Theology is art

Recently, I have observed several artists reflect on their craft. I listened to them talk about how their craft expresses different aspects of reality, their creative process, and the desired impact their piece has on themselves and those who come across it.

It got me to reflect on my craft: theology. I found that I could have provided many of the same types of answers as these several artists did for my intention for thinking about God. Theology, done well, is more of an art than a science I concluded.

This inevitably makes some uncomfortable. “Art”, you say, “is fictional, imaginative; theology, however, is supposed to be true.”

To which, I would respond, “you don’t know many artists, do you.”

I have discovered, as I listen to my artist friends, that most pieces they generate are indeed intended to expound the beauty, reality, or irony of a given object, issue, scene, or feeling. In other words, the task of an artist is to draw attention to something true in a particular light.

In fact, Harvard English professor, Elaine Scarry has drawn similar lines in her book, On Beauty and Being Just, stating that beauty invevitably “decenters” one’s attention off of onself and onto the object or scene of beauty.

Jonathan Edwards, 18th-century American pastor-theologian, considers an acknowledgment of beauty as the single prerequisite to living a truly selfless and just life for this same reason. He therefore establishes that the task of the theologian is to draw attention to God’s supreme beauty. Rev. Timothy Keller summarizes Edwards’ work, The Nature of True Virtue, “human beings will only be drawn out of themselves into unselfish acts of service to others when they see God as supremely beautiful.”

One may respond stating that doing theology as art neglects the facts of God; namely, doctrine. But, does an artist know his or her subject any less than a scientist?

I would argue that a scientist knows the facts of an object in a different way than an artist, but not in a qualitatively better way.

Consider the scientist who spends his or her life studying the immune system of the sea urchin. Over the course of study, a great mass of knowledge is acquired and discovered; perhaps useful, perhaps excessive. In the end, the scientist most likely loves sea urchins no more than in the beginning; although, a profound appreciation for the Creator who imagined them may have ensued.

On the other hand, an artist who spends a lifetime discovering new and beautiful melodies will be changed by music. The musician, though not  formally trained in acoustics, will understand the intricacies of sound in a very profound way because of the desire to create something exceptionally beautiful to listen to.

Likewise, a theologian must understand God in a profound way. Though for the sake of being able to better articulate his glory so many will behold him as beautiful.

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