Toward a Common Hermeneutic: a Reconciliation of Theology and Art

by jdavidcharles

One of the most basic postures we take as humans is to invoke names. By names we designate, invent and reinvent, and even deconstruct. A name paradoxically shades and narrows our interpretation of something while simultaneously being our only means of opening the thing up for experience. All discourses, in this case particularly those of theology and art, interact with and employ names as a means of communicating. After providing a brief reflection on the phenomenon of naming, I will expound further on what shape naming takes primarily in art, as imaginative disclosure, but in theology as well. A reconciliation of the two and a possible use of theology as aesthetic discourse are finally presented.

A Brief Sketch of the Phenomenon of Naming

Since the linguistic turn it has become increasingly difficult to conceive of language as simply a representation of inner thought, a sort of equipment our minds sadly have to use to communicate. Language does more than just carry thoughts, it encapsulates how we think, act, and behave within our given situation (and, arguably, is what gives us those situations). It is out of language that philosophy and worldview present themselves. For it is not that language incarnates an abstract notion of mind, but rather language shapes how and what we think. The language we speak brings with it a history of how to think with that language. Of course reason is a vast whole and this treatment cursory, yet it is clear that language and reason are inexorably linked. It is for this reason that the primal substance of creation as viewed by many of the pre-Socratics was logos: the reason, thought, word, and systematic imagination of the cultures of men. St. John picks up on this theme when he speaks of Christ as the primal Logos in his gospel. As those who participate in the Image of God, Christ the Logos, we too share this image, the imago dei. Traditionally the imago has been associated bearing a logos, the stamp of the divine, in that we are in a thinking-discourse. The Church Fathers, particularly St. Irenaeus, used such logic to eventually reach the formal designation of man as “rational animal.” We must not understand this as Descartes did, the res cogitans, thinking things, but rather as being rational in that we have language and language has us.

The creation and recreation of man is framed around a hermeneutical approach to existence. As mentioned above St. John saw the Incarnation as the Logos, the Word, assuming humanity and vivifying their logos, the divine in man. But before this recapitulation of humanity in Christ man was first created to be a steward over creation and to name the things of the earth, as outlined in the creation myth of Genesis 1 and 2. Out of all the actions that could be at the center of man’s posture to the world in Eden we find the phenomenon of naming. If we see the “naming of the animals” and the possessing of a logos as related then it follows that any posture toward a thing (interpretation, prejudice, understanding, et al) is a sort of name. To articulate any interpretation of an artwork is to “name” it, to take a certain stand on the thing. Even silent articulations, thoughts, are names (although not shared). Likewise to make an artwork is a naming. To approach something with any sense of the thing, any pre-judice, is to already have named it.

How then does naming shape how we live? Naming is to existentially “place” things: naming defines a “here” and a “there.” In this sense we touch on Heidegger’s distinction of man as Dasein, “being-there,” or that which presents a “there” wherever it is. Man most primordially designates space in relation to himself, the lamp as here, the chair as yonder, etc. Granted, he perhaps has an understanding of the chair as 10 feet away, but this is a formal designation that follows suit from the existential, the “there.” In fact, I can only conceive of a there because I am here; the lamp has a there only in that it is a possible here for me. Before I can conceive of quantified space I conceive of relational space—me as here. Naming is thus a strictly human, existential action; it places things in relation to itself, designating a space for a thing to appear as intelligible. To name then provides not only a means of talking about the thing but a context and situation for the thing to be understood as that thing. Naming then has a degree of paradox to it—it simultaneously gives a “space,” an interpretation, of the thing while yet shutting the thing in particularity, naming it this.

Naming a thing as this then works backwards onto our experience of the thing. For instance, the male and female form are two objects, things, which every culture or context interprets in a certain way, what we call masculinity and femininity. However, I never experience the male or female form objectively, that is devoid of any interpretation of them. Even if I have the ability to conceptualize the female form as something separate from femininity this presupposes my experience of femininity from which to derive it. Here we run into Heidegger’s famous hammer analogy—the hammer’s being is constituted first and foremost by its hammering (as a thing “ready-to-hand”) long before we can conceive of it as an objective thing possessing a height and weight (as a thing “present-at-hand”). Just as we experience a lamp as over-yonder before we think of it as 10 feet away we first experience gender as our context and culture presents it. Further, to be able to conceive of something as objective (devoid of context, self-subsistent) I must have already subjected it to this embedded interpretation. This is all a way of saying that before I talk about something I must name it. Before I can cognitively separate or categorize something I have to have experienced it and thus already interpreted it.

Art as Imaginative Disclosure

Naming then is an articulation of something that is already there, or rather an articulation that the situation presents to me. Before naming, the thing has already presented itself to-be-named and I have taken a posture of one-who-names. Naming is not creation ex nihilo but revelation and prophecy, an opening up of this silent dialogue. Objects themselves beckon to the namer, the situation I find myself in calls for the object to be articulated. The stone beckons to the sculptor in this way, asking of the sculptor to “name” it, chip away at it, until it becomes what the situation calls for, namely, a work of art. Naming an object then opens what was once closed off, revealing in an articulated form an interpretation that was always there but withdrawn. This is why Heidegger chose the word “disclosure” to talk about the phenomena of actuating this type of possibility. Naming is exactly this sort of disclosure: for to name a thing is to reveal in physical form a certain posture we are disposed to take before the thing, just as the sculptor is disposed to “name” the stone as a work of art.

Not only does naming bring out a situation then, a “there,” but also reveals an interpretation of the thing already in that situation—it discloses a meaning. In this disclosing we interpret the thing as-something, metaphorically extending the thing. Metaphor in this sense is literally a carrying (phora) over (meta) of meaning, as in the phenomena of gender—I experience the female form and anatomy first and foremost by its metaphoric-extension, femininity. We know objects by the names we give them. So, for instance, if our sculptor was commissioned to make a bust of a political leader, before he puts chisel to stone there is a silent dialogue of the art work—the sculptor has a certain way of sculpting and the political leader has a certain way of appearing, the possibility of the work of art is there already. The situation the artist is in beckons for the work to be made in such a way. If our sculpture is the David then we have a metaphoric-extension and naming of David—this is David the masculine, ideal, the icon. However, if we shift the situation and think of Shostakovich and his Ninth Symphony in “honor” of the Soviet victory at Berlin, we have a very different metaphoric-extension—a piece which is superficially an ode but at heart a carnival-like mockery. Although simple examples we must not dismiss metaphoric-extension, the creation of symbol and culture, as superfluous or inessential, for it is by metaphor we experience the world as such. For the theatre is not a microcosm but the actual cosmos presented more obviously and naturally; likewise, art is not a reflection of the world but the very means by which we see and experience the world—there is no discourse without names.

The Metaphors of Theology and Art

All naming, not just as exemplified in the arts, has artistry to it, interacting with mental space and supplying us with new metaphors to “take up” and use. Theology likewise is artistic in this way, supplying us with metaphors to take up and think through the Divine. Visual art does this even more so though in that it both commodifies mental and physical space—art extends not only mental metaphor but also visual metaphor. Michelangelo literally modified the stone into metaphor in his David while also extending the mental metaphor of say masculinity, iconography, Creation, the soul, as well as how we think of David as a mythic-historic figure. Art works from the physical metaphor and lays hold of, besieges our mental spaces—in this way the metaphors of art inhabit our being. As the body and soul are only discernible as things in reference to each other, so too mental and physical space are defined by each other—no physical experience of art is without an appropriation of metaphor by the soul. Art is then a sort of incarnational naming, a transformation of a physical situation into a meaning. This is not to say theology is a-physical per se, but rather that its epistemology is grounded upon an admitted Unknowable, inclining it to a theoretical, mental space.

Art as a discourse then is an incarnational whole whose physical space always has mental, metaphoric significance—every artwork supplies a metaphor, a name, beyond itself. The David extends away from David the person to create a metaphor that occupies its own mental space. Not only does the artist name David-as-statue, but he creates the “as” of the metaphor—there is now the possibility for something to be like the David. The artist has created a relation and named it—disclosing David-the-ideal as a particular. Consequently, theology as a discourse discloses meaning in light of the Unknowable. The metaphoric-extensions of theology, its categories, formations, and divisions are all interpretations of the ultimately pre-predicative, anti-propositional whole that is God (like the David is an interpretation of David-the-ideal). Just as the female form can only be discussed in that it has been already interpreted as femininity, so too theological discourse is that interpretation of God, which is not God, yet our means of experiencing Him.

Because this is the case we can apply the “as” of theology, its metaphoric-extensions, to the “reading” of art. If we take up the metaphors of the theological discourse we can readily see that all art is already enmeshed with theological meaning—and, because of the hermeneutic circle (pre-judices affect the reading which affect the judgments which affect the reading ad infinitum), art in turn supplies metaphors for theology to take up. As the naming of an artwork is found in the situation the artist finds himself in (the silent dialogue) so too the meaning of the work is found in the situation of the artwork and its world.

As an articulation the artwork has a shared sphere of intelligibility—I am not the sole interpreter of an artwork, nor the artist, but rather the situated community interprets the artwork. That is to say I may name something (i.e. make the artwork) but I as an artist am equally alongside my peers as an interpreter of the work—once a name is created it is taken up by the community and used as it sees fit. In a fabulous text Owen Barfield (in Poetic Diction) sketches a history of the word “ruin,” showing how its meaning had been developed and redeveloped by such authors as Shakespeare, Spenser, and Coleridge. None of these men have “ownership” of ruin nor its meaning, rather they took up a name they did not create and presented an interpretation to the world—in turn their interpretation was taken up by another and commodified. There is no functional difference between ruin and Richard III. Each is a name that has been handed down with a history of various interpretations and meanings. Interpretation of a name or artwork is essentially artistic, a re-naming. The situation the word appears in, what people and contexts commodify the word, are those who orient where the history of the word is to go—they salvage the word from a past, present it to the present, and project its meaning into the future. If there is to be any dialogue between the discourses of theology and art here and now it can only be done so if theology chooses to approach and interpret art. If theology presents itself as an ideological discourse by which meaning can be found to be in the work (i.e. as Marxism, Freudianism, and Foucaldianism have) then that meaning will be found to be already in the artwork.

What is it to be a theological artist then? It is to be a human in the fullest sense; to understand the cultural-mythic languages given, dialogue, deconstruct, and recreate them in response. This is the primordial stance of what it is to be human, to worship the Creator by pulling out of creation its possibilities. All art though inevitably has theological implications, as it does psychoanalytic or epistemological ones. The artist if not intentional in his theology should at least be aware of these implications (Rothko and Hirst clearly seem(ed) to be). What is it to be an artistic theologian? To provide a sphere of intelligibility for art—a situation in which art can thrive and be interpreted and re-interpreted. Christian aestheticians have done this throughout history, St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger all provide theological theories of art as a basic groundwork of their philosophical-theologies. The Christian artist and theologian are called to be human in their situated, perspectival views on the world. Although they have differing viewpoints each take a similar stance toward the world, both concerned with man and his interpretations. Being human is an erotic existence, one in which things are experienced, felt, internalized, named, interpreted, worked into a mythic scheme, formalized, rejected, and finally re-experienced as people and their culture shift, opening up the space for ever new interpretations and possibilities to be named.