20th Apr, 2003

Easter Sunday

In 1998 I attended the biennial conference of the British Society for the Study of Philosophy of Religion at Oriel College, Oxford. I had suggested to that Society in 1988 that we might like to have a conference on Art and Religion, or aesthetics as it is called in those circles, which is just the posh name for the study of beauty in art. Ten years is a short time in philosophy, and certainly but the twinkling of an eye in theology, so I was pleased that the conference organisers got round to the subject so quickly! But between you and me I was a little disappointed that at a Conference on Art we were given paper after paper on Immanuel Kant’s Moral Aesthetics, rather boring stuff on mind and epistemology, the posh word, again, for the grounds of knowledge and such like and it was only on the last day that we were actually shown some art itself. The Reverend Canon Professor David Brown of Durham Cathedral and Van Mildert Professor in that University, delivered a paper entitled “religion and truth in art: symbol, form and colour.” And he showed us slides! Slides of paintings and works of art from the earliest Christian times to the present century in which Prof. Brown illustrated how artists had sought to make the divine visible, to express the mysteries of the world, suffering, hope and love, or as he said “illustration, the art of making something else clear, a reciprocal relationship.” I know that sounds a bit heavy and complicated, but basically it was all about how one sees things, how we actually view a work, how we perceive and comprehend, and one might ask, how are we influenced by works of art, how do we make sense of a world that is capable of great beauty and great evil? That’s what all this “stuff” is about this morning… trying to make sense out of an event, not like other events, that happened two thousand years ago.
To put it another way, and to take our imaginations back two thousand years, I’d like you to think of a 2nd Century BC bathroom, a warm bath nearly full to the brim: “because the bath was nearly full, some of the water slopped over when Archimedes stepped into it.” Many people would have seen no more than a mess on the bathroom floor, and, of course, that is all that the camera or a film crew or a tabloid journalist would have seen. But Archimedes saw more than that, saw deeper than that. And an artist would have seen more, of course. Archimedes saw at work a principle, a law of physics one might say of universal significance, something that is as true today after the mess has been mopped up, as it was then two thousand years ago. There is much more in most things, and in most persons, than lies upon the surface or appears at first sight. That is what Prof. Brown was driving at… how do we actually see, perceive, listen and comprehend?
In terms of Art then, what did Coleridge see in the shooting of an albatross, what did Blake see in a grain of sand? Or what did Botticelli see in the legend of the birth of Venus.
In religious terms, what did Handel see in a verse from the Book of Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” What did Moses see in the burning bush, what did the Prophet Ezekiel see in all manner of unlikely and obscure things. Above all, think what Jesus saw in, for example, a mustard-seed and wineskins, in a hold-up on the Jerusalem-Jericho road, in bridesmaids late for a wedding, in an unjust steward, or a generous householder who rewards all his servants, or a good and faithful shepherd. What did God see that Jonah wasn’t able to see in the city of Nineveh?
It is said that the bronze bust of William Blake by Sir Jacob Epstein in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, if you go and see it, actually looks at you, more than that, it is said that Blake looks into you. Even more so, we believe, did Our Lord look into men and women and children, so that he could see what other people did not see, and know what others did not know, he could see potential, ulterior motives, hope, pain, need and desire. And more than that, those who came into his presence, St Peter for example, but also for all kinds of believers, in being present to Our Lord, painfully and nakedly becomes present to himself. St Peter becomes aware, in the presence, gaze and face of Christ, of failure and betrayal, missed chances, untruth and, perhaps even the beginning of wisdom. Being in the presence of the Christ, before his face, brings with it, for St Peter, a recognition of his own unworthiness. An identity of failure, because of Christ, also brings with it the possibility of a restoration of an identity of hope. It doesn’t provide answers to the complex questions about suffering; why devout and goodly Christians and religious in the Sudan are murdered today, why a young baby the child of friends of my parents has leukaemia, or why the unrighteous and wicked prosper. But it provides a framework, a way of seeing that allows us to ask questions, to protest and demonstrate, to voice despair, to utter prayer and tell the story. To put it bluntly, the more aware we are of God’s presence, the fact of evil and suffering, the more vulnerable we become, moral disorder should hurt us more not less. And this is wisdom, which is more than explanation or intuitive penetration, Wisdom is knowing the scope of tragedy AND YET praying, protesting, speaking out, challenging and acting. Not anaesthetising us to suffering or resigning responsibility, but facing up to our duty and taking seriously our vocation; as we heard this morning to work together, pray together and steward together the gifts God has given to us in this place. All of this in the presence of Christ who is both the Wisdom of God, the beauty of God and the mystery of God. Father Son and Holy Spirit, amen.

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