“Wonder as the Beginning of Faith”

The title of this blog piece is the title of a book written by Bishop Maxim Vasiljevic, bishop of Los Angeles and Western America of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  (I trust he will forgive not being capitalized.). The book is an extraordinary one, containing a series of disconnected essays on various themes, each preceded by a painting done by His Grace.  That a bishop should be an artist as well as a theologian and academic is a bit surprising, though perhaps less surprising when one learns that His Grace not only did a one-year post-doctoral course on Byzantine History and Theology, but also as Visiting Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris dealt with the theory and practice of painting.  And as I read through this remarkable collection of essays and paintings, I couldn’t help think that it all reminded me of the work of Simon and Garfunkel.

Historians of ancient history may remember their early album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  On the back cover of the album was a review of their work by music commentator Ralph J. Gleason.  Mr. Gleason enthusiastically noted that young musicians now had “taken the creation of the lyrics and the music out of the hands of hacks and given it over to the poets. This seems to me to be the true meaning of the remarkable achievement of Simon and Garfunkel”.

In the same way, His Grace has taken theology, not exactly out of the hands of hacks, but out of their hands of sterile systematic dogmaticians, and returned it to its proper artistic home.  And as Mr. Gleason noted about the music of his day, this also “has begged to be done for generations”.  This book is a work of theological art.

By “art” I mean the work of those who see a vision of beauty, truth, and insight, who are filled with wonder at what they have experienced, and who strive to communicate it to others. The medium used by the artist may vary.  One may strive to communicate the vision through painting, or through music, or through poetry, or through prose, but whatever the medium the goal remains the same:  to share with others the wonder which has filled the soul of the artist, which has widened and enriched him, and which has led him to places he would never have found otherwise.

This book does what all real theology should do—it includes everything in its vision and embrace, giving everything in human experience a home and its proper appreciation.  That is why the book contains references to things as diverse as Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and George Martin’s Game of Thrones, things as different from each other as Shakespeare and Schmemann (both of whose portraits are included in the book), and includes in the same essay references to John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent as well as Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The book also abounds in insightful nuggets.  Consider the following.  “The Chinese smile is discreet, hesychastic, and because of that, it makes the face radiant.  Physiognomy and psychology reveal the face here as a gift of God”.  (His Grace made no further comment about the significance of our current mask mandates.)  “Joy is the characteristic of the age to come, because a smile of relief will wipe away sorrow and all tears.  Maybe that is why the Nigerian name for God is ‘Father of Laughter.’”  “The individual feels insecure because he cannot understand exactly what is happening around him, and neither secular nor spiritual institutions are helping.  That is why conspiracy theories are flourishing.”  The prose of the book is thus as far-ranging as the subjects of the painted portraits included.  His Grace is writing true theology, so of course he includes everything.

The world today is a very dry place, a spiritual desert.  The Church, which is meant to be an oasis or even a source of streams in the desert (see Isaiah 35:6) is too often just as dry as the world around it, and its preachers offer mere moralism instead of bracing good news, crusts of dry dogmas answering questions which nobody is really asking, instead of offering the bread of life to starving hungry hearts.  Every heart has experienced wonder and knows that such experience connects us with our deepest selves and touches are deepest and often unspoken questions.  The Church’s preaching and theology must take account of this, recognizing it as the true way of access into the human heart.  Wonder really is the beginning of faith.

This book is a good way to prime the pump of wonder and to expand our heart’s vision until it can begin to include all things. Theological hacks have dominated theology long enough.  Now it is the turn of poets and artists.  The book can be ordered here.

One comment:

  1. Fr. Lawrence,
    there are many languages spoken in Nigeria; hence there a many names for God. The most commonly used name for God other than English, is the Hausa, Allah.

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