From Duncan Forbes

Rodney’s thoughts have caused me to reflect on human creativity and its role in the great scheme of things. I think it was Tolkein who talked of human beings as “sub-creators”: that in their creative work humans are not only making - as God does - a new objective reality, but that they are enabled to do so through the prior creative act of God. Thus the human creative act when it is “good” not only reflects a bringing into being of something genuinely new, but at the same time and without detracting from human autonomy also channels the creative activity of the divine. Thus the newly created object (or whatever) has the capacity to be a window onto the divine as well as a human work of art. Icons are I suppose the best example of this being consciously striven for.

This reminds me of one of the themes in the writings of Jean-Luc Marion, a contemporary French philosopher and (though he shuns the term) theologian. Marion developed early in his career a theory about the contrast between idol and icon, and refers to it often in later work. For Marion, the phenomenon of the idol does not have entirely negative connotations. The creation of the idol is the attempt to fix (as in the development of photographic film, which fixes a prior moment of vision) a permanent representation of an insight into the transcendent. This glimpse of transcendence by the seer is recorded through the making of an “idol” – an object or other human creation that says “this is an aspect of the Divine that I have glimpsed”. In simple societies the idol may be a crude figurative representation in wood or stone: as society develops, so does the quality and sophistication of the art. Over time and as societies and cultures change, previous ways of portraying and understanding things gradually lose their resonance. Then, says Marion, the idol becomes either an object of worship in itself, or (as in much of our modern culture) it simply ends up in a museum or gallery as just a “work of art”.

The icon is different. With its strict rules of representation it sets out not primarily to record the vision of its maker, but specifically, and within an ecclesial and liturgical tradition, to act as a window into heaven. That strange characteristic of the icon, its reversed perspective, puts the one who contemplates it at the edge, rather than at the centre. The icon does not return our gaze as if we were looking into a mirror. Instead, we find ourselves being looked at even as we look. We are opened up to the gaze of God. It seems to me that art at its best - even when its subject is ostensibly “secular” – can and does perform the function of an icon in the same way.

If Marion is right, then the role of art in sustaining the life of faith, both at an individual and a corporate level, is very important. It cannot be denied that much “religious art” is also bad art. (I had a colleague once who collected religious kitsch). The reason for its lack of integrity as art is because, in Marion’s terms, it is from the beginning a debased “idol”. It does not portray a deep experience or insight of the artist, where a new truth has just been seen or grasped, and so cannot achieve the function of the icon in opening a new window for us into truth.

All faith and religious practice is contextual. The Christian faith must be re-presented for every new generation, or it steadily loses its authority and withers. Such re-presentation is the task of theologians, preachers, and contemplatives, certainly. But it is also the task of the believing artist, whose work, when authentic, can help us literally to see old truths in new ways and to deepen our understanding of the nature of God and of human beings.