How Should Christians Look at Nature and Art?

I read this quote a few weeks ago over at the ubiquitous Gospel Coalition and thought it reminded me of a few of the studies I’ve made on my courses regarding semiotics. Semiotics, if you’re interested is ‘the study of the sign wherever signs are to be found’ (Cobley 2004, pp.4).

C.S. Lewis says this:

We can’t — or I can’t — hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably — just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. (Lewis 2007, pp.86)

C.S. Lewis is painting himself here as an out and out Semiotician, but for Christians, there might be more to it. Phenomenologists are ‘content with describing the phenomena without asking what connection to an external reality those experiences might have’ (Hicks 2004, pp.44). So if Lewis was a phenomenologist, he would be content with hearing a bird sing, and not think to himself “that is a bird”. The way Lewis puts it, this immediate attachment of message is ‘inevitable’. This reaction is firstly because he is a human, we are ‘meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures living in a world of meaning’ (Thomas and Segal 2006, pp.203); what’s more he is a Christian, so he believes in a Creator (Genesis 1:1).

However, the question is, whereas it is indeed ‘inevitable’ and indeed biblical (Psalm 19:1) to read the signs found in nature as those written by God, is there a place for a Christian phenomenology? I’m sure many of you could recommend me books on this subject, please do. But I would like to share some highlights from a bit of reading I enjoyed which we were set last year. It’s an article called The Phenomenological Attitude, by Bert O. States (2007).

He initially encourages us to nurture the ability to see through ‘the film of familiarity that blunts the scene of things’ (pp. 26). So straight up, phenomenology can help us become re-enchanted with God’s creation, because it is ‘the systematic attempt to unmask the obvious’ (pp.31).

But here comes my favourite bit, he talks about a guy called Adolf Reinach who ‘is said to have devoted an entire semester to studying the ways in which one experiences a mailbox’ (pp. 28). So there was a guy, who was so keen to go beyond the initial sign-reading experience that he entered into another realm of reverie — for a year.

In theory, when we try to truly look at something God’s created — which is everything — really look at it, we will realise that there is something called a frontal quality to it. In fact all of experience has a frontality, and that’s intended by God, because it ‘keeps the world from being all me.’ (ibid.)

This results in a conclusion that only God can truly look at an object — what States would call ‘the Divine Standpoint’ (ibid.) But having a phenomenological attitude towards nature — and all objects we experience — should not purely be for the purpose of making us conclude that we are not God, that shouldn’t be difficult.

Possessing this attitude would mean that we don’t immediately write off the sound of a bird singing, by just indicating its divine source, and then throwing it away just like you do a trashy novel. Yes, stage one is inescapably to acknowledge the Creator, and to praise him for his creation. But surely if Almighty God created this thing — or created the materials that made this thing — we should seek to revel in it further, experience it, contact it?

The art gallery is the ideal venue for such an exercise. Again I cite Rookmaaker via jonblog and his advice on how to approach an art gallery. I paraphrase:

Walk in, look at each piece for two or three minutes, work out which work you are most interested in, then spend one or two hours looking at that one work of art. When you leave the gallery you will look at the world with new eyes, see significance in things you never saw as significant. The sky will seem bluer and the grass will seem greener.

Christians should be the most phenomenological people around, fascinated by experiencing things that their God has created. But sadly, I find that Christians can be the least sympathetic people when it comes to art. “It’s just an object they say”, or “it’s just a line on a piece of paper, that’s not art”. But God is intricately involved, even at a micro microscopic cellular level with everything found in this world. So why not stop yourself, next time you jump the gun and write off a work of art just because you think you’ve read that sign and can read nothing more (i.e. “It’s just a urinal / unmade bed / sheep”) spend some time, looking and thinking. 

______________________________________

Cobley, P., 2009. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. Routledge.

Hicks, S., 2004. Understanding Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Stanford University Press.

Lewis, C. S., 2007. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Mariner Books.

States, B. O., 2007. “The Phenomenological Attitude” in Reinelt A. G. and Roach. J. R., Critical Theory and Performance. University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, J. C. and Segal, D. L., 2006. Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology. Wiley.

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