When humanists critique sacred art

Guest Blogger: Hans Hergot

What might a humanist writer have to say about the importance of sacred art? Quite a lot actually.

The basic premise of the article is that if you ignore the whole “god” thing, sacred art is important because it remind us how very, very human we are. An unsurprising point from a humanist.

One might dismiss this article as the typical narcissistic navel-gazing, but there’s actually some really interesting stuff. Let’s unpack it a bit. The author says this:

“There is, however, another sense in which we can think about the sacred in art. Not so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an exploration of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense.”

Not bad. The author gets the point that art is a means of elevating our material natures. Humans are animals, certainly. But we are animals that paint, animals that sing. We are filled and enlivened with the breath of God.

Jesus Martha and Mary

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer

Connecting art to transcended humanity is correct because by causing us to examine who we are as human beings, art points us to God—since humans are made in His image. One might say that in that regard all art is sacred: sacred art being a particular subset—one that is self-aware of this recognition.

In this way perhaps we could agree with the author’s assumption that a Rothko painting is like Dante’s inferno. Maybe.

But then the author drops the humanist acid:

“Transcendence does not, however, necessarily have to be understood in a religious fashion, solely in relation to some concept of the divine. It is rather a recognition that our humanness is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings and in our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project, to project onto the world, and onto human life, a meaning or purpose that exists only because we as human beings create it.”

Humanistic existentialism. How fresh.

He goes on at length trying to inspire, through quotable quotes, readers to get in touch, in a crypto-religious way, with their own sense of humanity.

Of course, in the end, he admits that secular art is seriously depressing:

“It is this sense of humans as realising themselves through, and only through, their own projects that has withered in recent decades. There is both a disillusionment with the prospect of transforming the outer world and a melancholy about the condition of our inner selves. ‘I’m not interested in things that rise above,’ as the American sculptor Mike Kelly, whose ‘dirty aesthetic’ has been highly influential, has put it, ‘but rather in things that sink below.’ This is the non-believing version of the Fall.”

No. The non-believing version of the fall is the fall itself. That is the source of God-hating, of life-hating, of death-affirming.

It is no wonder that, as novelist John C. Wright recently said, “Christianity…can properly take credit for the novel, the cathedral, and polyphonic music [while] antichristianity…can properly take credit for absurdism, cubism, atonal music…”

The author concludes that humanists need to look at sacred art to reclaim their idea of what a human is.

Yes, of course they do, because a human is a being that reflects God’s image as shown in perfect human Jesus Christ. To reflect on what it means to be human means to reflect on Christ.

But of course the author gets this all wrong. He starts out speaking of sacred art as including Buddhist and other religious works, but it’s not long before he drops all pretense and starts bashing Christianity:

“Historically, religion has been important in its attempt to give meaning and a dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred.”

Religion maybe. But not Christianity. It’s not all about you, dude. God gives meaning to our lives by having created us to enjoy Him forever and by making a way for us through the great salvific work accomplished by Christ on the cross.

There seems to be a lot of transference going on in this article. The author says, “The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo.”

Umm. That’s like saying a marriage is defined by not cheating.

Rather, a marriage is a wonderful relationship that blossoms through love into further connectedness by being joined together by part of God’s spirit and by the possibility of raising Godly offspring.

Only a rebel thinks this way. A rebel defines himself negatively with regard to authority. The rebel lives in the jungle, skulking about, refusing to take part in the kingdom.

But for those of us in the kingdom, it is life. It is joy increasing. It is defined by love and ever expanded relationship and knowingness .

Finally the author reveals himself:

“The importance of the humanist impulse is that it helped break the shackles of the sacred while maintaining the sense of the transcendent.”

Thank you, humanist, for breaking the shackles of God while lifting mankind out of the dirt. Oh wait. Your godless philosophy has never accomplished anything of the sort. You cannot help but think that a human being is just another animal. At the heart of your cheerless philosophy is a bleak nihilism.

Thanks, but no thanks. Even the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.

The author can’t seem to let it go. He says, “In Christian theology, the actual centre of the universe is not the earth, but hell.”

First of all, I’m glad we have this godless author to teach us about Christianity. It seems the non-Christian can only relate to God in terms of condemnation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. God loves you and made a way for you to be reconciled to him by placing the punishment we deserve for the bad things we’ve done onto his own Son, Jesus Christ. If you believe this, you can be saved. (And by the way, Rationalist, isn’t that the truest test of rationality—one’s acceptance or rejection of the good news?)

That’s why sacred art is so important. You cannot understand sacred art without reference to God. Rather, you see Christ crucified, died, being buried and you think of His humanity and of your own humanity. You too are created in the image of Christ, to be like Christ, which means to be fully and perfectly human, just as He was.

We transcend as humans exactly to the extent that we become like Christ. One day we will be glorious indeed.

As writers, we should be conscious of how our art elevates people to examine their humanity and by that to be pointed to God—that they will reach out and feel for Him and perhaps find Him, though he is not far from any of us.

Hans Hergot is an author living in the Republic of Korea. He can be found at http://www.hanshergot.com, and his books are at Amazon.

5 comments on “When humanists critique sacred art

  1. Wonderful essay. I don’t know where it deserves reblogging more, but this is going out on at least two – maybe three – of my specialized blogs and on Facebook.

    Sometimes I wonder if humanists really listen to what they’re saying. You can’t limit yourself to the physical and speak of transcendence in the same breath – not with any sound logic, that is. Einstein’s bon mot about living as if everything is a miracle notwithstanding, the one thing nature can’t be – save in its creation – is miraculous, transcendent. But it does point to the miraculous and transcendent – and has since the beginning of the world.

  2. Reblogged this on The Chronicles of Johanan Rakkav and commented:
    > It is no wonder that, as novelist John C. Wright recently said, “Christianity…can properly take credit for the novel, the cathedral, and polyphonic music [while] antichristianity…can properly take credit for absurdism, cubism, atonal music…”

  3. […] why I find most of Hans Hergot’s guest blog this morning on The New Authors Fellowship worthy of applause. He does not understand that the very things […]

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