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Seek My Face

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 23 September 2003


"Seek My Face" is the title of the latest John Updike novel. The novel consists of an interview between a young female journalist who writes for an electronic magazine (the sign of the future) and a thinly disguised widow of Jackson Pollock. The title comes from Psalm 27:

"You speak in my heart and say, Seek my Face"
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

While Updike's biblical orientation is no surprise, his connection between the abstract impressionism of American art in the 60s and the quest to see the face of God is intriguing. This is especially true of Pollock who sought to erase the image (even of God?) and whose life hardly rose to sainthood ending in a drunken road accident in which one young woman was killed and another injured. But the point is made: true art is a seeking after the face of God. While this was more obvious in the middle ages when scripture provided all the material needed, it seems to be drawing a long bow to say that artists like Pollock were in their own way seeking the face of a God they did not believe in and who did not form their lives. However, an attempt at moralizing here will only obscure our view. If we give in to the popular urge to label people as good and bad then we miss the complexity of human life and fail to see that great works of art often come from confused lives. The gospel writers had no problem seeing both Pilate and Judas as instruments of God necessary for the working out of salvation.

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The move from the religious painting of the middle ages to portraiture in the renaissance, to landscape and impressionism and then to the denial of the image in abstract impressionism follows the move to secularization in all things. But this does not mean that the truth searched for in these movements is other than the truth contained in God.

The gospel reveals how the world is, in contrast to how it appears to be. That is, its function is apocalyptic, it breaks through the veil through which we see the world out of focus to produce a clear view. This is what it means to seek the face of God, to see clearly for the first time. The job of the visual artist is to educate our seeing so that we see anew, just as the job of the musician is to educate our hearing so that we hear anew. So also the novelist, the poet, the architect and the philosopher, they all strive for truth in their work and in this way all seek the face of God. The beatific vision in the Bible, seeing the face of God, is fraught with danger, indeed to see the face of God was to die. It is no wonder that great artists have a difficult time of it and are often transformed, put to death, by their art.

The other seekers after the face of God are, of course, the scientists although they will protest at being subsumed into a theological framework. The scientist seeks to reveal how things are despite their appearances. It is obvious to anyone who looks at the sky that the sun, moon and stars move around the earth. Copernicus had to deny his senses in order to elucidate the heliocentric view of the solar system. The revealing of a reality hidden from the senses or from common sense is the mark of scientific work as it is for the arts.

If such a framework is to be real for us we must rid ourselves of the idea that revelation is something akin to a transmission from another world. Revelation is not analogous to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in which God is that intelligence. Rather, revelation is the unexpected unveiling of that which has been previously unknown. The writers of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, were artists and historians who sought the face of God in historical events, poetry and legend. This is not to reduce scripture to the merely human, because the church believes that the writers were inspired by the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. That is, the writers did not regard their work as a work of personal genius but the work of the Spirit of truth contained in the tradition of which they were a part. The scriptures can only in this understanding be deemed inerrant.

Is all revelation of the same status? Is Newton's formulation of the law of gravity of an equal status to the revelation of the Lord of the world on the cross? Here we must argue something that present-day academe would think absurd, that theology is rightly the queen of the sciences and sets the stage for all human activity. For this argument to take hold we must look past the dark ages of superstition and enforced consensus of the low middle ages, the trials of Copernicus and Galileo, the burnings, wars and inquisitions that characterized so called Christendom to what the tradition really says un-muddied by our use of it. After all, secular ideology has spawned its own share of horrors in the French terror, the excesses of both communism and national socialism and we forgive that all the time.

To the Judaeo-Christian tradition we owe the naturalisation of world in the creation stories. Surrounded by the Babylonian creation myths that had the world created from the defeated body of a god, Tiamat, Israel wove a story in which the world was spoken forth from the mouth of God. It was separate from God and thus de-divinised and entirely natural. The sun and the moon were not gods but lights in the sky, the rocks were rocks and the trees trees. This is the only metaphysic that could be the basis of natural science.

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Israel gave us a focus on history and on time as being linear and directed and of human life as a journey of revelation (For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.) This is in contrast to the time of paganism that is cyclic and goes nowhere. But the pinnacle of Israel's achievement was to talk about God as being closer than breathing yet wholly other. This God could never become an idol for the use of men. Religion was placed under judgment.

The Trinitarianism of the New Testament, latent in the Old, provides a framework for how the truth is revealed to us. The muses of the ancients were replaced by the Holy Spirit, the life of the Son pointed to the eternal truth of the Father. Far from being dead meat from the early church the Trinity is an operational framework for our experience and understanding of the world and ourselves. By integrating subjectivity (Spirit), actual occurrence in time (Son) and the truth whose face we seek (Father), the doctrine of the Trinity is basic to all that we see and do. Furthermore, Trinity replaces the theism borrowed from the philosophers and enables us to stand in a new freedom in relation to God.

I hope that after this thumbnail sketch we are in a position to give some credence to the assertion that theology is the queen of the sciences that orders all human activity. Notice that I have not needed to evoke the supernatural or blind faith or an a priori authority of God to make these arguments. These propositions are open to rational argument.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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