God in the Gallery was destined to ruffle the feathers of Reformed and evangelical theologians used to talking about the visual arts on their home court, in front of their own fans, and with their own refs Rookmaaker, Schaeffer, and Wolterstorff calling the fouls. Yet I underestimated just how problematic God in the Gallery was to the larger project of Protestant theology. This larger project is limned by the Schleiermacher-Barth axis of thought, the nineteenth century Liberal Protestant dismissal of the Trinity and the draining Christianity's dogmatic content to the Neo-Orthodox creative "rescue" of the person of Jesus Christ and "orthodox" Christianity in the first quarter of the twentieth. Despite the fact that Barth actually does believe in Christ as the God-man, the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God, and has produced significant insights into election, this axis is two sides of the same coin. And it has Kant's face on it. And as Kantian currency it trades in reason not mystery, explanation not experience.
This academic Protestant establishment has a deep iconoclastic tendency that has become only more explicit throughout the twentieth century. (By "academic" I mean theology and philosophy produced for the academy not for the Church or in the Church. To be sure, academic theologians of this brand do indeed enjoy speaking "to the Church," but that is a different matter altogether.) As I visit evangelical and Protestant colleges, interact with Protestant theologians and philosophers, and read the reviews of God in the Gallery, I have been come to realize just how deep-seated and institutionalized this iconoclasm is. It is dressed up in various ways and appears in numerous guises but in the last analysis Protestant theologians and philosophers use the visual arts merely to offer illustrations of truths they have discovered elsewhere and, if they had their druthers, they would declare, as Barth did, that no symbols and images be found inside any Protestant worship space, lecture hall, or seminar room. And if they absolutely have to be there, they are there only for decoration or instruction, not to be looked at intensely, or to declare their aesthetic presence in their own voices. True, some Protestant theologians and philosophers will tell you how much they like the visual arts but it does not take long to discover, either through a few questions or a glance at their office walls, that they have very little understanding of artistic practice. And this is not necessarily their fault. With Thomas Kinkade paintings of light, Bob Ross reruns on PBS, Sister Wendy Beckett, silly behavior in the contemporary art world, cranky nature of Conservative cultural politics, and even the "educational" work of art museum docents, the larger culture has no idea of what serious artistic practice is and what it requires of the viewer. I have come to believe that what the larger culture understands about painting is not simply deficient. It is wrong.
Protestant iconoclasm breeds bad taste. In his sublime The Beauty of the Infinite, Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart offers perhaps the most devastating criticism of Nietzsche offered to date: Nietzsche has terrible taste. For Hart, it is his aesthetic that undermines his anti-theological philosophy. This could very well be said about the entire project of Protestant theology that has emerged along this Schleiermacher-Barth axis. It fails Hart's taste test.
Hart does not dismiss Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Derrida. He listens to them patiently and intently and then scolds them for not having refined enough palettes to recognize that the Church Fathers and the Biblical witness are a much more robust foundation than Kant and the whitewashed sanctuaries of Enlightenment reason.
Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has claimed that he developed his systematic theology as a meditation on St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Compare Jenson to Barth. In what I find to be a shockingly nasty little essay, "The architectural problem of Protestant places of worship," Barth consigns the worshiper and the preacher to an empty, presumably white box in order to hear the preached Word of God. And so I find myself predisposed to being attracted to Jenson's Systematic Theology while being repulsed by Barth's Church Dogmatics. Is this an unfair assessment? Probably.
And yet. The Seventh Ecumenical council Nicaea II (787 AD) affirmed the necessity of the veneration of icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints as a means to preserve the mystery of Jesus Christ as the God-man. In some ways, Nicaea II is simply an affirmation of the traditional aesthetic taste of the Church. To dismiss it as "merely" about images, symbols, and the like, which are barriers to hearing the Word of God, reveals bad taste. And in the context of Nicaea II having bad taste is much worse than it sounds. It reveals a lack of aesthetic imagination. And without an aesthetic imagination, embodied in and shaped through icons, how can we appreciate—see—God's mysterious and beautiful work in the world through Christ? Nicaea II claims that bad taste, in this context, is not a failure of culture, it is a failure of dogma. It is heretical.
Should we be concerned that few of these Protestant theologians, given their admirable zeal to engage in the most contemporary of thought, have not been capable of engaging the most contemporary of art at its highest level? This is the clearest indication that the Protestant academic establishment, liberal and conservative, is profoundly—not just slightly—iconoclastic. Art for them is at best a didactic tool, an "image" like the reproduction of Grünewald's medieval Isenheim Altarpiece that Barth pinned to the wall in his study. It is not a proactive means by which knowledge about the world is produced and experienced. Would that Barth had engaged the tradition of modern painting as he engaged the tradition of modern philosophical speculation. But to do so would imply the belief that painting could actually participate in theological reflection, not just illustrate certain of its points. And the Protestant tradition has cut itself off from that belief. In order to "save" Christ from Kant, it has applied various tourniquets to the Church. The result is a crippled and deformed Christian faith that is deprived of necessary appendages.
This is why I find the Church Fathers and those theologians that engage them within the dynamism of the Holy Tradition so much more powerful than a positively tasteless Protestant theology that thinks that Barth actually "rescued" something. The Fathers don't seem to have much trouble writing about and pointing to images and icons as a creative and constitutive part of their theological reflection. I am reminded of German art historian Erwin Panofsky's powerful little study Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, in which he analyzes how the intricate beauty of the Gothic Cathedral is not merely an illustration of the aesthetic beauty of Aquinas's thought, but actively participates in shaping it. That brings an aesthetic mindfulness to Aquinas that makes his theological speculations even more compelling. And then I think about the frightening white box that Barth would have us sit in and the legions of contemporary Protestant theologians that have flocked to Barth as the starting point for their creative work. And I wonder.
This is why I appreciate Liberal Protestant theologians like John and Jane Dillenberger and Paul Tillich. They at least engaged what was most contemporary in the art world. Unfortunately, most of their followers merely reified their historical tastes so that a watered down post Vatican II gestural, figurative expressionism has become the "court style" of Liberal Protestant theologians. In addition, my unsystematic and ad hoc use of the Church Fathers, the Russians Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov, and the Roman Catholic Christoph Schönborn, come directly out of my engagement with and response to modern and contemporary art on its own terms.
Catholic and Orthodox thought is most capable of offering a means to experience creatively modern and contemporary art primarily because they remain believers in art, believers in an aesthetics wrought in the Church, which thus grounds but does not limit the aesthetic outside the Church. This, however, does not mean that Catholics and the Orthodox have good taste simply by virtue of being Catholic and Orthodox. It does mean, however, that they have at hand the theological resources alive in their tradition that makes such taste possible and the theological capacity to participate in modern and contemporary art at the deepest levels.
At a symposium for art museum curators in New York City a few years ago, then-Seattle Art Museum director Lisa Corrin was asked how she developed her leadership skills. She listed a number of books written by the usually business guru suspects. And then she said, almost in passing, "and I look at the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres." Would that a contemporary theologian be capable of saying something like that—that participating in the aesthetic life of a particular artist actually shapes one's thought and actions.
But art and the aesthetic aren't that important, you say. Tell that to the bishops in the eighth century that came to Nicaea with their eyes gouged, arms amputated, and legs hamstrung because they dared defend a robust aesthetic as a fundamental part of the Church's witness of Christ to the world in the face of an imperial iconoclasm that claimed that such imagery was useless at best and idolatrous at worst and got in the way of an unmediated access to Christ. And in the Eastern Orthodox Church first Sunday of Lent commemorates the re-establishment of icons in Constantinople in the ninth century after a second round of violent imperial iconoclasm after Nicaea II. The Orthodox call it the "The Triumph of Orthodoxy," and regard the restoration of the veneration of icons to be the aesthetic affirmation of the Nicene faith.
When I speak at evangelical Christian colleges about God in the Gallery, I am often asked about whether the Protestant tradition offers resources for a robust experience of modern and contemporary art. My view is that it cannot and will not until it recovers and creatively appropriates, in some way, the deep aesthetic insights of Nicaea II. But until that happens, God in the Gallery will continue to irritate the academic Protestant establishment.