Art Still Has Truth. Take Refuge There


Late last night, I finished this watercolor, then spoke to a Sunday School gathering this morning. The discussion following my presentation was stimulating for me, and I’m happy to share the text of what I presented this morning.  Thanks for reading.



Years ago, when visiting my parents in Missouri, I was listlessly driving around the greater St. Louis area, looking for something to do, not feeling in the greatest of spirits, and I don’t recall why. That is no longer important. The Saint Louis Art Museum, since my high school years, has been an anchor in my life, and Forest Park remains a virtual paradise west of downtown St. Louis.  So, I decided to park my vehicle there and wander around the grounds.  The museum sits atop a piece of real estate called Art Hill, overlooking a magnificent lake far below, with the skyline of St. Louis sparkling in the distance.  For those of you who have visited the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, and looked east out on that vista toward downtown, you get my general idea—only Forest Park in Saint Louis is about four times the acreage of that lying between our own Amon Carter and the skyscrapers of Fort Worth.

After strolling the parks restlessly for about an hour, I decided to enter the art museum, but entered it at a side door for the first time in my life—I had always used the main entrance with the overhead inscription carved into the granite:   DEDICATED TO ART AND FREE TO ALL.  Well, this south side entrance had this carved above the huge portal:



I discovered later that that was a quote from Matthew Arnold, but on that day, the inscription could have been for me the Delphic Oracle.  I took it seriously, and strode into that museum on that personally historic day, the way a medieval man on a spiritual pilgrimage would finally enter the massive doors of a city cathedral—and my outlook on the arts changed indelibly.  I spent an entire day wandering through galleries on three different floors, finding respite.  I exchanged my Bible for a journal, and as I sat in silence that day, listening, I wrote page after page of thoughts as the oracle continued to echo down the chambers of my innermost being.  I relaxed in the shadows of Van Goghs, Rembrandts, Picassos, Monets, and Renoirs.  I lingered beneath the canopies of Medieval altarpieces and scrutinized sculptures of Rodin.  There slowly emerged in my consciousness that day the conviction that my own life—like everyone else’s—was tied with a chain to the commonplace.  However, there were sanctuaries overflowing with abundant, timeless treasures—works of art accompanied by testimonies of artful lives—right there in our domain, inviting the weary travelers to enter and find rest.



At my present age, I have difficulty separating Art from Religion, when I talk of ultimate values, when I talk of excellence and virtue.  Think about this—when we talk about our core, our essence, we often choose words such as “religious” or “spiritual,” but “artful” could also be added to that vocabulary.  The theologian Paul Tillich urged upon his students this observation that the most direct way to understand a culture was not through its history, not through its literature, not even through its religion, but through its art.  Art, Tillich argued, opened up avenues of knowledge and experience not present in other disciplines.

When I speak of Art this morning, I’m using a capital “A” to distinguish it from art work, or art history.  To borrow from Plato’s worldview, he pointed out that we are confronted with a world filled with change, a world of motion, often a world of confusion.  Plato argued that we get frustrated with this moving target and often seek some kind of anchor or fixture to hold things in perspective.  We want an Absolute in the mist of all this change.  For years I’ve spoken of how religions on this planet have continually evolved, declined, splintered, renewed—always on the move, always changing.  And yet, all these religions claim to pursue some kind of Absolute.  A god, a morality, a code, a creed—something that will stay in place and organize all those other loose details.

The religious experience splits on that model of Plato.  Those who seek the permanent in religion are seeking some kind of fortress, a sanctuary, a safe zone.  And those who favor the dynamics of a changing religion pursue it as on a path, an odyssey, a journey of faith.  Religion appears to offer both dimensions—an absolute for assurance, and a journey for discovery.  And I believe we require both.  Sometimes language of God falls into that split category.  One hears talk of God as though this deity were elusive.  Karl Barth once said that one’s attempt to discuss theology was like trying to paint a bird in flight.  Woody Allen, listening to the testimony of Albert Einstein that God does not play dice with the universe, once retorted: “No, he plays hide and seek.”  Yet those who speak of the elusive God also like to discuss God as an enduring Presence.  One book by the Old Testament theologian Samuel Terrien has been titled The Elusive Presence.

            And it is that “presence” that comforts.  Art provides that presence.  A poet once recorded these poignant words:

Everything passes—Robust art

Alone is eternal.

The bust

Survives the city.

John F. Kennedy once alluded to Art as that presence which remains as a foundation.  One month before his assassination, he stood before his audience at Amherst College and voiced these words:

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his           limitations.  When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

This morning, I am addressing Art (or Religion) as something experienced in both realms of our divided world.  By divided, I mean that realm of constant change vs. that realm of repose.  Change addresses that odyssey element we all know too well—when we are on the move and always exploring, always encountering.  Life can be a pilgrimage.  But let us not forget that restful side—that need to stop, to pause, reflect, recollect.  It is that stopping side that I want us to focus on for the moment.  That need for refuge.



The artists, the famous creators of history, have left behind their visual testimonies of life abundant.  Even when we lack their talent, we still have their eyes and their appreciation.  We have our senses that “feel” what they felt, and we can understand the same beauty that attracted them.  Let me read this testimony from Ian Roberts, author of Creative Authenticity:

If you read accounts of enlightened people, you will notice that because they are so open, with so few filters on perception, everything for them is poetry. Everything is alive, asking for attention.  Attention to what?  To the divine that hovers beneath the surface of all life.  What we respond to in the great paintings of history is the depth of attention the artist had focused on the project.  We could even use the word prayer—not in a religious sense, although for some artists that might be accurate.

The reason we can feel the beauty that drove those artists like a religious sentiment is because we carry that same sense of beauty within us.  As Emerson once testified: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”

I call attention to the quiet, restful side of religious experience, because I feel that the reason art and religion so often slip from our grasp is because we are too busy with industry to let it soak in.  Art can be found in the silences.  Rollo May wrote it so beautifully: “Beneath our loquacious chatter, there is a silent language of our whole being which yearns for art and the beauty from which art comes.”

If Plato is correct in dividing our world between the motion and the rest, I say that most of us find ourselves out of balance because we spend too much time in one of those realms, and too little in the other.  My perennial problem has been too much time spent in the action realm.  Because I consider myself a man of contemplation, I know the frustration of being too much “on the move.”

I have wasted too much time in the past poking fun of public figures in politics, Hollywood and professional sports who cannot seem to get enough attention, seizing the media spotlight in every way conceivable. You know who they are. I’ll leave the names unspoken.

Many of you might be unaware of this, but Ralph Waldo Emerson got caught up in the same public whirlwind.  In his early career, he had four years of silence following his wife’s untimely death and his resignation from the Unitarian ministry.  He thought, he traveled, he reflected, he scribbled ideas in his journal.  Then he came out with his small book titled Nature, which was a distillation of his four years of seething thoughts.  Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.  That small book took our young national consciousness by storm and suddenly thrust Emerson out in front as a national figurehead, a public orator, called upon to expound these new ideas to a hungry America.  He realized after four years of speaking and writing that his well had run dry, and he needed to retreat and regroup.  He didn’t.  Whether he liked all that public speaking, or just felt that he was needed, he didn’t retreat.  And the writings of Emerson from the mid 1840s on lose that impact that so punctuated his early, most often-quoted works.  He may have had more to offer us down the road had he taken the less-public route of Henry David Thoreau.  But alas, we second-guess.

Let’s return to ourselves.  What about us?  Where do we stand in this juncture of our religious pilgrimage?  Have we balanced our action with our stillness?  If so, then we probably flourish.  If not, then where have we tilted?  For anyone this morning who feels sedentary and lifeless, then perhaps you’ve spent too much time in the sanctuary and need to get out into the world of action.  Perhaps it’s time for you to explore a cause, an exercise, a pursuit that allows you to put your religious sentiment into action.

As for those of you who are weary and drained from too much industry, then for certain it is time for you to retreat into the sanctuary, into the stillness, into the solitude.  A life of contemplation awaits you and offers rest and restoration.




6 Responses to “Art Still Has Truth. Take Refuge There”

  1. Margaret Parker Brown Says:

    Very thoughtful post, I might have to re-read it more than once!


  2. memadtwo Says:

    That elusive balance…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elaine Says:

    So thoughtful and well written. I want to save this and re-read it frequently! Thanks for posting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: