Catalyst Perspectives: how art can speak to us about God, the world and ourselves
In this Catalyst Perspectives blogpost, architecture professor Marcio Lima discusses how art can help reveal the mysteries of God, the human condition and its meaning. He also shares how his LCI project will nurture Christian students in Brazil to be agents of God’s kingdom through their research and artistic production.
“But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass … on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember today, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart.”
— Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamázov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)
Can the arts reveal something about God, or the world or ourselves in a unique way? This is a question that has challenged me for some time. It seems to me that Russian author Dostoevsky answers this question in the affirmative. The excerpt above is a line from Father Zóssima, a character who is a spiritual guide in Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamázov. The quote shows how the architecture, the light, and the dance of the incense smoke rising to the dome of the church were significant to the character’s religious experience.
I share Dostoevsky’s view that the arts can contribute to an expansion of our knowledge of the world and of God, not necessarily through cognitive means, but through affective (emotional) ones.
This is why I proposed a project for the Logos and Cosmos Initiative that explores the relationship between art and theology. I understand art as a profound manifestation of existence. It can speak to us about the world in a more intense way and can function as an instrument of knowledge. Art can make tangible – through the material – the highest attributes of the human spirit. In a sense, art shows human beings what it means to be fully human.
My project consists of developing a research program in theology and the arts for students of ABUB Brazil, my IFES national movement. The program includes training, mentoring and research support. It will feature a foundations course focusing on the relationship between the arts and the basic Christian motif of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. After the course, we will have a mentoring program for students to develop a research project related to the arts, architecture and theology. Some students’ research projects may also include the production of artistic works.
In the meantime, as part of my project, I recently had the opportunity to lead a workshop (see left) for the ABUB national congress, where students explored the theme of art, justice and the kingdom of God.
My whole LCI project is connected with the formation I received through the IFES community of students.
Since I was a university student, this formation challenged me to try to relate my faith to my academic training in architecture. When I understood that being a Christian impacts all areas of life, I sought to develop theological and practical connections between my faith and worldview and my discipline.
During my master’s degree, for example, I chose a topic that allowed me to discuss architecture from a human and transcendent point of view, looking for points of contact between these two subjects. When I was introduced to the Logos and Cosmos Initiative, I saw the opportunity to further develop these relationships and connect with a community of researchers who also have this commitment from their disciplines. It was an opportunity to continue the formation I received as a student, where I had already learned how our lives should not be dichotomous, but integrated by the knowledge and reality of God.
However, this was all in sharp contrast to my Christian upbringing in a Pentecostal evangelical church. I grew up in an environment where we were presented with a gospel in which the secular (or material) life and the spiritual life were separated and didn’t need to be connected. It was like that dualistic vision, more Platonist than Christian, between the material world and the spiritual world, between the body and the soul. Although there was no opposition to science or to academic study, these areas were treated as secular aspects of life that had almost nothing to do with the spiritual life.
At the Logos and Cosmos Initiative, myself and my fellow Catalysts are developing quite the opposite mindset: the understanding that there is no secular life and religious life.
The reality of God permeates the entire cosmos, all our life in its various manifestations. We are integrated beings. What fragments us is sin, provoking a dualistic vision that has damaged the way in which Christians relate, or even fail to relate, to science and the university.
This integral vision even rejects a purely rationalistic reading of the human being. When we consider the wholeness of the human being, which in an Augustinian vision displaces the center of gravity of human identity from the brain to the Kardia (the Greek word for the heart and guts – the seat of our emotions), we recognize the importance of the arts in this process of understanding reality. The ability of art to disrupt the fabric of reality reveals to us more of the mystery of the human condition, as well as its meaning.
This integral understanding of the human being that the Christian faith points to informs my work as an architect and academic.
First, I can point to social injustices, in Brazil and also in Latin America where we see a large number of people who are homeless or live in substandard housing, without health or structural stability. In this sense, my work focuses on stimulating and sensitizing students about the need to get involved in low-income housing projects, in the improvement of degraded areas, in providing decent spaces for human existence, not only in terms of structure and sanitation but also from an existential and human point of view.
The second aspect, to which I have dedicated myself more in recent years, is to understand architecture and the arts as a manifestation of what the human being is in all its depth. Our goal is to understand how the existence and essence of the human being is manifested through artistic languages and how they can be privileged means to understand the mystery of life.
Therefore, it is our duty as Christian scholars to seek these interfaces and show that the Christian worldview has much to contribute to the world, such as the development of a broader anthropology of the human being. We are challenged to see our work as scholars as part of God’s action for the renewal of the world, as agents of God’s Kingdom.
My goal for my LCI project is for students to understand how the arts are part of our lives, and how the arts can reflect what restored relationships look like, both with God, creation and between humans. The arts are part of our reality as human beings made up of body, soul, reason, and emotion.
Finally, my hope and prayer is that this project will contribute to the formation of students who are artists. My project’s goal is not that these Christian artists only make Christian-themed art to nurture their faith, but that – above all – they understand their role as artists who have faith and produce art for the good of the world. Not a production created as a sub-culture or enclave, but art created for the life of the world. As Christian philosopher James K. Smith1 puts it:
“…not art that simply augments piety, but art whose infusion of faith invites a wider world to imagine why it is possible to believe – art that invites any and all human beings to confront the vortexes of hunger and longing we call ‘soul’ (…) I am fascinated and inspired by those writers and sculptors whose God-possessed imaginations create works that capture both their neighbors and their fellow pilgrims.”
— Christian Philosopher James K. Smith
Those of us who are artists, architects, and writers are invited to give the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), in an imaginative, creative, and poetic way. This is our challenge!
Marcio Lima is a professor of architecture and urban planning, and is also studying for a PhD in modern religious architecture University of São Paulo in Brazil. He has been involved in ABUB Brazil for the past 10 years, first as a student and now as a volunteer staff worker.
Find out more:
- Follow Marcio’s project’s progress on his personal blog
- Read about all 18 of our Catalysts’ projects on our project webpages
- Watch a 2-minute video of Marcio discussing his project (video is in Spanish but an English transcript provided)
- Listen to the recent Voices of IFES podcast in which Marcio was interviewed about his project and his experience as a Catalyst. Video and audio is in Spanish but an English transcript is provided.
1Smith, James K. “For the Good of the World” on Monergismo.com