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xlv 2 Supplement (June. 1977), H:643-672*
Theology and Form:
Reflections on the Spaces of the Imagination
John W. Dixon, Jr.
The Essay Follows the ABSTRACT
Historically the arts have been one of the primal and basic energies of human experience. They have found no real place in theology because theology has understood man to be essentially knowledge, reason and will simply inhabiting a body. Modern physical theory makes this view impossible. Matter is energy held by relation into a particular structure of tension; all "reality" is an interlocking hierarchy of rhythmically interacting structures of energy. One of these structures has the unique property of being aware of itself and so of the other structures. Being self-conscious, its place in the order of things is disturbed. Trapped, it wants to escape from or return to the lost unity and so generates new structures to place itself in the order of experience according to purpose.
Self-consciousness is an awareness of the self, here, and the other, there, so the first coordinate of these structures is spatial. Awareness of the self and the other is awareness of relation so the other coordinate is dramatic. Schematically (not experientially) the spatial coordinate is in the custody of art, the dramatic in the custody of the myth ritual.
These new structures are true structures, as all the structures of matter, and so are real ("reality" is no longer exhausted in tangible substance but in structures of relation). As real, they are not opinions held about the world by a discrete and separate individual; they are the world of the people who made them. Whatever is postulated about the invisible structures within the forms, they are known only in the forms generated by persons in their experience of their world. All human making produces forms of the basic structure and so reveals that structure. Thus a world, our own as others, is known only by the analysis of forms, and the purpose of studying forms is to know the structured world that engendered the forms.
Theology as a rational discipline is not a description of divine reality. It is first of all one of the forms of the world. Beyond its constructive stage, it reflects on and describes, not God, but the content and activity of a particular symbolic structure. All theologies are "true" as being structures of experience; beyond that truth is adequacy to the unknowable.
Art, being one of the clearest
embodiments or manifestations of the symbolic structure that is the world of those who
make it, is a primary mode of theological thought.
John W. Dixon, Jr., is Professor of Religion and Art, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A companion piece to this paper, which goes further into the theological issues, is Prof. Dixon's "The Physiology of Faith," Anglican Theological Review, LVIII, No. 4 (October, 1976).
Copyright 1977 American Academy of Religion
[END OF ABSTRACT]
John W. Dixon, Jr.
There is a practical problem before us: What is the proper relation between religion and art? The larger problem has a smaller one within it: What is the relation between theology and art? The smaller problem may be the door into the larger one.
These two problems present us with still other problems. What tools do we use to work on them? How do we think about them? What are we doing when we think? What do we believe with?
Philosophy and its consort, theology, have for a long time been problems to themselves and now spend a major portion of their energies contemplating their own language and procedures. Yet to do so they use those same languages and procedures.
In the contemporary climate of opinion we are incessantly summoned to abandon the traditional use of the mind for submergence into the intuitions of the flesh or the cosmic process, to submit to the wordless energies of the earth or the mystical rhythms of the cosmos. Yet this too assumes the abandonment of the intellect for something else and proposes nothing like the examination of the work of the intellect by another language or the use of the intellect for its own creative extension.
And so our bifurcation continues, the fatal split in our human life and in our thought, the split that haunts us in our every working day, for we think and work in one kind of world and live in another that is almost wholly untouched by the assertions made in our thinking. Our life in any day is tangible, sensuous, sensual, material. We wake in the dark, or in the soft half-light of morning. our first awareness is of sounds, the indistinct shape of objects, the weight of our body against the bed, the pressure and presence of another body nearby, or the emptiness of a place where another body once was or should be. We move into the morning through shapes and colors, making our way through the spaces of halls and rooms, along lines of connection limited by walls and the placement of furniture. There is the dead, dull flavor of the aftertaste of the ill-spent evening before or the bright joy of rest and peace among children. We move then through the geometric spaces of our city into the cubic masses of our buildings, the congested tunnels of our corridors. We go into our classrooms or into our offices and say things or write things which have nothing at all to do with the life we actually live, yet which we claim to be--true.
We live in a world of forms, not the Platonic forms or ideas, but solid forms or the palpable spaces between solid forms. Our flesh is material, articulated in an intricate frame, moving as a form among forms, sensing and acting. We work in a world of words, of names, of the linked interaction of names into assertions. We assume that there is a reality out there corresponding to the words, forgetting the lesson Coleridge already knew: "...it is the fundamental mistake of grammarians and writers on the philosophy of grammar and language, to suppose that words and their syntaxis are the immediate representatives of things, or that they correspond to things. Words correspond to thoughts, and the legitimate order and connection of words, to the laws of thinking and to the acts and affections of the thinker's mind" (Richards: 122).
Thus we live in a material world but work in a solipsistic one, describing the contents of our own minds. This is the paradigmatic statement of the problem of theology and the arts (not religion and the arts).
The particular province of the arts is the world of forms. The province of philosophy and its consort, theology, is the linking of words in intelligent order. Do these activities have anything to do with each other? Is there any way of their meeting in useful and fruitful interaction?
At the moment there is not, for our image of the order of ourselves does not permit it. The effort has been made. Uniformly the effort has failed. I am compelled therefore to say that it is not now useful to speak of art and theology in the theological language we are compelled to use.
This is an extravagant statement. It may appear exaggerated. The arts do give even religious people great pleasure, which is useful. There are, perhaps, fragments of the great pedagogical and devotional purpose of art remaining to us, and that too is useful. The arts may even occasionally generate some sense of the awesome mystery they once carried.
But this is condescension and no great human enterprise should be condescended to. It does not follow that "religion" or religious institutions must compromise their being in order to accommodate an alien form. It may be unfashionable to say so, but it is always possible that the iconoclasts were right. Iconoclasm is not incompatible with respect, the respect one can properly feel for a noble enemy. But condescension corrupts the one condescending as well as the one condescended to. To use the arts as anything other than what they truly are is to condescend to them. It is also exceedingly dangerous. The arts are among the primordial powers and to accept them as tame and inferior, which is the implication of condescension, is to turn loose energies which may not be brought back under control.
Pope, in An Essay on Man, once set out in a characteristic couplet one of the basic principles of education: "A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pirean spring."
Restate that as you will for the arts, I warn you that the arts are dangerous, as dangerous as theology and as able to destroy as quickly as theology has destroyed some of its practitioners who would not take their own art seriously. I adjure you, therefore, do not take this subject lightly or think you can easily tame so great a power to small uses.
If art is so great a power, if the arts have been among the enspiriting energies of the human pilgrimage, what in us brought us to this point of condescension? The reasons are not hard to find, however dangerous our oversimplification may be.
We are children of Greece and Judah. Our whole enterprise has been worked out within the boundaries laid down by these, our great ancestors. They are not the same; in some ways they even contradict each other, and much of our creativity as well as our unease grows out of the clash between these two parts of ourselves. Yet they have worked together to make us a people without art, even though one of these great cultures placed art at the center of its experience.
We are not fully children of either Greece or Judah for we have selected from the whole the part that we wanted to use. It is not merely that we have denied the Greeks the respect we owe to the wholeness of their humanity, although we have done that. The Greeks were, beyond the measure of most people, cruel, ruthless, faithless, arrogant, treacherous, quarrelsome, and ambitious, which is not what most historians have in mind when they say "The Greeks were...." But even within the range of their virtues, it is not Delos and Delphi we look back to, it is not the Pythian oracle and the Castallian spring or Eleusis. It is the agora and the Acropolis and the Academy and the Stoa; and so we make part of the Greek enterprise into the whole, trying even to tame that most dangerous of buildings, the Parthenon, into the image of a trivial and rationalized harmony.
The agora, the stoa, the academy were places for Words. Nowhere prior to their appearance and in few places since have words been brought to a comparable discipline and, as creating our world, they are among our sacred places. But we must never forget that we have taken part of Greece to be the whole.
And when we look back to Palestine we should not forget that we do not look back to the altar stained with smoke, oil and blood. We look back to the prophet declaring the commandments of the moral will. Yet we do not even fully accept what a prophet like Amos actually was-the raucous, unpleasing reality of the prophet. It is not even the prophecy itself, the injunctions they so passionately proclaimed, but the definition of the human in terms of a known moral will, a knowledge that carries ultimate authority, a knowledge that can be proclaimed, which is to say, stated in words, a proclaimed knowledge that can be the source of identifiable action.
I have deliberately slanted this formulation to emphasize the likenesses between the Hellenic and Hebraic images of man and order rather than the more conventionally emphasized differences. The differences are of course very much there and it is probable that much of the vaunted Western dynamism arises from the desperate attempt to serve both these masters, not to mention the Celts and the Germans who are also our ancestors. But it would not have been possible for us, ourselves and our ancestors, to hold these two images in our imagination were they not, in some fundamental sense, deeply and closely kin. That kinship, I submit, lay in the definition of the human as primarily knowledge and will. What was known, and how it was known differs drastically in the two definitions and out of those differences has arisen the tormented soul of so many western men. But the reality of the likeness can best be seen by the manner in which the definition has held true in form despite drastic changes in content.
At this point we are victimized by our habit of dividing history into periods, for the periods record the quite real differences of content, thereby obscuring the equally real identity of form. "Medieval man" identified the object and procedures of knowledge in one way. "Renaissance man" liberated himself from this definition and achieved another whose greatest achievement was of course to produce "modern man"--us--who is at last equipped to catch that elusive quarry, Truth, which we have been pursuing indefatigably all these years. The differences in these definitions are indeed quite real and exceedingly important but the differences should not obscure the fact that what we have been doing all these years is emptying a formal vessel of its contents and filling it up again with another. Throughout all of these definitions is the assumption that the truth can be known, that it can be stated in an authoritative text and that the statement carries compulsive authority and the necessity to act. This is so true that even the doubts about it are stated under the same authority. Theologians reject the tradition in assertions that carry the assertion or the presumption of the same authority; their own reason and the statements produced by their reason are assumed to carry exactly the same authority as the tradition they reject. Even those who reject words, propositions, books, do so by speaking at interminable length and publishing book after book arguing and asserting their case with unshakable confidence in its truth.
This is not comedy but pathos and the comic element in it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that we are still obsessed with a definition of man that has dominated our work for centuries. The arts, or at least the criticism of the arts, could have saved us much trouble at this point for there it is known that form and content are not separable. The separable part, the contents that can be poured out of the vessel in my earlier metaphor, is not in fact decisive. It is the content impressed on our imagination by the form and the formal activity itself that determines who we are. And who we are is still inescapably dominated by the principle of knowledge and will.
All such summaries are caricatures, necessarily, but a good caricature has some resemblance to its object and I hope this caricature does. I am proposing that our work and our institutional life are dominated by the idea that we can accurately know the world and effectively act on it. The materiality of our flesh is considered essential, for it brings us the information we think about and it is the intermediate tool for our action. Increasingly it is the object of serious thought. We are aware that its lusts are a distraction, its weaknesses an obstacle. All this we acknowledge. But it is no more than a condition for our true work, for the decisive part of what we do is deemed to be in the mind, in thought apart from the flesh and the world of forms.
Fundamentally this definition leaves no real place for art. Obviously this has not been true for our whole history. Our art has developed within a culture shaped by this image of man. The Hebrews concentrated so exclusively on the moral will of God that any art was blasphemy, and this iconoclasm has been a continual theme in our culture as it is in all cultures. On the other hand, the arts have been a powerful force in Greek and western culture, suggesting that images of man dominated by philosophically oriented statements are not nearly so decisive as philosophers like to think; there is a lot more to the Greek imagination than we chose to extract from it. But we see an equally important phenomenon. This definition has been so deeply embedded in our own imagination that any fundamental history of western painting and sculpture must chronicle the profound analysis of human beings in the grip of dramatic situations generated out of the action of the moral will. If it is possible to judge such things, I would say no force in our history, certainly not philosophy or theology, has worked so powerfully to implant this image in our imagination as the arts.
But the child has devoured the parent. So long as art was a powerful force, it was a force for a great many things other than the proclamation of man as defined by knowledge and will. But spurred on by the manifest success of knowledge and will, other elements of the image of man gradually blurred and fell away. As a result the work of the intellect has come to be dominated almost exclusively by this one image.
In such an intellectual structure, there is no place for art. it has a role as ornament and entertainment, as enrichment." It has an occasional pedagogical function. A few years ago it was popular among intellectuals to use it as a diagnostic instrument. There is legitimacy to all of these, but, isolated, they are condescension.
I have tried, as have others, to legitimize art by setting it forth as a valid form of knowing. This is profoundly true and until we learn to use its truth our attempt to know more fully will be frustrated. But the case is not convincing to those whose intellectual structure contains no room for such an idea.
It appears now that all attempts to bring art and religion back together are doomed to failure, and no failure in contemporary theology is so fatal. It is not simply that the arts are a primal energy in human affairs It is rather that their human function is to serve as the form by which the most elemental human energies are controlled and used to human purpose. Thus the institutions of religion--in our case, the church--have almost completely lost control or even much influence on the fundamental forces of our corporate life. Plaintive reiteration of what had seemed basic truths meets with complete public indifference.
It will accomplish nothing to attempt to resolve this situation by shifting doctrinal or theological furniture around the room. No argument will suffice to place the arts in the work of the mind so long as we remain convinced that we are essentially defined in terms of knowledge and will. An art work is not an argument but a thing made. It is not therefore subject to argument or reducible to argument.
If I am to succeed, thenI must offer a definition of the human that is more accurate to my purpose. Rhetorically this is very dangerous. I must drop the subject I have been discussing in order to deal with another before returning to the first. If I am successful these two latter stages should blend into each other. But no half measures will do. It is necessary to go back to the beginning, not simply of the image of man but of the image of matter itself, for we are matter and cannot understand ourselves unless we understand ourselves as matter.
The Architecture of Matter
The phrase is Stephens Toulmin's and June Goodfield's. I should like to quote a long paragraph from their book entitled The Architecture of Matter.
There are two other sentences I should like to offer as essential to my case:
1. The distinction between matter and energy is false and now useless. When "matter" is analyzed into its components they are found to be concentrations of energy. Equally, these units of energy can never be isolated nor assumed to exist alone. They exist only in rhythmic tension with other units, a tension that creates wholes which have the properties of matter. The funda mental unit of reality is neither matter nor energy but relation, the order that holds together the tensions of energy. This means that the distinction between body and mind is similarly useless.
2. No unit ever exists alone; each is a
component of a larger system or structure. "Things" are systems or structures of
energy, each a part of a larger system or structure. "Reality" is an
increasingly complex hierarchy of structure, subsystems held together in energetic ten
There are many more important postulates of this type but these will serve for the moment. It is essential in using them to emphasize that this continuum of hierarchically ordered structures runs from the smallest, "lowest" structure to the outer reaches of the cosmos, and that man is a part of this continuum, inalienably and inescapably.
Yet it is also true that man's role in this system, this rhythmically interacting structure of rhythmic tensions of energy, is not quite like any other. It is necessary to be very careful indeed about how we define this difference. Perhaps it is easy to differentiate ourselves from the rocks and the plants, but when we come to the animals it becomes nearly impossible. I had two dogs once who richly exemplified the difficulty. They were powerful, graceful, beautiful creatures. They had distinctive personalities (although they were twins). They had intelligence with the ability to make reasonable decisions. They had a rich emotional and even moral life. They were capable of great joy and pleasure. They possessed loyalty and great love. They were forgiving beyond any person I know, certainly including me.
The only thing they were incapable of doing (so far as I could tell) was to think about what it means to be a dog or even to be aware that they were dogs. In other words, they possessed consciousness but not self consciousness. And so they remained securely fixed in the rhythmic harmony of the eternal order of things. As Brother Antonius said of the death of birds:
It is a noble calling which we should treat with love and respect. Further, we should learn from this teaching, for we too have a calling to be what we are. But what we are is not theirs.
At some mysterious unidentifiable point there was added to us (or we achieved) something that no other structure in this system of structure has--an awareness of our self, our selves. I ask no other concession than this one, for this is consequential enough.
It is clear that what I say now cannot be to any degree demonstrated either historically or theoretically. What I submit to you is poetry, not science. I can only hope that it has the demonstrable validity of poetry, which is to account for experience that cannot be accounted for causally or logically in the mode of positivistic science.
Self-consciousness has consequences that make man, the sole possessor of it, something wholly other than all the other structures at the same time he is wholly taken up in the structure of this rhythmic process. These consequences have to do with structure, with process or energy, with purpose.
An awareness of the self carries with it, inescapably, the awareness that there is a not-self. The primal unity of the self and the world is incorrigibly, irredeemably, irreparably, broken.
Thus at the core of the human condition there is a fundamental duality that, try as we will, cannot be resolved. The awareness of duality is a loss of innocence. Even if innocence could be recovered, innocence recovered is fundamentally different from original innocence.
From this awareness of the self and the not-self grows both our functional structure and our purpose.
The Structure of Selfhood
The awareness that there is a not-self creates a sense of the here (where the self is) and there (where the not-self is). Thus one basic coordinate of the distinctively human experience is spatial.
The awareness of the not-self is an awareness of the other. The awareness that there is otherness, that there are others, generates an awareness of relation. First, it is awareness of what is, how I am in actuality related to the other, and then because our acts are variable, how ought I to be related to the other.
This constitutes the descriptive difference between man and the other structures, the consequences of our peculiar differences. But the description is inseparable from purpose for purpose is inescapable. How then does purpose emerge?
It may be necessary to remind you that I propose this as poetry, not history or science, and, so far as I can assume it actually took place, it was a matter of thousands of years and the most arduous work.
Man is a creature like all other creatures, immanent in the process of being, inescapably a part of the rhythmically interacting structure of the world. By his selfconsciousness, man is irrevocably separated from the structures and energies of his world. This is not simply the limitation of the human. It is the tragedy of the human. It is the physiological foundation of original sin.
With part of his being, man yearns to overcome the fearful isolation of his separation. With another part, or at other times, he desires to affirm the separation as ingredient to his being. In affirming the separation, he sees the other--material or human--as something wholly different, to be used and otherwise ignored, or as something inimical to be defeated and dominated, or as a good to be affirmed and honored.
As a typology with appropriate abstract terminology this scheme asserts that duality is the fundamental and irreconcilable condition of the human. Duality can harden into dualism, which is seen formally and most vividly in Zoroastrianism and the pre-Columbian Meso-American religions, but is also a basic theme in much of human work. The desire to be reabsorbed into the primal unity is formulated most vividly in oriental monisms, of which Hinduism is the classic formulation, but which is found as the most powerful and pervasive force in human thought about purpose. It is not only one theme in all religions but also a prime motive in much human behavior- obsessive sexuality, for example, and the use of such drugs as alcohol and marijuana. The absolute separation is asserted most powerfully in the Semitic monotheisms, Judaism and Islam. The affirmation of the worth of the separation in all its multiplicity is best seen in early Greek polytheism.
To its credit, Christianity contains, in its basic image of the Trinity, a profound and fruitful principle of creative interaction. But this is very much a jewel hidden in a casket since in actuality Christendom has usually been monotheistic or polytheistic and currently, having little soul of its own, is rather frantically trying to appease the besieging faiths that assault it from all sides.
Such typologies are no more than rough tools but essential ones; I would contend that the theoretical work of theology and the practical work of history should be directed toward the definition of purpose in the actualities of human work. But the only way to determine the purposes is by the analysis of the actual forms which are engendered by the underlying processes and structures. So I must now return to them, reminding you of the postulates of the scheme: that the basic dimensions of human experience are (1) spatial and geometric, the mode of embodying the structure; (2) dramatic and moral, the embodiment of process; and (3) purpose.
Were I to pay more attention to traditional terminology than I care to, I would accept this formulation: the reality of human experience is wholly immanent and what we call transcendence emerges from human work. The one exception is the crucial one: There is no logical, scientific or historical way to account for the selfconsciousness that determines the whole development.
Obviously my three categories are abstractions that could not exist alone. They are simply ways of talking about primal human energies and it is precisely in their interaction that they take on reality. One more exercise of the imagination is required before we enter the range of the tangible and the historical.
Our mythical human being is faced with the problem of the here and the there, the inescapable relation, the remorseless requirement of purpose. Equally remorseless is the requirement of act. The other is there and the relation must be defined, defined and enacted: The act shapes place, relation requires order--of dominance and subordination or equality. Order is symbolized and made concrete in institutions. Relation has to be organized toward purpose but organization presupposes spatial structure and direction.
These are the circumstances and the compulsions of the human situation, the uniquely human problem that grows out of self-consciousness. But we must remember that our humanity in no way and to no degree extracts us from the rhythmic interaction of the whole system of natural structures. We are a particular structure in the hierarchy of structures. This established the' conditions under which we work and provides us with the materials to work with. Self-awareness has forever destroyed our possibility of being naturally a part of nature but in no way has it abrogated our part in nature.
So our man, in his painful selfhood, confronts the otherness of his world and the inescapable necessity of establishing himself in it. The condition that he starts with is the condition that existed before his selfhood and is therefore ingredient to it: he is a creature. So when our mythical man confronts the peculiarities of his human condition and seeks to engender a structure to make it tolerable, the only things he has to work with are those at hand. He has neither gods nor concepts. All these he must make and he makes them with what he has.
How it began we can never know. In a lovely piece of poetic anthropology, Stanley Kubrick, in his film "2001," has his early primate playing with a bone. Suddenly he sees its possibilities as a club. It may be that such a creature saw a tool; probably it was both, and others. Structurally it doesn't matter, for structurally it was the founding act of human intelligence--metaphor. It was not only an object seen in its possibilities but also the result and the relation: bone=tool=control of the water hole=power. The particular and the general, the concrete and the abstract are locked together. The broadest or highest achievements of human creativity are built up out of the most elementary objects and processes of the immediate human experience.
Thus the beginning of an analysis is an inventory of the elementals of that experience, a complete inventory. This would have to begin with the elements of the body in all its complexity as seen and experienced. Then there are the physiological acts of the body which are so extraordinarily important. The body is placed in a natural setting, in a particular geography and climate. Some of the consequences of that placement are practical and technical, but tools, weapons and the processes of interaction with the other as nature and as people become part of the stock of potential metaphor.
Beyond the inventory, an elementary phenomenology is required, for metaphor requires the linking of common elements. The body is a series of planes, curves, shapes, projections and containers. The evident link, for example, between the vagina and the cave may be the source of the birth of architecture. Things too have their qualities: hard, soft, rigid, flexible, hot, dry, rough, smooth, large, small. The landscape has its characteristics as well, interlocked with the climate.
None of these exists in isolation but only as a part of the whole, in relation. Relations create many other essential qualities. Relative size creates proportion. Interval generates rhythm. Given direction, rhythm becomes time. And so it goes very nearly infinitely.
These are the elements of structure but they interlock with process and energy. The space has been given a center, the discrimination between here and there. Center generates direction. Direction requires movement. Water moves. Blood moves. The body moves through space. Bodies move into and out of each other. In like fashion all the processes and actions of the earth are part of the metaphoric process.
But process too is part of relation. Position and proportion are also dominance and subordination. Metaphor is a transaction--change and transformation--which is also movement and direction. All this and much more creates the primal narrative which is the setting forth of the essential process of relation. The primal narrative takes form in the myth and in the enacted myth which is the ritual.
The myth/ritual grows out of the particular quality of the space, but it is also enacted in space, at a place. The myth/ritual is in part an enactment of the geography, but it also shapes the place. When the shape is marked around the edges, architecture begins and the shape is the definition of the spatial order people live in. The place engenders an enacted myth, the ritual enactment determines the architecture, the architecture defines and reshapes the people who then interact anew with the place.
Equally, the ritual, which has grown out of the experience of objects in space, requires objects for its enactment. Objects with their rich metaphorical character interact with the ritual. They are set apart, shaped, joined with the architecture, become images, become tools of meaning.
The enacted myth/ritual in its architectural place is the generative center of a total process that includes the shape and act of a social and political order, the shape of village or city, manners and institutions.
I have tried to describe in this elementary and inadequate fashion not simply the origin of religion and social institutions, but the making of the world. I have been suggesting the origin of forms but the forms have significance as the carriers, as the embodiments of the engendering structure and those structures are the world of those who live in them.
I am not saying, I am carefully not saying, that these structures and forms are ways of coping with the world, as though the world exists, is known and experienced and people think up ways of dealing with it. Rather, in the hierarchy of structures, human self-awareness has created a gap which can only be filled by human work.
The structures created by human work are structures functioning and placed as all structures are, from the atom to the astronomical order. Nor should the superficial meaning of the word "structure" mislead. These are structures in the ordinarily substantive sense of the word, but they are structures as the atom is a structure, a tensile relation of energies. Reality is in relation, not in the old definition of substance, and these structures are truly real and integrally part of the whole of the real.
If I place them in this fashion, as it were, "vertically," the structures are equally part of the linear horizontal development. They should not be understood as something held optionally by a fully developed human being, held as a set of opinions or a world view or a life style. Rather these structures began to emerge long before physical evolution was complete and shaped the physical structure of the body. These structures of the imagination or symbolic structures are as integral to our selves as our nervous system.
Thus I am asserting that the founding human act, the structural system of characteristic human energies, is at the same time an inseparable part of the natural order and is the bridge between man and nature, matter and mind. Nature and culture are ingredient to ourselves, as ourselves and our culture are ingredient to nature.
This needs to be expressed in a slightly different way. Our symbolic order is not a way of looking at the real; it is the real. The world engendered by our symbolic order is not a way of looking at the world, even of experiencing the world. It is the world, the only world we know. It is not a way of looking at a reality which we can know otherwise. It is the only reality we can ever know.
Let us push this a bit further. There would be a temptation to accede to much of this as elementary anthropology, an account of what man once was. But, so conviction might go, it does not apply to us, who have been emancipated from myth into thought. We who are children of the Greeks have learned the power of objective observation and thought and now possess the key to truth. But what I have tried to describe is not a particular symbolic structure belonging to another culture and the human past but the structure of the human itself. What I say applies as much to us as it does to our equally creative ancestor in the cave. Our advantage lies only in the complexity of our structure, which we owe to our inheritance of the work that has gone before us, and in a crucial singularity of our own work: we are aware of self- consciousness in a way that has not been possible for our predecessors. Beyond that our work is shaped, as all human work is shaped, in the process of our dramatics and geometrics.
The linearity of the process needs further mention. In the early stages of development we see people gripped by their symbolic structures, which were engendered out of the indecipherable and indescribable complex of forms that makeup the human experience. The structure is simple at first but full of great possibilities. It contains, interwoven, the essential elements, an image of space and an image of interaction, directed toward a purpose. Initially the symbolic order serves to maintain the people in an equilibrium with the natural order. In those cultures that develop beyond the equilibrium, the work is a development of the possibilities of the original structure. With the growing complexity of the culture, more and more possibilities open up. The original structure presses outward into manifestation in new forms, new languages. At some point in some cultures one of the forms is a distinctive form of language--the verbal proposition. Initially language is charged with the highest possible degree of symbolic intensity and its characteristic form is ritual and poetry. But the interaction of words has its own logic and possibilities so the enspiriting image is brought to manifestation in the characteristic forms of the order of words.
Initially this is an outward flowering of the inner structure, a created form like all created forms. Historians as disparate as Henry Adams and Erwin Panofsky have found St. Thomas's Summa analogous to a Gothic cathedral. Later in some cultures, these logical verbal structures take the form of reflection on its own past and its own process. All stages feel the conviction of authority, that the emergent form describes ultimate truth. Yet the whole process, constructive and critical, is an unpacking of the possibilities within a particular symbolic structure. We too, as much as our remotest ancestors, are giving form to the possibilities within our structures. We too, are formed by our culture. Shaped by our culture, we step a little apart from it and look back at it, describing what we see. of course the description seems to have ultimate truth and infinite merit, for it is describing the world that engendered it. Of course all those who deny it or offend against it are ignorant, perverse or wicked for they are clearly denying the manifest order of things.
All philosophy, all theology, all art, all science are developments out of a particular symbolic order. They are descriptions of that order. Any claim exceeding this statement is presumptuous. When that claim includes statements about the nature and purposes of God, the claim is not only presumptuous, it is blasphemous. All the gods are integral parts of a symbolic order. All the gods are. The gods are the energies which make effective presence of that vital structure which is the essential life of a people.
The gods are the decisive elements in the structures that make the world of a particular people. They are the manifestation of the essentials of that world, the embodiment of its structure, the origin of its energy, the quality and character of its pattern of relation. All those things done to place people in relation to the gods, thus into their most real world, constitute that people's religion, no matter if it masquerades under the name of politics, or science or art.
These symbolic structures are real and constitute a vital part of the hierarchy of being. These structures call "world" into being. Human work is therefore a component of the creative process. Symbolic structures are not exactly made by people; it is better to say that they are engendered by the interaction of people with the whole experience, which is their context and material. But people are the agents of this process and so human creativity is a part of the whole creative process.
There is therefore no world apart from the human world. There is a vast, rhythmically pulsating process incapable of knowing or being known, nameless and unnameable, without purpose except its own repetitive continuation. It is not "world" which is made only by the acts of people. Once these worlds came into being they are forever a part of reality, of the hierarchical, created order. They are forever inescapable.
And their gods. The great gods are and continue to be. Insofar as we are inescapably a part of our ancestry, we are inescapably a part of the gods they brought into being.
The gods may lose their names and among the gravest and most tragic of human dangers is the loss of the names of the gods. But the power of a god is never lost; without a name and limits, the power of the god is an unconfined force that can destroy as well as create. We suffer now, not from the absence of-God but from the many gods, nameless or falsely named, whose energies we do not understand.
What I am saying raises ghosts I do not wish to bother with enough to exorcise. The chief of these is relativism. If the gods, all the gods, are parts of particularly symbolic structures engendered by vital human action, it would appear that the claimed truth of culture, its religion, is then "relative." I suggest no such thing. I am claiming that the most real reality is precisely these symbolic structures and the gods embedded in them, that these are reality in the only form we can know it, that in coming into being these symbolic structures make the real.
If relativism must go, so must its twin, absolutism, the two principal modes of interpreting truth in our culture. Absolutism is our own offense in the academy, the presumption to study the world sub specie aeternitatie, the presumption that we can stand apart from the real and say something about it that we can call "true." To challenge that assumption has heretofore done nothing but deliver us over to the despair of relativism. Relativism generates only acedia, the paralyzing deadness of spirit that is a consequence of the absence of hope.
What then is truth? Where is truth and how is it achieved? We have had an answer to that for about 2,500 years--since Socrates--and with my own presumption, I am asserting that the Socratic/Platonic answer is wrong. No, not wrong--that would violate my own assumptions and the historical reality that in good part we have been made who we are by Plato. Say, rather, it is now exhausted.
If I were to do what must be done at greater leisure-- which is to test these generalizations in specific instances--a rich case would be found in studying the consequences of defining "Truth" as a thing or a place which is the object of such verbs as "seek," "pursue," "search" and most significantly "conquer."
Truth is in the thing done and in the virtue of the way it is done. Good enough for behavior--"doing the truth"- -but what does that say for the work of the mind?
Have I appeared to dissolve Christianity in the reality of all the gods? Is Yahweh, the great Jehovah, the Lord Christ himself among the gods who are real and yet, being among all the gods, only as real as they? Yes of course. where else are gods to come from except as they are engendered by the human spirit? Are we to presume to speak accurately of the Lord of the Universe when we see only in the forms engendered out of our own experience of the world, when we build only with the tools we ourselves have made?
If we think of this process as relativism, we are denying the essentials of our faith. Yes, we have engendered the Christ in our own symbolic structure. But there is a greatness beyond the symbolic ecstasy, a greatness dimly sensed that put the Fathers into ecstatic joy precisely because the Christ is not only God in his immediate presence in the minute historical specificity.He is also the eternal logos, the meaning beyond meaning because he is meaning beyond the immediacies.
Our metaphysics and its attendant epistemology have not sufficed to make any sense at all out of such statements, so we have had to hold knowledge and devotion apart until we commit the final blasphemy that knowledge should define and control devotion.
What I offer, if you will, is a metaphysics that I hope can make some sense, however temporary, of this central affirmation. In doing so, I may appear to have ranged far from my starting point, which was art, and my stated purpose, which was to define the proper relations of art and religion. But I also asserted that our intellectual tools were not adequate to that purpose and I was required therefore to find others. However crudely, I have attempted to do just that and now must use them to my assigned intent.
To this end I submit two theses which I shall expound briefly and then I am done. First: It is with art that we first learned to understand the process I am describing and art has therefore not exactly a normative function but an irreplacable pedagogical function.
Second: Whatever the complexities of the later development, art, with the myth/ritual and the necessities of technique, has an absolute chronological priority in the development of human consciousness. The study of art is therefore not ancillary to the study of theology but constitutive of it.
The truth of the second assertion would hardly be in question in many, perhaps even most, cultures for it would not have occurred to them to doubt the centrality of their buildings and their images. The problem was that only rarely did they ever know it in the way we understand knowing. I have proposed directly and by implication that our understanding of knowing is now insufficient, but that does not suggest it is wrong or dispensable or that we can replace it by the naked energies of the natural life or the illuminations of disembodied mysticism. There is no restoration of lost innocence. We must complete our understanding of knowing, not surrender in it.
First among the tasks of our knowing is the understanding of our making. How do we make the symbolic order that constitutes our being and our world? In all the complications of the act of making there is one of absolute centrality to the case as I have laid it out: the absolute primacy of form. When art critics first formulated this principle they were so entranced with it that they gave not only primacy to form but exclusive authority. Art critics have outgrown that and so can the rest. It matters what a work of art is used for and what it represents. It matters what a theologian says. But all these things came into existence only as they receive form, and the understanding of form is therefore the beginning of knowledge.
The truth of my second thesis depends absolutely on the analysis I offered at the beginning and follows inevitably from it. I have proposed as known that all matter is structured energy, energy in rhythmic relation; that all these structures exist only as parts of larger structures and function as parts of the sustaining interaction and relation; and that, physically, man is a part of this whole order. So much is, I believe, indisputable.
I made further assertions that I believe to be just as certain but which I cannot expect will carry the same kind of assent: that the only truly distinctive thing about the human as against the rest of the natural order is the characteristic human awareness of what is going on; that the fact of this awareness makes man wholly other than his fellow creatures and yet compels him to reconcile his own distinctiveness with the whole; that, compelled to making, he makes a new structure, actual and symbolic, which is as much a part of the hierarchical structures of the created order as any other.
So much granted, the priority of the arts, of man's making, is both actually and logically inevitable. However complex the solution, self-consciousness actually poses three very simple problems: where am I placed in relation to the other, all the others, of which I am now aware; how am I related to them and how ought I to be related to them; what is the purpose of this relation and action.
The first of these is spatial, structural, geometric. The second is dramatic, moral, energetic. While it is never possible to untangle the arts altogether, the first is the peculiar province of architecture and design, the second of ritual and drama. It is also true that these arts do not exist isolated and alone but are parts of a social and political order which is equally shaped by the primal image of order and energy.
My language suggests something that we use when the idealist mood is on us, that there is an image of structure and energy, of order and interaction, existing prior to any of its manifestations. This I do not believe to be so. Certainly there is some vague and inchoate yearning after something that tells the maker that he is satisfied with what he has made. Basically the image is known only as it engenders actual forms. Looking back, however, he can postulate such an image and make the definition of it the purpose of our work.
This brings me finally to an extension and enlargement of my definition of theology. I have proposed that the discipline we call theology is primarily an extension into the language of verbal propositions of the basic energy of making, and that theology should be basically understood, or first understood, as a structure rather than as descriptive assertion. As such, theology is wholly dependent on the original structural act and is an unpacking of its implications.
If in the older sense this is constructive theology, it later becomes more critical and reflective. But in both senses it is never describing eternal truth and ultimate reality; it is describing the content and activity of a particular symbolic structure. At its final, most specialized stage, it becomes a reflection on its own procedures, useful to professionals but an abdication of all other use or purpose.
We are thus left, not with a true theology and false theologies, but with a multitude of theologies, each of which is descriptively true to the extent that each is a manifestation of and a description of a basic symbolic structure. This does not relativize the principle of truth, but displaces truth to the structures of which theology is not more than one functional element. All symbolic structures are true since all are engendered by the deep intercourse of human beings and the world they are bringing into being. The problem is then the adequacy of those symbolic structures to the whole order of creation.
That is the question we cannot answer and will never be able to answer. We can only act in commitment since it is not possible to refuse the act. We can act knowing that the only true act, the only faithful act, is a making, and that a symbolic order is not an object to manipulate for private satisfaction but a sacred trust, since it is the only carrier of the sacred. Yet we make and protect, knowing that what we do must always be redone, for what we do changes the relation into something it had not been before, and preservation requires change.
A symbolic order therefore is a commitment, not a possession, a process not a stasis, a way and not the inns we might occupy along the way.
I have described something far more comprehensive than my immediate assignment. But in that process there is, I am glad to say, a place for the academic. That place is the deeper understanding of what we are. Having arrived at where we now are by the energies of our ancestors over many millennia and over all continents, using, remaking, abandoning a series of symbolic orders, we can now return to them as a return to dimensions of our own humanity, as modalities of being human. We will know who we are only as we know all of us, past and present.
I have used art as the exemplar of the method, as our teacher in the process of investigation. I have proposed art as the earliest and most vivid manifestation of the essential human process. I am hesitant to repeat, in the name of art, the old arrogance of theology and lay claim to primacy or authority for art. I would like to have done with all queens in the sciences. Nevertheless it is true that the province of the arts is precisely those forms which are the setting and material of our human existence and the source of the symbolism which is our world. Our task is to seek the forms within the multiplicity of experience while never loosening our hold on the concrete and the specific. Works of art are incorrigibly a particular forming of a specific material and, therefore, of the earth, earthy. Yet the work of art is given its order and vitality by its setting forth of the structure and energy of that earth. Therefore art is both method and model, and its investigation is one of the surest roads to the human.
I am loath to stop without some concrete illustration of my thesis, knowing that it would take many books to develop it fully. Let me use two illustrations only, one example of the historical consequences of art and one brief example of analysis.
If one thing were taken as characterizing the modern world it is our conviction that we can stand apart from the world, observe it, think about our observations and make assertions that are true. The dividing line is usually placed at Descartes's "cogito," "I think, therefore I am."
But the founding act in this process was not Descartes but Brunelleschi, at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Prior to Brunelleschi the art work had been an object in our world. Brunelleschi worked out the principles of linear perspective. Linear perspective established optical control over the world: the world was now ordered from the point of view of the spectator. I see, therefore the world is. Those who lived according to the principle of linear perspective failed to note that, in ordering the world from the point of view of the spectator, they moved the world behind the picture frame; it then existed on the other side of the surface of the picture.
There was no place left for the spectator; there was only a place for an eye. Since there was no place for the spectator to stand, obviously there could be nothing of importance to stand there; man could be reduced to pure intellection. Descartes became inevitable.
Every important movement in modern art since Cezanne has been devoted to restoring the relation between spectator and art work and thus replacing man in his world. It is not accidental that, while Picasso and Braque were developing cubism, Ortega ended the Cartesian epoch by his "I am myself plus my circumstances."
Earlier I spoke of the Parthenon as a "dangerous" building. This was not meant as a rhetorical trick but as a characterization of a great and misunderstood building.
The Parthenon has been tamed and rationalized into an image of Greek sobriety and balance and harmony, a cold image from 18th century neo-classicism. But the Parthenon is more, and more terrible. It is the center, the link between earth and sky, the mountain and the sea. It is lifted up in masculine authority but below in the flank of the hill is the female cave of the fates. It is the cool harmony and balance of geometric order. But every line is slightly curved, stretching slightly with the energy of life within. Tremendous power is gathered just under control. It is the power of Achilles or Alcibiades, the awesome power of animal strength combined with human intelligence and no moral control. It is the power and energy that made the history of Greece, the grim, prideful, terrible history of Greece. But once, in the actuality of this image, Greeks achieved control of power. The awesome intelligence of Athena, the mother-ruler who brought forth the olive by the shore of the sea, the power of the woman born of man and not of the soft and drifting foam of the sea, that singular intellectual power brought the terrible energy under control. And there it rests, on the hill in sight of the sea. Those who truly look at it are, for a time, in the presence of the gods.
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