Paul Tillich claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” (“Others call it God”) also hides it. If this is the case then worship that neglects artistic expression and imagery fails to fully reach those experiencing it. During my time at Altrincham and Urmston I have become increasingly aware that the worship I create is predominantly word based; granted nothing like as much as it use to be, but still too much. I am learning the value of space and other media but I do not yet think I have fully learnt the value of the image or sound, although I am more open to it than I use to be. “Progress not perfection.”
There is of course a history of distrust of artistic expression within some strands of religion. Within Christianity, there have always been those who have been suspicious of art and aesthetics in general. This essentially stems from the fear of idolatry and the physical form. Throughout the church’s history attacks on art have been made. The early church faced the iconoclast controversy. Here biblical authority was drawn on to support the claim that to venerate icons in worship was idolatrous. During the reformation figures such as Calvin claimed that there was no place for images within worship. The fear stemmed from the belief that imagery would be a distraction from listening to the word of God through scripture. The word has maintained primacy since the reformation, certainly within the Protestant tradition. Even within my Unitarian tradition where authority is held within the conscience of the individual and not the scripture, the preached word is still central to our worship.
Surely, if Tillich is correct in claiming “that which reveals also hides” our worship must be lacking something by focusing primarily on the word, spoken or sung. Is there enough space for mystery and imagination in our worship? Have we fallen into the trap of idolising words or worse still the preacher? Have we become “preacherphiles”? I hope not. The word alone is limited because it fails to connect with people in a truly holistic manner. It fails to reach those parts at the core of a person’s being that aesthetic communication can. Art reveals a greater reality that cannot be achieved by the word alone.
A few years ago I experienced several life changing spiritual experiences. As a result I began to explore religion and spirituality in an attempt to make sense of what had happened to me. One of the places I use to visit was the Holy Name church opposite the university on Oxford Road in Manchester. I would go there almost every lunchtime, just to sit quietly and pray. While there I kept being drawn to “The Sacred Heart” Icon of Jesus. I became fixated by the glowing heart at its centre; it brought me an incredible sense of peace and connection. At the same time I was meditating on some words in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”. The words were: “We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.” My problem had been my inability to fully accept this reality within me, but I could see it in someone else my friend Claire’s son Ethan. Over the weeks of meditating on these three things together I began to accept that the sacred heart in Jesus and in Ethan truly was in me. As a result I was finally able to make some sense of the changes that had taken place within me. Today I see that of God in everything, not separate or distant from life but within it. I do not believe that I could ever have reached that conclusion by simply reading or hearing words alone.
I agree with Tillich in his assertion that that which reveals “Ultimate Reality” also blocks it. Nothing, whether that is art, the written or spoken word, personal experience or nature can fully reveal ”Ultimate Reality”. I suspect that it is actually beyond our human capacity, I know it’s beyond mine. That said I believe that we can move closer to our own true natures, one another, all that is life and that that runs through life, which I call God, by fully engaging all our senses and appreciating and expressing all the gifts that have been bestowed upon us. Whilst at the same time not making idols of any of them.
Experience has taught me that imagery and artistic expression enhance my experience of the Divine and yet I still create worship that is almost wholly word based. Hopefully in time I will have the courage to create worship that touches those parts that the word alone cannot reach.