In the winter of 1966, I received a call in my Emory office from a Time editor who was seeking assistance in the design for the cover of their Easter issue that year, they had intended for it to be a contemporary portrait of God but their research department had failed in its search for such a portrait, and he wondered if I could be of assistance.  Fortuitously, and by a sheer coincidence, there happened to be in my office the one whom I regarded as the best authority on this subject, B. J. Stiles, and he was forced to tell the editor that he knew of no such portrait, and doubted if one could be possible.  One result of this conversation is that the Easter issue of Time that year was designed in black, it did include yet another discussion of the death of God, and it proved to be the best selling issue which Time has ever published.  While I have never been able fully to enter contemporary painting, I have been deeply affected by modern painting, and I have come to believe that the late painting of both Van Gogh and Monet does center upon a uniquely modern portrait of God, and while God is unnamable as God in this painting, we nevertheless see God here, even if we thereby see a totality that is unnamable as God.  Van Gogh has always been my favorite modern painter, and I believe that he has given us a unique icon of God, an absolutely alien God who is nevertheless a totally present God, a presence demanding a truly new seeing, and doing so by incorporating an icon dissolving every boundary between the sacred and the profane, and every boundary between center and circumference, or here and there.
 While I have given a good deal of time to the study of art history and art criticism, as reflected in History and Apocalypse, which devotes its first chapter to Greek sculpture and a section of the Dante chapter to Giotto, I have only rarely discovered an actual theological study of art, and here I distinguish theological from iconographical analysis.  There is an important distinction between an iconographical study which is an historical analysis, and a theological study seeking to unveil an epiphany of the sacred in the work of art. The latter demands not only a religious sensibility but a religious empathy, and this is rare in scholars today.  Art historians, of course, can find no assistance in the great body of our theology which is indifferent to art; indeed, it is often if not commonly deeply hostile to art, and above all so in the modern world, where a truly sacred art has seemingly disappeared.  However, there are paradoxes here, for just as a Calvinistic and iconoclastic Holland gave us our greatest modern portraiture, a seemingly religious America has  given us virtually no religious painting at all, just as a profoundly secular modern France has given us a painting which is ever more fully becoming manifest as a truly new sacred painting, and perhaps most so in Cezanne.  A deep coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and the profane is manifest for all to see in a uniquely modern literature, but it is perhaps no less present in a uniquely modern art, and theology is now called upon to apprehend this coincidentia, which in large measure occurs in Mark Taylors Disfiguring.                                                                                                        Our theology, however, inherits a tradition in which seeing is subordinate to hearing, and in our dominant modern theology authentic hearing is understood as effecting an iconoclastic negation of seeing, and if therein it deeply differs from the great body of ancient and medieval theology, this would appear to be a genuine reflection of a deeply modern condition.  Is a uniquely modern condition one in which it is simply impossible to see the sacred, and is deep seeing for us inevitably and necessarily a purely profane seeing, or one in which the sacred can actually appear only as chaos or abyss?  There can be little doubt that abyss and chaos are more fully manifest in our art than in any previous art, but can this be a genuine epiphany of the sacred for us, one in which a deep disfiguring or a deep dissolution is the inevitable vehicle of the sacred?  Art historians and critics are open to the sacred as a category, but are reluctant to employ the word God, and for good reason, for God has very nearly disappeared from our critical discourse, and the very evocation of that word in critical circles is greeted with embarrassment or astonishment.  So it is that twentieth century philosophy differs most clearly from every previous philosophy in the near absence of the very word God in our philosophy, and so far from being the queen of the sciences, theology today is little more than their plaything or toy, and above all so any theology which dares to employ the word God.
 William Hamilton published a collection of essays whose title is On Taking God Out of the Dictionary, and this is a serious project, many if not most theologians were once taught to regard all dictionary or common definitions of God as being the very opposite of a genuine theological meaning of God, and this can clearly be seen in the very usage of God in our common language, and if analytic philosophy is devoted to decoding the meaning of our common language, it is clear why it should have given us such shallow and empty meanings of  God.  And this is true not only of our common language but of our dominant academic language, so that a theologian in our universities is inevitably a missionary (or so I regarded myself), and a missionary not to a "pagan" religious world, but to an areligious world, the first such world in history, and this is commonly true even in scholarly investigations of explicitly religious phenomena.  I have come to regard the American Academy of Religion as having become a deep enemy not only of theology but of religion itself, for it is now far distant from the intention of its founders, and while this is perhaps an inevitable evolution, it is revealing of our academic world, even if there continues to remain a small body of scholars seeking genuine religious and theological meaning.
 To seek a theological meaning of art in such a world is certainly a deep if not impossible challenge, and this challenge is compounded by an arena dominated by formal and technical analysis, which is largely true of art history today, this is something which I discovered at Williams College, although their superb art department was the only one there in which I found a home.  Art history only entered the American university at a late date, another witness to an iconoclastic America, yet it is also in America that art museums have truly become sanctuaries, perhaps our only truly sacred sites; we treat art museums as our cathedrals, and for a very good reason, for only here can we discover today a truly holy ground.  How could this be?  What is there in art which evokes such a response, and does so in our seemingly most secular circles, the German theologian, Moltmann, once remarked that when God is dead religion is everywhere, and in some sense religion is everywhere today, but nowhere is such religion understood.  Perhaps the world of art is that world which is most open to such an investigation, surely it is here that we moderns are most open to the sacred, but are we here most open to God?  Ever since Barth's revolutionary commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, the theologian has been deeply suspicious of , if not hostile towards religion, yet ironically this book is the most deeply religious of modern theological works, and most so in the very passages in which it assaults religion.  That is dialectical theology, indeed, and such a dialectical theology does offer a way into the theological meaning of art, and one which concretely occurs here in Barths analysis of Michelangelos Sistine Chapel painting, where he perhaps most deeply draws forth the purely negative theological power of religion.                                                                                                      This is not simply a deeply modern Calvinism, Calvin would no doubt be horrified that Barth could take art so seriously, and this never occurs again in Barths work, just as subsequent theological investigations of art, such as those of Tillich and his followers, never approach the power of the early Barth.  But if dialectical theology can apprehend the purely negative power of art, if it is a genuinely dialectical theology, it can apprehends its positive or affirmative power, too; and this in the very context in which it knows its negative power, a negative power which dialectically must be a positive power, and one which we actually know in genuinely responding to art.  There are those who believe that our modern museums of art are more truly holy than our classical museums, and it would appear to be undeniable that a traditional iconography is less powerful to us than is its modern parallel, with the exception of that art which is truly exotic to us, such as Byzantine art and Far Eastern painting, just as it also could be noted that the West only became open to such art in that fully modern world which has so comprehensively known the death of God.
 Of course, the death of God is a primal icon of classical Christian painting and sculpture, or is so with the advent of Gothic art, and while the crucifixion only very gradually entered Western art, and not truly so until after almost a thousand years of the evolution of that art, when this fully occurs it finally brings to an end every Western image of the Christ of Glory, or wholly overshadows every such image, so that in full modernity a true image of the resurrection has simply become impossible, or has become wholly inseparable from the image of crucifixion.  Thereby ancient Christian art is truly reversed, an art that could not or would not envision the crucifixion, and this is just the point at which a classical Christian iconography passes into its fully modern equivalent, for iconography is truly universal, occurring as we now know in profoundly secular or profane expressions.  However, this is not to say that we can yet understand such a profane iconography. Nevertheless, we must recognize it as iconography, and so recognize it if only because of its sacred status in our world.  Modern painting has a sacred status for us going beyond any other art, and why has modern music never attained such a status?  Certainly it is imaginatively as powerful as modern painting, and even if its very complexity would seem to confine it to an elite, its radical innovations are probably no greater than those of modern painting, and the sheer power of many of its expressions is undeniable.  Is this because seeing for us is what hearing once was, or because we can now know a liberation in seeing that we cannot know in hearing, or cannot know in hearing without an enormous discipline and attention?
 It is the mass popularity of modern art that is astounding,  a popularity which is now virtually universal throughout the world.  Here modern painting wholly transcends both modern music and modern poetry, and yet no one could think that its artists are greater artists, although perhaps its interpreters are far more effective priests or shamans, even having succeeded in making modern art or its counterfeit a primary vehicle of our advertising and mass media.  Now it is simply not possible to counterfeit modern music or modern poetry, and if it is possible to counterfeit modern painting, and I often think that contemporary painting is little more than that, this is revealing of modern painting.  So, too, art forgery abounds, and this is not only impossible in music and poetry, but simply inconceivable, so that one is reminded of the forgery of holy relics, and this calls attention to the deep importance of touch in painting, one alien to both music and poetry, but truly integral in painting, even if for the great majority of viewers this can only be a vicarious touching.  Yet we do touch painting in truly seeing it; painting is the only art in which this faculty is primary, and perhaps painting was always originally an icon, as we can see in the earliest painting known to us, we can see an icon only by touching it, not only are sight and touch here inseparable, but sight is touch, and perhaps that is what it most deeply is in modern painting.
 I know that I touch Van Goghs paintings when I fully see them, and therein they truly are an icon to me; no classical or traditional Christian painting has such an effect upon me, and if only here I know that I, too, live in a sacred world.  Perhaps it is sacred because it is only approachable through touch, that faculty seemingly least affected by modernity, unless in late modernity it has become so hollow as to be empty, and so empty as only to be awakened by an icon.  Already Blake, on the first plate of Europe, could know our senses as now being so disordered that they are wholly isolated from one another, and only touch can find a passageway out of our fallen world.  This was surely a fundamental reason why painting and design are so important in Blakes engravings of his prophetic poetry, and here for the first time in modernity a book is book and painting at once, which is one reason why art historians cannot understand Blake.  Yet if finally we can only approach painting through touch, or through a seeing that is seeing and touch at once, then we can see why deep painting is inevitably a sacred painting, for it is inevitably an icon, and the public response to modern art would seem to demonstrate that, and perhaps the deeply non-mimetic ground of modern art makes this possible; here we see as we cannot otherwise see, and yet we can know this seeing as pure seeing itself, and a pure seeing liberating us from our fallen or inverted senses.
 Now it is true that there is an ultimate non-mimetic ground of modern music and poetry, but if only thereby they are deeply alien to the great body of humanity, whereas the non-mimetic ground of modern painting may well be a decisive key to its overwhelming and universal impact.  It is precisely that world which we most openly and spontaneously see in full modernity which is most alien to us, most distant from any primordial or ancient vision, and certainly most distant from anything that we could recognize as a sacred vision.  Yes, sight is our primary sensory faculty, and never more so than in modernity, when as Blake knew, our senses are most isolated from each other, so that now sight is naked and alone as it never was before, and hence if only because of its greater power more in need of liberation than our other senses, and when the possibility of that liberation arises, as it does in modern painting, we overwhelmingly respond.  But we could never so respond if we saw here what we see elsewhere, or what we have seen before, only a truly new seeing could liberate our sight, one which has never occurred before, yet when it does occur, which Proust knew so deeply in responding to Impressionism, it occurs as a renewal of a sight which we have lost, for the only true paradise is always the paradise we have lost.  Such a response is simply not possible for modern music and poetry, or possible only for a few, whereas virtually everyone can respond to modern painting, or could do so once it had been established as a sacred art.
 Our museums are sanctuaries as our concert halls and libraries are not, books may well be more widely distributed than paintings, but it is art books that are our sacred books, far more so than books of poetry are, and even when they are only coffee-table books, those are the very books that we are most eager to display, and it is original paintings and not manuscripts which command astronomical prices in our marketplace, and this despite the fact that only a few experts allied with our most advanced scientific detection can distinguish an original painting from a forgery.  I shall never forget the deep impact which William Gaddis The Recognitions had upon me, our richest theological novel since Moby Dick, for this is not only the novel which is our fullest portrait of New York, but it is a novel in which an art forger is a truly modern Christ figure, and whereas this is a truly demonic world, and a demonic and holy world at once, the forger is the only true innocent within it, and his innocence is inseparable from his forgery, a forgery giving life in a universal world of death, as here a forgery exactly faithful to the spirit and the letter of its Flemish masters recreates the paintings of those masters so as to offer a strange kind of redemption.  Thereby we are awakened to the power of a forgery which recalls the power of forged relics, yet all relics are forged, or all of our most sacred relics.  Here there is no real distinction between the original and the copy, or the original and the fake, for a true relic is wholly the product of the beholder, and its power resides precisely in that.  Could that be true of modern art?
 No, certainly not, and yet there is a power in all art deriving from its beholder.  If we are awakened here as we are nowhere else, that very awakening is an ultimate power, and it occurs in modern art as it does nowhere else, or universally occurs here as it does nowhere else, and that may well be true in every historical world, there are no atheists in the presence of genuine art, or none who are unawakened to the sacred, here is a real presence, indeed, and it can occur even in the midst of the deepest spiritual darkness.  Perhaps only that darkness makes possible the power of modern art, just as only a seeing that is wholly other than our common seeing makes possible the seeing of modern painting, and just as there is a universal ritual throughout the world, a truly cosmic mass, there is a universal art throughout the world, each conveys the sacred to our most immediate actuality, and each only does so by isolating itself from its own world, or its apparent world, or what Hegel knew as "the given."  The truth is that religion has never occurred apart from art, and even Buddhism, the most iconoclastic of all religions, evolved the most comprehensive of all iconographies, just as Islam evolved a truly iconoclastic art, which is also true of Judaism, and even true of the purest Calvinism, and if modern art is finally a truly sacred art, it is also our most deeply iconoclastic art, and one whose dissolution or disfiguring of every given sacred image, nevertheless evolved a truly sacred image in that very disfiguring or dissolution, and a sacred image which for the first time is open to all and everyone.
 Is the theologian called upon to discover God in modern art, a seemingly impossible calling, yet our truly modern poetry is unthinkable apart from a profound wrestling with or defiance of God, and all of our great modern composers have been deeply religious, perhaps the most deeply religious body of artists who ever lived.  So, too, there has never been a more religious painter than Van Gogh, or a more holy one, and it is Van Gogh who is the most popular of modern painters, and if ever there was a God-obsessed painter, this is Van Gogh, and above all the final Van Gogh of breakdown, insanity, and suicide.  I believe that Wheatfield with Crows is our purest modern image of God, this is the painting that I would choose to be on that Time cover, and if this is an image of crucifixion, it is simultaneously an image of resurrection; here resurrection is crucifixion, and it is most deeply so in the very absence of all traditional iconography, this makes possible its ultimate immediacy, and its ultimate immediacy for us, an immediacy comprehending the whole horizon of this painting.   The pure absence of every traditional icon or image makes possible here a truly new icon, one which we can actually touch, but only touch in a touching that consumes us, and if this is a touch that is a way out of our fallen world, it is just thereby a way into its deepest depths, as here we are given a paradise that is certainly lost, and precisely thereby a paradise for us.

 But how could this possibly be an image of God?  It will not do simply to say with Tillich that this is so because it evokes an ultimate response, this fails to say anything at all about the imagery that here is so dazzlingly present, an imagery seemingly evoking the total absence or emptiness of God; and yet its very darkness, and its overwhelming darkness, evokes the total presence of God, a total presence in that very darkness, and a total presence as that very darkness.  Thereby that darkness is a joyous darkness, and we can only say Yes in response to it, even if that is saying Yes to the deepest and most ultimate No.  Here, the No is said only for the sake of the Yes, and if here we can only see an absolute No, that very seeing is a joyous Yes, and a joyous Yes impossible apart from the depths of this vision of darkness, or apart from the depths of this absolute No.  And we can know this Yes only because we can taste this No, now we absorb a darkness which is totality itself, a darkness here which is a dazzling light, but that light is the light of darkness itself, not only a light impossible apart from darkness, but a light indistinguishable from darkness, and if thereby we consume the dead or dying God, that consumption is resurrection itself, a resurrection which is Yes and only Yes.  Is there no theology which can enter this painting, or finally no theology which can enter any great painting, or can be open to a final and ecstatic Yes?
 Byzantine theology seemingly could, but that theology is vastly distant from us, and a contemporary Byzantine theology is simply unknown; moreover, not even Catholic theology can truly enter Giottos painting, and yet Giotto gave us an imagery in which there is a true and actual union of the humanity and the divinity of Christ, one which Christian theology could affirm as its deepest dogma but could never conceptually or systematically draw forth.  If this is the deepest mystery of Christianity, it is profoundly unveiled by Giotto, and unveiled even in our world by Van Gogh, and, yes, unveiled in  Wheatfield with Crows, for here the very coalescence of crucifixion and resurrection is a coalescence of the humanity and the divinity of Christ.  Van Goghs own overt images of Christ simply collapse in the horizon of this painting, but so, too, does every traditional image of Christ, and every traditional image of God; and if modern art is the first Western art to dissolve all images of God, this is a dissolution making possible an ultimate rebirth, and even a rebirth of images of God, which I believe deeply occurs in the late painting of both Van Gogh and Monet, and perhaps of Cezanne, too, if we only had the theological mind to comprehend it.  Yes, here we can know the death of God as the resurrection of God, but not the resurrection of the Lord of Glory, not a resurrection which is an ascension into Heaven, but rather a resurrection which is a descent into Hell, a resurrection which is an ecstatic Yes to the depths of darkness, one wherein the deepest darkness is not transfigured into the deepest light, but wherein that darkness is the deepest light.
 I have long been enchanted by Monets water lilies, and fascinated, too, a fascination which I associate with Rudolf Ottos mysterium fascinans, the positive or affirmative pole of the holy, and while for Otto this never truly occurs apart from the mysterium tremendum, I think that in these water lilies we are given a mysterium fascinans wholly apart from a mysterium tremendum, this is just why we cannot say God in response to this vision of paradise, nor even remember the God whom we have known, but if we are here truly given a moment of grace, we cannot finally dissociate it from God.  Hence the very disappearance of God, or the pure invisibility of God, could make possible a total presence of God, deep mystics have long known this, but that mysticism at least in the West has been profoundly aniconic, and if these water lilies are truly an image of God, that visibility is only made possible by a pure invisibility, an invisibility in which we lose every God whom we have been given, but precisely thereby we see God, and see God in these water lilies.  And this is a vision of God not only made possible by the invisibility of God, but the paintings themselves enact that invisibility, their very calling forth of the pure immediacy of this pond and these lilies, is an enactment of that invisibility, we can only see this water and these flowers by seeing them as totality itself, here we actually see that totality, but we do so only when every trace of God has vanished, and we can only see these paintings by actually seeing the pure emptiness of God, for only that emptiness makes possible a seeing of the invisibility of God.
 Unlike Van Gogh, there is not a trace of any iconography in Monet, Monet along with Cezanne is our most purely profane modern painter, nor is there even an echo of a mysterium tremendum, now every mysterium tremendum is absolutely silent and invisible, and only that invisibility and silence makes possible such a pure mysterium fascinans, a mysterium fascinans which here undergoes an epiphany as totality itself.  If only for this reason this epiphany is alien to everything that we can name as God, yet it is clearly an epiphany, one simply undeniable to its viewer, and the theologian must identify it as an epiphany of the sacred, and perhaps most so because it is not an epiphany of God.  Is this a genuine coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and the profane, and one in which both the sacred as sacred and the profane as profane are dissolved, or in which each fully passes into the other, and in which we are given a seeing in which we can see the sacred only by seeing the profane and can see the profane only by seeing the sacred.?  Thereby we actually see a pure moment of incarnation, and a moment which here and now is all in all, so that now earth itself is actually paradise, and paradise in this absolutely joyous moment.
 The Christian knows the death of God or the Crucifixion as the one source of redemption, but theologically we have never known a total death of God, or not known it in a purely theological language, yet such a redemption seemingly appears in these water lilies, and we can see this redemption only by losing every vision of God.  Is this a movement in some sense occurring in every genuine expression of modern art, and could this be a fulfillment of an authentic Christian tradition, one wholly obscured or reversed by our theologies, but nevertheless deeply present in our fullest and purest painting?  We could call upon the Christian epic tradition as a way into what may well be an epic tradition of painting, and if there is a genuine continuity between Dante and Joyce, there may well be a genuine continuity between Giotto and Cezanne, Giotto was our first epic painter, the first artist to give us a truly epic enactment of the life of Christ, is that an enactment which is repeated in our deepest modern painting, and repeated in a Kierkegaardian repetition which is a forward rather than a backward movement to eternity, now eternity is the very opposite of any possible primordial eternity or totality, and only thereby is it absolutely and totally present.                                                                                                           It is my conviction that each of us is truly theological in deeply responding to art, this is surely one crucial point at which theology is a universal horizon, and even is so in our world; while we as yet have no real theological understanding of this ground, and cannot do so insofar as we are not open to a truly new theology, the necessity for a truly and even absolutely new theology is now clearly manifest.  But is an absolutely new theology possible for us?  Christian theologians often if not commonly believe that an absolutely new theology is embodied in the purest writing of Paul, which is one reason why it is so frequently believed that Paul created Christianity, but a comparable revolutionary theology is embodied in Augustines purest writing, and if it was Augustine who created our uniquely Western theology, this very theology has undergone deep transformations in its history, and perhaps most so in the modern world.  So a truly new theology would be in genuine continuity with this tradition, and while truly alien to the ecclesiastical theologian, it is manifest for all to see in the radical theological thinking of Hegel and Kierkegaard, and that is the very theological thinking which has had the deepest impact upon our world.  Unless it is Nietzsches theological thinking which has had that impact, and it is important to note that it is artists who first became open to Nietzsches revolutionary thinking, and most clearly so in their enactments of the death of God, no other symbol has been more comprehensively powerful in twentieth century painting and poetry, and perhaps nothing so fully turns us away from that poetry and painting than does a refusal of the death of God.




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