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Grace, Necessity and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist - Lecture 4: God and the Artist

Thursday 3rd March 2005

Clark Lectures, Trinity College, Cambridge. A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.


What is the world that art takes for granted? It is one in which perception is always incomplete. Instead of a scheme where stimulus is followed by determinate response, there is constantly more response evoked; and the fact of response itself becomes a datum for the mind. Telling the truth about what is before us is not a matter of exhaustively defining the effects of certain phenomena on the receptors of brain and sense. In a celebrated book (Godel, Escher, Bach), Douglas R. Hofstadter plays a set of brilliant variations on the theme of what is happening at different levels when a single group of phenomena stimulates the brain: alternative descriptions are both possible and imperative; and the feedback from one set of perceptions becomes inseparably linked with what is subsequently 'seen' in the initial phenomena. Consciousness, to use one of Hofstadter's key metaphors, is fugal: the following of one set of clues or triggers sets off another trajectory, generates another series of moves. And Hofstadter's conclusion is that we cannot finally talk about the mind or the brain as a self-contained system for receiving external stimuli. On the one hand, we cannot produce a physical map that will show us 'where or how beliefs are coded' in the brain (The Mind's Eye, p.200); on the other, there is no immaterial subject, no ghost in the machine, whose identity is given prior to the history of involvement with stimuli. 'Mind is a pattern perceived by a mind' is Hofstadter's suggested formula: 'the self-awareness comes from the system's intricately intertwined responses to both internal and external stimuli' (ibid.). And this presupposes a difference between a signal – which triggers a reaction but has no meaning in itself – and a symbol, which is already a complex bundle of interrelated elements, a meaningful reality. A symbol is intrinsically bound up with the relation of things sensed and lodged in the subject, it is part of a system of seeing or absorbing what is there; and so it necessarily generates further symbolic connections (ibid. 176-8). Mental activity instantly combines, complicates, signals into symbols; recognition is never simply of an isolated stimulus – or perhaps we should say that recognition at such a level is so deeply buried in the process of the mind that it cannot even be intelligibly described.

So that part of the material world that is the human system of knowing cannot be spoken of except as a spiral of self-extending symbolic activity; its relation to its environment is inescapably mobile, time-related. There is no way of abstracting from the passage of time some necessary, non-revisable and exhaustive correlation between an inside and an outside. This is in no way to say that there is no 'truthful' relation between speech and reality, or however you want to put it. The process is one of generation, not creation from nothing, and what can be said is not decided by an inner 'free' subject involved in endless self-reflection. But truthfulness unfolds and makes possible different levels of appropriating or sharing in the activity of the world. Basic to all this is – though it is not quite the conclusion that Hofstadter himself would want to arrive at – a sense of the real as active rather than static, a mobile pattern whose best analogy is indeed musical, not mechanical. This dimension of active life here makes possible this dimension here; what is seen in one place is 'lived again' in another, and what is involved in knowing something is more like re-enacting a performance than labelling an object. Knowing re-presents; which means that whatever stimulus starts the process off is not adequately thought of as a fixed entity requiring no more than a single identification.

The relation between knower and known envisaged here is remarkably similar to the 'participation' spoken of in the more traditional idiom of scholastic and Platonic thinking. There is some activity which, beginning in the object known, continues to exercise a characteristic mode of life in another medium: the material in which it is first embodied does not exhaust the formal life that is at work. The 'what' of what is known is not something that simply belongs to the given shape we begin with in our perception; it extends possibilities, or even, to use a question-begging phrase, invites response that will continue its life, its specific energy. All this is implied in Maritain's words, which have resonated so frequently in our discussions, 'things are not only what they are'. Re-presentation assumes that there is excess in what presents itself for knowing, and that neither the initial cluster of perceptions nor any one set of responses will finally succeed in containing what is known. Thus what I perceive or know is always oriented to more than my perception; it is at least potentially related to something that is identical neither with the 'given' shape or structure nor with the structure as my mind conceives and constructs it. The claim that this or that conceptual form is identical with the living form of what is encountered denies this excess of relation outside the present relation with me as knower, and so asserts implicitly that the object's being 'for me' is all there is to it. But this does not mean, a some philosophical traditions have wanted to say, that there is a fixed 'for itself' hidden in what is perceived, standing over against the 'for me' dimension. As we have been arguing, the inner life of a reality is what unfolds in time, generating more and more symbolic structures, not a timeless and relation-free definition. That the structure of what is experienced and thought is involved with the symbolic structure of mind in the way Hofstadter proposes means that the life of the object in the knowing mind is genuinely in some sense an aspect of the object's own life – not an arbitrary construct by an independent thinking substance working on dead material.

These philosophical issues are closely bound up with what we have been looking at in this series of lectures. Art, as has been suggested to us at many points of our enquiry, is unintelligible if it is not what we might call an acute case of knowledge in general. It is that form of intellectual life in which the generativity of the world we encounter and experience is allowed to work in ways that are free from many of the requirements of routine instrumental thinking (remember the distinction mentioned in the first of these lectures between symmetric and asymmetric thought). When we are tempted to confine our vision of mental activity to the successful manipulation of defined objects and the solving of practical problems of negotiation with such objects, we need to recognise that we still have to 'negotiate' with a different set of stimuli which do not lend themselves to treatment of this kind. There is an insanity in which hidden connections are everything, in which the excess of symbolism becomes the habitual climate of thought; but there is equally an insanity in which excess is denied and the world reduced to that series of problems that my mind happens to engage. For this latter insanity, the realm of excess, of symbolic generativity, is at best an idle from of play decided upon by the individual will or a plain pathology. Meaning relates only to the system of solving problems that I employ, and I allow no sense of the meaning that is not 'for me', that exists in relation to something other than me.

Hence the claim that art has an 'ontology' implicit in it. It is not decorative or arbitrary but grounded in what we ought to call a kind of obedience. The artist struggles to let the logic of what is there display itself in the particular concrete matter being worked with. The teasing language of the fiction writer claiming not to know what his or her characters are going to do illustrates this most plainly, perhaps. 'I doubt myself if many writers know what they are going to do when they start out', wrote Flannery O'Connor; 'When I started writing that story ['Good Country People'], I didn't know there was going to be a PhD with a wooden leg in it' (MM100). The example is specially salient, since it is clear that, in this story, the one-leggedness of the woman in question is a metaphor for another kind of disability or imbalance. O'Connor is claiming that instead of beginning from some kind of search for a metaphor, the imagination shapes a character whose own structural integrity within the fiction produces an excess of meaning, a metaphorical possibility. In any serious fiction, it is worth asking whether character or metaphor comes first in this sort of context: fiction may symbolise, but it must do so by way of both over- and under-determination. A character may have fluid and plural symbolic generativity; a character may have no clear line of symbolic resonance beyond what any agent in a narrative has. What matters is the inner coherence of the person drawn. Absent this, we have once again the artist's will emerging as the motor force in composition; no obedience, no sense of an imperative.

It is worth digressing very briefly to note how Dostoevsky's drafts for his fiction demonstrate this in depth. As is well-known, the characters and plot of The Idiot in particular went through a strikingly large number of major recastings, chronicled in Dostoevsky's notebooks. David Magarshack, introducing the Penguin edition of the novel, comments that, 'The idea that the characters take such a hold of the author that they write themselves obviously does not apply to Dostoevsky' (p.23). But this misses the point: Dostoevsky is, you could say, struggling to find characters that he can 'obey', that do indeed take hold and that he can therefore trace with coherence and integrity. He began the novel's drafts with the idea of someone who advances to some sort of holiness through a career of extreme moral behaviour; it is the 'innocence' of his violent extremism that carries him through to renewal. But the various plans failed to work themselves out. Gradually the central figure – epileptic, vulnerable, capable of drastic and shocking acts of forgiveness – came into focus as a representation, from his first appearance, of Christian love, and Dostoevsky clearly thought at one stage that he was constructing a 'Christ figure'. A good many commentators have taken him at his word; but this too misses the point. The final version of this enigmatic character is in one sense an embodiment of Christian gentleness, but it is a gentleness deeply flawed by lack of self-knowledge, confused desire and passivity – an ironic picture which reflects what some would indeed see as Christlikeness, yet incorporates an oblique recognition of something like a Nietzschean critique of Christianity as dealing in unrealities and depending on the resentment of the weak. Myshkin as he emerges in the novel is a tragic hero in a sense that prevents him being a simple icon of Christ (though Dostoevsky mischievously gives him the physiognomy of the familiar iconography of the Saviour, and has various people wondering where they have seen him before). The important issue is that Dostovesky failed to write either a novel about the conversion of a sinner or the portrait of a saint; he wrote one of his most painfully enigmatic fictions because he could not 'find' the character of either saint or sinner, and so produced a singular, complex character whose depth is precisely in his failure to be either saint or sinner, his sheer marginality in what we ordinarily think of as the moral world. He is a 'Christ figure' in his alienness to mere morality; but – human and not divine – this alienness destroys him and implicates him in the destruction of others.

The struggle chronicled in Dostoevsky's notebooks is like David Jones' agonies over his later visual and poetic work; the connections are felt but the visible form eludes, and it is no use pretending, issuing a premature report on the work in hand or claiming it is finished when it isn't. You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose – finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capacity in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on. Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control, that brings with it its shadow and its margins, its absences and ellipses, a dimensional existence as we might call it. The degree to which art is 'obedient' – not dependent on an artist's decisions or tastes – is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland. As we noted with Flannery O'Connor, the artist looks for the 'necessity' in the thing being made, but this 'necessity' can only be shown when the actual artistic form somehow lets you know that the necessity is not imposed by the hand of an artistic will but uncovered as underlying the real contingency of a world that has been truthfully imagined, with its own proper time and space, its own causality and coherence.


To speak of art as having 'dimension' in this way is to say that the artist is always concerned with things as they are in relation to something more and other than the artist. This holds true at both ends, so to speak, of the process of artistic labour. The artist perceives the material of the world – visible things, patterns of sound, texture – as offering more than can appear in one moment of encounter and so begins to produce a further thing in the world that will allow that unseen or unheard life to continue itself in another mode. But that further thing itself has to be set free from the artist's mental world to relate to unimagined observers or listeners in present and future. The artist does not exhaust the significance of his or her labour, but creates an object, a schema of perceptible data, that will have about it the same excess as the phenomena that stimulated the production in the first place. Art moves from and into a depth in the perceptible world that is contained neither in routine perception nor in the artist's conscious or unconscious purposes. George Steiner's appeal to 'real presence' in art is an important corrective to the mythology of art as wilful play; but we could go further. The 'presence' in art is not some looming romantic genius in the background, but a presence within what is made which generates difference, self-questioning, in the perceiving subject. It makes us present to ourselves in a fresh way, and so engages us in dialogue with ourselves as well as with the object and with the artist and with what the artist is responding to.

This suggests – nothing novel here – that bad art is art that does not invite us to question our perceptions or emotions, that imposes an intrusive artistic presence, that obscures both the original occasion of encounter, the original object in the world, and its own concrete life (by drawing attention to its message or willed meaning). The artist doing his job withdraws in the process of making so that this complex interaction of presences can occur. And this involves a dual act of respect or reverence towards the world that is first seen or heard and towards the object. Remember Maritain's principle that the artist 'must be in love with what he is doing' (AS 48); and being in love is normally thought to mean delighting in the simple actuality of the other. It is not a matter of sentimental feeling about the creations of an artist's imagination; it is a serious and costly dispossession of the artist in the work. And this in turn is not primarily about the virtues of impersonality in artistic technique, a plea for the classical over the romantic. The romantic too has to deal with what love for what is made demands, with the requirement of letting the work develop in its own logic, its own space. Classical art has its own temptations and sins; as Maritain hints, it may obscure the originating sense of congruence or confluence, the 'pulsion' which stimulates formal composition, by over-insistence on an abstract rigour of structure.

Observing the integrity of what is made is the artist's love, a love that may be devoted equally to a monstrous creation as to a superficially loveable one. Flannery O'Connor loves Rayber as a creation; we know this because she allows him his own poignant and surprising voice, and it has nothing to do with whether she likes or approves of him. Goya, we could say, loves his depictions of the brutalities of the Peninsular War, not because he relishes cruelty in itself but because he paints what is there not what he wants to see. It is not always easy to identify pornography in art, but – whether we are thinking of cruelty in general or sexual violence in particular – one criterion is surely that the artist's emotional satisfaction becomes visible in the work. When this happens, there is a 'presence' in the work that disrupts the encounter of the reality represented and the person contemplating the work. It is present in the work of a good many really significant artists, and is part of the complex tissue of most imaginative labour; it is what makes the viewer uneasy with Caravaggio or Dali at times, or perhaps with some of Tennyson or Hughes.

But the artist's dispossession stands in a rather tangled relation to what she is working on and with. She is responding to some formal life or activity sensed and answered in the appearances she encounters; and it is a formal life or activity constantly on the edge of abandoning its phenomenal shape so as to be reshaped in another medium. The artist may be a 'hunter of forms', but the life that the artist engages with is a shedder of forms, dispossessing itself of this or that shape so as to be understood and remade. We return yet again to Maritain's dictum about things being more than they are. And there are several directions in which we might travel from this point. There is the implication that the world is not yet as it 'really' is; that the act of understanding and representation is bound up with the actual life of the material order. There is the possible hidden assumption in that idea that the world's reality is always asymptotically approaching its fullness by means of the response of imagination – the assumption of an 'ideal' fullness of perception in which things reach their destiny. There is the sense that the world 'gives' itself to be understood in the very moment when we realise that describing it simply in terms of how it relates to me, let alone serves my interest, is an inadequate or actively untruthful perspective. And all these trajectories lead towards the frontiers of theology. If there is always, that to which things are related irrespective of what I can (literally and metaphorically) make of them, that awareness of a depth in the observable world beyond what is at any moment observable is close to what seems to be meant by 'the sacred'. The appropriate response to the environment is necessarily something beyond the functional, a recognition of what is there in its own right or for its own sake. The human mind's distinctiveness seems to lie in its responsibility for drawing out what is not yet seen or heard in the material environment – but not solely in exploiting it for use but in facilitating its constant movement from one material from to another, its generative capacity. As David Jones would have delighted to point out, the product of art is as old as the tool in terms of what can be identified as specifically human. And the dynamic of generative capacity in what is encountered suggests what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls 'the freedom of the object', the element of gratuitous energy in the world's life that again corresponds to what we can call the sacred.

Or rather, of course, what we call God. 'The sacred' is commonly a category of our perception, almost an aesthetic category; it does not capture that sense of energy, action or initiative that arises around the questions we have just been considering. Balthasar speaks of how every finite phenomenon 'reveals the non-necessity of creaturely existence and thus the Creator's freedom' (Theologik I, p.106). Something in the world of phenomena exceeds what is 'needed'; there is no final account of how things are that confines itself to function. One of the greatest misunderstandings of popular modernity is the notion that when we have, like good Darwinians, identified the function of various developments in various life-forms, we have thereby demonstrated their necessity; when the truth is that we have not begun to answer the question, 'Why precisely this?' or 'Was this the only possible resolution to an evolutionary conundrum?' The artist's commitment to generative excess in the world stands as a challenge to a vulgarised Darwinism: this life could be otherwise; this life could mean more than its adaptation to these particular circumstances suggests. The world 'makes itself other', not simply by endless environmental adjustment but by provoking the exploration and 're-formation' of which art is one cardinal element. But when we have said this, have we opened the door to that which is – to paraphrase a great Platonic phrase – 'in excess of being'?

This could surely, though, be only the sense of inexhaustible depth within the environment we inhabit; do we need to say more, to suppose an ultimate otherness behind the reality we ordinarily acknowledge? The artist may well describe his work in relation to the sacred as I have been implicitly defining it without sensing the need to move from there to 'God'. And to this, the only answer the believer can properly give is to appeal to the constant pattern of 'making other' that runs through the reality the artist encounters. At each point, the process is of one aspect or level of the world reforming itself in something radically different; to suppose that at the heart of this or at the end of the tracing of it to its first principles lies an ultimate sameness, simply an endless interiority within the world, ought to strike us as in some way jarring. The theologian will say that at that heart or that end is an irreducible difference – or rather two closely related differences – upon which all 'making other' depends.


It would be foolish to claim that the practice of art constitutes some kind of argument for God's existence, and that is not my aim here. But it may well be that the practice of art assists us in making sense of what theologians, Christians in particular, claim to be the fundamental framework for 'reading' the world. Briefly, the Christian theologian says that God is of his nature, 'generative' – that the notion of a solitary or inactive deity is incompatible with what God shows of God in the world and its history. The doctrine of the trinity is not a conceptual tour de force to resolve a set of abstract puzzles. It is a statement that the God encountered in the history of Israel and the life of Christ must of necessity be involved in the generating of otherness because of the radical, self-dispossessing character of the love that this God displays. Yet this cannot mean that the world is necessary to God, that it exists to solve God's problems or serve God's needs; that would be to reduce the world to a level of unfreedom. To be itself it could only be what God specified in order to meet those supposed needs; gratuity would be an illusion. Hence the delicate balance of classical Christian metaphysics: God in the intrinsic 'necessity' of the divine life itself (constrained by nothing but the character of divine love and liberty) generates the other, the partner of divine action, the Word or Son, and also the bearer of the inexhaustibility of divine life who is defined neither as Father nor as Son (so that divine life is not enclosed in a simple relation of logical opposition or symmetry). And because of this timeless 'making other' that is intrinsic to God's being, the characteristic activity of God continues to be 'making other': the world comes into being by God's free decision, both gratuitous (it is not for God's private purpose) and continuous in some way with the order of the divine mind. Its life is radically grounded in God, in God's 'wisdom', to use the traditional language, and just as radically different from God (and hence vulnerable to change and chance). It is loved by God, as St Augustine said, for the sake of its future, its possibility, loved as a work, as a product that is at once dependent and underdetermined, in process of achieving its own integrity.

So it is not a matter of arguing incontrovertibly to God but of noting the convergences between theological discourse and the kind of reflection on the artist's labour that these lectures have tried to trace. Human making that is more than functional, more than problem-solving, gives us some clue as to what the theologian means by creation, the setting in being something that is both an embodiment of what is thought or conceived and a radically independent reality with its own logic and integrity unfolding over time. And the theologian's struggling for words about the trinity gives some clue as to what might be the 'limit case' for generativity – the giving birth to what is utterly continuous ('consubstantial') and utterly other (because distinguished only by relation, not by any chance feature), both wholly drawn from the generator's substance and wholly a free re-presentation, re-realisation, of the generator's life.

As we reflect on this convergence and mutual illumination, one thing that comes sharply into focus is a theme that has recurred several times in these discussions. Central to 'making other' is dispossession, disinterested love. Making is necessarily a kind of withdrawal – otherwise it is repetition, the simple moving of what is 'inside' to the 'outside'. Not that this is ever a true possibility anyway; but we have seen enough argument here to make it fairly plain that it is possible to trivialise or corrupt the labour of making by trying to force what is made into conformity with some supposed inner concept of the work, or with a 'message', or with the self-concerned desires or anxieties of the maker. Earlier in this lecture we noted the sense in which an artist loves what is made, and the kinds of artistic effort that speak of a lack of love, a failure to allow integrity either to what is seen or to what is made. But in the context of the finite imagination – as Maritain argues, and as Hofstadter might agree – this love is always inextricably connected with self-love, since it is a form of self-discovery. The artist not only uncovers what is generative in the world but also what is generative in him or herself, the alignments or attunements that make possible an art that is more than repetition or imitation. The artist discovers her own unfinishedness in the work. There is no complete self-exhaustion of the artist in what is made (remember Maritain on Rimbaud), so that there is always more that the artist can say or produce. 'Self-seeking hunter of forms' is Geoffrey Hill's phrase for the poetic subject; and it is true that the process of artistic production is a matter of self-discovery in some way – not in the simplistic sense of finding out what my 'real' feelings are, or some such formula, but at the more complex level where I do not know what is possible to say or do until something new has become actual. Art is not functional to the self, but it does function; any account of what the production of art involves has to recognise that it is also the production of a self.

Art thus always approaches the condition of being both recognition and transmission of gift, gratuity or excess; but it always approaches. In such a perspective, we can see how the concept of divine making again acts as a limit-notion: God has nothing to discover, no self to shape, and God can be said to 'exhaust' what he is in the mutual giving of the life of the trinity. Or again: the life of Christ is seen theologically as a bestowal of the divine identity in the whole existence of Jesus of Nazareth, not as a supreme case of grace being given from 'beyond' to a human individual. This is the unimaginable condition of full 'translation' into otherness without ultimate loss or alienation. Thus when God creates the world, God acts out of a full, not an inchoate, identity. And so, what theology might have to say to the artist is not exactly that human creativity imitates divine but almost the opposite of this – that divine creativity is not capable of imitation; it is uniquely itself, a creation from nothing that realises not an immanent potential in the maker but a pure desire for life and joy in what is freely made. But though divine creation cannot be imitated, what it does is to define the nature of a love that is involved in making. It is both the gift of self and the gift of self. It bestows life unreservedly on what is other, but the life it bestows is a real selfhood, a solid reality. It is not the exercise of an arbitrary will. God's self-identity is timeless, so that there is no sense in which God becomes more fully God in creating; our self-identity is timebound, inextricably involved with a world of interlocking causes. The most profoundly free action human beings can take in relation to their identity is to elect to discover and mould what they are in the process of 'remaking' the world in a love that is both immeasurably different from God's (because it is to do with the self-s self-definition in history and material relationship) and yet endowed with some share in it (because it is always approaching self-dispossession). In the words of a really remarkable new book on theology and aesthetics (The Beauty of the Infinite by David Hart, p.251), 'Christian talk of an analogy between the being of creatures and the being of God is something like speaking of the irreducible difference between the being of a work of art and the creative being of the artist (which is not, surely, an arbitrary relationship, any more than it is "necessary".' The artist's freedom is deeply connected to God's; but connected as something no less deeply other to God, since it is the particular way in which finite freedom comes to perfection.

In various ways, these reflections on theologically informed art have all been to do with the connection of art and love. The pivotal distinction between art and prudence which has recurred so often should not – as we have several times noted – obscure the interconnectedness of human making and the human vocation to caritas. It would be very eccentric to see art as central to the distinctively human and at the same time as operating independently of love. The artist, as we have been reminded many times, does not need to be a saint; the point is rather that without art we should not fully see what sanctity is about. A holiness, a fullness of virtue, that was seen simply as a static mirroring of God's perfection would in fact not be real holiness; God's life exercises its own perfection in the imagining of a world into life, so that the artist's imagination fills out what must be the heart of holy life for human creatures. The artist imagines a world that is both new and secretly inscribed in all that is already seen ('There is another world but it is the same as this one', in Rilke's famous phrase), and in so doing imagines himself, projects an identity that is fully in motion towards its completion. In this bestowing of life on self and world, the artist uncovers the generative love that is at the centre of holiness. There is no 'godlikeness' without such bestowal, such 'imagining' into life.

The artists we have been most closely examining should help us grasp the point here because, among many other things, they are conspicuously unsentimental about love. David Jones's costly turning away from one mode of representation in which he excelled in order to include more and more of the interwoven simultaneous lines of signification and allusion is an attempt to embody a more radical love in what he produces, a love that attends to all the boundary-crossing echoes that characterise the real which is also the good. Flannery O'Connor strenuously denies herself a limitation to the acceptable and edifying so as to manifest the same radical love in situations that are grotesque and catastrophic. For both it is not so much that if you look after truth, beauty will look after itself as that is you work with this sort of love, beauty will look after itself. As Maritain insisted, beauty sought for in itself will always elude – or else it will seduce the artist into one or another sort of falsity. Given integrity of vision and purpose, consonance of component parts, and 'splendour', the active attracting summons to the viewing mind, beauty is what occurs (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 23-4, 30-32). And the combination of that integrity, consonance and radiance is the work of love, a love that has nothing at all to do with feelings of warmth and positive approbation towards what is being made but is simply the self-forgetting passion that there be real life in the product, some sort of real independence from will and sentiment. The work 'pleases' in Maritain's sense when it has this independence; it is beautiful when it is released from the artist.

We have come some way from the details of criticism, visual or poetic, and some way even from Maritain's formal and philosophical sketch of the artist's labour. But none of those we have been discussing would have been surprised or dismayed to find that we had ended up with some directly doctrinal concerns and themes. All believed that art was as it was because reality was as it was; and the way reality is would be unintelligible without the doctrine of God that Christian theologians have elaborated, a doctrine that puts gift and dispossession at the foundation of everything. If art is indeed an acute case of knowledge in general, as suggested earlier in this lecture, if it is a manifestation of the deeper levels of participatory knowledge, it must, for any religious believer, be bound up with the being and action of God. As I have said, I don't intend to argue that only Christian theology can make sense of art; but the tradition I have been examining would claim that theology has, as we might put it, a story to tell about artistic labour which grounds certain features of it and challenges it to be faithful to certain canons of disinterest and integrity. That this helps to foster art which is intensely serious, unconsoling, and unafraid of the complexity of a world that the secularist too can recognise might persuade us to give a little more intellectual house-room to the underlying theology than we might at first be inclined to offer. If, as I suggested at the beginning of these lectures, we need some serious thinking about what counts as artistic labour, in relation to what counts as human labour, we could find many worse and less probing interlocutors.

© Rowan Williams 2005 

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