new Mennonite Life logo    March 2000     vol. 55 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Harmony or Polyphony? An Essay in Response to Friesen's Anabaptist Aesthetics

Scott Holland

It is January 6, 2000 as I begin this response to Duane Friesen's fine new work. It is Epiphany and thus it seems quite in the spirit of the day to offer some responses to what Friesen calls "an Anabaptist theology of culture." The reader must beware. This is not a mere Mennonite ethnography nor is it an Anabaptist sociology. This work is written by a Christian intellectual who is both a theologian of culture and an interpreter of the Mennonite and broader Christian traditions. One finds no mere churchly theology here but a thoughtful consideration of the continuing possibilities of worldly holiness and holy worldliness beyond any sectarian or tribal sacred reservation. I must confess, I find great delight in speaking aloud the very language of Friesen's essay within the context of Anabaptist thought: Artists, Citizens, Philosophers, City, Culture, Creation, Aesthetics, Imagination!

Sectarian religious traditions, whether Mormon, Mennonite, or Brethren, tend to sharply divide the sacred and the secular. It is therefore not surprising that they express little enthusiasm for the Feast of Epiphany. Epiphany of course celebrates the manifestation of God in Christ to the Magi from the East. It is a root metaphor of the manifestation of God in the world beyond national, ethnic and generic boundaries. Those pagan Wise Men followed neither the voices of the angels nor the paths of the Hebrew shepherds to Bethlehem. They were guided instead by the stars. With the strange scents of Babylon on their bodies, they entered the house provided for Mary and Joseph with exotic gifts for the Christ Child.

The Magi from Persia, like Persian mystics, sages and poets who followed them, such as Rumi, understood that the breath of the divine touched the primordial elements of life: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind. Many Christian mystics, poets and artists through the ages have likewise understood well how the metaphors and rituals of creative religion return us to our elemental passions: the waters of baptism are wet with the longings and losses of life.

Normative Anabaptism has resisted such a sacramental view of the universe and its liturgical performance, in favor of an emphasis on a separate, holy community funded by a word above, not upon, the waters. Baptism into a churchly community too often signals a separation from culture and even creation. Some Anabaptist thinkers have even explicitly stated that baptized, disciplined community or peoplehood is the only sacramental reality. Not earth, water, fire, or wind. Not body, breath, bread, or wine. In short, God inhabits ethics, not earth. This is one reason why ethics and aesthetics and church and creation have been pried apart in modern Anabaptist denominations and theologies. At its worst, Anabaptism is tempted to split nature and grace, and therefore body and soul, Christ and culture. I find Duane Friesen's work very satisfying in its his bold and catholic claim that because Spirit participates in the cosmos, not only in the church, "any particular material form can become for us a sacrament." This returns us to the wonder of sacramental universe through the reminder that God is revealed not only through the spiritual proclamation of the Word but also in the carnal, corporeal manifestation of the world, even by the waters of Babylon.

I would like to limit my remaining comments to three intersecting themes in Friesen's project: Shalom in Babylon, nature and grace, and ethics and aesthetics.

Shalom in Babylon. Unlike many traditional churchly theologies or newer expressions of communitarian theology, whether postmodern, postliberal or orthodox, Friesen's project is public; culture itself beyond ecclesiology is a theological category. There are indeed religious dimensions of art, literature, music, philosophy and politics. Friesen understands well that when the Jews were living in exile down by the waters of Babylon some of their prophets and priests insisted that it was necessary to return to Jerusalem to protect and practice holiness. Jeremiah said not to believe them. Instead, he urged them to build houses, plant gardens, take spouses, have children, and seek the shalom of the city. The peace of the city was to be found, at least for a season, in Babylon, not Jerusalem! This divine shalom and good work of tikkun--repairing the world--could not be pried apart from the worldly pleasures and problems of houses, gardens, lovers and babies in a strange land. Here, Jeremiah suggests, is the locus of God's revelation and peace, far from the holy mountain.

As a Babylonian rather than a communitarian, Constantinian or theocratic enterprise, theology becomes engaged with the plurality of cultures surrounding its faith community, attempting some critical and creative mediation or conversation--and at times even a correlation--between the Christian message and the cultural situation. Duane Friesen practices this model and expresses this mood in his good work. This is not a light, liberal accommodation to culture. It is rather a mutually critical engagement, a genuine conversation between church and society, recognizing that religion itself is a cultural system. There is no revelation that is not embodied in the historicity of religion. Friesen is a theologian who must worry some of his puritan Anabaptist colleagues. Why? I think because he understands something profound about the task of theological reflection that they would rather deny: Christian theology began by asking Greek questions about a Hebrew narrative. It is thus always about Christ and culture.

Nature and Grace. I appreciate the way Friesen enters into conversation with both classical and contemporary theology. Although many Anabaptist thinkers do not know what to do with the dance of church, creation and culture, Friesen's project is marked by the classical theological wisdom and hope captured well in the forgotten dictum of Thomas Aquinas: "Grace presupposes nature; it does not destroy it but completes it." In Friesen's theology of culture, grace does not swallow up nature nor does revelation eclipse religion nor does the category of the disciple cloak the materiality of the human.

Indeed, his understanding of the shalom of the city as a kind of "integration" is confirmed in some recent findings by anthropologists and phenomenologists of religion. My own work has recently drawn upon the exciting aesthetic and anthropological research of Ellen Dissanayake and Roy Rappaport. They explore the ideas of Homo Aestheticus and "art and grace." (See my "Even the Postmodern Body Has a Story Has a Body: A Theopoetic Meditation on Narrative, Poetry and Ritual," forthcoming in Louvain Studies). Both Dissanayake and Rappaport present a convincing case for the bio-historical origins and evolutionary interconnections of art, ritual and religion. They claim that art, ritual behavior and religion were central to human evolutionary adaptation and co-extensive with the invention of language and culture. The seeking out of a well-integrated life then, is as much of an "art" as it is an ethics. In fact, they argue that the aesthetic faculty is an organic psychological component of every human being. To ignore this is to diminish the gift of humanity.

Interestingly, Rappaport, when writing about the integration of life--the vision of some imperfect harmony in the universe in the midst of many conflicts and contradictions--suggests that such a way of seeing is dependent upon "art and grace." Rudolph Otto called this ultimate sense of integration "approaching the holy," but Rappaport, following William James and Gregory Bateson, calls it "grace." This is a truly artful and anthropological notion of grace in which grace does not eclipse or destroy nature. Instead, it completes it. However, it should be noted that this is not a vision of an easy coherence. It is not a sweet integration of the good, the true and the beautiful; rather, it is a recognition that light and darkness, day and night, sun and moon together make up a day.

Ethics and Aesthetics. Friesen knows that for life to be truly ethical it must likewise be graceful and artful. I personally salute and celebrate his attention to aesthetics. I too have been giving much thought to the interaction of ethics and aesthetics within the context of the Anabaptist-Pietist and broader Christian faith traditions. Thus, I am tempted to conclude my comments with a further expression of the hermeneutics of connection and compliment as a gesture of gratitude for Duane Friesen's constructive work. However, I am troubled by the haunting voice of that great yet terrible master of suspicion, Friedrich Nietzsche:

For a philosopher to say, "the good and the beautiful are
one," is infamy; if he goes on to add, "also the true," one
ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.
We possess art lest we perish of the truth.
-- The Will to Power

There is something disruptive, de-centering and disorientating in Nietzsche's bold proclamation. There is something hard and harsh, true and ugly. It makes even the unapologetic aesthete uneasy about cultured correlations of the good, the beautiful and the true. Happily, Friesen is quick to admit that beauty does not always mean "pretty." In conversation with the work of sculptor Merrill Krabill, he acknowledges that aesthetic form might also express "brokenness, alienation, disharmony, feelings of loneliness, anger and anguish." The reality of a dark aesthetic is recognized. Yet the tone and texture of Friesen's sympathetic theoretical use of Aquinas on "integrity" and Wolterstorff on "coherence" will likely lead some contemporary Anabaptist critics to ask, "So is this a Catholic aesthetic, a Reformed aesthetic or an Anabaptist aesthetic that you are composing?" This is a fair question since he does claim to be at work on an Anabaptist theology of culture.

This question interests me less than the possibility of integrity and coherence in a comparative reading of the Summa Theologica and the Martyrs Mirror. It is not an easy read to move from the Thomistic system of "integrity, harmony and brightness" to the discordant and dark witnesses on the stage of that bloody theater of free church and dissenting church history. In fact, the suspicious critic must ask if there is not a disturbing correlation between a system or metaphysics guided by a desire for integrity/perfection, harmony and brightness and the purging or punishment of a dissonance or contrast that fails to cohere with the meta-aesthetic of the good, the beautiful and the true? Prophetic religion knows that often truth is ugly, and that the strong, alive and awake soul is marked more by mystery, plurality and ambiguity than by brightness and clarity. Art in this blessed fallen world conceals as much as it reveals.

I would like to see Friesen do more with this problem as his project develops. I too need to do more with this difficulty in my own work. This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on "the aesthetic turn" in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thought. The work of the later Bonhoeffer as a dissenting theologian is suggestive here. We are only now beginning to better understand how important Bonhoeffer's year in New York City was for the development of his final theology of resistance to European totalitarianism. New York taught him as much about aesthetics as ethics, indeed, an art of resistance. (See my "First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin," forthcoming in Cross Currents).

While in New York Bonhoeffer read many of the works of the Harlem Renaissance. He read and worked with James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. DuBois, and the collected poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. He spent the year teaching Sunday school and worshiping in Harlem at the senior Adam Clayton Powell's black Baptist Church. There he not only picked up the notions of "cheap and costly grace," which found their way into his most famous book, but he also learned and embraced a musical metaphor that was to later blend into theology and ethics.

As a classical pianist, it is likely that Bonhoeffer was already acquainted with the term "polyphony." Yet in Harlem within the context of the improvisation of jazz, the contingency of the blues and the rhythm of gospel music, the profound meaning of polyphony came alive for Bonhoeffer as an aesthetic reality and later even as a theological metaphor. A polyphony is not a neat harmony nor even a traditional symphony but rather a more complicated musical piece in which two or more very different melodies come together in a satisfying way. To ears trained in the integrity, harmony and clarity of Wagner's symphonies, the new Negro art, literature and music of Harlem must have first seemed as disharmonious and disruptive as a Nietzschean prophetic aphorism. But it gradually came together for Bonhoeffer and helped form and inform his ethics of resistance to fascist totalitarianism.

I suppose I am suggesting that if there is in fact such a thing as an "Anabaptist aesthetics and theology of culture" it must tend more to the category of polyphony than to received notions of harmony, integrity, or even coherence in both church and society. In his final reflections on beauty in his prison letters, Bonhoeffer speaks of a beauty that is neither "classical" nor "demonic" but simply "earthly." Earthly, I like this because the story of creation returns us to infinite mystery beyond all finite morality. There can be no metanarrative or master-image to domesticate either the wildness of creation or the wonder of transcendence. We look for icons, not idols. In an "Anabaptist aesthetics," then, all elements and all elemental passions are at best icons or incomplete traces, not idols, dogmas or systems of beauty, goodness, truth and divine presence.

There can be no official "Christian art," for the waters of baptism flow from the vast waters of all creation. Like all elements of this large life, those waters are mysterium tremendum-- mysterious, fascinating and terrifying. Before creation knew word, it was water. Before religion became morality touched with emotion, it was emotion. We must struggle with the Thomistic truism relative to nature and grace in light of a more complicated coherence than Thomas and the tradition were ever willing to ponder--a polyphony--still trusting that grace presupposes nature; it does not destroy it but completes it.

In suggesting this am I implying that an Anabaptist aesthetics must distance itself from the integrity, brightness and clarity of the beloved four part harmony? Of course not! In this context yet another truism applies: We possess art lest we perish of the truth.