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James McCullough

A Highly Imaginative Affair

Trevor Hart's theology of art.

Trevor Hart, who has made significant contributions in studies of a wide scope of subject matter from Karl Barth to J. R. R. Tolkien, has produced the first of what he anticipates will be a multivolume exploration of the dynamics of Christian faith and theology as formed and forged by the imagination. Hart is co-founder, along with Jeremy Begbie—who may be a more familiar figure to Americans as a proponent of the arts and theology conversation—of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. This program, along with similar programs such as at Duke and Cambridge, are producing a new generation of scholarship aimed at establishing theologically principled studies and projects which revitalize the place of art, aesthetics, and imagination in Christian life and mission.

In Between the Image and the Word, Hart advocates for the "centrality of the imaginative as a vital condition of so much in the distinctive texture of Christian faith and theology." Here perhaps we should note potential misapprehensions. To many readers, the emphasis on "the imaginative" will come as a surprise. Some may be leery (in the same way that the word "myth" sends off alarms, even when—as in Tolkien and Lewis, for instance—it is used in the context of a robust faith). On the other hand, some may naïvely celebrate "the imaginative," with the enthusiasm of another fad, freeing them from seemingly mundane aspects of critical reflection or substantive theology. Nothing could be farther from Hart's intentions.

But there's another pitfall. Among scholars who specialize in thinking and writing about the imagination, there's a tendency to assume that the boundaries of the concept are fairly clearly marked. In fact, however, "imagination" is a notoriously elusive subject. Taking up a book such as Hart's, the reader—whether a professional insider or an interested outsider—must constantly be asking what precisely is meant by "the imaginative" and what it is being contrasted with.

For the purposes of this review, I would like to consider the book from the perspective of my own area of research and writing, that of aesthetics and spirituality, and reflect in some detail the conversation taken up in this volume between Hart and his colleague at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA), David Brown (I write as one who is both a graduate of the institute and whose doctoral dissertation was supervised by David Brown).

Theological aesthetics, as I practice it and as it was certainly modeled at the St Andrews program, is defined by Aidan Nichols as "the part played by the senses—with their associated powers of memory and imagination—in the awareness of God." I am particularly interested in how the arts and aesthetic experience can create and expand capacities for the awareness of and response to God. In this regard, Hart's book provides helpful example and argument. In standard sermonic style, I'll enumerate some particular points.

First is the sustained argument Hart makes for the "vital condition" that the imagination plays in the spiritual life. In contrast to accounts that relegate the imagination to one of several discrete functions of our psychology (along with the will, reason, conscience, and so on) which can be activated according to need, Hart suggests that the imagination "is better thought of as a way of thinking, responding and acting across the whole spread of our experience, not some arcane 'thing' with a carefully specified and limited remit." Life "from beginning to end is a highly imaginative affair" which places the imagination within the purview of theology, theology being here defined as the task of reflecting upon and comprehensively applying the knowledge of God in Christian discipleship.

Declining to forward a definition of imagination per se, Hart strives to show how image and concept are inseparably related. Together they form rationality. Like Hart, I too argue that the imagination is an expression of rationality; that the imagination is the synthetic function of rationality which makes connections and associations between previously unassociated things that form new insights, while reason is analytic, taking things apart in order to understand the parts that make up the sum of something. It is in this sense, for example, that we can say that Jesus' parables appeal to the imagination in that they require making new connections and associations. Somehow mustard seeds are like God's kingdom, and apprehending the connection yields new and transformative insight.

Second, Hart persuasively makes the case for the vitality of doctrine as it is both illuminated by the aesthetic and exists as an aesthetic phenomenon itself. The doctrines of the Trinity, creation, redemption, resurrection, and ascension all come in for consideration, but none more so than that of the Incarnation. Doctrines, for Hart, are truths historically revealed, intrinsically valuable, and provide compelling grounds for all manner of human activity and endeavor. The Incarnation grounds not only aesthetic activity but is itself an act of aesthetica. The Incarnation establishes that "matter matters" and that God reveals himself through the medium of "made things," which indeed can be heard, seen with the eyes, looked at and touched (I John 1:1). The "made thing" that Hart in this volume focuses on is literature, and the way words can set off a series of images through which effective communication can be achieved and new insight gained.

It is in relation to this that, thirdly, Hart looks at the dynamics of metaphor. Metaphor involves the very connection-making aspect of rationality discussed above. The inherently metaphorical nature of all human communication and expression further substantiates Hart's thesis that the imagination is involved in all human thinking and doing.

Metaphor of course plays a key role in all forms of literature, and for many writers on the subject metaphor effectively manifests the dynamics of artistic communication itself. Among these are Jeremy Begbie in Voicing Creation's Praise (1991) and more recently David Brown in God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama (2008).For those like me who emphasize the communicative properties of artistic phenomena, the analysis of metaphor is a constant activity. Drawing on features of patristic theology with its insights of both positive affirmations of God's being and the necessary denials of unqualified analogies between the natural and the divine, Hart observes how for discourse about the divine "the structure of metaphor, with its deliberate interplay between elements of kataphasis and apophasis, provides a fitting medium, meaningfulness and mystery being glimpsed together in the same moment."

Fourth, Hart is keen on raising to theological consciousness the significance, if I may so put it, of significance. In this sense, Hart's book is effectively a primer in theological semiotics, and places semiotics as a necessary prologue to theological aesthetics, since signs represent for Hart both the manner in which God reveals himself and the communicative dynamic of aesthetic phenomena. For Hart, in the Incarnation God placed himself in the "order of signs," accommodating himself to human consciousness. Speaking in a manner relevant for both theological and aesthetical studies, Hart describes the intelligibility as well as the ambiguity of signs, signs which, "fitting the essential mystery of an encounter with the reality of a God who remains wholly other in his self-giving, also [preserve] the freedom of God to give himself in a particular rather than an indiscriminate manner."

Frequent allusions to God's ontological transcendence, God's freedom, and the particularity of revelation reflect Hart's commitment to an essentially Barthian theological framework, which brings us to an ongoing and edifying conversation with his colleague at ITIA, David Brown. Brown's work (not to be confused with that of Frank Burch Brown, who has also contributed much to theological aesthetics) remains a largely untapped resource for theological aesthetics in American theology, in spite of the amount he has produced.

With evident admiration for Brown's scholarship, Hart sets out the terms of debate along the lines of competing Christologies and how they impinge upon matters related to the efficacy of words (and by extension, all human forms of meaning-making) in the mediation of the experience of the divine. As suggested above, Hart assumes a thoroughly Barthian perspective that places access to God on the strict grounds of special revelation culminating in the Incarnation. Hart takes this position to entail the endorsement of the aesthetic and theological validity of image-making, emphasized in this volume in terms of poetic metaphor and literature. This will be for some an innovation in Barthian thought. Brown, on the other hand, while affirming the historicity and superlative character of the Incarnation, adopts a Logos-based Christology (à la Origen and other early theologians) where the Logos of God is actively present in the logoi or the words of creative human meaning-making, a position often associated with natural theology. Hart emphasizes the role of signs as the dynamic of theological aesthetics, whereas Brown emphasizes the dynamic of sacrament. Hart places the presence of God at a step removed from the experience of metaphor, avoiding an "indiscriminate" predication of divine presence in made things. Brown on the other hand claims that God makes himself accessible in a sacramental manner through all manner of metaphorical and aesthetic phenomena. Both Hart and Brown provide a theological validation of the aesthetic and imaginative dimensions of life, and both affirm the "vital condition" that the aesthetic and imaginative represent for all effective discernment of God and commerce with human life. They pursue this project from slightly, but significantly, differing standpoints in which readers may find their own assumptions described and implicated.

These differences manifest themselves in methodological procedures. The first two-thirds of Hart's book, for example, is primarily a theoretical account of imagination and its workings, only the final third engaging with specific works of literature, whereas in every volume of Brown's recent work he engages almost immediately with all manner of artistic works and their religious implications. Reflecting typical Protestant anxieties, Hart gets everything in place before venturing forth into actual artistry, while Brown dives right in. As such, they are reflective of two different, but not incommensurate, postures toward human meaning-making. Both articulate a validation of the aesthetic and imaginative in Christian thought and faith that is relevant and necessary. Reflecting appreciatively on his colleague's work, Hart writes:

The words of the poet, Brown suggests, are deliberately and unashamedly dense and open-ended, resistant to over-determination or premature closure of meaning. They are so, of course, not because poets are bloody-minded or cussed individuals, but because the texture of reality as the poetic eye grasps it is at once deeper and more complicated than our workaday modes of apprehension and speech ever acknowledge. The poet jolts us, causing us to "stand and stare" at the world, to pause and look again, and again, rather than moving quickly on, content that we have seen all and understood all.

Substitute "works of artists" for "words of the poet" and the passage provides a compelling argument for the place of art in religious life. Art opens eyes. It is as simple—yet as vital for one's "awareness of God"—as that.

I look forward to subsequent volumes in Hart's projected series. I hope he might dive more deeply and range more widely in actual artworks from a spectrum of genres in his effort to advance a theological account of the role of the imagination in Christian faith and life.

James McCullough is the author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade Books).

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