A Confluence of Streams – Art, Science and Religion

 bardic technology – theology – art        a postscript by Tim McKamey

Nicholas Roerich, 1874-1947

     This is a postscript to a previous article I wrote about Nicholas Roerich and the synthesis of art, science and religion. Although I only posted that here in the Forum a few days ago, I wrote it back in 2010. I have had a few years since then for those ideas to cook. I realize looking back now that at the time I was formulating notions that were still new to me. To keep the reader from perhaps being as unclear about my point as I was at the time, I offer the following for the purposes of clarification.

Religion as Art

     This is in reference to something Karen Armstrong said about modern society “losing the art of religion and being the poorer for it.” I believe the same creative impulse that inspired art in early societies also informed our earliest forms of spirituality. I think what Armstrong was alluding to is that there is an art to practicing religion in a healthy way, and that is what the modern world seems to be losing, (with notable exceptions.) At the same time a lot of the vitality and spirit has gone out of modern art, (with notable exceptions.) That the two have in many cases become so very separate in modern culture is a sad fact. This severing of the head from the heart started long before the 17th century, but Cartesian duality really added fuel to the fire. Nicholas Roerich is a good example of a spiritual artist, and thankfully there continue to be many others. Art and religion, like science, are essential ways of inquiring into the nature of the universe. Roerich stressed the synthesis of all three paths, and I believe this is healthy for both the artist and society as a whole.

 Art as Religion

     Practicing art as if it were religion however can quickly become nothing more than idolatry. There is a ‘priesthood’ in the art world and this is part of the problem, not a solution. Art for its own sake is perhaps a noble ideal, something worth exercising as one is opening oneself up to the creative impulse and developing one’s skills, finding one’s voice. But in the long run, in my opinion, if art is only practiced for its own sake, it risks becoming irrelevant, selfish and of only limited value to society.  By the same token, if art is simply a handmaiden to religion (or any other institution for that matter) and only allowed to express things in the ordained language and symbology of orthodoxy, it degenerates into mere propaganda. In some extreme cases religions have even banished art entirely from their midst, a trend that will hopefully remain in the distant past.

Science as Religion

     I am always amused when I hear an atheist holding up science as a torch of reason in order to cast out the darkness of superstition and religion. They don’t seem to realize in so doing how they are simply transforming the practical arts of science into yet another religion. I have to admire how the strength of their faith matches that of the saints themselves. Every good artist is at least an adequate enough scientist to explore and experiment with the properties of the materials with which they are working. But every good artist also understands the limits of those materials, and how to work within the power of those limits to come up with something original and creative, which usually involves a healthy dose of imagination as well.

Art as Science

     If an artist is only a good scientist, and nothing more, they risk becoming so seduced by the technology that they will cease producing anything of lasting value. The wonderful filmmaker and creator of the Star Wars saga, George Lucas, did not fall into this trap. While so much of mainstream science fiction is little more than whiz-bang special effects, Lucas injected a healthy dose of additional heart, soul and mind into his creations. The inventive gifts he used to drive the technology of movie-making into exciting new vistas are great examples of the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention. He had a story to tell, and that came first. Industrial-strength Light and Magic were necessary for him to tell the story the way he envisioned it. The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix series and Cloud Atlas) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and King Kong) are other positive examples of what I call bardic technology, technology developed in the service of telling important stories.

 Religion as Science

      In the Foundation Series of novels by Isaac Asimov, the author describes a future science he calls psychohistory. This is an amalgam of sociology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, anthropology, philosophy, history, statistical analysis, neuroscience, systems theory, robotics and biology. Its predictive capabilities are so reliable they become the stuff out of which empires are made, and lost.  The prophets of Empire and Foundation are definitely a priesthood, but they no longer pray, they simply calculate. This makes for some great stories, but the technocrats of our day and age would do well to take these stories to heed before they try to go to such extremes in this world. And don’t think they aren’t trying. On the other hand, there is the art and science of theology, and what a long and winding history does it continue to unfold, not without a few fallen empires and crumbling foundations of its own we might note. These philosophical pioneers delve deep into the world of Spirit, wrestling with the sacred geometry of ultimate truth. Like great artists, they are called to their vocation and we owe them a debt of gratitude for making a valiant effort to reconcile faith and reason.

      In summary, I guess the point here is that all three of these, art, science and religion, are important. But when any one of them take themselves too seriously, they cease being a healthy source of energy for culture as a whole. It is through a dynamic synergy, a real process of give-and-take, that the most effective tools will be wrought to help us on the human journey.

                                                                                                      – Tim McKamey, July, 2013

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