How Art Can Help Us Think about Theology

How Art Can Help Us Think about God by Chase Tibbs

Chase Tibbs

Contributor at Christianity Now
Chase is currently a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pursuing an MDiv and MTS, his interests lie in reimagining faith for persons of faith in postmodern contexts. He is influenced by the Holiness movement, process philosophy, existentialism, liberation theology, and postcolonialism.

Despite my best efforts, I tend to feel out of my depth in art museums. In my eager observation of a work of art, I often see what it depicts in the most literal sense: a slab of metal, a wall of color, a portrait of an unfamiliar face, a frame with paint inside the lines. All I want in these moments is to experience the beauty, the mystery, the depth, but too often I end up reducing art to an object that sits before me, lifeless and without meaning.

Pointing Beyond

Yet this is not what art is ultimately interested in. Its primary concern is not with the thing in itself, what it literally is. If that were the case, paintings and sculptures and objects would never suggest meaning beyond themselves. A work of art is essentially different from a mere depiction because the object does more than depict. It points not to its own concrete physicality, but toward a deeper, more meaningful truth the participant is invited to see, to feel, to experientially know.

Art is an event in which an object of representation suggests meaning beyond itself, and when it comes to art museums, your depth of experience is determined by your ability to imagine, to see more than what is directly in front of you. It is integral we refrain from reducing art to the object of representation and faithfully commit to seeing works of art as suggesting what lies in ‘the beyond.’

Jesus and the Kingdom

I am reminded of when Jesus in the Gospel According to Mark describes not what the Kingdom is, but what it is like. “This is what the Kingdom of God is like,” Jesus says, then follows with a story about a farmer and seeds and death and life. The modern reader wants a scientific analysis, a spreadsheet of empirical data, of when and where and what the Kingdom is in the most literal sense. We demand scientific and historical information. Forget beauty or meaning, we just want the facts!

But this first-century Jew seems to think it’s more important to think about God in a different way. Instead, Jesus, through his teachings, offers us metaphors and allegories. In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus replies to inquiries about the Kingdom with “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.”

What does he mean that the Kingdom is not a place to be empirically observed? How can the Kingdom be among us? Why does he not simply explain it with quantifiable data?

In the Gospel According to Matthew we hear that the Kingdom is like a mixed field, a mustard seed, a hidden treasure, a net, and other unexpected objects drawn from the everyday. For Jesus, and particularly the authors of these passages, scientific truth and absolute historical knowledge simply do not reach deep enough. Instead, for us to experience and know the depth and meaningfulness of the Kingdom, Jesus invites us, calls us, to imagine its truth through symbol and story.

Depicting God

The same goes for the three letter word ‘God.’ With the best (and poorest) intentions, many desire a God-thing, sitting in front of them, that can be empirically demonstrated, historically proven, mathematically calculable, as though God is some kind of being among beings, much like a slab of metal.

For many I know and love, God and the Bible and theology is only true, or is most true, when truth is understood in an absolute or objective sense. But if our God-language – Kingdom of God, Creation, Son of God, Heaven and Hell, the Resurrection – is to be ultimately meaningful for us today, we ought to uphold them as symbols, as words that suggest that which is real and beyond our conceptions and depictions of God.

It must be said that religious truth is not completely ahistorical, outside the realm of history and real life experience. If so, our images would be worthless and irrelevant to the concrete reality in which we live. Certainly, there is a degree of historical truth in the biblical witness and Christian tradition about Jesus and about the human experience of God. The truth of faith is distinct, but not separable from, other dimensions of truth. Yet ultimately, “God,” as the subject of our theology, lies beyond our empirical and factual ways of speaking and thinking about God.

I make idols out of my beliefs when I objectify and absolutize my depictions, my images, of God. When I act as if religious truth is true in an absolute or objective sense, my theology fails to speak of God and ends up pointing to itself (sometimes even to me). We see this idolatry when we absolutize the experiences we have due to our socio-economic status, culture, race, gender, or religion.

Like Moses, who is told by God that “no one can see my face and live;” like Saul who is blinded by his too close for comfort experience of a “great light;” like the Apostle Paul who writes that “no one has ever seen God,” even after the life and death of Jesus; the meaning of “God” lies beyond our concepts of God.

Art and the Church

What does all this have to do with art?

If art is understood as an event in which an object of representation suggests meaning beyond itself, then theology, similarly, could be understood as symbolic language and depictions that suggest the meaning of God, beyond the literal meaning of our words about God.

The challenge for communities of faith today lies in their ability to uphold language of God as symbolic, rather than believing themselves to be directly describing calculable or measurable truth. Similar to how the Gospels use allegory and metaphor to speak of what the Kingdom is like, we must employ symbols in order to express the ultimate. While the concern of art rests above the object of representation, the primary concern of theology, too, rests above mere words and concepts.

This, however, has not been my experience of theology as it is understood in my faith community. Christians often understand their theology to be a historical proof or a scientific explanation of how things are, where no reception, interpretation, or suggestion of God assists. There is simply a formulaic “truth” universally imposed upon all who are within and without the church.

Like my aimless wandering in the art museum, I wonder if this is why so many feel displaced concerning the church. Have faith communities replaced beauty, meaning, and mystery with information, facts, and knowledge? Has the lack of experiencing the profound depth of life led communities of faith to mistake theology for a scientific theory?

People of faith, when attempting to speak of the ineffable, are artists in the sense that they are attempting to depict truth about God. And when church communities attempt, with words and images, to depict the truth of God, we must not forget that all our theological depictions could never exhaust the mystery of the Divine.