The Crisis of Meaning in Religion and Art

by Barbara DeConcini

Barbara DeConcini is dean of the Atlanta College of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 20-27,1991, pp. 223-326. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


Literature itself (no less than religion) is, in this view, an ideology, with the most intimate relations to social power.

While seminaries and churches have shown a burgeoning interest in the arts, the academic study of religion and the arts has come under fire in some quarters. In 1990 the American Academy of Religion, the chief scholarly organization of college and university professors of religion, suspended its Arts, Literature and Religion section for a period of reflection on its future, citing various tensions and disagreements which purportedly surfaced during the regularly scheduled review of the section. It had functioned continuously since the AIR began in 1964.

What can we make of such dissonance? Why is the study of religion and art (by which latter term I intend all the arts, including literature) being questioned in the academy just when it is celebrated and promulgated in the seminary? What did the AIR's year of reflection (leading up to its preauthorization of the section for 1991 and beyond) reveal about the state of the interdisciplinary study of religion and art?

One cannot understand the current conflicts apart from the history of the field's comparatively recent emergence as an academic subject. Religion and art has been a "field" in the sense that one can study it in graduate school and find positions teaching it in colleges only since the 1950s. But its roots are traceable to the end of the 19th century when influential cultural critics- Matthew Arnold chief among them-drew critical attention to deep concordances between religion and art with their predictions that, in Arnold's famous phrase, "most of what now passes with us for religion will be replaced by poetry." Arnold thought that only art could address his society's widespread loss of confidence in religion, fostered by the rise of modern science. Humankind needed art and especially poetry "to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us."

If art was canonized, so too was religion aestheticized. In the words of George Santayana, "the whole of Christian doctrine is religious and efficacious only when it becomes poetry." There is a fascinating story here to be told-but one which would take us too far afield from this discussion-about the intricate interplay between the crises of biblical authority and Christian belief on the one hand and the rise of the novel and the growth of art history and literary criticism on the other. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to claim, as Terry Eagleton does, that the growth of English studies is explained primarily by the failure of religion in the late 19th century.

Without espousing the Arnoldian conflation of the religious and the aesthetic, we might nonetheless appreciate the intuition prompting it, namely that, there are important connections between religion and art: both are oriented toward meaning, and both deal in universal human values-both are fundamental to being human. What is more, religion and art share remarkably similar discourses. Each works primarily through story, image, symbol and performance. This way of putting the connection would seem somewhat strange to those who promoted art as a substitute for religion at the turn of the century, however, for it exhibits a consciousness both about the art object and about the language of religion and art which had not yet informed criticism or religion. Absent such awareness and the methodologies it fostered, art criticism and religion tended, in their efforts to articulate the consonance, to collapse art into religion (Arnold) or religion into art (Santayana).

What intervened in the half-century or so between Arnold and Santayana and the early Ph.D. programs in religion and art was precisely this interest in the art object, its language and form. The results can be summarized, albeit somewhat too facilely, by considering first the advent of formalism and the new criticism, and second, the emergence of hermeneutics.

While formalism in art history and the new criticism in literature are somewhat distinct, they have in common a commitment to take the work of art seriously on its own terms. On the art historical side, this means a descriptive and analytic fidelity to the optical data of the painting and not simply its classification according to school and style. In literature, the close reading of the text offered a way to move beyond two reductive fallacies: 1) taking the work merely as a historical or social document and thus an example of what "great men" thought and said; 2) seeking the poem's meaning behind the text in the author's intention. Both formalism and the new criticism understood their project to be focusing on the object itself as the nexus of its own unparaphrasable meaning.

There is, however, an important difference between the two which cannot be glossed over. Whereas formalists eschewed iconography as the importation of extraneous reference to the pure forms which constitute expression, the new criticism from the start reveled in metaphor and symbol. Indeed, for the new critics poetry is symbolic language, the poem a verbal icon. They too discountenanced the use of interpretive principles shaped by theoretical interests, but their comparative openness to external reference-as well as their political success within the academy-meant that the study of religion and literature developed somewhat sooner than did the study of religion and visual art.

Meanwhile, in mainline Protestantism the theological response to the so-called failure of religion in the modern world took two chief forms: the kerygmatic theology of Karl Barth and the existential or apologetic theology of Paul Tillich. If Barth recalls theology to a radical God- centeredness, Tillich rediscovers its correlative and existential character. With Tillich, theology becomes a way of reformulating and answering the fundamental question of our being, aiming to overcome tendencies toward a rationalized objectivity on the one hand and a romantic subjectivity on the other. Through the method of correlation, the existential questions which arise from our human predicament find response in theological answers derived from revelation.

Such interdependence of existential question and theological answer is itself a pointer to the Logos which is "the universal principle of revelation in religion and culture" and as such their one theonomous root. Thus the void that Tillich sees as the cultural destiny of the modern period can be viewed theologically as a sacred void, an existential cry of ultimate concern. Both art and religion are rooted in the Logos, and the language of both is symbolic; for symbols, whether religious or aesthetic, open up levels of reality which are otherwise closed for us and unlock dimensions of our soul which correspond to that reality.

The centrality of the symbol in Tillichian theology and the new criticism was one among several reasons why literary criticism and the theology of culture found in each other a fruitful dialogue partner. And thanks to the method of correlation, the practice of religion and art was never limited to aesthetic objects with explicit religious content, since even the most dark and despairing texts could be read as expressions of ultimate meaning. Tillich himself practiced "religion and art" in his discussions of expressionist painting. Among cultural forms he clearly favored the visual arts, thus himself helping to foster another branch of the interdiscipline. This marriage of critical and theological method opened the way for careful considerations of the myriad ways in which art has religious dimensions and religion is expressed and experienced aesthetically.

Yet both approaches contained a certain tendency to fall back into the Arnoldian conflation. Formalism in literature and the visual arts took the autonomous object with such seriousness that its attention veered toward idolatry, transforming the art object into a sort of fetish. In theological correlation, Christianity's truth claims and specifity were undercut to the extent that works of art provided the basic model on which those claims were to be understood. The symbol was always in danger of being cut loose from history.

While formal analysis opened up a space for the academic study of religion and art, the project soon sought and found more congenial theoretical underpinnings in hermeneutics. Hermeneutics was more consonant with Tillich's enterprise not only because it began its career as biblical interpretation, but because it put the reader/viewer back into the work's meaning.

In understanding the work of art as a language-event, an image-event, the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur offered a critique of the formalists' tendency to make "meaning" a static object. According to the hermeneutical circle, the text initiates a kind of dialogue or encounter with the reader/viewer, and like all dialogues this one makes claims upon its partner. Far from merely explicating the "objective" meanings inherent in the autonomous text, interpretation is, in the words of Ricoeur, "the process by which disclosure of new modes of being, of new forms of life, gives to the subject a new capacity for knowing himself." In his own wide-ranging and nuanced criticism of both biblical and secular texts, Ricoeur himself moves easily from a close reading of symbols to theoretical reflection, thereby modeling for an entire generation a more conceptually sophisticated way of joining religion and art than had heretofore been practiced.

To retrieve my initial question: Why, granted its intellectual contributions and vitality, is the study of religion and art now under question? Because its very interdisciplinariness and inherent concern with issues of interpretation have put it at the center of the most significant controversy in the human sciences today. This controversy, prompted by the rise of "radical hermeneutics" (I am borrowing a phrase of John Caputo's, stretching it to encompass not only deconstruction but also political criticism), is over the entire field's attachment to "symbol" and "meaning." Radical hermeneutics claims that religion and art has a closer continuity with its 19th-century origins than it realizes or wants. While modern developments in criticism and religion did open up a space for interdisciplinary work by allowing relative distinctions between religion and art, they did so within a foundational framework fraught with unexamined presuppositions.

Deconstruction's project is to relativize "meaning" by showing that any text has many other senses than that conveyed by its "meaning." By exploring the surfaces of text, deconstructionists lift up all sorts of phonic and graphic relationships at play that reduce the assumed priority of "meaning." The problem with Gadamer's and Ricoeur's hermeneutics (and before them the new criticism) is that they assume a thematic unity or system of meaning in the text. Such subordination of the text to the rule of meaning does violence to the text and restricts its free play of significations.

Deconstruction's radical hermeneutics strikes serious blows at certain traditional theories of meaning by showing how unstable an affair language is. This would be unsettling enough if language were simply a tool we use rather than the very medium in which we live. Language's claim to present inner experience and describe how reality is corresponds to our desire for some ultimate "word" or "reality" in which to ground all experience. Tillich's claim that religion and art are rooted in one theonomous Logos is just the sort of claim about "meaning" that deconstruction wants to interrogate.

The significance of these foundational presuppositions or the extent to which pointing them out is a damning criticism depends, of course, on where one stands in the current controversy. Some read deconstruction as denying the existence of anything but discourse; others, as relativizing and pluralizing meanings by showing them to be the effects of language, the unconscious, social institutions and practices.

In this last point we can see a family resemblance between deconstruction and political criticism, which practices a somewhat more traditional hermeneutic of suspicion. It wants to peel away the manifest sense of discourse to disclose the authoritarian and ideological character of its latent meanings. Since linguistic signs are matters of historical and cultural convention, when language presents itself as natural rather than drawing attention to its own arbitrariness, it may get granted unquestioned status as the expression of what is real and abiding. Such masking of cultural convention as the nature of things-the naturalizing of social reality-is an act of ideology, undertaken for the sake of power relations.

Literature itself (no less than religion) is, in this view, an ideology, with the most intimate relations to social power. What sorts of oppressions, for example, are being supported in novels of traditional realism, and what sort of "meaning" is being canonized when an ethicist writes that "the unity of the self is like the unity exhibited in a good novel"? Among the issues political criticism brings to the fore and into question are: canons, whether literary, artistic or religious; distinctions between so-called high and low art; the granting of certain types of discourse privileged status; and matters of gender, race and class.

While both deconstruction and political criticism see more moderate forms of hermeneutics as serving closed and totalizing discourses (more iconic than iconoclastic), each regards the other as not radical enough. To the deconstructionists, political criticism is still trapped within the old humanism; to those engaged in the critique of ideology, meanwhile, deconstruction's play with textual indeterminacy looks too much like the old bourgeois "art for art's sake."

At the end of the last century, Arnold advocated art as a solution to the evident collapse of religion: "There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve." As we approach the end of another century, some in the academy see radical hermeneutics as the final step in that process of dissolution, while to others it is the promise of a rebirth. Such a renewal in religion and art would interrogate the language of domination and would approach questions of "depth" and "meaning" and "ultimacy" with circumspection, attuned to who or what is being ruled in or out of the discourse. The AIR's preauthorization of the Arts, Literature and Religion section is an invitation to get on with the debate.