Tikkun Olam: Can artists and theologians mend the world?

A couple of months ago, a conference and exhibition took place, which I had the privilege to help organise. We chose for our theme the Hebrew phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ – to mend the world – and we invited artists and theologians to converse together about the following questions: Can there be repair? Can art and can theology tell the truth of the world’s woundedness and still speak of hope? The desire to bring together practicing artists and theologians with mutual interests to explore this theme was both a confession that things are not right with the world, and an act of hope that things might be bettered, or even made new. The sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria, made much of the notion of tikkun olam. Luria believed that the Creator of all things, in deciding to create a world, drew in – contracted – the divine breath in order to make room for the creation coming into being. In this enlarged space, the Creator then set vessels and poured into them the radiance of the divine light. But the light was too brilliant for the vessels, causing them to shatter and scatter widely. Since then, the vocation given to human persons has consisted of picking up and to trying to mend or refashion the shards of creation. And this, of course, recalls one great limitation that both art and theology share – namely, the impossibility of absolute innovation. As Rowan Williams noted, ‘To add to the world, to extend the world and its possibilities, the artist [like the theologian] has no option but to take his [or her] material from the world as it is’.[1] Even our best attempts at liberation from words, from the determinations of human language and imaginings, can only carry us so far as we are brought to what Williams calls ‘a complete imaginative void, the dark night of an utter alienation from the “available” world, “the desert of the heart”’.[2]

Still, the human response of taking up ‘material from the world as it is’ does not obviate the truth that the world is God’s, nor suggest that God ‘“made something” and then wondered what to do with it; rather … from the first the creative purpose was one of profound and secure relationship’.[3] And, it seems, if such a relationship is to be truly characterised by love, then its prime instigator will also create ‘room’ for creation to be itself. In other words, God’s love achieves its end not through brute force but by patient regard for what Emmanuel Levinas termed the ‘otherness of the other’.[4] To be sure, God never retreats from creation into some kind of self-imposed impotence, but rather remains unswervingly faithful, interested and involved in all that goes on. But this is not to suggest that all is, so to speak, in order. And so Christians, when they speak of creation, will want to speak, as many physicists too will want to do, not only of creation’s order and but also of its disorder, not only about its being but also about its becoming, and about the space that God has granted the world, space which implies some risk, and which can neither be ignored nor annihilated if all there is is to be repaired.

Not a few scholars and practitioners are now talking about the sense in which art serves to make this space meaningful, and of the way that art is concerned to transform created things, to improve creation, to add value to creation, to, in Auden’s words, ‘make a vineyard of the curse’. J.R.R Tolkien understood this well, as his fairy stories and indeed his entire project of mythopoesis attest his concern to not merely ennoble, challenge and inspire, but also to heighten reality itself, to invite us to look again at familiar things, and see them as if for the first time. Jacques Maritain, too, once wrote that ‘Things are not only what they are. They ceaselessly pass beyond themselves, and give more than they have …’.[5] In other words, it is claimed that there is absolutely nothing passive going on when a painter picks up a piece of charcoal, or a dancer performs Swan Lake. Abraham Kuyper was right to insist that art ‘discover[s] in those natural forms the order of the beautiful, and … produce[s] a beautiful world that transcends the beautiful of nature’.[6] And others, too, have spoken of the way that the arts contribute to the transformation of disorder, bearing witness to the belief that creation is not indispensable to God’s liberating purposes for all that God has made, purposes which point not to a return to a paradise lost but to a creation made new, a making new which apprehends the reality of human artistry and which proceeds in the hope that both the location and the vocation of the children of God is inseparable from creation itself.

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Jason A. Goroncy (PhD, St Andrews) is a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament who teaches in the areas of theology, church history and pastoral care, and who serves as Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin. He blogs at Per Crucem ad Lucem

 


[1] Williams, ‘Poetic and Religious Imagination’, 180.
[2] Ibid., 181.
[3] Ruth Etchell, A Model of Making: Literary Criticism and its Theology (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1983), 50.
[4] See Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1993), 19–26.
[5] Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Bollingen Series: The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts; New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), 127.
[6] Abraham Kuyper, ‘Calvinism and Art’ in Lectures on Calvinism (ed. Abraham Kuyper; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 154. Italics mine.

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