Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA)’s tenth-anniversary conference: Creation & New Creation: Discerning the Future of Theology & the Arts. Hosted at Duke Divinity School, DITA10 was a joyful and life-giving ecumenical gathering of Christian artists, pastors, and theologians.
Despite the threat of Hurricane Dorian, the week’s rainclouds dissipated quickly, and the weekend at Duke University proved to be a beautiful slice of North Carolina summer. The beauty of the campus promoted vibrant conversation; the natural beauty of the created landscape outside inspired the conference-goers’ scholarly and artistic reflections on the divine beauty we were contemplating inside through theology and art.
At the end of each day, I left Duke’s campus feeling truly full of life. Lectures on Christian theology, visual art, discussions on the role of art in the church, symposia on art as a means of social activism and breathless conversation with fellow church leaders, artists, and scholars left a hum of dynamic energy buzzing through my blood. As I reflected on the events of each day, I would ponder the image of Pentecost. Acts 2:1-13 describes the Holy Spirit’s descent using the images of wind and “tongues of fire” to describe the presence of the Holy Spirit igniting the nascent church.
In Acts, this catalyzing energy of the Spirit spurs the Church out from its sanctuary in the Upper Room and into the city. Among the city’s crowds, the Spirit of Divine Unity makes itself manifest as the Apostle’s proclamation of the Gospel crosses linguistic and ethnic divisions.
This image of the birth of the Church is a sublime photo-negative of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). At Babel, pride and hubris divide the human race. But, at Pentecost, the love of Christ sends us out into the world, the body of Christ bound together by the love of the Trinity.
DITA10 was filled with this evangelical urgency to spread Christ through the medium of human creativity, informed by what DITA’s director Jeremy Begbie called “articulate Christian wisdom.”
At DITA10, I was struck by the power of the arts to promote Christian unity. Gathered together in chapels, seminar rooms, and theatres, Christians of all denominations—Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist—conversed easily, based on their shared belief that the arts can and should make God’s glory present in the world.
To Catholics, this might seem like a fairly humdrum statement: the arts can be incarnational and sacramental forms of communication. That is, poetry, music, and sculpture can not only echo God’s action of taking up a human, material form; they manifest channels of God’s grace in the world.
Art has been a divisive topic throughout Christian history. During the earliest days of Christianity, the debates of the iconoclast controversy hotly debated the question: were Christians allowed to make images of God? After the Council of Hieria, called by Emperor Constantine V in 754, the church began to suppress the making of icons. Icons were stripped from public places and church buildings.
Many theologians and saints protested this wave of iconoclasm. One of them, St. John Damascene, argued that art was an essential means through which Christians could bear witness to the incarnation.
I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. (On Holy Images, 16)
Thus, Christians who are united in the belief that images and art—poems, dance, theatre, and painting—can and should be used by Christians to portray the God who took up human flesh, are also united in the belief that, as John Damascene says, God’s grace is alive and palpable. God became flesh so that we could experience God’s grace not just in our minds, hearts, and souls, but with our eyes and ears, our tongues and hands. Christians who assent to this truth, even if they disagree on others, are powerfully united in a shared vision of who God is and how God is active in the world.
I was struck by the power that belief in this incarnational and sacramental vision of the world had in making grace present. I could almost see the fire of grace burning in the conference participants, as we watched, listened, and talked. As we bore witness to the music of the New Caritas Orchestra we heard Saturday night, in the prophetic art of Steve Prince, in the poetry of Christian Wiman, we not only watched incomparable artists at work, we received that Pentecost charge to bring this embodied grace in art to our wider communities.
As we were sent forth from the conference, several thoughts occurred to me:
First, Catholics can sometimes neglect the cause of Christian unity. We might sometimes feel shy or unsure about building relationships with our fellow Christians. But Christ prays that all his followers “will be one” (Jn 17:21). So we, too, should all pray for the unity of the Trinity to be present in the unity of Christians throughout the world.
Furthermore, our fellow Christians can teach us Catholics to see our own tradition afresh. The first time a presenter at the conference dropped the word “sacramental” at the conference it made an audible impact. You could almost see the verbal spark ignite the audience with the fire of inspiration: yes! the music we had just heard, the poem we had witnessed, Chagall’s White Crucifixion—of course these are sacramental!
I thought of how frequently we use the word “sacramental” in Catholic conversations about theology and art and how, subsequently, the power of that word can become dulled by familiarity. Catholic churches are filled to the brim with stained glass windows, statues and overflowing with beautiful music. We take for granted the material world’s ability to reflect the God who entered into it.
The Roman Catholic tradition has thousands of years of using the arts to sing God’s praises, to share the story of creation in art, sculpture, drama, to use architecture to inspire wonder, awe, and praise. In our liturgical spaces and in our political, communal spaces, the Catholic Church has used art to form our imaginations. Thus, Catholic artists, liturgists, and church members should not be afraid to join other Christians in using art as a means of filling the world with beauty that sings of the glory of God.
It’s miraculous, as J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous poem “Mythopoeia” celebrates, that artists are able to mold creation to shine forth the glory of the God who entered into creation. DITA10 helped me see that miracle afresh.
For the past year, I have felt very discouraged about the Church. I think many conscientious Catholics who have followed the news and felt the pain of the men, women, and children who have been hurt by the priests, bishops, and leaders who have been appointed to care for them probably can relate to that discouragement. Too many spaces in our world are infected by cycles of hurt and violence. We long to be saved from this cycle of victim and aggressor.
Listening to the rhetoric of our current political cycle, we can sense our entire country longing for renewal and change, for justice to spring up, as the Prophet Isaiah writes. Thomas Merton wrote in his spiritual classic New Seeds of Contemplation, that the only revolution that can change anything is the revolution that began with Christ.
The only power that can “really upset the injustice and iniquity of men is the power that breathes in the Christian tradition.” It’s heartbreaking to see “the injustice and iniquity of men” occurring in the Church, in the very institution charged with overcoming injustice.
Christ’s love, which conquers our sins and divisions through the healing unity of the Eucharist, needs to heal not only our political communities, but our own ecclesial community. Over the past year, I have been feeling keenly how deeply in need of this healing our church community is.
How beautiful, then, to be reminded by my fellow Christians of the treasure that the Catholic Church holds. In the Eucharist, the Catholic Church clings to the sacrament that is at the core of Christian art. All Christian art and imagination seeks to make the grace of the invisible God tangibly present. God entered tangibly into our world as a man once, two thousand years ago, and God comes to us again and again, each morning at Mass, in the guise of bread, the art of human hands.
At the Mass, creation is always being transformed into the new creation. In the Eucharist, artists can find sustenance from the source of the new creation: the Word of God made flesh, who seeks to make each one of us into a masterpiece for God.