Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wendell Berry on Art

My friend Tim Stone recommended that I read a chapter from Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community titled "Christianity and the Survival of Creation." Berry presents a vision of the arts that departs quite nicely from the modern idea of creative genius. Here we find an ode to the craftsman. Berry moves technical skill to the center of the arts, and suggest that doing so may return the arts to their rightful place within human relatedness. I have transcribed a large chunk here for your enjoyment:

All of us are makers, within mortal terms and limits, of our lives, of one another's lives, of things we need and use.

This, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote, is "the normal view," which "assumes... not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler of parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist." But since even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably, by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody is an artist-- either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world. This is why our division of the "fine arts" from "craftsmanship," and "craftsmanship" from "labor," is so arbitrary, meaningless, and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both "the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function." And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.

Explaining "the perfection, order, and illumination" of the artistry of Shaker furniture makers, Coomaraswamy wrote, "All tradition has seen in the Master Craftsman of the Universe the exemplar of the human artist or 'maker by art,' and we are told to be 'perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Searching out this lesson, for us, of the Shakers' humble, impersonal, perfect artistry, which refused the modern divorce of utility and beauty, he wrote, "Unfortunately, we do not desire to be such as the Shaker was; we do not propose to 'work as though we had a thousand years to live, and as though we were to die tomorrow.' Just as we desire art but not the things that make for art ... we have the art that we deserve. If the sight of it puts us to shame, it is with ourselves that the reformation must begin."

Any genuine effort to "re-form" our arts, our ways of making, must take thought of "the things that make for art." We must see that no art begins in itself; it begins in other arts, in attitudes and ideas antecedent to any art, in nature, and in inspiration. If we look at the greatest artistic traditions, as it is necessary to do, we will see that they have never been divorced either from religion or from economy. The possibility of an entirely secular art and of works of art that are spiritless or ugly or useless is not a possibility that has been among us for very long. Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, on the uses and the users of the things made by art, and of the artists themselves. The have, that is, been ways of giving honor to the works of God. The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call "self-expression." They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life. Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius. Coomaraswamy, a good guide as always, makes an indispensable distinction between genius in the moder sense and craftsmanship: "Genius inhabits a world of its own. The master craftsman lives in a world inhabited by other men: he has neighbors." The arts, traditionally, belong to the neighborhood. They are the means by which the neighborhood lives, works, remembers, worships, and enjoys itself.

But most important of all, now, is to see that the artistic traditions understood every art primarily as a skill or craft and ultimately as a service to fellow creatures and to God. An artist's first duty, according to this view, is technical. It is assumed that one will have talents, materials, subjects--perhaps even genius or inspiration or vision. But these are traditionally understood not as personal properties with which one may do as one chooses but as gifts of God or nature that must be honored in use. One does not dare to use these things without the skill to use them well. As Dante said of his own art, "far worse than in vain does he leave the shore ... who fishes for the truth and has not the art." To use gifts less than well is to dishonor them and their Giver. There is no material or subject in Creation that in using, we are excused from using well; there is no work in which we are excused from being able and responsible artists.

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, pp. 110 - 113.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Durham Conference: Jan. 13, 14 2009

Postgraduates at the University of Durham organized and hosted a conference on interdisciplinarity in theology and religion (Subtitle: How to Tie Knots that Will Hold). I was able to attend the two days of the conference (Jan, 13, 14) and had a wonderful time.
Sarah Coakley gave an excellent keynote address on her own experience as an interdisciplinary researcher. She has had a fascinating career as a researcher that has included projects with the Mind, Brain, Behavior group at Harvard as well as a recent collaborative project with the game theorist Micheal Nowak. Look out for an upcoming book co-written by Coakley and Nowak that has the potential to change the landscape of research in the area of science and religion. Also, she recently edited a book on pain that I am hoping to read at some point, and I recommend it to anyone else interested in the subject.

The conference was composed of primarily post graduate students (my guess is about 60). There was lots of time (although more would have been nice) to get to know one another and hear about each other's research interests. Because of the nature of the conference everyone was doing such different and unique things. There were projects ranging from the more traditional (such as The Role of the Holy Spirit in Deification in Athanasius) to the more popular interdisciplinary areas (such as my own project on the analogy between divine and human creativity, Church and Empire, music and theology) to the unique and unusual (such as Christian belief and the popular UK practice of woodland burial, how christians watch reality tv, and angelology as a necessarily interdisciplinary discipline). Everything was fascinating and there was a general sense of curiosity about one another's projects that pervaded the conference.

I also had the opportunity to present my own work in the form of a paper titled, "Is Creation the Expression of the Creator? An Exploration in Theology, Art, and Philosophy. " (click on title to read paper) This is the first time that I have presented a paper at a conference, and I was very happy with the way that it went. The discussion time afterward, which seemed to last a long time (there had to have been at least 15 questions/comments) went well and I received a good response and good constructive criticism. I really enjoyed the question time. It was fun to have people interact with my research and have the opportunity to respond and dialogue.

Two friends of mine from St Andrews also presented papers: Paul Warhust (on Kierkegaard as a Matthew scholar) and Christian George (on Pilgrimage as a locus of interdisciplinary study). I unfortunately did not attend Paul's, but I am sure it was excellent. I did attend Christian's, and I know his was excellent. He has got me thinking about how to appropriate prilgimage as a metaphor and christian practice today, as well as wishing that I had keynote on my pc so that I too can have graphics that make the other presenters salivate with longing.

Speaking of longing:

I also fell in love with Durham while we were there. Emily, Jonah, and I stayed in a great little bed and breakfast called the Chestnut Villa. The oldest portion of town is situated on a hill inside a bend in the beautiful river Wear. Durham Cathedral (more than 1000 years old) dominates the landscape, along with the castle that is connected to it. I could have spent two days inside the cathedral instead of the conference. The sense of scale produced by the walls that seem to shoot up and soar overhead is overwhelming. There were a number of stain glass windows of immense size and intricacy. And in one portion of the cathedral are a number of more contemporary art installations, including a massive pieta that is utterly captivating, evoking the deepest sorrow and tragedy alongside the glimmer of hope and resurrection.
Overall it was a great trip, even though a number of logistical things went wrong. Emily may comment on these in her blog post, but I won't go into them here.  Here are a few more pictures that Emily won't show you:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Christ, Kenosis, and Creation

Colin Gunton argues, in his book Christ and Creation, that the relationship between Christ and Creation must be understood within the context of the Triune relationships. He writes, "It is because God the Father creates through the Son and Spirit, his two hands (Irenaeus), that we can conceive a world that is both real in itself, and yet only itself in relation to its creator.” The concept of Kenosis, the self-emptying of God, is typically empoyed to relate the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, to Creation, and in what follows are some interesting comments on the relationship between Christ, Kenosis, and Creation:

“If the self-emptying is seen as the expression of the divine being rather than its depotentiation, it is a different matter altogether. The concept is used, for example, in Cyril of Alexandria. ‘The emptying was a voluntary reduction to our level, undertaken as an act of pure love … : “He who fills all things lowered Himself to emptying.” What is claimed is that the eternal relatedness of the Son to the world here takes, through the Spirit, a particular and unique form. Because the Father created and upholds the world in being through the Son, it is ontologically appropriate, so to speak, for the Son to be the one who takes on flesh. The one who holds in being the realms of time and space enters their confines in order to renew them. In that respect, the emptying is an expression at once of the love of the Son and of his being in relation with that which was created through and is upheld by him. Kenosis is therefore one concept by which we may express the way in which the eternal Son related himself to that which is not God—to the creation.”

Gunton goes on to say that “It is doubtful whether the continuity between creation and incarnation should be expressed by calling the activity of divine creation also an act of Kenosis. It is one thing to give to the world a being and form, another to enter its fallen structures to renew them.” I have two comments about this statement.

First, Gunton seems to imply earlier that creation and kenosis are closely linked when he writes “the emptying is an expression at once of the love of the son and of his being in relation with that which was created through and is upheld by him.” How does one separate the love of God and the creativity of God? W. H. Vanstone writes, “Christianity should have no hesitation in attributing to God that authenticity of love which it recognizes in Christ – in attributing to the Creator that authenticity of love which it recognizes in the Redeemer.” The argument here is that the self-emptying of Christ, as implied in the incarnation and crucifixion, is indicative of a love for creation that God has in general.

Second, although the incarnation suggests the consummation of God’s creation, it does not ultimately reach that fulfillment, which is God dwelling with his creature in the New Creation. If “God dwelling with His creation” has been the final goal all along, then all of God’s creative activities could be called Kenotic for they strive toward intimate relatedness with Creation. The concept of Kenosis can be employed to describe the free relatedness of God to creation, because it is not only the Son who wishes to dwell with His creatures.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Kenosis and Freedom

This one goes out to Shawn Bawulski.  We have had a number of conversations about the nature of human freedom, and, while I am still far from having answers to the many questions that have come up, I came across an article by Sarah Coakley entitled "Kenosis: Theological Meanings and Gender Connotations" in The Work of Love (ed. John Polkinghorne) that is very helpful.  

I have been wrestling with the idea that God's Kenosis is essential to his relationship with creation.  Indeed, the idea for my phd dissertation is predicated upon the assumption that the analogous relationships Creator-creation and artist-artwork are characterized by kenosis: a "self-emptying" or "self-giving" on the part of the Creator/artist that ensures the "otherness" of creation/artwork.  The Work of Love is a collection of essays that explores the theme of "Creation as Kenosis" as a response to classical doctrines of creation that emphasis omnipotence, omniscience, and immutability.  Thus, "Creation as Kenosis" implies an amount of "vulnerability," "risk," and "sacrifice" on the part of the Creator.

Coakley points out what I had suspected, but not yet articulated.  She writes, "the striking commitment in this book to a libertarian view of freedom may be the linchpin holding several other systematic choices together." (204)  Libertarian freedom is the kind that considers a human being to be "free from conditioning control by another." (205)  The visual picture of Kenosis, with its connotations of "limitation" and "otherness," provided in The Work of Love is one of God stepping aside so that His creatures won't be dominated.  Coakley describes the picture as "a (very big) divine figure backing out of the scene, or restraining his influence, in order that other (little) figures may exercise completely independent thinking and acting." (205)

This picture, she argues, is a male-gendered picture of freedom.  She connects this kind of freedom to "the male child's repudiation of the power of the mother." (205)  There is a sense in which this freedom by distancing is a peculiarly male fantasy.  "The underlying symbolish -- this argument goes on -- is of a normative 'masculine' self who gains independence by setting himself apart from that which gave him life and indeed continues to sustain him." (205)  This type of freedom ensures "otherness," which is arguably essential for the existence of a loving relationship, by creating distance between God and his creation.  

Does Kenosis present us with an alternative to libertarian freedom, or do the two go hand in hand?  The alternative, Coakley argues, is compatibilist, but at the same time free from the determinism that the contributors of The Work of Love believe to characterize classical approaches to divine interaction with the world.  She observes, in fact that such an alternative is ironically present within The Work of Love. 

The alternative picture of Creator-creature interaction "undoes this assumption about the supposedly strangling effect of a continuous dependence on the divine." (206)  What is suggested by Coakley, and Ian Barbour in his essay "God's Power: A Process View," is an understanding of God's power "not as overpowering but as empowering." (15)  Barbour draws on the work of Anna Case-Winter (God's Power: Traditional Understanding and Contemporary Challenges, 1990) who suggests that God's power may be better understood in terms of mothering.  The child's response to the mother is not in competition with the desires of the mother that the child become a full person in his/her own right.  In fact, the child's response completes the activities of the mother.  This type of freedom ensures the "otherness" of creation through the continual and intimate sustaining of the creature by the Creator.

Coakley concludes her thoughts on Kenosis and freedom by writing: "If we think of divine kenosis as required for a God who must get out of the way in order that 'freedom' be enacted, then one sort of gendered picture is probably in play; whereas if we think of God as nurturing and sustaining us into freedom (of a different, compatibilist, sort), then it may be that another set of gender associations are present in the background.  For the latter view, it is not God who is in need of restriction or 'emptying', but rather a false form of hubristic human power." (206)  

It is interesting that Kenosis should generate two different accounts of freedom, one based upon distance, the other on intimacy.  Similarly, theologians writing about kenosis will use the terms "self-giving" and "self-emptying," as I did at the beginning of this post, despite their different connotations of fullness and absence.  That the kenosis of God, primarily a theological concept about the relationship between Creator and creature, should be articulated in such disparate terms seems, to me at least, to be a good thing because it suggests the struggle within a relationship of persons to define one's self while leaving room for the 'other.' 

I am also happily surprised to see that "Kenotic Theology" (if I can use the term) does not require one to accept libertarian freedom, but that compatibilism is an option as well.  How libertarian freedom is articulated within a kenotic understanding of the relationship between Creator and creature appears to be fairly straightforward.  How compatibilism is articulated, however, within the same understanding will require more thinking and reading on my part, as well as more conversations with Shawn Bawulski.