Just reading an anthology of essays on the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, and stumbled across a tiny essay on theological aesthetics - the relationship of beauty, art, to the doing of theology. Rahner's vision of grace in the world is highly sacramental, that is, he sees the quotidian world as the place of encounter with God, but the little I had read of Rahner in the past was dense and prose-ish enough that I did not expect the morsels of poetry that Rahner wrote and which this author used to flavor her essay. Rahner writes: "Whatever is expressed in art is a product of that transcendentality by which, as spiritual and free beings, we strive for the totality of reality...[I]t is only because we are transcendental beings that art and theology can really exist." The author of the essay, Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, comments, "Poetry, especially great poetry, is important, because it takes shape where the human being radically faces who he or she is...In Christian existence, as in composing and listening to music or through writing and reading great poetry, the individual is led into the heights and depths, into hope, doubts and moments of despair." In other words, theology is not simply about hammering out metaphysical truths in scientifically unassailable language, but at attempt to speak that which we know but can't ever get quite right. This makes theologians of any of us who are struggling to face the messiness of human existence in light of the transcendence that grasps us far more surely than we can grasp it. It is quite possible that explicitly religious art may fail to reach the level of transcendentality of explicitly non-religious art (what Rahner calls "anonymous piety") if it fails to engage the depths of the human condition - if it is merely religious "Kitsch." Knowing that a reasonable percentage of my students in any given theology class are likely to not be particularly religious, I have always had an affinity for poetry, literature, art which ask all the deep questions without using theological-isms that can carry too much baggage for them to get on board with. My wonderful friend Christa Shusko recently shared the following poem with me (in response to a previous post, in fact), and it has resonated with me repeatedly for its ability to EVOKE the theological without needing to INVOKE the theological.
There is a moment when you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you've been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.
You've stopped being here in the world.
You're in a different place,
a place where life has no meaning.
You're not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.
Then you're in the world again.
At night, on a cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.
You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.
You see again how far away
each thing is from every other thing.
Sometimes those rare moments of being pulled clean out of our everyday life can make the rest of our existence seem somehow flattened, but I hope that the opposite can happen - that those moments of more explicit transcendence can refocus our way of seeing everything, can enable us to see that even the most ordinary folding-the-laundry moments are mystical moments, that there are no "ordinary" moments in our usual sense of the word.