Another Paul, Paul Tillich, whose burial site I recently visited New Harmony, Indiana, said ‘you cannot understand theology without understanding symbols’. (Existential Aspects of Modern Art) He went on to say that he learned more in the works of great modern artists who ‘broke through to the realm out of which symbols are born’ than from theology books.
St. Paul also speaks about each person as God’s work of art. (Ephesians 2:10). He too goes on to say ‘created so that we might have life in abundance.’ Unfortunately, this has been mistranslated in some bible translations as God having created us ‘for good works’. There is a big difference between those two interpretations! And I don’t want to fall into the debate about faith vs. works. But the later interpretation takes the Creator’s creative spirit out of the human person and puts the human person to work, as if that is what we have been created for. I have nothing against ‘good works’ but perhaps it is high time we put the cart before the horse. Paul understood about symbols as a way of speaking about God. Later in Ephesians he centers us as that work of art – the hidden self – the person hidden in Christ – which we are to bring to the fullness of humanity, which is the fullness of the realization of the sacred in us. For Paul that is abundant life.
As an artist and biblical scholar that is why I embarked first of all writing about the story of Joseph in Genesis. Firstly, it is a creation story. In Joseph, the creation of the human person is complete. And in Joseph we begin to see what it means to be human. To be created both human and sacred. The story of Joseph is rich in symbolism. These symbols come from that realm that artists have access to. The hidden self. The psyche. In the story there is a coat and a pit, camels and caravans, kings and kingdoms, sheaves of wheat, stars, sun and moon, temptresses, strangers and a woman named Tamar. I find in each of these a wealth of revelation. And before I can say anything about the Christ life, I felt I needed to explore the rich legacy of Israel in its storytelling traditions, in order to unlock the meaning of the gospels.
The German Jesuit Karl Rahner said that the theologian of the future will be a mystic, or they will be no theologian at all. Mystics are those, like artists, who see into the heart of things. Who looks at life symbolically and find the deepest spirit in the depths of the world, persons and God. Like the prophets of old they seek to bring their visions, like St. Paul, to others in symbolic language, so that we too might enter in, and see ourselves as sacred works of art.
Perhaps it is time for the child once more, the child in all of us, the Christ-child within, to lead the way. To return to that second naiveté Paul Ricoeur (Coeur is heart in French) talks about, so that we too might see and know ourselves as God’s work of art, mystic, artist and storyteller.