abound. But art, creativity and nature are not to blame; we are. It is we who distort nature; we who use painting and poetry to create evil works. Neither is science to blame, in fact. It is not science that creates the horrors that now destroy nature and threaten our planet, but man in his sinfulness. If man were not the way he is, he could use all forms of knowledge for good. Finally the last and most important thing is foundational, metaphysical, and dogmatic: we are all created in God’s image and likeness. Each of us carries within a whole world of minerals, plants and animals. Just think of how the human cell is constructed--just like the cell of any flower bird or beast. Our metabolism, and other such functions, works just as in any other organism. We carry nature within us. But part of us (indeed this part is the most important and central, for it makes us humans) does not come from nature. You can search the universe but you won’t find the spirit of creativity. A work of art is a new creation. If a beaver builds a dam or a little weaver-bird builds itself a nest he is doing what his predecessors have done for centuries and millennia. He mimics; does not create, or use individual reason. Only man creates. The image and likeness of God in man is reason, conscience and creativity. To deprive man of reason is to make him a beast. To deprive him of conscience is to make him a machine, for machines too have their reason. But when there is no conscience, when I’m told (as I often am) “I’ll go to church, but I have little information,” I ask “What is information?” Information can be stored in a computer, where it will remain. It is secondary; one can always retrieve it.

But man is something entirely different. Conscience, the ability to know right from wrong and to find evil repugnant, is within us. But we must cultivate that ability. One can possess talent, but here I ask the painters among you, is that enough? Isn’t labor required? Talent must be cultivated, whether in music, the visual arts or poetry.

Thus a moral code, and Christian moral teaching in particular, is a development of that. ethic given to us by nature. Naturally, this development has something to do with creativity. To deprive man of creativity means to take away that attribute which makes him like God. For it is written in the Scriptures: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” These are the Creator’s words. Which image and likeness, we might ask, does not create? Which one tells us that creativity is delirium, of the devil? So we come to the following. Christ said that each person brings what he has to offer from his treasure. And you, painters and masters of other genres, express the treasures of your heart, your perceptions of the world. You share these, and with them enter into dialogue with others. You create a new world which you invite others to enter. And in this world all is exposed: your soul is revealed with all its sufferings, shortcomings and joys. This of course, is a crucial and holy act. The artist must come to his work not simply as to any other function, flippantly but in service and surrender. You might suggest that the artist is the one who will paint even if he lives on a desert island. Of course, the source of creativity is innate. But in actual fact our goal is spiritual unity among people, mutual understanding and intimacy, so that our interaction will produce joy and mutual love. When we look at your paintings we interact with you, perhaps, in the only way you can open up to others. You speak of your concerns through your art. It is difficult, and undoubtedly tormenting, to display your heart. But at the same time it is an invitation to friendship and love. Indeed the greatest joy for an artist is to have been understood, for it means that an outstretched hand was received by another.

The notion that art can be unnecessary, sinful, or a source of temptation must remain, therefore, an open question. Everything can be sinful! Fasting or any form of spiritual endeavor can turn into a reason for pride. A church service, for example, can become a perverted ritual, a means to achieve false self-affirmation. And the list goes on. Why even mention fanaticism, intolerance and hatred?

It is a terrible thing when a person begins to hate, and says: “I hate in the name of faith.” One young man once told me that he had finally realized something important about the Inquisition. When I asked him what he meant, he explained that when he expressed to an elderly woman his indignation over the fact that the inquisitors burned people at the stake, she said: “But, my dear, they burned heretics!” And this logic so impressed him that he responded, “Yes, indeed, perhaps they were right?” What this woman had done with her false logic was to strike at his moral root. But the Gospel stands radically against this form of reasoning, because the teaching on love involves tolerance, openness and much more. If such a crime as intolerance is committed in the name of the Gospel, then it is a lie, as when in the name of equality heads were cut off, in the name of freedom people were sent to labor camps, and in the name of brotherhood people were deprived of that which distinguishes them as individuals in all the diversity of their common life. Freedom, equality, and brotherhood are good words which can so easily be distorted. Man can distort everything! And for this reason neither great words, creativity, or anything else should be blamed. Instead we should seek to account for the negative phenomena inside ourselves. But a creator must create! The Bible tells us: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live!” This should be the motto of every artist, poet or creator. As long as we breathe we must create! And there is great diversity in that work of art. What is important is the creation of one’s spirit. This is eternal art. What is painted on the canvas, veneer or slab is only a sign of what has taken place in your heart.