In my work as the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation, there was one question that I was asked more than any other. I would be in a conversation with a member who would be sharing about something they had read or heard going on in the world, and, inevitably, I would be asked some form of, “Pastor, what do Presbyterians believe about [insert topic here]?”
For the most part, these questions revealed the heart of a seeking disciple. Mary or Joe was asking simply because they wanted to make sure they were living like Jesus wanted them to. But the question reveals a deeper issue, and that is that there is an idea that those of us who call ourselves “Christians” (or “Presbyterians” or “Baptists,” etc.) all think the same. Worse yet there is an idea that we all should think the same.
When I would ask Mary or Joe why they thought I knew what “Presbyterians believed about” whatever topic they raised, they would simply respond, “Well, you’re the one who has learned theology. Aren’t you supposed to know?” It was because of these kinds of interactions that I came to believe that theology, as a discipline, has a problem. We have mistaken theology for law when it is, in fact, art.
Philosopher Susanne Langer defines art as “The creation of forms symbolic of human feelings.” As Langer’s definition suggests, art is not merely something abstract and private. Art comes into being when the abstract and private moves beyond potentiality and becomes something concrete and public.
Also, art is not restricted to one form. A variety of forms and structures will contribute to the whole of art. We can never say that this is art and that is not based on form alone, because, in strictly a formal and structural sense, many words, melodies, objects, and movements will be, can be, and are considered art.
Art, according to Langer, is also symbolic. Its purpose is not to define, lock down, or restrict. Rather, art wants to suggest, set free, and expand. While precision may have a role to play, ultimately, art wants something more not less. Art wants abundance, not scarcity.
Langer’s definition also suggests that the feelings art is symbolic of are the ones that are common to humanity. According to Langer, art is not symbolic of a singular human’s feelings, but human feelings, the ones common to us all.
Using Langer’s categories, it is easy to see that “art” can and should be theology’s proper designation.
“The creation of forms…”
Just like other artists, it is acceptable (for a time) for would-be-theologians to mimic the work of the great theologians whose work has come before. In many ways, this is the way that one learns to do theology. Particularly in formal settings such as seminary or divinity school, we repeat what we have been told. We demonstrate that we have understood the boundaries of the ideas we have been taught. But also, this dynamic takes place in the Sunday School classroom: We ingest what our pastors and teachers have taught us and try to work out our understandings of what these theologies might mean for our lives. We might have occasion to write them down or we may just profess our thoughts during conversation, but both instances afford us the opportunity to take something from the abstract and personal and bring it to the realm of the concrete and public. We are taught to “create form.”
We also know that theology is art because the words that we use are metaphorical in nature. They are symbols. It may sound silly to say it, but words are not actual objects. They do not exist self sufficiently. When we use a word we are choosing to employ a verbal placeholder that is intended to remind us of something else. I’m not suggesting that we give up on the ability of language to communicate. Far from it. What I am suggesting, however, is that we recognize that even at its most precise, language is just a place holder which refers to another reality.
“…of human feelings.”
For our purposes, we can comfortably say that theology is art because theology concerns human feelings, specifically feelings resulting from an encounter with God. The word “theology” is actually derived from the combination of two Greek words (theo = god, divine; logos = words, speech). Our divine art – our “God talk” – has its genesis in our experience of God.
Theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher addressed this idea most clearly in his seminal classic On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. In what was a response to his friends, Schleiermacher sought to offer a defense of the religious life that was not easily dismissed for being rigid and dogmatic, nor hypocritical in its piety.
Schleiermacher’s contention was that the genuine core of the religious life was not to be found by moral action or by reason. He contends that the essence of religion is not found in acting or thinking, but in feelings and intuition.
To be fair, his use of the word “religion” is a bit confusing. Rather than the formal trappings of a tradition, his use of the term seems to suggest more of an ethos – a way of being together, a corporate spirituality. According to Schleiermacher, this ethos comes into being because we each have come to an awareness of “the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things, in and through the Eternal.” The impulse, upon coming to this awareness, is to seek out others to see if we are alone in this experience. What we call religion is the co-existing and cooperation of our various feelings of God as we bring them together. What is important to note is that what we are calling religion is not an expression of just your feelings nor of mine, but, rather, what is common in the feelings of both of us.
Whereas, when human feelings manifest as religion, they produce a culture of interaction and interdependence which is always in flux, when they manifest as theology something more concrete is brought into being, something which can be named as our attempts to describe the feelings we had as a result of our experience of God. These descriptions we create serve as a call to others (of sorts), a way of making known what it was we encountered so that we can gather with others who have experienced something similar.
I could never really answer Mary or Joe when they asked me what they were supposed to believe about this or that. I could tell them, with some measure of certainty, what Presbyterians have consistently said throughout the years, but I always tried to end our discussions by making a case that theology was not a test.
We have all experienced God in different and powerful ways, and to suggest that we should all describe those experiences with the same words is not only foolish and naïve, but it removes any potency theology ever had.
This blog post is an adaptation of Landon Whitsitt’s monograph “Theology is Art.” You can download it for free at landonwhitsitt.com
 Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, (Trubner & Co., 1893), 36