By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.
Hebrews ch. 11 v3 (Message translation)
From time to time I spend a weekend in Oxford learning theology from some of the best teachers on the planet. The last time I did this we had a session on creation. This was good and helpful but during the Q&A my mind wandered and I noticed a huge tree in the window behind the teacher. In early spring there were no leaves yet and I began to look at the way it was put together, the patterns of twigs and branches, the light behind it.
“How” I asked, “Did God make that tree? Had he created it like a sculptor, twig by twig. Or is there some sort of beech tree template? Or is it just the result of blind evolution?”
To give them their due they took the question seriously. But it soon became clear that there was no theology that explains how the natural world is put together, no theology of beauty. Maybe we’ve just never needed one before. Until recently, it was just incredibly hard to reproduce an image. To reach more than a few people took huge amounts of time and money. But now we are bombarded with images and almost all of these are photos. Photos seem to accurately reflect what we see but they hardly ever do. Mostly, they present us with a flat, frozen version of reality.
Recently, me and my son visited an exhibition of modern portraits. One of the things that really struck me was how little colour was in most of them. Although they were painted with incredible skill they had the same look as most photos, a bit flat and colourless. A few of them looked like real paintings and it was one of these that won the competition.
And it seems to me we do need a theology of beauty, of what it means to see the world. But I’m not sure this needs to be written down. Maybe it just needs to be painted. As the writer of Hebrews says – what we see created by what we don’t see.
We need to create better image.