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OSAD Dean Explores Art and Religion in New Column

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Dr. Joan Carter, Dean of Olivet School of Art and Design, posted her recent column entitled “Beyond Sanctuary Walls.” Below is Part 1 of this month's two part series.

Now, more than ever, art has a major role to play in giving life and meaning to the devotional activities of faith communities in all arenas not just within the church’s sanctuary. Without the arts, religious experience can too easily become caught up in a world of words. But when it is incorporated into the worship and spiritual practices of a community, art in all its forms has the power to evoke an experience of the sacred that is beyond rational thought. It has the power to disclose a level of meaning that is deeper than that normally called forth by other modes of language. It has the power to do this because art is symbolic in nature. An important key to understanding how visual art can function in a spiritual context then, lies in an understanding of the nature of symbols and the way in which they function.

Paul Tillich, noted for his comprehensive analysis of symbols, describes their nature by identifying six characteristics common to all symbols:

  • 1) they point beyond themselves to a hidden reality
  • 2) they participate in the reality to which they point
  • 3) they open up levels of that reality which would otherwise remain closed
  • 4) they unlock dimensions and elements of one's soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of the reality pointed to. .
  • 5) they cannot be produced intentionally.
  • 6) they grow and they die.

The first two characteristics are commonly referred to in any discussion of symbols. The first identifies the one element that symbols have in common with signs and the second discloses what sets them apart from signs. Arbitrarily chosen, a sign functions on the surface pointing to an hidden reality while it is the nature of a symbol to penetrate the surface in order to disclose dimensions of depth and render accessible that reality.

The third and fourth characteristics do not easily submit to verbal explanation but are comprehended more readily at the level of experience in which one comes to "know" on an intuitive level that which is difficult to articulate on an intellectual level. These two characteristics, functioning together, give a symbol its transforming potential.

The two final characteristics set out by Tillich are also inter-related. The sixth, and final characteristic, that symbols follow a natural pathway of birth, maturation and death, is a consequence of the fifth, that symbols cannot be invented or arbitrarily chosen. They come into being when the time and the situation are right for them to emerge, and they die when they lose their force. But, as Tillich cautions, "symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce a response in the group where they originally found expression."

It is important to recognize, however, that failing symbols provide us with a creative potential as well as a dark side. Symbols that have lost their force can indeed be replaced by new symbols ... but what is needed are not symbols whose references are direct and specific; what is needed are symbols that are so elemental that they can move beyond subjectivity and into the depth dimension beyond all surface concerns.

It is on the level of elemental symbols that the arts can make their greatest contribution. They invite those who are willing to enter the symbol's realm into an encounter with the sacred that is not restricted to an intellectual assent. The result of this kind of encounter, because it is deeply experiential, is transforming. Caught up in the symbol’s power to transform, the individual experiences a new ground of being that affects every area of his or her life. To open the way to that kind of transforming encounter is the task and calling not only of a spiritual community - it is also the task of the artists who serve those communities.

Dr. Carter is a 1996 alumna of Graduate Theological Union, where she received her Ph.D. degree in Theology and Arts. She has served as preacher and artist for more than three decades, and is noted for her broad experience at the intersection of art and Christian scholarship. Her extensive service as a nonprofit board member includes her current position as president of the Center for Arts, Religion and Education, and leadership roles at myriad of major foundations, including the Center for Sacred Arts, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, the Marin Arts Council, and the Lifetime Learning Center and Religious Learning Institute.