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,” 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.
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. 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.”
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.