Often on this blog, we have talked about ways in which the arts might help us encounter God. In this, my last regular post on Transpositions, I thought I might summarize some of these central points, both as a matter of personal reflection and as a helpful summary of some of our main concerns here. While these do not cover all the issues involved in thinking about the arts theologically, I think they are some of the most important questions to ask when formulating a theology of the arts’ role in encountering God.
- Issues of Particularity: This is ultimately a larger issue of the general versus the particular presence of God in the world and the ways in which we understand God to engage actively with his creation. As humans, we experience the world in particular ways. We live in certain places and not in others. We have specific opportunities. These particularities of lived experience also apply to our understanding of encountering God. God interacts with us as individuals and particular communities rather than in a general way. Therefore, when we suggest the arts as a mean of encountering God, we must resist the temptation to make the assertion an overly general one. The arts are not special because they house the divine presence permanently, providing a place for us to go and be assured of divine meeting. Rather, God actively engages with his creation, and he often uses the arts in this encounter because of their tendency to open us up to new ideas and worlds.
- Issues of Origin: Can all the arts enable encounter with God, regardless of the background of the artist herself? I think so. This is, is fact, one of David Brown’s main assertions in his book series on divine encounter through the arts and culture. But this point is connected to our previous one. It’s not because art itself automatically houses the divine presence, but rather, that God chooses to engage with his world in particular ways through various mediums. Therefore, one might encounter God through an atheist’s work, but the nature of that encounter will be the same as when viewing a Christian painting. Both artworks will highlight certain features of the world, but ultimately, I think it is the work of the Holy Spirit that reveals divine presence to us.
- Issues of Vocation/Calling: Why even think about the arts as medium of divine encounter? What makes this act of human making more or less important than other things? One reason we might posit for the arts’ important role in divine-human encounter is the biblical calling to acts of responsible human making. From Genesis, we see God calling people to do things with the world around them, and these acts often serve to make the place of divine-human encounter (Adam’s call to till and keep the garden) or provide a place for housing an extended divine presence (notably, the tabernacle and temple.) When human making goes against the divine calling, such as with Babel and the Golden Calf incident in Exodus, the divine presence is removed from the people and there is no encounter possible. Human making, then, plays a major role in making possible the meeting of the human and divine. We are called to creatively engage with the world around us. The arts, therefore, should be a central component of theological thought.
Can you think of any other relevant issues for encountering God through the arts? What do you think are the most helpful ways to talk about divine-human meeting through the arts?
 See especially David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).;———, God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).;———, God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).