Karl Rahner on theology and the arts

Having finished Anne Lamott’s Plan B and de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness, I’m back to the thicker stuff laying around that I asked for last Christmas. I first picked up the Theological Aesthetics reader (glutton for punishment, I know) and flipped to a dog-eared page with an essay by German Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984). Each paragraph is almost an essay unto itself. From the first one, which is far as I’ve managed at this point, there are these morsels:

    When one stands before a painting of Rembrandt’s, one can try to say in words what the painting is expressing. but however much one art can be translated into another art, ultimately, sculpture, painting and music (prescinding here from architecture, since it is far more functional than the others) have their own independent validity as forms of human self-expression which cannot be completely translated into verbal statements. Presupposing that all the arts cannot ultimately be reduced to verbal art, then our question is: How is theology related more precisely to these non-verbal arts? . . . If and insofar as theology is man’s reflexive self-expression about himself in the light of divine revelation, we could propose the thesis that theology cannot be complete until it appropriates these arts as an integral moment of itself and its own life, until the arts become an intrinsic moment of theology itself. Once could take the position that what comes to expression in a Rembrandt painting or Bruckner symphony is so inspired and borne by divine revelation, by grace and God’s self-communication, that they communicate something about what the human really is in they eyes of god which cannot be completely translated into verbal theology.

So theology isn’t complete without music, painting and sculpture. This was written in 1982 (I was five years old) in Rahner’s Theology and the Arts, smack in the middle of the fundamental movement which was striving to create a ghetto and suppress any kind of art that didn’t look blatantly pious. At least, that’s what growing up in the 80s and 90s led me to believe.

Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses

A few weeks ago I responded to a ThinkChristian post asking about the importance of the Bible, the written word. Being who I am — someone who attempts to get people to think outside of the box — I suggested that we lean too heavily on the written word in our American culture, particularly in Christianity.

By no means am I a theologian, though I claim to have an interest “in missions and theology from a layperson’s point of view.” I understand the importance of written Scripture to the Christian faith, but who will argue that both verbal and written words fail to communicate clearly at times? Can all of us with foot-in-mouth syndrome give up an “Amen!”

It’s easy to see how a fundamentalist movement would desire to put aside anything more open to interpretation than words. Of all communicative arts, words probably contain the potential for being the clearest. I take the Bible very literally, but readily admit there’s a lot of mystery to the faith. Jesus’ parables aren’t always very straightforward; even the people who lived with the guy didn’t understand them. The apostle Paul refers to mysteries a number of time in his letters.

Enough of my rambling though. I’m curious to hear what readers think of Rahner’s proposition: Is theology that ignores painting, sculpture and music an incomplete theology?

Photo from Wikipedia.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

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