Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Guernica by Picasso
I am studying for my doctoral oral defence these days so have little time to write thoughtful blogs or give much attention to other topics. However, I came across a quote from C. S. Lewis a few days ago which speaks not only to my doctoral research but resonates with my ongoing mission to rescue Christianity from the language of "being used by God." Really, we ought not to speak this way. The idea of God as a "user" is deeply disturbing, and adopting this view makes us, as followers of Jesus, prone to imitate this ends justifies the means type of thinking. In essence, we become utilitarian propagandizers instead of people who pursue genuine and loving encounter.

So here is Lewis on the distinction between using artwork and appreciating it as art. It applies to so much more than art, going to the heart of how we view all of creation (everything from other people to the holy scriptures to the flowers that grow in the field), whether as mere tools or as beautiful, living subjects who deserve our respect and have something to teach us.

“This attitude, which was once my own, might also be defined as “using” pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the pictures – or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture – as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you “do things with it.” You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you…. Real appreciation demands the opposite process. … We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. …We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” - C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1992), 16-19.

We, as theologians, can be especially susceptible to this, using knowledge, sacred texts, and convincing ideas to press our viewpoint on others. Let us remember that theology's primary goal is not to persuade people of universal truth, but to awaken us to the presence of the loving Eternal One. Let us be forerunners in looking well, listening well, and receiving well.


Steve M. said...

Concerning word pictures painted vs those we see - from the painting depicted I see is below

How many times, in how many ways does God [the True One Only] have to say, "do not destroy [take away the body containing the spirit] those made in my image?"

Yet, far too often the people say, but my father, his father & his father went to war - so we might have this [Canada] wonderful safe place to live.

"Good & Evil" in a continuing battle waged in the cosmos - Christendom has become, "the new Good" - pagan myth.

When for centuries it (good & evil) had been saved for those pagan [those ancient societies] myths. Pagan myths make up a large part of our understanding even today ...your thoughts?

Matte Downey said...

I don't really want to get into a debate about the theories of just war, but your questions regarding using "evil" means to obtain good results are interesting. We understand these things imperfectly and church history, as well as our current context, can attest to that. This is why we must be attentive not only to the words of Jesus but to the whole witness of scripture and the action of God in history.

Anonymous said...

Mercy, mercy, so you have an ongoing mission to rescue Christianity from the language of "being used by God." And then you call me "utilitarian propagandizers instead of people who pursue genuine and loving encounter."?? Isn't that going too far?

Matte Downey said...

I include myself in this call to avoid the paradigm of "using" and become a person who values loving encounter. It is not my intent to accuse anyone of anything.

Anonymous said...

My heart's desire is to look to Christ as my forerunner, not necessarily the theologians.