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Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing witness to the triune God, by Jeremy Begbie 

14 September 2018

David Brown evaluates a rejection of certain claims for the arts

JEREMY BEGBIE, an Englishman who holds a research professorship at Duke University in North Carolina, is among the best-known exponents of an illustrative account of the relation between theology and the arts, in which the latter are seen as “witnessing” to, or “evocative” of fundamental Christian doctrines such as those of the Trinity, the incarnation, or eschatology.

As an accomplished pianist, he has been able to canvass such an approach with extensive use of musical examples, while his expertise in teaching theology means that the argument is presented with great clarity and skill.

This book, however, differs from its predecessors, in one key respect, and that is that it opens with a sustained attack on those who accord the arts a larger part in initiating experience of the divine, in particular what is sometimes described in terms of God as the transcendent Other. Begbie counters by insisting that such “vague” talk distorts the fact that the initiative must always lie with the Christian God, especially with its precise Trinitarian form as disclosed by scripture.

Rather, though, than reject outright the many claims to such experience expressed in non-Trinitarian language, Begbie proposes that they should in fact be interpreted in essentially aesthetic rather than religious terms: a product of notions of the “sublime” which emerged to prominence in Europe from the 18th century onwards.

To my mind, it is singularly unfortunate that Begbie’s counter-attack was not pursued in more detail, as an astonishing range of different “suspect” possibilities are fused together under a single umbrella. Even if our attention is confined to music, it is surely not the case that composers who supposed their music gave some access to God necessarily thought only in terms of transcendence. Bruckner or Messiaen, for instance, might also have mentioned immanence, timelessness, mystery, peace, or joy.

Again, even more problematic is the author’s re-description of the sort of experience which he wants to reject as really only ever an aesthetic encounter with the sublime and not with the living God. The result is that key discussions such as Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence” or Rudolph Otto’s awe before a disturbing mystery are consigned to the theological dustbin.

Likewise, the popular painter Caspar David Friedrich is taken to have been mistaken in supposing that his art was deployed as a means of aiding himself and others to find God through the landscape.

Of course, Begbie might be right, but, if so, surely more extensive discussion was required. Otherwise, the suspicion remains that it is a particular theology, not the phenomena in themselves, that is determining interpretation.

At root, what is wrong with such claims to experience, according to Begbie, is that the impossible is being attempted, since it is only ever God who comes towards us, not we to God. Although ordained in the Church of England, Begbie describes himself as a Reformed theologian. Such a background no doubt explains why there is such strong insistence throughout that not only must the arts always be read in the light of what was revealed in Christ, but that this must also be set in the totality of that revelation.

So, for example, we are told at one point that “true contemplation is always painful” because it must include an element of judgement. That is surely bad news for the sufferer, or for those with no sense of self-worth, where one might have expected from the Christian God a focus on peace and value reasserted. But the observation is of a piece with Begbie’s rejection of partial encounters with God through art or music where only some aspect of the divine is revealed.

Yet, if God in Christ allowed himself to be battered by human beings on the cross, why should we be so hesitant about the possibility that God might also be willing to open his presence to understanding — and misunderstanding — everywhere, a range of experiences complementing and interacting with one another, instead of their always needing to await the pronouncements of theologians on their legitimacy or otherwise?

The Revd Dr David Brown is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.

Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing witness to the triune God
Jeremy Begbie
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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