In this interview, Jeremy Begbie shares with Stimulus his thoughts on art and theology. Jeremy teaches systematic theology and specializes in the interface between theology and the arts at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His specific interests are the interplay between music and theology.
Stimulus: We speak of ‘maturing’ in the faith. Has your musical life been a part of this maturing?
Certainly, because I was a musician from as early as I can remember and totally captured by music that’s something still very much alive – and more alive than it was before. I find music much more interesting than I did before I came to faith. Then I thought music was wonderful, yes. It gave me a social life, it gave me a purpose for getting up in the morning, it gave me a reason to work very hard, and it gave me a huge number of friends. Playing in orchestras and making music with others was a kind of community. So there were all sorts of things in the musical world that came together to make it, as I thought at the time, a sort of religion. I wouldn’t have used that language then, but looking back…
When I came to faith it’s not as if whole parts of me died or stopped. It was much more like whole parts of me were transformed, rather than left behind.
Stimulus: This capacity of music to make one a participant… is there anything similar in what theology can do?
Music works by drawing you into its life. Music is not an object out there. It is something that we do. Music is first of all an activity, not a thing. And it’s an activity that draws you in… I think there are parallels between that participatory element, and the participatory element in Christian faith, and therefore in theology. I mean, to go back to James Torrance, he taught in a way that suggested he was caught up in something. Not that he was just transferring information to us or sharing an object with us. But that he was part of something dynamic was very captivating.
Stimulus: Okay then, in light of that, is good theology somehow innovatory?
I would have to say something about the orientation with which I do theology myself. I believe at the very heart of the Christian faith lies innovation. God taking on human form: at a specific time and specific place, living a human life amongst us, and out of that languages develop and that becomes scripture, and communities develop who speak this language. [And] that generates a pressure for lives to change and people to speak, and the message of the gospel to be proclaimed. I think this act of God is the central and determinative one, the benchmark for all our thinking about what he’s about. So when it comes to innovation I’m looking for something that coheres with, is faithful to that. Now obviously huge arguments arise as well: how are we exactly to know that? When does an improvisation become an unfaithful improvisation? What I am convinced of is that you can’t say any innovation is as good as another, or there are no limits to the innovations that are possible or permissible.
Christian faith is lived in a wonderful interplay between faithfulness and innovation, between truthfulness to what has been shown and done for us in Christ and the limitless number of applications and workings out of that in the world. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. So I think the Holy Spirit is the improviser – the one who is both faithful but also novel, creative.
Stimulus: Is there an attitude that is particularly helpful here?
Yes! Paying attention. And I believe, when we’re really trying to attend to the other as other, that insofar as that happens and it happens well, and we really are able to respond to the other as other, then that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to open us out to others and open others out to us so that there is genuine communication. I think one of the main things is the faculty of the imagination. If there is a faculty, it's about seeing connections that may not be obvious on the surface; that this and that may be at a quick glance totally unrelated yet imply one another. It seems to me great poets, great composers, certainly great painters, writers, they’re doing that all the time. And then they bring these [connections] together in striking ways. And of course, sometimes they’re going to bring together things that not only haven’t been connected before but are foreign to one another – the process of metaphor is doing precisely that. It’s bringing together incongruous things but in order that a deeper reality may be seen.
It’s an extraordinarily important capacity. And sometimes you create the metaphor without knowing what you’re going to discover with it. Sometimes, and I’ve had this experience, the meaning comes to light in the process.
Stimulus: Is that because there is something there that is an abundance, an excess?
Rowan Williams is superb on this. In his Grace and Necessity he says that what art reminds us of is that reality always exceeds our grasp of it. There is a potentially limitless way of interpreting, say, a bit of music or a painting. Now that doesn’t mean one interpretation is always as good as another. [That would suggest a work] can say anything. Nevertheless a really great work of art is always yielding more and more. Williams takes that in a theological sense, that art reminds us there is an excess in things, to the created world, and ultimately to the cosmos as a whole. This can only be answered in God.
Stimulus: So creativity is bringing the new into being??
Precisely. The non-necessity of things. That what is does not have to be. I’ve spoken to many artists who have that sense strongly. In a way it’s pretty basic to a creative process. You don’t want to think you’re being determined. You really want to think there’s a genuine newness in what you’re doing. Something that doesn’t simply roll out of the past.
Stimulus: Have you ever experienced a similar ‘newness’ in doing theology?
Oh yes, most often when I’ve seen some connection between musical phenomena and theological truth. I remember one where I was talking about meter and I was reading a lot on metrical waves, really quite technical stuff, but the ways in which music proceeds at many different levels simultaneously. And each of these levels has waves of meter to it which create wonderful patterns of tension and resolution and the way in which one wave will close at a lower level but that very closing opens up a bigger wave at a higher level. And I just thought this was all very wonderful until I suddenly saw extraordinary connections between that and the way the Bible speaks of promise and fulfillment. Of a promise having many fulfillments, of something apparently closing but it’s opening at another level. And I suddenly saw also that when we talk about linear and circular time, as if these were the only two options, when music shows that we can multi-level time.
Stimulus: With writers, composers, whatever, you can get that situation where everything goes into the work and the life is another thing – now, I would assume that cannot be the case with theology?
One wrestles with this so much. Faith by its very nature is personally involving. That is, it’s not really something we can discuss as an object out there. One’s not dealing with an inert God but a living dynamic agent who’s working to reconcile you to himself –that’s the heart of the Christian faith. That means that Christian theology at its fullest will catch you up. It doesn’t mean there can’t be a certain distance from some things, but that the reality theology is dealing with is a personal living reality. One’s self-involvement is extraordinarily broadened. So theology is going to change the way you live. It’s going to change you and your relationships – it demands a life lived in harmony with what you are actually speaking about. [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer is fantastic on this.
A more tricky one is when you look at someone’s theology; they’ve written a great book on something. And you think ‘wow, this is fantastic’ and then you find out they’re actually a miserable person... Does that invalidate the theology? Not necessarily. It is quite possible for miserable people to be right. I certainly hope it’s quite possible for miserable people to be fantastic preachers. It doesn’t invalidate what they say. So Athanasius, one of my heroes, he was not a pleasant man. Cyril of Alexandria - he was impossible.
Stimulus: I assume you would agree that there is value in some eloquence of style?
In other words, does good style or form carry its own theological message? I think it does, in so far as you are creating something of beauty, something that has a kind of tang of interest and novelty, in so far as that work is well shaped (and I think we live in a shaped world and that we are called to shape well). There is a theological depth and weight to it that. I do think that a lot of theology is not written with those things in mind. It’s thought that those are just peripheral, a gloss.
In a good book of theology there is an attractiveness that says ‘hey, there’s something really important going on here. You may not get everything first reading, but eventually you will get it and it will be worth the struggle.’
Stimulus: What’s an example of this?
Karl Barth. Almost anything Karl Barth writes is like that. Barth has a very particular rhetorical style. It has such drive and attractiveness and grace. You are so caught up in it you think ‘this is going to be worth it.’ And as it so happens I always come away wiser.
Another writer, more controversial, is Rowan Williams. Williams is known as being obscure and difficult. I know some people get irritated with him: why do you need to write like that? But actually if you spend enough time with it it’s always worth it. You begin to see what he was trying to say almost had to be said in that way.
Theology is hard. We’re dealing with tough topics. So when people insist that things must be instantly comprehensible I say, ‘well have you understood what theology is?’ There needs to be intellectual repentance on our part. Saying theology has to be ‘easy’ suggests that there needn’t be any change of mind on our part, and that’s very dangerous.
Stimulus: Have you thought about the place of emotion in theology?
A great deal. I’ve done work in how we understand the emotional power of music theologically. In terms of theology, I always look for passion. I’m very suspicious of anything that is severely dispassionate – because the redemptive movement that is the heart of the Christian faith ought to inform theology and that redemptive movement involves our emotions. These days people talk rightly about emotional intelligence. Michael Polanyi talked greatly about the passion of discovery, the passion of scientific inquiry. All the great scientists speak with emotional fervor.
I do believe theology at its heart is thinking. But it’s a thinking that’s not apart from the body and emotions. A lot of theologians have treated theology as if it’s a kind of disembodied discipline of abstraction.
You have to respect the vehicle of the body. It also means being alert to the physical circumstances in which you are doing theology – so I think spaces matter a lot, and colour. Different modes of communication are rightly appealing to different senses.
[Rowan Williams says] one of the great challenges is not assuming that [any] one mode of doing theology is universally applicable in all modes of doing theology.
Stimulus: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. We wish you well in your continued work and in your discoveries about faith and art.
 Reflections on Art and Love, London: Continuum, 2005