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Impressionistic Theology: Painting God with Color
A Possible Approach to Postmodern Doctrine
 

December 2000

November 2000

October 2000



 

By David Hopkins 
david@next-wave.org

Didnít every teenager hang out at the art gallery?
Iím not an educated art critic. I have several friends better suited to write an article on Impressionism. However, I am a lifelong lover of art. In high school, I would enjoy my weekends at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. For hours, I walked among the works of Picasso, Mirů, Van Gogh, Cťzanne, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Mondrian, and Degas. One of my fondest experiences at the Kimbell was viewing the famous Barnes exhibition. It contained an incredible collection of impressionistic painters. From that time, I was hooked on this incredible transition that took place in Art. Impressionism was so radically different from anything preceding it. I wonder if we havenít exhausted ourselves in the world of art today. In my opinion, that is why most postmodern artists are experts in collage and repetition of pop commercial images (a la Warhol). Re:generation Quarterly has an incredible article on Warhol in issue 5.4, Transubstantiating the Culture by James Romaine.

The Impressionistic shift took place as a reaction to the strict formula of earlier paintings. With the Italian Renaissance and Leonardo DaVinci came an obsession with line and form. While compositionally striking, over many years the formula became monotonous and it ignored many other important elements of painting. Impressionism is a large field. But if I were to summarize with a gross generalization, Impressionism shifted the emphasis from line and form to color and light. These emerging painters used varied colors and brush strokes to give the impression of form. Possibly because photography was in its early development, painting need to transition from simply a world-of-clarity to world-of-blurred-impressions. Who knows? Letís move to something I can discuss with some confidence: doctrine, creeds, and theology.

Doctrine, creeds: Theology as truth-guard

To state my bias directly, first, I affirm the Apostles Creed to be a universal statement of belief for any Christian. The essential meaning and truth of this creed is axiomatic to define and distinguish what "Christianity" is from any other belief system. Second, my personal hermeneutic for the saving work of Christ could be labeled as Reform theology. If you are unfamiliar with Reform theology, the Westminster Confession of Faith is the appropriate place to start or by reading R.C. Sproulís Grace Unknown. It is also summed up in John Calvinís TULIP acronym.

Total depravity

Unconditional election

Limited atonement

Irresistible grace

Perseverance of the saints

These creeds and doctrine align very closely with my own experience of God. But I freely acknowledge other people have very genuine and educated opinions on the nature, will, and character of God that differ from mine. I believe open discussion and conversation on these matters pleases the heart of God. I believe He desires us to seek after Him with humility. At the end of the day, we must realize He is bigger than our boxes and still the Deus absconditus (Latin phrase: hidden God). We ought to hold our beliefs with an open hand. But our open hands must be firm, for if we drop our beliefs at the slightest wind of challenge, we discredit Godís revelation to His people.

During the Reformation, creeds and doctrines took on a new role for the believer. Not only did it state your beliefs, it served as a tool to distinguish one Church from another, i.e. the Roman Catholic from the Protestant. Among the Protestants, it became fashionable to draw up a new doctrinal statement with every schism in the church. Denominations flourished. Each church dividing over issues concerning whom God is. Each faction claiming the nature of the dispute concerned an essential aspect of Godís nature. To believe otherwise would be pagan. In the humble opinion of this writer, these schisms became ridiculous. Would you believe some churches split over whether a believer should be baptized forward or backwards? How does this relate to Impressionism?

Painting God with color

The transition from Realism to Impressionism is a good metaphor for the transition we are experiencing in the area of creeds and doctrinal statements. The modern epoch used creeds and doctrine as a way to give line and form to God. We may not be able to see God, but we can outline Him with our beliefs. Make God more knowable. Reformers did not heed the warning of John Calvin when he said, "Where God shuts his holy mouth, I will cease from inquiry." Instead, where God did not reveal Himself, we just drew weak assumptions by using a rational process. A process we assumed was congruent to the nature and mind of God Himself. Despite the fact, God Himself says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." (Isaiah 55:8) In the end, we anthropomorphized God to a degree never intended. We made God so human---He ceased to be divine. We crucified God on doctrine without offering a divine resurrection. The modern epoch emptied God of mystery. (click here for more on this topic)

However, I believe in the postmodern epoch, God is being understood in a way Iíd label as "Impressionistic Theology." It is neither liberal, nor conservative. This theology does not satisfy modern thinkers. So this article may serve as a good litmus test for where you stand. However, I believe in the postmodern epoch, God is being understood in a way Iíd label as "Impressionistic Theology." It is neither liberal, nor conservative. This theology does not satisfy modern thinkers. So this article may serve as a good litmus test for where you stand.
Instead of creeds giving line and form, we use "value statements" to color the concept of God-giving vague impressions of form.

The impressionist approach is a process of determining which values shape our communal understandings of God. (My internal editor is saying, "huh?" Iíll explain.)

Modern theology is very efficient in using specific and thorough statements about God. The goal is to remove personal interpretation and confusion. In contrast, a community embracing Impressionistic theology may say (as one example): "We value community, beauty, truth-mystery, service, and compassion. We believe these values honor God, reflect Godís own nature, and define us as a body of believers." Whoa! Thatís it? Whereís your statement about the sacraments, salvation, the end of the world, the role of the church in society, and the giftings? Obviously, this statement of belief encourages interpretation, discussion, and yes, I admit, confusion. But the confusion acknowledges that understanding God is confusing and enigmatic. An impressionistic approach promotes the concept of faith as a journey, not a destination. A renewed emphasis is placed on the aesthetic qualities of life, not just the rational empirical ones.

Questions that should be asked

With this approach, is there just one value statement that can be universally applied to all Christian communities? No, Impressionistic Theology is pluralistic-lending itself to many perspectives and multiple worldviews.

Just because a community does not include a certain aspect of theology in their value statement, does it mean they do not believe in it? Certainly not. If a community fails to address the issue of the Holy Spiritís distribution of gifts, it may imply several things:

1. Wait and see

2. We believe differently on this issue, but still choose to commune

3. Weíre still figuring out what we believe

4. Itís understood in our experience and tradition

So, anything goes, right?

While Impressionistic Theology is pluralistic, it is not relativistic. Color is still distinguishable. If we paint our experience of God with certain colors, these colors must correspond with the actual nature of God. impression3.jpg (210475 bytes)

If they fail to do so, it is bad theology. That is why this impressionistic approach uses a broad brush. If Monet paints a lakeside scene and someone else says they see a mountain view, then the painter is either really bad or the viewer is misguided. Likewise, if a congregation says, "we value cruelty" (an obvious masochistic blunder) and this value does not correspond with the actual God we serve-we must change. To do otherwise, dishonors God. For this reason, I would be hesitant to suggest we encourage an approach similar to "modern art" where the viewer must create his or her own meaning devoid of artistís intent-an art form inherently nihilistic. Francis Schaefferís books, The God Who Is There  and How Should We Then Live?, address this topic well.

Where do we get our values?

I would say Impressionistic Theology derives it values from the same place earlier theologies gained their values. It is a process of seeking Godís will. Elements of the revelation process should include (as John Wesley suggested ): scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Depending on your background, you may put more weight on one element than another. In the process of seeking Godís will, we encounter moments that transcend our ability to describe them in well thought doctrinal statements. We only stand in awe.

In conclusion, I would say an impressionistic approach to theology, the process of determining values to shape our communal understanding of God, is still developing. Keep this discussion alive. The people in my congregation know I still hold onto the creeds of our earlier Fathers. Iím not willing to reject their wisdom. In fact, I would say an impressionistic approach encourages an openness to hear from the many voices of the past in seeking after God. But as I look ahead, I realize if we do not blur the strict lines weíve drawn for God-arrogance, foolishness, and mediocrity may be the values our world attaches to us. Or have they already?

David Hopkins, age 23 [http://monkhouse.org/david] is a contributing editor for Next-Wave. He recently graduated from Texas A&M University at Commerce with a degree in English and Philosophy. David has enrolled to Fuller Theological Seminary's distance learning program. David was raised in the Methodist tradition. Although currently, he is a community pastor at Axxess, an emerging congregation within Pantego Bible Church. In his "spare time," David is a high school English teacher. E-mail him at david@next-wave.org.
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