Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and Spirituality

The following summary is from the first week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Assess the claim that art relates us to realities of a “spiritual” sort. Include in your answer particular reference to John Ruskin’s notion of Theoria (1903).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

ART SPEAKS TO ME on a level that reaches far deeper than tenets or doctrines. Although such underlying (especially “systematic”) precepts provide a degree of universality to religious practice, my valuation and interpretation of art (for art’s sake) must not be rooted in preconception, bias, “proper” or “theological” interpretation, or value—it’s not theological, but spiritual. Theoria is, after all, contemplative and rational by nature. Here is the fascinating part. In Neoplatonism, theoria (contemplation) is the creative power of the cosmos. This makes me think a painter could present the “unadulterated truth” of a subject, yet the beholder could see a completely different “truth.” Moreover, relative to whose “unadulterated truth?” Ask that question of the wrong person and you will get an earful about absolute truth being a myth. What, therefore, is causing the “creation?” The act of doing art, or the act of interpreting it? (Why does this question sound hauntingly like the proverbial “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

It seems Ruskin understands how psychology also plays a role in interpretation of art. Even experimental psychology looks for “visual truth.” That is not to say all art is a therapeutic Rorschach, but how one views an object of art says something about the beholder that can be distinct from the intention of the artist. Does not theoretic faculty involve analyzing the “value and meaning” of mental impressions? Further, Ruskin does not believe imagination can be taught or explained. And even if in arguendo such skills could be taught, I would think the paradigm of the teacher and/or the technique being used to teach could (to a certain degree) impact or “mentor” the student regarding what is imagination and how to practice it. Moreover, interpretation can be impacted by one’s community of believers through suggesting (from a group think or group feel perspective) what one sees or should see. I think this communal context often causes geniuses and the gifted to fear misunderstanding, ridicule, or rejection, which can ultimately stifle expression. This begs the question Can something created but never publicly shared be called art?

I feel more confident now than at the beginning of this exercise to state that art must have a spiritual component. Creativity is gifted to us by the Creator. We are commanded to be creative; to procreate, use, subdue, name, categorize, and build upon what is. In this manner, creation (or if you prefer, art) is not “just art.” It is not only mechanical action. To a degree, art is “functional.” It is the “creative” use of that which is in order to make something which is not. This is precisely how God “created” Creation. He had a concept, intention, or desire (indeed, the “will” to make something) and He “expressed it” by essentially painting with His words! To me, this same process (albeit to a much lesser or universally dramatic degree) is utilized by artists (i.e., other “creators”) to express their vision in a manner that is an honest and accurate expression of what they were thinking or feeling. Creating a painting on canvas does not have the same “function” as a 1957 Corvette Stingray, but both are (at least to some) works of art. Of course, I cannot drive the painting to work!

I look forward to your feedback.

“Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000), 18–19.

Responses from Classmates
From Meredith:

Hi Steven!

When reading through Ruskin, I found it very interesting how he related beauty to morality. You mention the idea of absolute truth, and I am curious if you think there is an absolute truth to what is beautiful–an absolute truth to what should inspire theoria? Ruskin also mentioned that humans can misuse pleasures and the senses, and that the Christian goal is not a hedonistic lifestyle. Do you think that art, when misused, can lead to lust, greed, or idolization that would not align with what Christianity teaches?

My response to Meredith:

The question of “absolute truth” is something I’ve been studying and writing about for over a year. I find it quite fun to compare and contrast the various isms (pluralism, moral relativism, secularism) with the Truth of the gospel. I wet my whistle (so to speak) in an undergraduate class at CCU regarding the history and philosophy of psychology. I’ll begin with deontological ethics. This school of thought is a principles-based system in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values. This differs from moral relativism in that the latter takes its cue (indeed, its definition) from culture or the situation. It is “relative” to the circumstances. Moral relativists believe morals are malleable. As a Christian, I believe moral truth is found in the Scriptures.

One of the greatest influences on my worldview (and my “apologetic” focus) is Ravi Zacharias. Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” It touts the “freedom” of not being held to “someone else’s moral compass.” Ravi says, “Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules” (1). He adds that Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It allows us to respond to any situation in a uniform manner, freeing us from trying to “figure out” right and wrong in an ad hoc manner regarding each given scenario. We live in a society that increasingly does not value truth on the biggest questions of life. I believe man’s fear stifles the truth about what we’re doing here, how we got here, how we should “behave,” and where we’re going when we die. Man bends the truth, stretches the truth, manipulates the truth to fit a particular worldview, culture, time period, or situation.

I do not believe there is a definition of “absolute beauty” as it applies to any give piece of art or to an observer’s response to that work of art. This is kind of tricky, because I do believe in an absolute underlying truth and morality that applies no matter the person or situation. This universal truth actually reveals the character and attributes of God. I see the ministry of Jesus as a pure revelation of truth and of the will of the Father. Given the fact that theoria essentially means “comprehension,” and can be impacted by linguistics and knowledge, it is not a foolproof means for determining the absolute meaning or “truth” behind a work of art. However, theoria is supposed to focus on direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Indeed, this can be implicated in interpreting art that has a philosophical or theological theme. What might muddy the waters a bit is that Neoplatonists not only see theoria as contemplation, they believe it is the creative power of the cosmos. This likely refers to Creation being spoken into existence. God created the universe and all its elements and creatures by “saying” what He wanted and it came to pass. His words were his “paint brush.”

Yes, I do believe art can be misused, but that seems to be limited to misuse of a work of art in a heretical or cult-like situation. It would be virtually impossible for the observer of a work of art to make an ontological determination of the intent or truthfulness of the artist by merely looking at the art. If the artwork seems wildly off base, however, then it seems a conversation with the artist would clarify his or her meaning. However, I don’t know where I stand regarding art as idolatry. I recommend looking at Professor Buchanan’s feedback to my initial discussion post. 

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(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York: Faith Words, 2019), 28.

Found: How My Muse Came Back

The Muses were 9 goddesses from Greek mythology who guided the hands and gave divine inspiration to artists, writers, and poets. In colloquial terms, a muse can be a living person who inspires an artist and creates a desire for an artist to create. A muse is a guiding spirit, a source of inspiration of an artist, or a poet. It comes from the Latin musa. If a person says that a person is their “muse” they are calling them their source of inspiration.

I think creativity is essential for a balanced, full life. It is enjoyable, exhilarating, and fun. It needs to be honored and nurtured on a regular basis. Without constant vigilance, it can be easily ignored, impaired or impeded. But there are no exercises, books, or techniques in the world that will help you or your work unless you honestly examine what makes you tick. So, take a moment, sit down and think about your life. Remember, muses are not always attractive, socially acceptable, moral, or lovable. But muses are essential to the practicing artist.

“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “she trotted obediently around and became and erratic mistress if not a steady wife.” Most writers either over-discipline their muse or ignore him or her. Well here’s the key to solving your discipline problem. You need to realize you don’t have a discipline problem. You have a relational problem. You can either be a good lover or a failed one, a committed wooer or someone who makes lots of promises but doesn’t deliver. Don’t focus so much on creating a finished product. Enjoy the creative process.

Create a safe, comfortable routine so when your muse shows up she will feel welcome.
Realize that her main job, like infants, is to create messes. Therefore, give her space to make big ones. You can clean them up later. Avoid distraction while you’re spending time with her. No email and no Facebook, please.

If your writing project turns out well, say, “Oh well, I can’t take all the credit. The muse, you know.” If it turns out poorly, say, “Oh well, I can’t take all the blame. The muse, you know.” If she says something, write it down, even if you’re in the shower. If she said something in the shower and you didn’t take notes, don’t blame her if she doesn’t show up to “work” on time, later. Your muse is great, but just because she gives you a great idea for a new novel, it doesn’t mean you should quit the one you’re working on to go write that one instead.

I have been writing for most of my life. My craft has yielded poems, essays, journal entries, several flash fiction short stories, and a half-finished screenplay. I became an accomplished technical and legal writer through my career as a paralegal. I have also written a lot about recovery and spirituality. Unfortunately, I have never been published. I am not always confident when I write. When it comes to creative works, I fail to finish the project. I have fifty-seven pages of a screenplay which is stuck somewhere in the middle of the second act. I am struggling with a short story based on an event from my teenage years.

I came to realize that something was wrong in my creative life. It seemed I’d lost touch with my muse. I would often sit and stare at a blank document on my laptop, unable to think of a single thing to write about. I would wake up from a wild dream, ready to put fantasy into words. The dream was complicated and wonderful and aroused a plethora of emotions. So why couldn’t I write? Why wouldn’t the words come? This did not make sense. It was as if something was blocking me. Something was standing in the way. This continued for quite some time. It became very frustrating. I had this terrible feeling that time was slipping away. That maybe I was not a writer after all. When I could see no hope, I headed to the local book store.

I discovered a fantastic book on creative recovery by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way. Cameron talks about overcoming creative blocks and maintaining a state of flow through the practice of journaling and seeking God. She indicates that God is the Great Artist, and that all creativity comes from Him. She says we need to get in touch with our inner artist, and open up the channels of communication between us and God. She maintains throughout her book that creative inspiration is from and of a divine origin and influence, and that artists seeking to enable their creativity need to understand and believe in this concept. She writes, “God is an artist. So are we. And we can cooperate with each other. Our creative dreams and longings do come from a divine source, not from the human ego.” She says we are often blocked creatively by our internal editor. That harsh, judgmental, limiting, defeating voice that tells us we’ll never amount to anything. That we have nothing good to say. Many times, our internal editor is based on someone who has put us down in real life.

I followed Cameron’s instructs in the book and started writing what she calls “daily pages.” The exercise involves writing four pages every morning upon awakening. No subject. No hesitation. No spell checking or editing. Just writing down whatever comes to mind. This is supposed to get you into the practice of writing. Cameron says if we write immediately upon waking up, we tend to beat the internal editor to the punch. (I guess he has a habit of sleeping in.) I figured if I could get around the harsh criticism of my internal editor, I could reestablish the connection between me and my muse.

What I didn’t realize is that, at least for me, one of my muses is God. Cameron’s theory of God as the Great Artist struck me as being right on target. I have an inner artist that connects with God and is inspired to write. It is as if I am merely a conduit between myself and Him when He’s speaking to my heart. For the longest time, I could not figure out what went wrong. I had written some fairly decent poems over the years. This was especially true when I was emotionally lost, hurt, or crushed. The words were cathartic, and they would often just come pouring out. Now, admittedly, I think my alcoholism and drug addiction caused me to shut down. God could not reach me. The lack of inspiration was on me.

But as I came to grips with my addiction and got treatment, a lot of really bad negative, almost automatic, behaviors went into remission. It’s as if the underlying “static” has gone away, and I can hear what my muse has to say. I can recognize prompts and suggestions. I started carrying a small notebook with me again, and there is a legal pad on my nightstand. I sometimes have to pull the car to the side of the road and start making notes. I have a healthy respect for my muse and for creative ideas, and realize that ideas are fleeting. Never tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll remember it.” That usually doesn’t work. Of course, part of the reason I have found my muse again is because I simply started writing. My son once said to me that the number one way to get in shape for hiking is hiking. Writing is like that.

I can’t wait to see where my muse takes me next.