God in the Gallery was destined to ruffle the feathers of Reformed and Evangelical theologians used to talking about the visual arts on their home court, in front of their own fans, and with their own refs Rookmaaker, Schaeffer, and Wolterstorff calling the fouls. Yet I underestimated just how problematic God in the Gallery was to the larger project of Protestant theology, with which Reformed and Evangelical theology has a complex yet abiding relationship. This larger project is limned by the Schleiermacher-Barth axis of thought, the nineteenth century Liberal Protestant dismissal of the Trinity and the draining Christianity's dogmatic content to the Neo-Orthodox creative "rescue" of the person of Jesus Christ and "orthodox" Christianity in the first quarter of the twentieth. Despite the fact that Barth actually does believe in Christ as the God-man and the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God, this axis is two sides of the same coin. And it has Kant's face on it. And as Kantian currency it trades in reason not mystery, explanation not experience.
This academic Protestant establishment has a deep iconoclastic tendency that has become only more explicit throughout the twentieth century. (By "academic" I mean theology and philosophy produced for the academy not for the Church or in the Church. To be sure, academic theologians of this brand do indeed enjoy speaking "to the church," but that is a different matter altogether than working for the Church.) As I visit Evangelical and Protestant colleges, interacted with Protestant theologians and philosophers, and read the reviews of God in the Gallery, I have been continually surprised by just how deep-seated and institutionalized this iconoclasm is. It is dressed up in various ways and appears in numerous guises but in the last analysis Protestant theologians and philosophers use the visual arts only or merely to offer illustrations of truths they have discovered elsewhere and, if they had their druthers, they would declare, as Barth did, that no symbols and images be found inside any Protestant worship space, lecture hall, or seminar room. And if they absolutely have to be there, they are there only for decoration or instruction, not to be looked at intensely, or to declare its aesthetic presence in its own voice. True, some Protestant theologians and philosophers will tell you how much they like the visual arts but it does not take long to discover, either through a few questions or a glance at their office walls, that they have very little understanding of artistic practice. And this is not necessarily their fault. With Thomas Kinkade paintings of light, Bob Ross reruns on PBS, Sister Wendy Beckett, and silly behavior in the contemporary art world, cranky behavior in Conservative politics, and even the work of art museum docents, the larger culture has no idea of what serious artistic practice is and what it requires of the viewer. I have come to believe that what the larger culture understands as painting is entirely wrong. That I will be accused of being an elitist by making such a comment merely proves my point.
Protestant iconoclasm breeds bad taste. In his sublime The Beauty of the Infinite, Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart offers perhaps the best criticism of Nietzsche ever offered in print: he has terrible taste. For Hart, it is his aesthetic that undermines his anti-theological philosophy. This could very well be said about the entire project of Protestant theology that has emerged along this Schleiermacher-Barth axis. It fails Hart's taste test.
Hart does not dismiss Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Derrida lightly. He listens to them patiently and intently and then pats them on the head and scolds them for not having refined enough palettes to recognize that the Church Fathers and the Biblical witness are a much more robust foundation than Kant and the whitewashed sanctuaries of the Enlightenment.
It is well known that the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has claimed that he developed his systematic theology as a meditation on St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Compare Jenson to Barth. In what I find to be a shockingly nasty little essay, "The architectural problem of Protestant places of worship," Barth consigns the worshiper and the preacher to an empty, presumably white box in order to hear the preached Word of God. And it is very difficult for me not to be attracted to Jenson's Systematic Theology while being repulsed by Barth's Church Dogmatics. Is this an unfair assessment? Perhaps.
And yet. The Seventh Ecumenical council Nicaea II (787 AD) affirmed the necessity of the veneration of icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints as a means to preserve the mystery of Jesus Christ as the God-man. In some ways, Nicaea II is simply an affirmation of the traditional aesthetic taste of the Church. To dismiss it as "merely" about images, symbols, and the like which are barriers to hearing the Word of God reveals bad taste. And in the context of Nicaea II having bad taste is much worse than it sounds. It reveals a lack of aesthetic imagination. And without an aesthetic imagination, embodied in and shaped through icons, how can we appreciate—see—God's mysterious and beautiful work in the world through Christ? Nicaea II claims that bad taste, in this context, is not a failure of culture, it is a failure of dogma. It is, then, heretical.
Should we be concerned that few of these Protestant theologians, given their admirable zeal to engage in the most contemporary of thought, have not been capable of engaging the most contemporary of art at its highest level? This is the clearest indication that the Protestant academic establishment, liberal and conservative, is profoundly—not just slightly—iconoclastic. Art is at best a didactic tool, an "image" like the reproduction of Grünewald's medieval Isenheim Altarpiece that Barth pinned to the wall in his study. It is not a proactive means by which knowledge about the world is produced and experienced. Would that Barth had engaged the tradition of modern painting as he engaged the tradition of modern philosophical speculation. But to do would imply the belief that painting could actually participate in theology, not just illustrate it. And the Protestant tradition has cut itself off from that belief.
This is why I find the Church Fathers and those theologians that engage them within the dynamism of the Holy Tradition so much more powerful than a positively tasteless Protestant theology that thinks that Barth actually "rescued" something. The Fathers don't seem to have much trouble writing about and pointing to images and icons as a creative and constitutive part of their theological reflection. I am reminded of German art historian Erwin Panofsky's powerful little study Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, in which he analyzes how the intricate beauty of the Gothic Cathedral is not merely an illustration of the intricate aesthetic beauty of Aquinas's thought, but actively participates in shaping it. And that brings an aesthetic mindfulness to Aquinas that makes his theological speculations even more compelling. And then I think about the frightening white box that Barth would have us worship in and the legions of contemporary Protestant theologians flocking to Barth. And I wonder.
This is why I appreciate Liberal Protestant theologians like John Dillenberger and Paul Tillich. They at least engaged what was most contemporary in the art world (Warhol and Giacometti, for example.) Unfortunately, most of their followers merely reified their historical tastes so that a watered down post Vatican II gestural, figurative expressionism has become the "court style" of Liberal Protestant theologians.
My creative and unsystematic and ad hoc use of the Church Fathers, the Russians Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov, and Christoph Schönborn, come directly out of my engagement with and response to modern and contemporary art on its own terms.
Catholic and Orthodox thought is most capable of offering a means to experience creatively modern and contemporary art primarily because they remain believers in art, believers in an aesthetics wrought in the Church, which thus grounds but does not limit the aesthetic outside the Church. This, however, does not mean that Catholics and the Orthodox have good taste simply by virtue of being Catholic and Orthodox. It does mean, however, that they have at hand the theological resources alive in their tradition that makes such taste possible.
At a symposium in New York City a few years ago for art museum curators, then-Seattle Art Museum director Lisa Corrin was asked how she developed her leadership skills (She is now director of the Williams College Museum of Art). She listed a number of books written by the usually business guru suspects. And then she said, almost in passing, "and I look at the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres." That floored me. Would that a contemporary theologian be capable of saying something like that—that participating in the aesthetic life of a particular artists actually shapes one's thought and actions.
But art and the aesthetic isn't that important, you say. Tell that to the bishops in the eighth century that came to Nicaea with their eyes gouged, arms amputated, and legs hamstrung because they dared defend a robust aesthetic as a fundamental part of the Church's witness of Christ to the world in the face of an imperial iconoclasm that claimed that such imagery was useless at best and idolatrous at worst and got in the way of an unmediated access to Christ. And that sounds quite Protestant. And just this past Sunday the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrated the first Sunday of Lent, which commemorates the re-establishment of icons in Constantinople in the ninth century after a second round of violent imperial iconoclasm after Nicaea II. The Orthodox call it the celebration "The Triumph of Orthodoxy," and regard the restoration of the veneration of icons to be the aesthetic affirmation of the Nicene faith.
When I speak at Evangelical Christian colleges about God in the Gallery, I am often asked about whether the Protestant tradition offers resources for a robust experience of modern and contemporary art. My view is that it cannot and will not until it recovers and creatively appropriates, in some way, the deep aesthetic insights of Nicaea II. And until that happens, God in the Gallery will continue to irritate the academic Protestant establishment.