Monday, 20 June 2011

'Our eyes should train our hearts': Alain de Botton on Christian Art

BBC News - A Point of View: Why are museums so uninspiring?

This short essay by Alain de Botton provides further food for thought with regard to my earlier blog on art.

'Look at that picture of Mary
if you want to remember what tenderness is like.'
Roger van der Weyden, Virgin and Child (after 1454)

'Look at that painting of the cross
if you want a quick lesson in courage.'
Roger van der Weyden, Crucifixion (c. 1445)
Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna

'Look at that Last Supper and train yourself not to be a coward and a liar.'
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper (restored) (1496-1498)

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Art of the Day

Krishna and Radha in a Pavilion
National Museum, New Delhi
If you use iGoogle, you can install a gadget called 'Art of the Day'. Every few minutes throughout the day, a different work of art appears in a box on your homepage.

It strikes me how many of these paintings have religious themes. In this most secularised of cultures, how can people relate to such art if they don't know the stories and the meanings behind them - if they can't see beyond the layers of pigment and colour to detect the shimmer of grace within?

There are many influential secularists who argue against teaching theology and religious studies in schools and universities. These subjects are not included in the new English Baccalaureate (read the discussion in the House of Lords here), and they certainly don't feature in the curriculum of AC Grayling's new university (see the discussion in The New Humanist). In an interview with the London Standard, Grayling acknowledges the atheist slant of those involved with his New College of the Humanities, but by way of justification he suggests that 'a higher education institution exists to teach how to think, not what to think. So the fact that there are a bunch of atheists involved in this doesn't mean anything.' Grayling, who likens faith in God to a belief in fairies, goes on to claim that 'people who do not unthinkingly adopt the religion of their culture, which 99 per cent of people do, are under a special duty to think harder about ethical questions'.

Filippo Lippi
Tobias and the Angel (1475-1480)
Would you trust somebody to educate you in the Humanities, if they showed such arrogance towards their religious counterparts, and such indifference with regard to what people of faith have contributed to the Humanities (philosophers and scientists as well as artists, musicians and writers)? Potential applicants beware - you might emerge from such a university with your head crammed with facts and your pockets emptied of cash, but along the way you will be shorn of wisdom.

A certain kind of consumerism is parasitic upon a certain kind of atheism. Read Thomas Aquinas or Jacques Lacan, and you'll see why the refusal to acknowledge our desire for God sets up in us an addictive and insatiable desire to possess and consume everything around us - from commodities to people - because nothing satisfies that God-shaped absence within. Our deepest and most restless desire is the compass needle which points to the true north of human existence, the homecoming we anticipate at the end of time, the eternal joy of a divine union beyond all the transient and fragile joys of mortal life. To ignore this yearning, to refuse to allow our lives to be drawn towards that mystery of desire, is to enslave ourselves to the fury of frustrated desires which consume everything - even ourselves. True happiness and a capacity to fully enjoy the world's goodness depends upon that wisdom which comes from understanding the nature of desire.
Madonna di Loreto (1604-1606)

In Grayling's reactionary and conservative academic adventure, we see the perfect marriage of atheism and capitalist consumerism, a marriage whose offspring are ideally suited to a political ideology which requires avaricious and consumptive citizens who know 'the cost of everything and the value of nothing'. Marx was right about most things, but he was wrong about religion. Marxists such as Slavov Zizek, Alain Badiou and Terry Eagleton recognize that only a revived Christianity might have the resources to challenge the global tyranny of neo-liberal capitalism, but don't expect any of them to be on Grayling's curriculum either. (You can read Eagleton's damning indictment of Grayling and his 'money-grubbing dons' here).

George Steiner, literary critic and agnostic Jew, writes that great art is ‘touched by the fear and ice of God’, whether that arises from a sense of the presence of God or, in our own time, from the ‘overwhelming weight’ of the absence of God. Steiner writes,  
where God’s presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overwhelming weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable. ... It is only when the question of the existence or non-existence of God will have lost all actuality, it is only when, as logical positivism teaches, it will have been recognized and felt to be strictly nonsensical, that we shall inhabit a scientific-secular world. Educated opinion has, to a greater or lesser degree, entered upon this new freedom. For it, emptiness is precisely and only that.
Peter Fuller, the atheist art critic who acknowledged a debt to Steiner, similarly insists that art is only possible before an open horizon of transcendent possibility. He writes of the ‘palpable and yet mysterious presence of art itself’ and of the crisis created for art and cultural life by the experience described in Matthew Arnold’s poem of ‘the long-withdrawing roar' of 'the Sea of Faith' and the exposure of 'the naked shingles of the world’.  

So, enjoy the pictures on this page, all of which have recently appeared on 'Art of the Day', but if you want to know what they mean, don't for heaven's sake go to Grayling's university.

(To read more on this theme, please see my paper 'Cathedral and the Visual Arts', and Chapter 8 of my book, The New Atheists).

Filippo Lippi
Annunciation (c.1443-1450)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Tina's Updated Website

I have updated my personal website so that you can now access most of my papers, lectures, presentations and published work there.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Prayer for the Day

These are the scripts for my contribution to Prayer for the Day – BBC Radio 4, Saturday, June 4th to Friday, June 10th. (Please note that the scripts were lightly edited prior to recording, so they are not verbatim transcripts of the recorded programmes).

Saturday, June 4th

Good morning. Today marks two significant anniversaries in humanity’s ongoing struggle against tyranny. The Dunkirk evacuation of Allied troops from France ended on the 4th of June, 1940, when the war against Nazi Germany looked close to failure. On the 4th of June 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing were violently crushed. In each of these cases, the longing for justice and freedom inspired people to great acts of courage and sacrifice, even when there appeared to be little hope of immediate success. It’s that same spirit which is inspiring people across the Middle East today, to risk their lives in the name of freedom.
On the 4th of June, 1957, Martin Luther King delivered a famous speech in which he referred to the ‘cosmic companionship’ that is possible if one believes that ‘the universe is on the side of justice.’

That belief has sustained many people through failure and persecution. Justice is the most indestructible of values, but it’s also elusive and easily betrayed.  Power can be its greatest ally, when the powerful stand in solidarity with the oppressed. But too often power becomes the enemy of justice, when it muffles the voice of conscience and closes our hearts to suffering and need.  

Each of us has to decide which side we’re on in the struggle for justice, however great or small our power might be. Justice is sometimes achieved by great heroic acts, but more often it presents itself as the myriad opportunities woven into our daily encounters and relationships. The quest for justice is discovered within the mosaic of all our human interactions. Today we pray in the words of the prophet Micah, that we might act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Amen.

Monday, June 6th

Good morning. In 1979, the Boomtown Rats had a hit single with a song called ‘I don’t like Mondays’. Bob Geldof wrote the song after hearing an interview with a sixteen year old girl who had been on a shooting spree in a children’s playground. Asked why she did it, she said, ‘I don’t like Mondays; this livens up the day.’

Thankfully, few people are so extreme in their dislike of Mondays, but I suspect it’s the rare and lucky person who faces the start of another working week without some sense of apprehension. For some of us, the week crowds in with too many demands and expectations. For others, it yawns ahead, empty and tedious.

We live in a culture which has distorted our sense of what work is about. There is a dignity and beauty to human life which is never reducible to productivity and economics. Exploitation, forced unemployment and poor working conditions violate the dignity of the human made in the image of God. Through our work, paid or unpaid, we’re called to participate in the work of God’s creation, to become co-creators with God. That means balancing work and rest, doing and being. It means letting go of our anxieties, stresses and ambitions in order to live creatively and meaningfully in the here and now.
Jesus invites his followers to ‘consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ Each one of us is a work of God, a work of infinite beauty and worth, before and beyond whatever work we do.

In the words of the psalmist, ‘I praise you God, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well. Amen.’

Tuesday, June 7th

Good morning. Today is the feast day of St. Robert of Newminster, a twelfth century English Cistercian monk and one of the founders of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Robert’s biographers describe him as a kind and gentle man, merciful to others but strict in his personal regime of poverty.

Cistercian spirituality is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. It’s a weaving together of prayer, manual labour, and a life of austerity. The Cistercians made a significant contribution to agriculture and technology in medieval Europe, and they were known for the architectural beauty of their abbeys such as Tintern, Hailes and Fountains.

Today, these ruined buildings lend a haunting beauty to our countryside. They’re tranquil places to visit, their contours softened by time, with few reminders of the violence which destroyed them in the religious and political upheavals of the sixteenth century.

Our quest for God expresses itself in sublimely creative ways, but it sometimes drives us to terrible acts of destruction. Religion encompasses both these aspects of the human spirit. The lives of saints such as Robert reflect the virtues of holiness, simplicity and creativity which all great religions seek to cultivate among their followers. But today also reminds us of the darker side of religion, because it marks the anniversary of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem during the first crusade in 1099.

Never before has it been so urgent for us to go beyond the violence and conflict of religious differences, to discover a shared vision of peace. With its rich diversity of peoples and faiths, society today offers us unique opportunities for dialogue and understanding. We ask Robert of Newminster and all the saints to pray with us, as we seek a more simple, peaceful and creative way of being together in the world. Amen.

Wednesday, June 8th

Good morning. Today is World Oceans Day, when we’re invited to reflect on the oceans on which life depends. Over-fishing and pollution are threatening the world’s water resources, and some say that population growth is bringing us to the brink of a catastrophic water shortage.

These are challenging realities, but the oceans are more than a resource for human exploitation. Beyond any usefulness to us, they have intrinsic meaning and value. We experience that deeper reality when we take time to be at rest within nature, when we stand on the beach or walk along a cliff top and marvel at the beauty of creation. 

But the oceans also have the power to overwhelm us. In the Japanese tsunami, we were reminded of how small and vulnerable we are in relation to the majesty of the cosmos. In the nuclear crisis which followed, we discovered yet again how destructive our modern technology can be, unless knowledge and power are tempered by wisdom and love. Too often we confuse knowledge about the world with power over the world. Wisdom is that form of knowledge which teaches us to love the world and to live creatively within it. To quote scientist and theologian Guy Consolmagno, ‘Science gives us answers about how the universe works; it doesn’t explain why we are so delighted to find those answers. God doesn’t make the tides. God makes them awesome. We learn that from prayer; and from any surfer.’

Only when we rediscover a sense of awe and wonder in relation to nature, might we learn how to flourish in harmony with the seasons, tides and species of the natural world. Then we might rediscover what it means to say with the psalmist, ‘Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures, and all the ocean depths.’ Amen.

Thursday, June 9th

Good morning. At the dawn of history, when something in the evolutionary process jumped the tracks of consciousness, the human emerged as a dreaming ape. Deep in the caves of the world, creatures began to paint. A species had evolved that could imagine the world other than it is, and from that imaginative leap came the very essence of what it means to be human. Werner Herzog’s latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, takes us inside those caves and enables us to gaze on wondrous images through thirty thousand years of our time on earth, bringing us face to face with the most mysterious and haunting questions about the origins and meaning of human life. Some say those were the earliest expressions of religious art.

In the Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe were home to some of the world’s greatest art. On the 9th of June, 1311, Duccio’s altarpiece, the Maesta, was installed in Siena Cathedral amidst great ceremony. An eyewitness account tells of how the whole city came together for the procession, and the poor received many alms. The centre panel of the altarpiece shows the Virgin enthroned in majesty, holding the infant Christ, surrounded by angels and saints. It’s an image of astonishing serenity, gazing out at us across the centuries with an infinite peace.

Art is powerless to change the world, but great art changes us. It sets us free, and that enables us to imagine a better world. That’s why tyrants and dictators always wage war on the freedom of art. It remains the most primal and creative expression of human freedom. Without it, we’re less than human. Today, we pray for the gift to see the mystery of God in the beauty of creation, and to reflect that beauty and mystery in all our artistic endeavours. Amen. 

Friday, June 10th

Good morning. What kind of structure do you like best? I love bridges. Unlike many other large engineering projects, bridges add beauty and interest to a landscape or a city. It’s hard to imagine San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney without the Harbour Bridge, or Edinburgh without the Forth Bridge. In Bristol where I live, Brunel’s bridge spans the Avon Gorge as a marvel of Victorian engineering.

 The Millennium Bridge in London opened on the 10th of June, 2000. It’s sometimes known as the wobbly bridge, because it began to sway as crowds of people crossed it. They all unconsciously adjusted their movements to fit with one another and with the bridge, so that the swaying increased. In engineering terms that was a significant problem, but it shows how powerful we humans can be when, consciously or unconsciously, we walk in harmony with one another.

No wonder that we so often use the language of bridges as a metaphor. Bridges unite communities, they allow communication instead of separation, and for people living in remote regions they can make the difference between poverty and prosperity, isolation and integration. When we speak of building, crossing and burning bridges, we use those physical structures to create imagined worlds of meaning.

Christians sometimes speak of Christ as a bridge between the human and God. A bridge is not a resting place, but a space of movement, connection and purpose. That’s why the life of faith is so often described as a journey. In the words of St. Augustine, ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Amen.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Prayer for the Day

I am doing Prayer for the Day on BBC Radio 4 for the next week. You can listen again by clicking here.

I have also uploaded all my Tablet articles onto a separate page - see sidebar for the link.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Change of Perspective

I've spent some time reflecting on whether or not blogging is a creative and meaningful way to spend one's time, and I remain undecided. Perhaps it depends not only on the quality of the blog itself, but also on the quality of conversation and dialogue that it inspires. Clearly, with spontaneous blogging the quality is bound to vary, and so is the level of dialogue.

With all this in mind, I've decided to revive this blog as a space for sharing some of my lectures, talks and articles, rather than posting spontaneous blogs on issues that immediately catch my attention. So this is to some extent a substitute for my personal website, and a place for posting links to various materials which I'm working on or have published. In the case of lectures and work in progress, these are 'raw': references are incomplete and ideas are in development, so please bear that in mind when reading. 

It will take some time to put links to all the material I'd like to publish here, but I'm starting with my latest pieces and I'll gradually work backwards through the archive.

One positive use of a blog could be for the purposes of interactive research and conversation around 'big ideas'. I hope to get organised enough to put some of my current research up here, with a request for engagement and debate. Comments on all the material here are welcome, but I've decided to be more discriminating than I was before about which comments I publish. I hope that doesn't inhibit robust debate, but it is intended to inhibit some of the less helpful advice I've received through comments on my previous blogs.

And, because spaces should be used creatively, I shall also post poems, photos, links etc. Here is Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This was the Poem of the Day today, on a great gadget you can download here for your personalised iGoogle page. I don't know if Angelou was thinking of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence poem when she wrote this, but I recommend reading them together, in the realm of possibility:

A free bird leaps on the back
Of the wind and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange suns rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through
The sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.