Though we hear much of secularism’s influence on our culture, efforts to keep religious sensibilities at bay seem futile. We cannot for long live comfortably with such absence. The human spirit becomes restless when meaning is dispersed and we have no place to stand – homeless – and all the while longing for something more. Ongoing interest today in a wide range of spiritualities makes it clear that the Transcendent – is a compelling reality for human experience.
Many have taken up the subject of art and spirituality and noted the connections between them. I have done so myself and believe that there is considerable overlap in these important expressions of our humanity. It is fair to say that “spirituality” has become a vague and rather amorphous term which is employed to cover a wide range of meanings. When ideas like this become diluted their usefulness also diminishes.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Reformation based on the activities of Martin Luther. Luther was an Augustinian friar deeply dissatisfied with the church and many of its practices. He was someone who had great boldness and the courage to take on the institutional church.
I want to take up a theme at the heart of Luther’s theological thinking that may be provocative and valuable for reflecting on art and spirituality. Luther make an important distinction between a theology of glory (theologia gloriae) and a theology of the cross (theologia crucis).
These two options compete and are at odds with one another in Luther’s thought. A theology of glory attends to that human inclination to offer a complete account of reality and is seen as triumphalistic believing it has escaped ignorance and dissolved mystery. The error here is that humanity becomes enamoured with its own brilliance and successes in knowing the world and knowing God. Theology of the cross by
contrast is a coming to know God through suffering – the place where God is hidden. As one author puts it* a theology of the cross is faith (not sight) hope (not consummation) love (not power). Human self – sufficiency is set aside and human moral achievement is not the point.
In matters of art I wonder if the turn to beauty is a theology of glory where we cover our frailty, finitude and weakness and bask in beauty’s radiance. Does our spirituality seek to ascend the ladder of moral achievement rather than bend under the truth of the darkness within us? The theology of the cross embraces mystery, acknowledges ignorance and accepts that suffering will be present. It embraces the truth that we are in a material world – and accepts that we must live with ambiguity and incompleteness.
It would I think be a valuable exercise to look at art through the lens of this theological difference and discern which narrative is shaping our understanding of the world and of ourselves. One result might be a greater appreciation for some of the darkness that shows up in contemporary art. Darkness that expresses the reality of the human condition exposed by transparency rather than covered by pretense.