Art, Religion, Belief and Unbelief

Part of a talk given in St Mary's Church by Nigel Dwyer, whose sculpture of the crucifix now adorns the church.

Sculpture Christ Crucified by Nigek DwyerThe title of my talk borrowed from the first Faith Through Understanding session, is Art, Religion, Belief and Unbelief. My subject is to deal with the relationship between art and religion and how that affects my beliefs and doubts. It is the last bit the doubts and unbelief, which I find worrying and wonder that I may dare to voice them in this holy place. However I shall do my best at least to give an honest and sober approach to the subject and hope that my heresies are small enough to be forgiven.

Art is about the ability to produce images of our perceptions, be they of the environment, or of our thoughts and emotions In other words images of what we see think and feel. What I would term an ability to externalise perception, to produce images, which can then be shared. An ability, which I believe, underpins our humanity, Visual art as painting, drawing, and sculpture, of a very considerable level of aesthetic achievement has been a form of human expression certainly as far back in the past as thirty, or even forty thousand years. The evidence for this is of course the many cave paintings still wonderfully preserved around the world. Recent archaeological finds in South Africa reveal early humans were producing images and abstract incised rock carvings even seventy thousand years ago.

It has been suggested that these finds might have had a spiritual meaning. Whether or not this was the case the implications of the acquisition very much earlier even than this, by one of our hominid ape ancestors, of the skill of being able to externalise its perceptions was crucial for the development of homo sapiens, and I believe that this is when the development of our systems of knowledge and belief started. Indeed I would say that this ability defines humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom.

I wonder how it all began? Well, presumably, before this communication with each other, as with many animals and birds was by simple signals of sounds and changes of body language. This would be used to indicate factors concerning survival of the group, perhaps to indicate danger or possibly the presence or site of a source of food. Perhaps on one occasion one of our ancestors recognised a chance imprint on the ground or smudge on the wall of a cave as being reminiscent of let's say a particularly prized kind of game. She might have, indicated the presence of game by the usual sounds and movements but then particularised this information by drawing attention to the shape, which reminded her of, say, an antelope. Thus, provided that at least one of the other members of the group connected with her link of familiarity she had shared her externalised perception of the antelope, and a different order of communication had been established.

The next step, which might seem small when we consider it from the viewpoint of the twenty first century, is the purposive, intentional modification of such an image to look more clearly like the intended prey of this family of early human beings. In fact it is an enormous step, probably made up from a very large accumulation of smaller ones from, which developed the extraordinarily complex and sophisticated language we use today. The development of language allowed for the parallel development of rational thought. I am well aware that modern language theory suggests that rational thought cannot exist without language and therefore language came before the development of rational thought. I find it difficult to conceive of one without the other and yet I wonder if some animals are not capable of a significant ability to reason but are simply unable to develop ideas because of an absence of sophisticated language.

If what I have suggested is true then it follows that the development of language is not only a result of an ability to externalise perception, including of course perceived ideas, but is also an example of that ability. From this came the possibility to explore a world of ideas, the development of imagination, shared imagination, and shared analysis of the environment, eventually leading to the development of an almost insatiable need to explore anything unknown or mysterious. This is all very interesting you may say, I can see the link with art, but what does it have to do with belief and religion? Well, from this came the systems we use to attempt the acquisition of knowledge and truth. Systems of belief, art, philosophy, most recently science, but also organised religion,

It is also clear that all of this is limited only by the extent of human perception and imagination. While this appears from the human position, to offer a very broad canvas, our powers of perception are limited; not least by the tools we have available to allow us to experience our environment. Just take one example: sight. In order to see human, eyes are able to use only that very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call light. Homocentric as we are we call this the visible spectrum. Perhaps even more significantly there is almost certainly an equivalent limit to the capability of our much-vaunted human brain. This suggests to me that at best we are able to see or otherwise experience only a portion of what is there. In other words a limited truth. Ah yes you might say this is why we require to have the truth revealed to us by God through his son Jesus Christ. The problem, for me, however remains. We are obliged to process this revealed information through our limited consciousness. Furthermore if we are to believe in the idea of revelation when did it first occur? Is it limited to Christianity? Or did it begin with earlier, what we may call, more primitive religions? The only sure revelation I think occurs as a result of discovery, using our limited human intellectual and intuitive abilities, abilities which are of course ultimately a gift from God. I believe furthermore that God intends this voyage of human discovery.

What I am saying is I believe that the development of rational thought, of language, philosophy, religion and the sciences began with an ability to draw and paint pictures, to create images of what was perceived. I could bore you on this theme for hours, but I will say merely that these ideas gave me considerable problems with the traditional Christian faith in which I was brought up as a child.

In spite of the worries this view gave me regarding my faith I never lost my belief in the overwhelming presence of a beneficent God, though I have never been able to anthropomorphise God as seems to be the position of the Bible and the liturgy.

Two main planks support the strength of my belief in God. One is from my scientific studies, which reveal, in the scientific sense of the word, a chaotic (Chaos describes evolving systems, not completely predictable, but not random, intentional, obeying rules of probability formation of galaxies, economic development, weather, demographics of all living things) yet ordered and evolving universe. I find it very difficult to accept that the extraordinarily beautiful wonders that continue to be revealed through discovery, and the order and elegance we see in our universe all came about as the result of pure chance. Rational thought, quite apart from belief tells me there is an intentional creator and controller who for me is God. The same rational thinking however suggests that if I were able to see God I would not be seeing a being in human form. I find it impossible to imagine the form, which God takes, but feel that a human one is unlikely, even although I know that we are taught that we were made in God's image. My personal view is that it could be closer to the truth to say we were, like the rest of creation, made in Gods imagination, and even this I'm sure may be to anthropomorphise too much.

The second support for my very shaky belief is experience; especially my observation of the power of prayer. During my thirty five years as a hospital doctor, on more than one occasion, I was privileged to witness miracles These were cases where formal medicine or surgery had proved totally inadequate for the needs of a very sick patient who in spite of this returned to reasonable health, the only extra ingredient being prayer. I shall not labour this point since I suspect that most of you here, in some way or another have enjoyed similar experiences.

Coming back to the relationship of art and religion, visual art became almost the handmaiden of early religion not least Christianity. Paintings and sculptures were used in two ways. First as a means to communicate the word of God and Jesus Christ to a largely illiterate community, It does seem that in mediaeval times the clergy really went to town with this, covering much of the wall space of their churches with vividly painted murals or with narrative carvings of bible stories. Stained glass in the windows was used to similar effect a tradition that still continues. The inside of these churches really must have been a wonder to behold for a largely serf or peasant congregation, illuminating even transcending lives which were, probably, not only short and brutish, but also rather dull and colourless.

The other main use of visual art was to produce devotional aids. Probably this is where sculpture came into prominence. There was of course the risk that such effigies might actually be worshipped and thus be a source for idolatry. Certainly most of these objects whether carved in wood or stone were polychromatic suggesting an attempt to make them as lifelike as possible. Later on this issue became one of those all too common excuses for violent confrontation in the church.

Architecture, of course can also be art, indeed in classical and mediaeval times it was considered the primary visual art form, sculpture and painting being subservient to the extent of not much more than the decorative or educative. Certainly the soaring interiors, arches, windows and spires of the great European Cathedrals were a, non-figurative if not abstract allusion, to the greatness of an all powerful God residing in his heaven.

There is little doubt that some extraordinarily accomplished and beautiful works of art have been and continue to be inspired by a veneration and love of God and the Son he sent to save us. However some of the great ecclesiastical art is there mainly because the artist's patron happened to be a prince of the church, here one thinks of the Italian renaissance and the religious work of artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael, and to a lesser extent, Leonardo da Vinci.

So to recap very briefly I have described several different ways in which art and religion are related:

  • First, Art as a starting point for the development of human knowledge including religion
  • Second, Art used to communicate the content of religious holy texts
  • Third, Art inspired by religion in our case by a love of Christ and God.
  • Fourth, Works of art being used as devotional objects, or for the decoration of holy places.

There is, I believe, another relationship, and this is to do with the similarities between art and religion. Once again this, alone, is a large subject for debate, but I will limit myself to a short discussion of two quotations simply to make the point.

First, Blaise Pascal the French seventeenth century religious philosopher and scientist, said:

"If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous"
(Blaise Pascal, Pensees, p54, no.173 Penguin Classics)

One could with equal validity easily replace art for religion in this statement for without reason art also is absurd and without some element of mystery it is, in my opinion barren and pointless.

Any attempt to define art is almost impossible but I do believe that a work of art has, if it is to be included within any reasonable definition of the term, to express more than that which is merely recorded by ones senses. In terms of visual art more than simply what is recorded on the retina, of our eyes.

Furthermore in my view art which does no more than comment upon topical culture or concept is not really valid as art, if it were then Newspapers such as The Sun and the News of the World not to mention grubby unmade beds, would have to be considered works of art.

The second quotation is from the late Herbert Read the doyen of modernist visual art criticism. He said:

"Art should act as a bridge between feeling and perception."
(Herbert Read, Philosophy of Modern Art, Faber & Faber)

For me this is about as close to a definition of art as is possible. Art deals with both phenomenon and noumenon the physical and the spiritual, Here I, think you will agree, there is an obvious relationship between art and religion, which hardly requires further explanation. (Kant noumenon purely intuitive or mental / intellectual not physical not the phenomenon)

I feel far more confident when talking on art than religion however I guess that how we interpret both of them is intensely personal, but that there has to be a reasonable structure which is similar for or perhaps more correctly general for all of us. If this were not the case it would be difficult for there to be the discourse essential for the continued existence of both art and religion and therefore somewhat pointless.

There have to be rules but there has to be an acceptance, in my opinion, that the structure defined by these rules will, inevitably evolve, and possibly even the rules themselves. This point is one, which I know can evoke debate both as passionate in the world of art as in that of religion.

Definition of an Artist:
He who works with his hands is a labourer,
he who works with hands and mind is a craftsman
but he who uses hands, mind and heart together is an artist.

St Francis of Assisi

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