The Academics: Breaking Through Particularities

In light of the massive amount of reading and writing I have on tap for the current semester’s worth of classes, my consistent contribution to this blog has suffered. Currently I am working on a paper that will be due tomorrow on the rise of Constantine and the resulting impact on the Church, so I am waist deep in culture and theology. But I had a thought in the midst of writing the paper that I could start posting some of my more academic writing here to share with whomever should come across the site. After all, while it isn’t as personally driven as some of the other stuff I write here, it is nonetheless interesting and applicable to life.

So I am going to post my first essay that I completed about a month ago here for you to read should you choose. We focused on the definition of art and subsequent art criticism, building on a model presented in an article by Richard Hughes entitled “How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind.” Hughes’ thesis is that in order to approach academic study as believers, we need to be willing to set aside our own presuppositions (“breaking through our particularities” as he puts it) and approach study without suspicion initially. Once we have done so, we can then make judgment calls on the issue, thus rebuilding our particularities in light of our new knowledge. Here is my essay in response and my application of Hughes’ model to art criticism, specifically to Massacio’s Trinity.

Breaking Through the Particularities

As we approach academic study, we must be aware of the “particularities” of our faith in order to approach study objectively. Christianity presents humanity as fallen and limited compared to the infinite God after whose truth we search. In this light, we must approach study conscious of our limited understanding and its implications on our understanding of truth. Any truth we find, Hughes contends, must never be “absolutized,” becoming an end itself; rather, truth and our quest after it must direct us to the source of truth, that being God. As we accept our limitations, we find that a humble faith results, whose “particularities” are fluid rather than rigid; a faith that knows that while we understand and accept the truth of God, we also have not grasped all truth. In this understanding, we approach our study with an openness allowing for other voices to be viable in searching after the same Truth. In order to fully study and understand philosophy, art, and history, we must “break through our particularities” by accepting our limitations as finite beings and acknowledging that all truth, wherever it is found, is God’s truth.

In this light, we approach the studies of philosophy, art, and history attempting to understand the perspectives of others on the same world. To “break through the particularities” in philosophy requires that, even though we disagree with the ultimate end of a philosophy, we are open enough to acknowledge that the given philosophy does speak truth about the human condition. This necessitates that we do not resort to labeling philosophies as “humanistic” or “postmodern” and moving on; rather we engage the philosophy with an openness that accepts our limitations in understanding the world as well as the limitations of others who have attempted to understand the world. No philosophy has reached the absolute truth, not even our own, so we must approach every philosophy looking for the validity in each claim presented.

As we approach the study of history, breaking through our particularities means being open to different interpretations of history that might conflict with our own. This could involve studying history from a perspective other than our American Christian approach and seeing the implications of such an interpretation on the overall study. In addition, this involves studying the development of Christianity, understanding the progression of theological thought and the outside influencing forces. Without such understanding, we blind ourselves to these aspects of the development of our faith and may find ourselves practicing a faith in ways we do not fully understand. In accepting our limitedness, we approach the study of history with open eyes, realizing that we do not understood everything and must search history to find the reasons for our current state.

In the study of art, there are many “particularities” which we may not even be aware of. One such particularity may be the neglect of art as a valid and important means of expression of life. Christianity in the past century has neglected the artistic expressions, leaving them for the secularists, rather than continuing with the historic tradition Christianity has with the arts. In approaching art, we must overcome the presuppositions we have toward artistic expression, acknowledging the abstract expression of our faith in art. We must also acknowledge our limited perspective on the world, being open enough to consider the perspectives of different artists who see the world differently. We need to break the particularity of accepting art that we are comfortable with, instead accepting challenges to our particularities with an open mind. This means we do not write off a painting that on the surface appears blasphemous to our faith, or rather than avoiding the artistic nude as pornography we take the time to consider what the artist was trying to express in such subject matter. As we approach art with this open perspective, acknowledging our limited perspective and the artistic nature of our God, we allow art to speak without our censorship.

Initial Reaction to Masaccio’s Trinity

My first reaction to Trinity was to look for the paintings characteristic that would merit its title. As it was a depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, I attempted to find each member of the trinity within the painting. However, on my initial observation, I was only able to pick out two members, God the Father and Jesus Christ. The absence of the Holy Spirit in this painting led me to look elsewhere for the missing Spirit. I considered the possibility that the other member of the trinity could be the bones beneath the cross, and that Masaccio was breaking with Christian orthodoxy somehow. Along these same lines, I considered the possibility that Masaccio was in fact presenting a negative view of Christianity. I considered that the crucifixion took place in a cathedral as an accusation against the Church, as if they somehow were responsible for the event. The smug expression on one of the people beneath the cross also lent itself to my thinking. The bones beneath the cross continued to confuse me, as I did not know how they tied into the painting as a whole. I did consider this good art, as it evoked thought and emotion of its own merit and seemed to have a specific meaning and purpose, I just was not aware of the purpose.

Individual Judgment of Masaccio’s Trinity

After researching the painting, my initial judgment of the painting changed. In coming to understand the context of the painting, I realized that the painting is not a critique of Christian orthodoxy, as I considered. A more detailed photograph of the painting helped me to locate the Holy Spirit, aiding my understanding of the title. With this understanding, my perception of the painting changed as I saw Masaccio’s presentation as orthodox. The painting itself was painted above the altar where the Eucharist was served, and thus the painting was intended to reflect the nature of the sacrament being observed. In this light, I saw the painting as an instrument of worship, drawing worshipers to reverence at the Eucharist. Just as God the Father presented Christ, so the priest presented the Eucharist to the people. The bones depicted are symbolic of Adam, and his position beneath the cross merits him the first to be redeemed by the blood of Christ. With this knowledge, I began to see Masaccio’s view of man in light of the cross. The painting was no longer a criticism of the Church but rather an instrument of worship and theological expression of the artist.

Reflection

In light of Hughes’ concept, I considered Trinity for its own merit, but I found that difficult. My Christian perspective drew me to first analyze it in light of its orthodoxy, yet even when I considered it unorthodox I was open to what Masaccio be saying. In researching and developing my understanding of the painting, I found that it was difficult to let go of the particularities and to approach my research free of judgments and preconceptions. I assume that I have studied art, history, or philosophy in the past, which leads me to read and analyze through the particularity of my past thinking and study, rather than approaching art criticism, or any study, with an open perspective in light of my limited understanding.

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