The Ecumenism of Beauty

Art in Service of Faith

During this season of Advent we celebrate God’s extraordinary gift of his son, Jesus, who became the bridge between heaven and earth, a redeeming bridge between God and us. Through the incarnation of Christ, this spark of God’s glory, the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us. This is one of the core treasures of the Christian church, shared by believers of all faiths and denominations.

This year’s commemoration of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on other gifts God has given that may serve as bridges between the growing factions of our modern world, particularly in the Christian church. How do we join Jesus in his prayer for his people in John 17:20, “for those who will believe in me . . . that all of them may be one”?

In a Word

ecu·me·nism noun \e-ˈkyü-mə-ˌni-zəm\

a movement of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches through greater cooperation and improved understanding

Art as a Creative Bridge between Christians

Art can offer an open space for this encounter. It provides a creative bridge between different theologies, denominations, and ideas. Art can be a concrete healing force in a field of angry abstraction. Reflecting on the Reformation offers time to ponder the rich artistic heritage shared by all Christians and to ask what we can learn from each other’s traditions. In this conciliatory process, the spiritual vision of artists can help us develop a deeper understanding of what unites the body of Christ.

The book The Ecumenism of Beauty, edited by the revered Florentine art historian Timothy Verdon (Paraclete Press, 2017), provides inspiring insights on how the visual arts can be a catalyst for this ecumenical exchange. With chapters from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant artists, scholars, clergy, and theologians, this book explores the idea that art and beauty can be a creative bridge between Christians and offers ways we can work together to help unify the Christian Church.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

— Ephesians 4:3–6

Soli Deo Gloria – Living Life to the Glory of God

Paraclete Press, which published The Ecumenism of Beauty, is the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical Benedictine monastery on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They provide a vibrant living model of ecumenical behavior for all Christians to follow. Their Rule of Life says that they “seek to build upon what is most commonly treasured by us all, in order to realize a unity that is greater than the differences that have historically divided church bodies and denominations” (68).

Similar to the Reformed traditions, the Benedictines claim Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone be the glory. Martin Shannon, in his chapter “Beauty In and Of the Church,” points out that, in its Rule of Life under the heading “Living Life to the Glory of God,” the Community of Jesus believes that “those made in the image of their Creator in turn learn to create, every much as they learn to serve, to sacrifice, and to love” (70). Art, creativity, and beauty are part of its daily vision for everyday life and a guide for its liturgy of worship.

The World in Which We Live Needs Beauty

In his preface to The Ecumenism of Beauty, Verdon quotes Pope Paul VI to remind us that “this world in which we live needs beauty.” Paul VI says: “Beauty, like truth, puts joy in men’s hearts and is precious fruit to resist the wear of time, able to unite one generation with another, helping them communicate in shared admiration” (v).

Verdon believes the pope’s words “struck a chord in many Protestant faith communities, opening the way to today’s rediscovery of the visual arts in the life of all Christians” (v). For Verdon, “Paul VI’s belief that beauty can bridge differences, favor communication, and unite people in ‘shared admiration’ creates the hope that art might become an instrument of communion among separated Christians” (v).

Why after Five Hundred Years are Protestant Worship Spaces Devoid of Visual Beauty?

William Dyrness, the Reformed theologian and aesthetician from Fuller Theological Seminary, responds to this call in “Opening the Protestant Church to Beauty.” He writes: “Here a question must be posed to contemporary Protestant pastors and leaders: Why, after 500 years, when Protestants are learning again from medieval [and ecumenical] practices . . . are their worship spaces . . . so often devoid of visual beauty?” (19).

In hoping Protestants can reconnect with “our shared Christian artistic heritage,” Dyrness asserts: “Since the Reformation Protestants have embraced the beauty of the word and of music in their collective prayer; this year reminds us that now it is time to open their worship spaces to visual beauty as a sign of God’s presence” (21). This poses the question for Protestants: Can beauty find its rightful place in the very sanctuary where God, the giver of beauty, is worshiped and praised?

The Aesthetic of Soli Deo Gloria

Jerome Cottin, professor of theology at the University of Strasbourg, explores this question in his chapter “Calvin and the Visual Arts: The Aesthetic of Soli Deo Gloria.” “Calvin thinks of beauty and relates it to his vision of God,” Cottin writes. “He invites us to see God in listening to his Word and in contemplating a creation that has been saved by grace alone.” Calvin wants us to “see the signs of God’s grace all around us and within us” (5). To Calvin, God in all his glory cannot be anything but beautiful. This beauty is reflected in the world he created and in the redeemed lives we live. Can it be reflected in our collective worship as well?

To understand this we need to turn to the voice of the artist—what Verdon calls “the dynamism of human creativity in the service of faith” (xviii). The artist Filippo Rossi, in “The Artist as Contemplative,” observes that artists are “mediators—in the logic of the Incarnation—between the world of matter and that of the spirit” (57). God reaches out to artists and stirs their creative power. God passes a spark of his own artistic creativity to human artists, calling them to share in this creative process. Art is transformed into what Dyrness calls a “privileged carrier of authentic spirituality” (18), a beacon leading us to God or a physical compass designed to point the way.

Human Creativity in the Service of Faith

The artist Susan Kanaga, in “For Now We See through a Glass, Darkly” reflects on this process, saying, “I have to say ‘yes’ to what I believe God has given me, because as an artist I am a birth giver. I’d like to think my small ‘yes’ echoes the response of the Virgin Mary to the Archangel Gabriel. Putting my reasoning, my traditions, and my rules aside to hear God’s inspiration allows me to serve the work” (31).

“The Christian artist,” Kanaga continues, “has to let go of that which is rational, that which is feared, and listen with selfless ears for the truth; to sit in humble silence, open to the Holy Spirit.”

How do we do the same? During this time of Advent, how can our lives echo the “yes” of Mary when we are called? How do we put aside our reasoning, our traditions, and our rules to hear how God calls us to serve the church, our neighbors, and each other? Perhaps we too need to let go of that which is rational, or that which is feared, and listen with selfless ears for the truth “open to the Holy Spirit” (31).

The Ecumenism of Beauty provides a vision for this—a vision for how we respond to the call to live for God. Pope John Paul II guides us, saying, when “the language of beauty is put at the service of faith, [it] is able to reach men’s hearts” (Duodecimum Saeculum, cit., n. 12, 1987). It is then that art can become what Filippo Rossi calls “a humble and silent sign, full of expectation and gratitude, that precedes words in the grace-filled contemplation of the unfathomable mystery of God” (64). It is then that art can open our eyes and hearts to a fresh encounter with the living God.

All noble work, through its beauty,

illumines souls to the genuine splendors,

lifting them to the true light, of which Christ is the door.

The gilded door merely prepares you for what shines beyond it.

Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (1081–1151)

Phil Schaafsma is co-founder of Eyekons, an online resource of religious art for worship, education, and visual ministry.

Reformed Worship 125 © September 2017, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.