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A Voice in the Wilderness
Christian aesthetics

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. v9-10

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 faith.

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 wanted everything'.

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 real world.

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 polities'.

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 fulfilment.

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 form.

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 utter emptiness.

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 judgements.

O world invisible, we view thee, O world intangible, we touch thee, O world unknowable, we know thee, Inapprehensible, we clutch thee.

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 knowledge.

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.

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