Art and the Transcendent

By John Franklin

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 spiritualties makes it clear that the “Transcendent” is a compelling reality for human experience.

Many have noted the connection between art and spirituality. I have done so myself and believe that there is considerable overlap in these important expressions of our humanity, yet it seems that “spirituality” has become a rather vague and amorphous term, employed to cover a wide range of meanings. When ideas like this become diluted, their usefulness is also diminished.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Reformation, commemorating the activities of Martin Luther. Luther was an Augustinian monk, deeply dissatisfied with the church and many of its practices, who took on the institutional church with boldness and courage. A theme at the heart of Luther’s theological thinking may be provocative but valuable for reflecting on art and spirituality.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Crucifixion (c.151

Luther makes 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 triumphalist, believing it has escaped ignorance and dissolved mystery. The error here is that humanity becomes enamored of its own brilliance and success in understanding the world and knowing God. Theology of the cross, by contrast, is a way of 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), and love (not power). Human self-sufficiency is set aside and human moral achievement is beside 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 to 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 the presence of suffering. It embraces the truth that we are in a material world and accepts that we must live with ambiguity and incompleteness.

It would be a valuable exercise to view 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.

Adapted from Imago June 2017 newsletter


John Franklin serves as Executive Director of IMAGO, a national initiative, now in its 45th year, in support of Christians in the arts in Canada. Before joining Imago in 1998, John taught philosophy at Tyndale College. He is an adjunct professor of Divinity at Trinity College—Toronto School of Theology and at Tyndale Seminary. His special interest is in theology and the arts. He served as one of several consultants for the Mystical Landscapes exhibition (October, 2016 – February 2017) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, featuring paintings from 1885 – 1935. Since 2008 he has been a member of the Task Force on Arts in Mission for the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.

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