A sermon delivered in the High Kirk of Edinburgh prior to
the opening of the Edinburgh Festival of Music and Drama, 7th August 1983.
And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and
more in knowledge and in all judgement: that ye may approve things that are
excellent, that ye may he sincere, and without offence till the day of
Christ. Philipians l.
Edinburgh is about to hear once more, among other raucous
declamations, those delusion-ridden critics of the arts who assign to
Calvin, Knox, presbyterianism, and the rest, the venal responsibility for
every attitude to the arts which does not appeal to their self-conceived
sensitive souls. At the Historiographer Royal has said, 'When people speak
about 'John Knox' they all too often mean a body of principles, a theory, a
theology, and not infrequently the principles which are labelled 'John Knox'
may be principles which Knox did not hold'.
Time need not be wasted in refuting the would-by critics,
as Calvin's views on aesthetics and culture in general, have been carefully
investigated over the last fifty years. These books can be read by
those who genuinely desire to know what Calvin actually wrote and what
direct influence he had on Scotland and elsewhere.
The duty of the preacher is not to argue with those who
happily sit in self-created twilights but to consider the gospel in its
relation to those who seek to find challenge and hope,
insight and inspiration, when they approach the arts as men and women of
However, even before venturing on such a task, some
hangers-on of the cultural scene need to be identified for what they are:
there is no hope of change unless they are made aware of their actual
position. There are those who seem to take the arts seriously but whose
attitudes of mind render it impossible for them ever to receive the
inspiration implicit in the work of the true artist. They meander from the
contemplation of one artistic presentation to the next, indeterminate in
their search and unapprehending in their transitory goals. As William
Hazlett has put it: 'So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking
at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me
best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy, but wanting that, have
Wanting that, have wanted everything! In other words, the
source of happiness, contentment and satisfaction arises first in oneself
and finds these re-echoed in the arts. The empty soul finds nothing.
Another large number are the culture seekers who chase
unthinkingly after everything on offer. These have no recognisable aesthetic
norms and discover every ridiculous, crackpot, new fangled, artistic
production to be breathtakingly interesting. They have a perpetual open mind
through which everything falls. The state of such immaturity needs no
further consideration as the subject has been pungently described by Freddie
Grisewood in his tour de force, The Painted Kipper, a study of the
spurious in the contemporary scene. Although the book's influence was
not immediately apparent following its publication in 1970, there has been a
continual growth in the acceptance of much that was said at that time.
To move to another extreme can, of course, produce almost
as barren a harvest. Overt religiosity or ostentatious churchiness, with its
absence of human insight and sensitivity, can be totally off-putting to
those who know the powerful appeal of redeemed humanity and its place in the
It has to be remembered that Karl Barth's objection to
Johann Sebastian Bach was his all too deliberate, all too artificial 'desire
to preach' while Mozart attracted him because he was free from such
intentions and simply played. As he once said,: 'I am not inclined to
confuse or to identify salvation history with any part of the history of
art. But the golden sounds and melodies of Mozart's music have always spoken
to me - not as gospel, but as parables of the Kingdom revealed in the Gospel
of God's free grace, and they continue to do so with the utmost freshness.
Without it I could not think of what moves me personally in theology, in
However, can are be categorised as parable as Barth has
claimed? It is not much more to be understood as symbol - a concept offered
by Paul Tillich in his Dynamics of Faith? The arts are not mere
parables: something a little more sophisticated than Aesop's creations.
There is an innate dynamism: a provocative witness to the particularity, the
event, the time, the place - a segment of the real, a fragment of
The wholeness that you sought eluded you,
the ultimate good, the absolute, the true.
the very size and nature of your theme
meant you could never hold and fix that dream'
Thus, there is a sense in which only symbols and symbolic
language can express the ultimate because they point beyond themselves. Yet,
because they symbolise, they participate in the reality to which they direct
the beholder, the listener, the reader, the performer. The arts create
symbols for a level of reality which cannot otherwise be reached. In created
works of art, a dimension is disclosed which cannot be revealed in any other
Thus, symbols cannot be manufactured to order. They
develop out of the totality of the individual and are yet recognised
innately by those for whom the work is created. They are brought to life by
the artist but they die when they no longer produce a response. Death comes
to those who tenaciously cling to the symbol when it has become meaningless.
The symbol thus becomes an idol: an inert, vacuous image - a witness to
The words of Ezekiel are fulfilled. Tor everyone ...
which separateth himself from me, and setteth up his idols in his heart, and
putteth a stumbling block of his iniquity before his face ... I will set my
face against that man'.
It was in this awareness of the subtlety of such
temptations, that the reformers strove against idolatry. The fixing, for all
time, through image, tone or word, the great inexpressible themes of God,
his purposes, and even his creation, spells death and disintegration.
It is in this way that a true understanding of art points
the seeker ever onwards in an indeterminate path. The arts cannot be
defended by dogmatic assertions nor by theoretical ideals nor even by a
confident interpretation from the past. As Miskotte has said, 'Like a
wandering minstrel who follows the course of prophecy and history, ... art
goes its own way, defenceless and alone, making its pilgrimage to the Holy
of Holies, imaging in round and dance, the shimmering dawn of salvation!'
When art is seen in this way, it is probably best to be guided by Augustine
who explained image as sign.
Signs - communications when speech fails, signs -
directions in moments of uncertainty, signs - reminders of the significant,
signs -embodiments of the tentative, signs - summonses to interpretations.
Such are signs. Such are the transient, elusive objects of aesthetic
O world invisible, we view thee, O world intangible, we
touch thee, O world unknowable, we know thee, Inapprehensible, we clutch
As Barth has said, 'Fundamental exclusion of the
aesthetic would mean that one refuses to have anything to do with the signs
that point beyond the present, the highly impractical but equally
significant signs which art erects'.
It is at this point that the words of St. Paul become
relevant. This I pray that your love may abound yet more and more in
knowledge, and in all judgement'. This is the only context in which Paul
uses the word aisthesis denoting perception, sense, intelligence. Three
words are brought together: love, i.e., concern, knowledge and aesthetic
judgement. These have always been the guiding principles within the reformed
churches in their approach to an understanding or contribution to the arts:
Calvin's concern for his own language has left an aesthetic imprint on
French for all time, the Dutch Calvinists concern for social stability and
communal prosperity under God after the upheavals of the Spanish occupation
are reflected in the paintings of Rembrandt, the concern of the Scottish
reformers for a meaningful context for word and sacrament can be seen in the
architecture of churches like Burntisland.
Concern, abounding more and more in knowledge: this
involves not only an awareness of God-given knowledge but a concern which is
rooted in the intellectual achievements of the age, while, at the same time,
being sensitive to the needs of that self-same generation. This too is
The text challenges the church and its membership to
ensure that they take initiatives in the creation of signs within the arts.
They Christian must never allow himself, through insensitivity, ignorance,
or indolence, to become a mere passive onlooker or - even worse- an
uninformed, nihilistic Philistine. There must always be a robust, maybe even
at time, a rumbustious, Christian participation in the arts. An aesthetic
judgement cannot develop under quarantine conditions. How much of the
contemporary arts is developing, impoverished by the church's aloof,
genteel, fastidiousness! With concern and knowledge, discerning support and
guidance could be given to so much of contemporary, artistic strivings. To
those who are not gifted for such involvement, their important role is set
out clearly in the second part of the text, 'that ye may approve things that
are excellent, that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of
Christ'. Approbation is to be given to what is excellent, that which
transcends the mundane and the trite: the presentation of insights which are
true, arising from the inmost wrestlings of mind, heart and flesh. This
approbation is primarily an aesthetic judgement, neither religious nor
moral. The judgement proceeds from sincerity not sanctimoniousness, from a
heartfelt experience not an abstract theorisation, from a spontaneous
response not a calculating assessment. The interpretation of the signs
projected by the arts is not the embodiment of the awesome. Excellence and
sincerity are grace gifts which guide the soul to joy. Calvin has said that
'the world's status rests in the joy of God'. Is this not also true of the
arts? Even when the words, the music, the shapes, the colours appear
discordantly disturbed, small signs are raised, marking out the pathway to
joy. Maybe the status of the arts too rests in the joy of God. At least for
those of us who are seeking to abound in knowledge and in aesthetic
judgement, we continue to look for those signs that point forward to the day
of Christ - to the joy of God.
If such joy of God permeates our aesthetics, we can smile
or even laugh a little when we listen to the critics' verbal caricatures of
Calvin, Knox, and the presbyterians when we open our newspapers or listen to
a voice in a few days' time.