Created, written, and hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Closer To Truth is a public television series that explores fundamental questions relating to the cosmos, consciousness, religion, and the search for ultimate reality and purpose. The program boasts a robust website featuring over four thousand video interviews with scientists, philosophers, theologians, artists, and other scholars and practitioners.
I am particularly interested in the seven hours’ worth of interviews on art and religion/God that fall under the “Art Seeking Understanding” rubric. They are separated into three- to twelve-minute segments spread across these eight topical series:
- Art and the Philosophy of Religion: “Can art inform topics in philosophy of religion? Can the existence and varieties of art address or affect theological questions about God, faith, belief, worship?”
- Arguing God from the Arts?: “Is it possible to infer something of the nonphysical, divine existence of God from the physical, human existence of art? Can one argue for God from art?”
- Can the Arts Reveal God’s Traits?: “If God is the Creator of human beings and art is a feature of human sentience, then can examining the arts help discern characteristics of God? Can one infer from various aspects of art various traits of God?”
- Arts and Religious Experience: “What is the relationship between experiencing art and experiencing God? Can the arts generate or trigger religious experience? If so, can it be validated?”
- Arts and Religious Belief: “Is there a relationship between diverse arts and belief in God? Can the arts express or encourage religious belief? If so, can it be validated?” (*This is my favorite.)
- Arts and Religious Practice (Liturgy): “Why are the arts so deeply embedded in religious settings and services? How do the arts work in religious spaces and activities? What are differences among the arts, say music and painting, in the liturgy?” (*This is my second favorite!)
- Arts and Religious Reality: “Art is deeply involved in the practice of religion, embedded in the rituals and liturgy of almost every religion. But how could the ubiquity of the arts in religion affect whether or not religion is real?”
- Co-Evolution of Art and Religion: “Did art and religion co-evolve in parallel as archeology and anthropology suggest, and if so, what would be the significance? What do art and religion have in common that could enable their common, co-temporal development?”
Interviewees include Nicholas Wolterstorff, Matthew Milliner, Jonathan A. Anderson, Judith Wolfe, Aaron Rosen, Alfonse Borysewicz, John Witvliet, and others. I’m disappointed by the lack of diversity among interviewees—the program is very heavy on white male Christians—but I am nevertheless grateful for the wisdom these individuals share, and for the efforts of the Closer To Truth team to coax it out, capture it onscreen, and present it freely to the public.
Here are a few interviews I’ll call your attention to:
- Art critic Jonathan A. Anderson on representability and unrepresentability in art, and apophatic theology
- Templeton Religion Trust Program Officer Christopher R. Brewer on how the arts can either illustrate or innovate—that is, they can affirm something we already know, or they can push against the boundaries, imagining something we haven’t yet conceived
- Art historian Matthew Milliner on the formative power of art in sacred spaces, and the concreteness of images as a risk but one that can be worthwhile. He describes the art commissioned for his own church, All Souls Anglican in Wheaton, Illinois, which includes a mural on the west wall by Joel Sheesley and a black-tar crucifix that they use as their processional cross every year during Lent.
- Theologian Stephan van Erp on the whole of creation as God’s liturgy. Art in the liturgy isn’t making the world more beautiful than it actually is, van Erp says; rather, it is recognizing the beauty that is already there and reflecting it back. It’s participating in the beauty.
- E. Thomas Lawson, a scholar of the cognitive science of religion, says, “I am convinced that the arts are a form of discovery. I think that the arts actually develop forms of knowledge for us. They show us surprising aspects of the world. They show us possible worlds. In fact, they can humble us.” Art, he continues, enables our intuition, describes our intuition, sometimes even fights our intuition.
- Theologian Judith Wolfe on what art is
- Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff on church architecture, Christian liturgy, and the significance of the Eucharist. “I think liturgy is one of the most complex and fascinating of all human activities,” he says.
- Wolterstorff on how music is often better than words at illuminating spiritual realities. The best way to know what archangels are like, he says, for example, is to listen to “Les anges” from Olivier Messiaen’s organ suite, La Nativité du Seigneur; and to apprehend the idea of cherubim, listen to Bach’s “Laß, O Fürst der Cherubinen” from BWV 130.
- Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Director John Witvliet on how music can effect changes of perception (“conversions of the imagination”) and can help us feel more deeply
These videos and many more can also be found on Closer To Truth’s YouTube channel.