God, Tillich, the Arts and a remnant...

There is a remnant of theologically curious folk in the Western church who continue to mine the vein of wisdom first explored by Paul Tillich after WWI. Today's NYTimes posted a story today about the Rev. Jay Wegman at the Abrons Arts Center in Greenwich Village - A Love of God and the Stage - in which he talks about the role of the artist in exposing truth, beauty and prophetic wisdom to a world gone morally deaf, dumb and blind.(http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/nyregion/08bigcity.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=big%20city&st=cse)

Like Tillich before him, Wegmen understands that both artists and the wider world often do not think in spiritual/theological language. But he has been successful in inviting artists like Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and others to share their creations in an explicitly spiritual context. You may recall that after the horrors of WWI, the young Paul Tillich found that the German church was unable and unwilling to explore the angst and shame of his generation. No one wanted to face or own the wounds within and among their burned out culture.

Curiously, however, visual artists in what we know as the realm of abstract expressionism were giving form and content to the spirit of the age. This lead Tillich to first explore the fringes of his culture - where truth and depth was being embraced by a host of post war artists - and then to articulate how God's still speak voice was emerging through their creative works. It seems clear that the work many (myself included) are doing in the realm of discerning the presence of the sacred in contemporary culture owe a debt of gratitude to brother Tillich.

There are other theological interpreters of the embrace of theology and art to be sure - Hans von Balthasar, Wilson Yates, the Dillenburgers, Gregory Wolfe, Don Sailers and Robin Jenkins to name a few - but Tillich's influence is unique. (NOTE: for more on this see, Arts, Theology and the Church, eds. Kimberly Vrundy and Wilson Yates, Pilgrim Press, 2005)

I think of Henri Nouwen's spiritual reflections on both Russian icons and the paintings of Rembrandt as examples of how the remnant of Tillich's influence continue to help us find integrity, healing and authenticity in our lives. Is it too much to hope that like the rediscovery of Niebuhr in our post war season, there will be a revival of this great thinker's insights? He was wounded - and often hurt those he loved - but his insights hold great promise for those with eyes to see.

Mary Farrell Bednarowski calls this work "an aesthetic of hope" which seems to me timely and exciting. Such an aesthetic transcends theologies and cultures - and actually finds common ground between the fringe and the center. She writes:

In order to keep our religious traditions - and religion itself - vital in a plural culture we have to learn how to tell and receive stories that travel back and forth across many other kinds of boundaries: between and among very different kinds of religious traditions; across the chasm of polarized stances on various social and ethical issues; between those who inhabit the realm of religion and those who see themselves as dwelling in the lands of spirituality and secularity; among theologies that range from - and sometimes mix together - the premodern, the modern and the postmodern; across the continuum from one part of our own lives to another; and from within the boundaries of religious communities to the wider cultural arena.

I hope so...


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