Faith, truth and experience in art and scholarship

This post is the second of a short series summarising the three main talks given by Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin at the Faith-in-Scholarship conference in February. (Summary of Jonathan’s first talk.)

Adrienne’s talk, on ‘Faith, Truth and Experience’, drew in particular on her own expertise in the field of aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The starting point was an exploration of what function the concepts of truth and meaning might serve in the context of artistic experience. There is a tendency in Western thought to view truth as something that is inextricably bound up with language; each of the dominant philosophical theories of truth (including the correspondence theory, the coherence theory and the consensus theory) is based on the assumption that ‘truth’ is something communicated through clear, grammatically correct and unambiguous sentences that relate to real situations in the world. From this viewpoint, truth is not something that can be conveyed through art, music or poetry, or through non-linguistic dimensions of experience such as the emotions.

This stance, however, is a departure from the etymology of the word ‘truth’ itself, both as an English term and in its Biblical cognates. ‘Truth’ stems from the Old English word ‘treowe’, which conveys faithfulness in a much broader sense, much as we might talk about a ‘true friend’. The term most often translated as ‘true’ in the Old Testament is אֱמֶת (emeth), which again suggests faithfulness or steadfastness – for example in Psalm 36:5: ‘Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies’. Here, truth is bound up not with linguistic correspondences but with trustworthiness, with faithfulness to an established relationship.

In the New Testament, the Greek term ἀλήθεια carries similar resonances, but it also means literally unveiling or disclosure; it is the negation of λήθεια, which means something hidden or forgotten (it is the root of our word ‘latent’). In the Bible, the ultimate example of truth as disclosure is Jesus: he is the Word made flesh, and he reveals the Father to us, not just through his teachings but through the totality of his life. Truth is thus not just about statements that correspond to reality, but rather about  lived experience.

God’s disclosure in creation is the precondition of all human knowing. Different kinds of scholarship build on this in different ways. Science uses careful observation to go beyond appearances and reveal more about a certain aspect of the world. By contrast, art engages directly with these appearances, and its focus on the totality of our experience of the world rather than a specific aspect. It is a kind of imaginative disclosure that involves all our senses.

This poses a challenge. Christian views on art have often stressed its effectiveness as a way of transcending the senses: for example, the idea that visible beauty can point us towards the invisible God. Where its sensory qualities have been acknowledged, they have often been seen as immoral or self-indulgent; this all shows the impact of mind-body dualism upon Christian thought. But if we reclaim the multi-sensory nature of art, we find that it can serve as a powerful form of intimate contact with the world. It teaches us to see things as they really are; it feeds our imagination, and as a result nurtures our empathy; it gives a voice to affective experience; and, ultimately, it can disclose truth.


Richard’s comment at the previous blog on the human vocation of scholarship, about this blog on faith and art, prompts me to draw attention to a very new book by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art Rethought: the Social Practices of Art {Oxford, 2015], fortunately with a detailed chapter outline along with abstracts for each chapter.

Richard said, that “… the blog argues for a broad view of truth with respect to artistic representation.” I make no pretense to being a philosopher of art nor an historian of art, but I am intrigued by the “big picture”, the “broad view”, that NW presents for the art world. Not just the art in the museums counts for him, now memorials and work songs, the stuff of everyday life are discussed in his book as part of the art world. Again, I am reminded of Richard’s comment about “a broad view of truth”.

In the preface to his book, Wolterstorff tells about hearing a radio program in the 1960’s about work songs, and was suddenly challenged to think that he had never included them in his views about art. In chapter 16 he writes about work songs, drawing on the work of Ted Gioia, highlighted at his website and an NPR program.

Here is a brief paper NW has written on work songs that is relevant, published at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music Review.

Again, just resources for a conversation, for a human knowledge exploration about a very big art world in all of its dimensions, not a response to all the theological issues mentioned in the original note. Hopefully, something here will be helpful.

Sorry, the links for Ted Gioia don’t work. Here they are again without a star. I think they will work this way.

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