Recently it was Pentecost Sunday and the Christian calendar is always a good prompt to reflection. Often I think about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the arts. Here I can only take up a thread of this large and important topic. As the time of his departure approached Jesus promised his disciples that he would send a Comforter. Trial, death, resurrection, ascension and then Pentecost. The Spirit’s work in the world did not begin at Pentecost but it entered a new phase. The Spirit is referenced in the biblical account of creation and noted in Exodus 35: 30-35 in the story of two artisans appointed to decorate the tabernacle. It is the artist Bezalel who is said to be filled with “Divine Spirit”.

Exodus 31 2-8 Bezalel and Oholiab making the Ark of the Covenant, from the ‘Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanaica)’

Some critics of Christianity see faith as a sellout which undermines human autonomy. Not least Nietzsche, who was vocal about how the notion of submission to God could only result in a diminished humanity. Modern thought is deeply enamoured with the idea of human autonomy believing it is the path toward human flourishing. If one thinks of an artist who is Christian it is an easy conclusion to say that their submission to the divine will compromise and even destroy creativity. This facile conclusion fails to discern clearly what is entailed in the life of faith and the activity of the Spirit. I want to make two brief observations.

Edvard Munch, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1906, oil on canvas

First the Spirit is both a gift and a giver of gifts. Openness to the Spirit does not erase our humanity but enriches it. Artistic work for the believing artist is not a matter of mere passivity but entails active engagement of skill and intelligence that leaves room for the generating presence of the Spirit. This model breaks the binary assumption that it is either me or the divine that brings art to life. We are not dealing with a competition but with a relationship that allows for the enriching and humanizing presence of the divine as well as the active engagement of the human. Theologically speaking the Holy Spirit works “to complete and perfect our humanity”. The presence of the Spirit is no obstacle to human creativity rather it helps generate the creative process by turning us away from focus on ourselves. We become free to draw on the givens of nature and our relationships as well as our social and cultural context.

The second observation is that the Spirit brings freedom. The Spirit releases us from the bondage of occupation with ourselves and with the idols of our time. The Spirit gives us breathing space unrestrained by the stifling expectations of a secular culture. We are invited to see the world differently and the eyes of faith—at their best—open new horizons and encourage us to reimagine reality in ways that bring fresh meaning to our experience. We must acknowledge that religious faith influences how we view things but then there is no bias-free location from which we can operate. What we are given in our experience is filtered through these lenses but not fully determined by them. The biblical narrative repeatedly invites us to see and hear in fresh ways and to discover the unexpected.

The Day of Pentecost held the surprise for everyone to hear a new message in their own language. The Spirit who was at work at Pentecost continues to be at work in the world not least among artists—who provide us with a newness that comes from creative imagination and by their works signal hope in the midst of the distress and uncertainty that permeates our human communities.