The piece below is an expository piece that was written for my Philosophy for Theology class several years back as part of my Ph.D. work. It is actually an expansion of an older post on this site. This intersection of art and faith is at the heart of who I am.
Aesthetics and Theology
A year ago, I had the joy of reading Aesthetics in a redwood forest in the hills near Santa Cruz. It was a great way to pass time as my wife was on a photo walk with a group of fellow photographers. As I was reading, an old concept hit me in a new way. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because I was reading in such a sublime location or maybe because my current work requires that I think about aesthetics in a more theological way. Either way, as I read I was really struck.
Immanuel Kant developed the concept of disinterested contemplation as necessary for beauty. In fact, this concept tends to be the most prevalent when thinking about the “high arts” though I would argue that it is, at least in part, applicable to any art form. The phrase “disinterested” often confuses people who are not familiar with the concept. Why would someone want to contemplate what doesn’t interest them? But this is not what it means. Essentially, it means that the contemplator is contemplating the object itself not what he/she can get out of an object. It has also been conceived as a higher interest. In other words, disinterested contemplation is a contemplation that is not interested in what can be gotten out of an object, in terms of tangible benefit, but interested in contemplating the object for the very sake of the object.
Let us take an Aston Martin as an example. The Aston Martin is a profoundly elegant and beautiful vehicle—a sculpture on wheels. A viewer can look at the Aston Martin and contemplate every aspect of its aesthetic appeal and when the viewer does so the viewer is certainly interested in the car but not for any reason other than the delight that the form of the car gives. This is disinterested contemplation. On the other hand, a viewer could look at the Aston Martin and contemplate the pleasure that one would get from the prestige of owning such a wonderful vehicle or the joy of driving 150 mph down a long stretch of open highway. That is interested contemplation. The viewer is not contemplating the vehicle on its own merits but rather contemplating the benefits that one could receive from the vehicle. In the fine arts, disinterested contemplation is often known by the motto, Art for Art’s Sake.
While some theorists have been rather troubled by disinterested contemplation, it may be able to be applied to faith as well as aesthetics. Is disinterested contemplation actually true faith? Our culture is often far too interested in what we can get out of things. This sort of thinking has also bled over to the church. There is a feeling among many in the church that we should follow God because he will bless us with wealth or peace or comfort or any number of other desirable things. This struck me powerfully when I was working on my Masters of Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I went to the on-campus Christian association, which was comprised mostly of undergraduates, and was hit by how the presentation of the Gospel given essentially argued that we should follow God because following God works. If you want “the good life,” here is a way, the best way, to obtain it. There was something about that which seemed completely wrong. I believe we should follow God because we believe He is true not because we believe we will gain benefit from following Him. I am not saying that God does not bless those who follow Him. Certainly, at times He does. But at the same time, scripture is replete with examples of those who followed God only to face great challenges or even death. What happens to those who choose to follow God because “it works” when they face challenges? Is this sort of gospel at least part of the cause for the type of attrition rate we see in the church today?
What the church, all too often, teaches is a sort of interested contemplation when it comes to God. We think of Him to get something from the experience… peace or comfort or blessing of some sort. I believe that these all can be blessings for those who have faith. But, true faith is disinterested contemplation—God for God’s Sake. True faith is loving and following God not because it works or because of what He can do for us but because He is true and right and of incomparable value… for His own sake.
While there is some discussion about this in evangelical circles, I have found the strongest theological support for this idea among Catholic theologians. Richard Viladesau wrote, “The creature must be occupied with the glory of God, not with itself or its own fulfillment (even though that fulfillment in fact results.)” Similarly, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “This means that God does not come primarily as a teacher for us (“true”), as a “redeemer” for us (“good”), but for himself, to display and to radiate the splendor of his eternal triune love in that “disinterestedness” which true love has in common with true beauty.”
If this is true, I believe the concept has important ramifications for theological aesthetics. It is the tendency within theological aesthetics to want to expand out what is considered art. It is common for the theologian to argue that the prayer card is just as valid as the painting in the museum. In some ways, that is true. Both are reflective of the beliefs of the artist. And, a prayer card or a kitsch Christian decorative plate from a Christian bookstore can function as an important part of studying Christian visual culture. But, it is important for theologians to show discernment and make qualitative assessments when it comes to theological aesthetics.
The largely accepted theory of the Social Ontology of Art relies on the conferral of status for defining art. In reaction to this, theologians often argue on behalf of the aforementioned Christian kitsch artwork as being meaningful and religiously significant. In part, this is because these theologians want the religious meaning and not the assigned worth dictated by the art world to determine the value of a piece of religious visual culture. The problem is that I believe these kitsch works to be of less artistic and religious value.
Religious kitsch relies very heavily on sentimentality. Prayer cards, Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, paintings by Thomas Kinkade, and most every knickknack in the Christian bookstore relies on nostalgia and overt sentimentality to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. It is, in fact, this emotional response which the consumers of religious kitsch are seeking. These consumers are not seeking the disinterested contemplation of God which is indicative of true faith and which great religious art facilitates. They are seeking the emotional high of sentiment. They are not seeking God for God’s Sake but the emotion evoked by the sentimentality of the art. Philosopher Jack Crabtree said, “There are two kinds of people in the world. There are philosophers and drug addicts. And, Christianity is the drug of choice for a lot of people.” In this quote, Crabtree was referencing the tendency of Christians to pursue Christianity because it assuages their pain and makes them feel better rather than because it is true. In essence, he was critiquing the tendency to pursue interested rather than disinterested faith. We fail to pursue God for God’s Sake.
This distinction allows theological aestheticians to make qualitative judgments about kitsch and fine art that are not just based on the collective acceptance of the art world, as is the case with the Social Ontology Theory of Art, but on criteria that considers both the theological and artistic merits of pieces of religious visual culture.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on March 14, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.