I Wonder: Work, Art and the Deeper Meaning of Life

nature, fish, wonder

Having previously been a guest contributor to Transpositions, I am delighted now to be a “regular!” Although I began contributing as a graduate student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, I am now full-time in the “working world,” but the experience of toggling between student and career life has generated some interesting comparisons about the two.  One thing I know, however, that both academic and professional spheres have in common is work – and lots of it!  Few of us in any area are untouched by our modern Western culture’s increasing demand for work and productivity.  Therefore, for those who are interested in theology and the arts, an important question to consider is the relationship of our work-oriented culture to art, creativity, and spiritual fulfillment.

I’ve recently come across Josef Pieper, a brilliant but highly readable 20th century German philosopher, who has some helpful and prescient insights into the nature of work, leisure, art, and ultimate meaning in human life.  In one of his more well-known books, Leisure as the Basis of Culture,  Pieper writes to a Europe emerging from the ruins of World War II.  As the continent concentrated on rebuilding, Pieper was concerned that it was becoming a “soulless and meaningless civilization of the modern working world,”[1] one which elevated work for its own sake, thereby squelching the deepest desires of the human heart.  Pieper maintained that this world of “total work” emphasized productivity, utility, and efficiency so that man could now only see the world in context of his immediate needs – instead of being able to grasp existence as connected to a larger reality that provided him ultimate meaning.

Therefore, to resist these soul-destroying effects of work, Pieper urged society to make room for the “liberal arts,” which included both philosophy and the arts.  For Pieper, these activities are essential as they have no other “use” other than to seek the meaning of human life in its fullest dimensions.   Importantly, for art and philosophy to portray the deeper meaning, Pieper insisted that they must originate in wonder, or an open receptivity to the whole mystery of reality.  In this manner, wonder accomplishes two “wonderful” things:

Wonder corrects a problem: Wonder corrects the modern western approach to knowing reality that is based on work.  Importantly, Pieper differentiates between two fundamental ways of knowing that we moderns often overlook.  One way is the ratio, which involves human effort such as investigating, deducting, proving, and solving.  The other is the intellectus, a posture similar to contemplation that is open to vision beyond what we can humanly observe.  In contrast to the ancient and medieval worlds, which appreciated the intellectus, the modern western mind (especially after Kant) has relied purely on the human work of the ratio. In this process, the artist or philosopher is the absolute center of reality and it is his own effort which produces knowledge, insight, or perception.[2]

Wonder enables us to receive: Wonder, however, acknowledges first that we exist in a created reality bigger than ourselves.  In this way, Pieper maintained that the proper beginning for both the arts and philosophy is an openness to this created reality – and the highest form of understanding is then received as a gift from the Creator.[3]  Pieper writes that art and philosophy “cannot be accomplished except with an attitude of receptive openness and attentive silence – which, indeed, is the exact opposite of the worker’s attitude of concentrated exertion. One of the fundamental human experiences is the realization that the truly great and uplifting things in life come about perhaps not without our own efforts but nevertheless not through those efforts.  Rather, we obtain them only as we can accept them as free gifts.”[4]

Pieper’s reflections are probably only more relevant in our own increasingly work-driven culture.  Thus, in order to resist the negative consequences of a culture that emphasizes utility and productivity at the expense of addressing spiritual fulfillment, Christian art must originate in wonder.  Before engaging in our own human efforts, we must allow ourselves to receive from a reality that has already been given meaning by the Triune God — and who has created it and redeemed it for his purposes in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit.

Somer Salomon has an MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews, as well as an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College. She currently teaches 11th grade English at a public charter school in Washington, DC, one of her favorite jobs in a varied career path that has included working for an economic development corporation , at a dot.com, and on a horse farm.



[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure : The Basis of Culture ; the Philosophical Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 31.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] ———, Only the Lover Sings : Art and Contemplation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 20.

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4 Comments

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    Thanks for this post, Somer, and I look forward to your ‘regular’ contributions in the future. (Your voice, along with the rest of you, is missed in St Andrews also, by the way!) There are so many good things hear worth receiving. We must actively resist (rebel) against the western cultural worship of efficiency and productivity if we are to have any space left in our lives for reflection, silence, leisure, freedom. I was also struck with the connection between a broader notion of sacramentality and your summary of Pieper’s point that ‘for art and philosophy to portray the deeper meaning [of human life in its fullest dimensions], . . . they must originate in wonder, or an open receptivity to the whole mystery of reality’. You go on to state that for him this is a given reality, a created one given as gift to man by a Creator. That Pieper refers to reality as both a given and a ‘mystery’ to be responded to in wonder (mystery and sacrament become a conflated idea in Christian theology) would seem to be amenable to the idea that reality itself is sacramental, or that one might reasonably expect to encounter the Creator or Giver of reality (Pieper speaks of accepting the ‘free gifts’) if it is approached with a proper disposition such as Pieper suggests, namely reflectively and attentively, or as he said, ‘with an attitude of receptive openness and attentive silence’. Would you agree that a broader sacramental understanding of the universe is consonant with (or backgrounded in) the approach to finding meaning and fulfillment Pieper is advocating here?

  • Cole Matson says:

    An excellent introductory post, Somer, and welcome to the team! I look forward to reading more, and to your answer to Travis’ question!

    One of my favourite sayings is the Orthodox saying, “One who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays”. It reminds me that all speech about God must first be rooted in contemplation, the reception of Him in prayer.

  • Somer Salomon says:

    Hey Travis! Good to hear from you too! I do miss you all! Anyway, thanks for your comment. We have been around this one several times, haven’t we?! Trust you to put your finger on exactly the issue I was wrestling with as I read Pieper, even if I think what he has to say is amazing in so many ways! I will try my best to address your question – even though I am right in the middle of subbing for a 9th grade French class (which is a lame excuse for saying I don’t know how well I can answer!).

    Anyway, you nailed it by stating that Pieper would advocate a broader sacramental understanding of the universe from which, as we are open and attentive, we can receive its good gifts, including meaning, fullness, and understanding.

    I think that one (meaning me!!!) can agree that creation is sacramental but still struggle with the question of who can understand this mystery. In other words, who the eyes to see and ears to hear what is being communicated by the creator? (This perhaps inverts your question, but here I go anyway!).

    I am not entirely sure I would go as far to say (as Pieper implies) that its meaning is simply received fully and correctly by those who simply listen attentively and openly.

    I am comfortable with saying that Christ is the hermeneutic key to the mystery; that through Him, we can truly understand its meaning. Therefore, I would say this means that Christians, or those whom receive the witness of Christ crucified and resurrected, have the best ability to find meaning through creation’s sacramental nature (and this post was broadly aimed at Christians). Pieper himself is very clear that all philosophy (and by extension, I would assume the arts) arises from our vision of the world or our epistemic base. So, to me that means that artists and philosophers only fully appropriate meaning when it rests on the witness of the revelation of Christ.

    As to those who don;t have or acknowledge this revelation, I am not sure (to be quite honest!!). Can they receive no meaning and understanding from creation? I am uncomfortable saying no, none at all. But I also wish to acknowledge the fallenness of man, his an inability to properly know God through creation outside revelation. I see some pitfalls in the natural theology which Pieper clearly advocates. (For an interesting perspective on this very question, read Alvin Plantinga’s response to Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. The same issues might apply to Catholic Pieper’s statement).

    Pieper has some interesting tidbits, however, which might offer ways to think about this conundrum! In a commentary about Pieper, Bernard Schumacher writes that “Just because the fact of revelation is not easily accepted by ‘modern man’, revelation can be meaningful for someone who [philosophizes] in the existential way only when it is seen as ‘scandalous’…Incommensurability with the spheres of both nature and culture as divine revelation, that is, and not speculation of the human mind”.

    There is something here, I think. This attitude of being “open” and “receptive” that allows us to gain knowledge arises when we admit that the knowledge received will not be commensurate with what we already know from nature and culture. Perhaps to the degree we admit that we cannot see, we receive sight. To the degree we acknowledge our limitations, we received knowledge which transcends our human situation.

    I definitely lean towards the idea that we only see when we repent of our blindness and receive illumination by the light of Christ, but I admit that I don’t have a great (or perhaps even coherent!) way to articulate this! Anyway, what do you think?

  • jfutral says:

    nice article. Even atheist/agnostic Carl Sagan (depending on which way you believe he leaned) acknowledges his interest in science beginning with his wonder of the cosmos as he looked up at the sky as a child.

    Garr Reynolds at the blog Presentation Zen says the secret to great work is great play:

    http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2010/03/we-were-born-to-play-play-is-how-we-learn-and-develop-our-minds-and-our-bodies-and-its-also-how-we-express-ourselves-play.html

    Of course Sir Ken Robinson’s video about education has made its way around the web, discussing the effects of the Modern ideas of efficiency, productivity, and industrial work on education.

    Mae Jamison, on Ted Talks, (http://www.ted.com/talks/mae_jemison_on_teaching_arts_and_sciences_together.html) illustrates how science and technologically advanced cultures are also inextricably tied to great movements in art.

    “Thus, in order to resist the negative consequences of a culture that emphasizes utility and productivity at the expense of addressing spiritual fulfillment, Christian art must originate in wonder. Before engaging in our own human efforts, we must allow ourselves to receive from a reality that has already been given meaning by the Triune God — and who has created it and redeemed it for his purposes in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit.”

    In Christian contexts, where I encounter this issue the most, particularly in protestant circles (and, thankfully, less these days than in days past, but still prevalent in many circles) is the insistence on art to find its utility in organizational worship or in its utility as a means to “preach” scripture, in order to have value.

    Sadly, I find this capacity “This attitude of being ‘open’ and ‘receptive’ that allows us to gain knowledge arises when we admit that the knowledge received will not be commensurate with what we already know from nature and culture. Perhaps to the degree we admit that we cannot see, we receive sight. To the degree we acknowledge our limitations, we received knowledge which transcends our human situation.” to be more prevalent in non-Christian/Organized Christian circles than those who we might recognize as having “repent[ed] of our blindness and receive[d] illumination by the light of Christ”

    Where I think the problem in Christianity is centered is on what your post and Peiper seek to address in the secular world—that Christians are as guilty, if not more so, of imposing utility and efficiency on the spiritual and art than the culture at large is of repressing wonder. I would say that most of the 20th century exhibits how poorly Christians (with a few bright exceptions) have lead by example.

    In many ways, if I were a Christian historian looking at much of the 20th century, particularly western Christianity, I would consider that much more of a “dark ages” than a period of enlightenment. I might even wonder if we have actually been recipients of revelation based on how we have outwardly responded, with the slim possibility (with reference to the previously mentioned exceptions) of how Christians may have positively influenced other culture makers (and I do not count movie ratings as a positive influence). We have been the poorest stewards of the gifts we have received.

    Just some thoughts,
    Joe

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