The word utopia makes me nervous, an uneasiness cultivated by too many years in divinity school listening to people talk about the afterlife. Paradise, heaven, the kingdom of God – for some Christians, the promise of another world encourages the abandonment of this one. Trees, racism, structural poverty, endangered species, climate change, refugees – none of it matters because this world is only temporary, fallen, sinful. Our job is not to repair this world, but to escape it. And how do you escape? Entrance to that afterworld requires only belief.
But my mentor in graduate school, the late theologian Gordon D Kaufman, taught me about other strands in Christian theology, more activist strands. Belief for Kaufman was beside the point. God’s existence was also beside the point (because how, really, could you know?). What mattered to Kaufman was how human beings imagined God and how that shaped the way they lived. ‘The word God is out there doing all kinds of work,’ he’d say. Theology is not a revelatory activity, according to Kaufman. It is not something that comes from God to humans. Rather, it is a constructive activity, an imaginative activity, a creative activity. Theology is something humans do, something humans make. In other words, theology is a kind of art. And theologians are artists. Their creations are not works of art to be hung on the wall, Kaufman told me; rather, they are worlds in which to live.
No other person has so profoundly shaped my thinking. Kaufman led me to the intersection of theology and art, and I have been standing at that crossroads – writing, painting, imagining, teaching, protesting – for twenty years. I claim both art and theology as constructive, meaning-making activities with material effects. But one crucial difference between the two enterprises is that artists never forget the constructed status of their creations, while theologians often do. In fact, I think artists might be better at theology than many theologians are. I came to this conclusion while teaching critical theory at an art school. My students – painters, photographers, animators, performance artists, illustrators, sculptors – seemed to understand instinctively what it took me years to learn: the world is made and can be unmade and remade. As makers, they knew their constructions had real-world effects, and they wanted to be held accountable for the work their creations did. Unlike many a theologian, my students would never confuse their image of a thing with the thing itself. They were comfortable in the gap, with mystery, with the unfinished – because that’s where art lives.
I spent many afternoons with Kaufman in his basement office at the divinity school, and he often talked about Genesis and the God who speaks words to bring the world into being, who uses clay and breath to make human beings. ‘You see,’ he’d say, ‘in this story, God is a poet and a potter, and even though that doesn’t tell us much about God, it tells us a lot about what the authors thought about artists: they knew their work was world making.’
When we make art – sentence, loaf of bread, garden, painting – we exercise the muscles we need to remake the world. We remember it’s possible to create something new. In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry argues that art – bringing a physical object into the world where there previously was not one – illustrates on a small scale what’s possible on a larger scale. You imagine X and you paint X. You take something from inside your mind and put it out in the real world – from my head to my hand, from my head to your hand – which means that what was once inside your mind is now sharable. Imagining a city, you make a house, Scarry writes. Imagining a political utopia, you help build a country. Imagining the elimination of suffering in the world, you nurse a sick friend. Scarry calls the creation of an artefact – a sentence, a cup, a piece of lace, a painting – a fragment of world alteration. If individuals can make these smaller changes, she writes, if one person can alter the world in fragments, just think what can be imagined together, what might be possible in community: a total reinvention of the world.
I have chosen to be a writer, and I have chosen to spend my time supporting other artists’ creativity, because, like Scarry, I think art is revolutionary. I claim it as activism, as political work. It’s not content or subject matter that renders art political. It’s the practice itself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a manifesto, painting a landscape, building a tiny diorama of the stars – when you make something, you are exercising the muscles you need to repair the world.
When I say out loud that making art is one of the most vital things we can do right now, people say, ‘You can’t be serious.’ But I am serious. Art gives me hope, and this hope is not naive. It’s not romantic or small or abstract. It’s concrete: glue and paint, scissors and tape, words and drawings, book pages and ink and gouache and oil and canvas and sentence after sentence after sentence. It’s the certain knowledge that it’s possible to make something new.
What does it look like to live a life of peace and principal at this moment in history? How might agency be nurtured in a time of overwhelm and helplessness? How do we keep saying no? How do we imagine a world we might say yes to? Making art helps cultivate answers to these questions. Given that some features of creative practice itself are (dare I say it?) utopian – including focus, accountability, failure and troubling certainty – if more of us were to cultivate these aspects of ourselves, if more people were to make art, the world might look very different.
I’VE WASTED A lot of time and energy over the past four years or so believing that if I paid attention to what’s happening in the world, my attention could somehow make terrible things not happen. But it turns out I don’t have much control over what politicians do. Or corporations. Or governments. Or viruses. Or courts. But I do have control over what I write and dream and imagine. I do have control over what kinds of activism and resistance I engage in. And I do have control over where I put my energy. I can choose to put my creativity towards the kind of world I want to help bring into being.
One way to impede activism and social justice work is to make sure activists are continually distracted. He did what? They voted to do what? They stormed where? The endless cycle of disturbing news and legislation and catastrophes makes my mind spin, sending my attention in a thousand directions, with very little effect. It might feel like paying attention is doing something, but often paying attention – which is, usually, reacting – leads to depletion and paralysis. Distraction makes it hard to dream up alternatives to the present reality.
There is, however, another kind of focused attention that can be more productive, more transformative. And I think art can help us practise it. What happens when you think only about clay? Only about paint on canvas? Only about sentence structure? To take back your focus – to make art – is a radical act. To take all of that scattered energy and send it in a single direction is no small thing. It is revolutionary to take back your mind, your energy, your focus, your inner emotional landscape, to put whatever it is that you call sacred at the centre of your life.
To focus on clay, on paint or on a sentence trains our minds in a political way too. I teach writing workshops and I lead virtual writing retreats, and I encourage the artists with which I work to stay away from the news for a few days to see what happens when they don’t absorb all that panic and fear. I am not saying don’t pay attention – but I am saying choose a different kind of attention. When I spend an hour writing instead of an hour watching the news or looking at social media, the quality of my ideas changes. What I think about the world shifts. What I understand as possible expands. My sense of agency grows. Many of us have been told that focusing on our art is selfish, but really, it is generous and generative. When we turn towards our creative work, we are also turning towards the world and remembering that we have agency in that world.
A friend of mine used to say you can tell what a person values when you look at how they spend their money, but I think you can also tell what a person values, what they are devoted to, when you look at what they spend their time thinking about, paying attention to and imagining. During the beginning of Trump’s presidency, if you could have peered into my mind, you would have thought I was devoted to Trump. And before that, you might have thought I was devoted to torture and war, since I’d spent nearly thirteen years writing and thinking about those topics. But what does it look like to devote yourself to, to focus on, the kind of world you want to help bring into being? And what does it look like to make it – whether that’s a loaf of bread, a vase or a better healthcare system? For me this has involved a 180-degree perspective shift – from focusing only on what is wrong to imagining what might be better and then bringing that vision to life. Art helps me practise this.
ART-MAKING IS, by definition, constructive. Artists are aware of their work as their work (literally), and they know (or at least they hope) that the things they make have real effects. When I started teaching critical theory at an art school and attended my first critique, listening to my students talk about their work and field critical questions – about the decisions they had made, options they had considered, material choices – blew my mind. I had spent a decade of my life in graduate school studying religion, and I never heard anything that resembled a critique. I cannot imagine a theologian sitting around with other theologians critiquing their creations. ‘Hey, Calvin, nice work on that omniscience thing, but it seems like you could use a little less predestination, a little less sexism.’
‘Oh,’ says Calvin (or Paul or Augustine or Luther) in my imagination. ‘I see your point. Back to the drawing board!’
Accountability was inherent in these art school critiques, an accountability that is often absent when theologians attribute their ideas to God rather than to themselves. ‘I can’t help that we have slavery,’ they shrug. ‘It’s right there in the Bible that God wrote.’ But when we remember that all of our ideas are invented, not found or revealed, then three things can happen. One, we can take responsibility for the things (ideas, policies, governments, systems, laws) we make. Two, we can take responsibility for the effects of the things we make. And three, we can recognise that it’s possible to make something better – more just, more life-giving, less racist, less oppressive, less violent.
One of the reasons I like teaching artists so much is because they are makers. And because they are makers, they already understand the world as a construction. So it is not all that threatening for them to learn that gender and race and sexuality and nationality are constructions, too. Works of art and works of religion (otherwise known as theology) are imaginative constructions with real-world effects. And so, too, are our politics, our (mis)understandings of one another, the memos and laws we author that keep some people out and other people in cages. All of this is made up – though their consequences are real – and art helps us remember that it’s possible to make up something different.
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR THE effects of our constructions also includes a recognition that what we make might not be perfect. It might be wrong. It might be dangerous. It might not work for everyone. We can always do better.
Artists practise failure. It’s an essential part of the creative act. Artists are conscious of the distance between what they imagine and what they make, between the thing and an image of the thing, between a friend and an image of a friend. No artist makes a painting of an apple and then says, ‘Who’d like a snack? I have an apple right here!’ They know there is a gap between the thing and the representation of the thing, and it is in this gap that art lives and thrives.
Claiming failure as a necessary attribute of creativity is certainly anti-Trump, that person who was so obsessed with ‘winning’ – no matter the cost to the most precarious or to democracy itself or to all the beautiful beings that share this planet. When I taught critical theory at the art school, I was amazed at how often ‘failure’ was championed by theorists I love as a form of resistance to and subversion of the status quo. In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler writes, ‘For [a] representation to convey the human, then, representation must not only fail, but must show its failure.’ In Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, Sara Jane Bailes uses the word ‘poetics’ to highlight ‘the idea of making, [to call] attention [to] the principles and techniques that constitute a practice…where failure underlies the activity.’ Failure, for Bailes, is a kind of refusal – a way of challenging capitalism, oppression and violent representational practices. Another word for this might be ‘queering’. Gregg Bordowitz in Between Artists puts it this way: ‘Queer things don’t yield easily to comprehension. They refuse to recognize, or be recognized.’ Jack Halberstam (also known as Judith) takes this further in The Queer Art of Failure, framing queerness as subversive to capitalism, heterosexism, oppressive forms of knowledge and violence. In ‘Ten Queer Theses on Abstraction’, David J Getsy writes about the pleasure of failing to fit into parameters people have been trained to perceive, of remaining beyond classification. Because if the categories themselves are suspect – queer/straight, white/black, woman/man, citizen/immigrant – then to be unrecognisable is, for some, a way to remain free.
My training as a theologian drives me to claim the artistic version of failure – highlighting the gap between how we represent an idea or an object or a person or an animal and the thing in and of itself – as a kind of transcendence. Theology (literally, words about God) is, by definition, a discipline engaged with what can’t be said, what can’t be captured – and for me, God is not the only uncapturable thing. There is, rather, a part of every person (every tree, every animal, every rock) that is unsayable, irreducible, resistant, free, unknowable. And because it is unknowable, you cannot name it or depict it or colonise it or paint it or photograph it. It will not fit. Artists’ understanding that they cannot fully capture their subject on a canvas or in a sculpture or with a paragraph – their understanding that the thing they are representing transcends any representational attempt – is ethical. And political. And protective of the other. There is always more to the other than what we think we know about them. If I can remember that what I write about a person doesn’t capture that person, then I can also remember that what I know is not all there is to know, and so I must take care.
I am thinking here of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, when you encounter another person, from their face shines ‘radical alterity’, ‘irreplaceable otherness’. And when encountering this other, you have a dual experience: first, you recognise you could kill that person; and second, you recognise that you must not kill them, that you must protect that otherness at all costs, even at the cost of losing your own life, because that otherness is God.
Levinas, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, was trying to create an ethical system that would make another genocide impossible. Though ethics often focuses on empathy, on the ability to recognise and connect with another person as familiar, Levinas focused on difference, on otherness. We don’t seem to have a problem behaving ethically when we can identify with another person or being; we do seem to have a problem when we can’t. It’s not likeness that Levinasian ethics is after: it’s difference. It is the part of the other that you recognise as other – as unlike you, as frightening, as outside your categories – that Levinas calls divine. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler engages Levinas to explore what happens when she encounters the unknowable part of an ‘other’. It makes a claim on her. ‘It comes to me from elsewhere, unbidden, unexpected, and unplanned,’ she writes. ‘In fact, it tends to ruin my plans, and if my plans are ruined, that may well be the sign that something is morally binding upon me.’ How might embracing this approach change how we live?
In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, the political theorist Jane Bennett writes about what might happen if we were to live as if everything – person, tree, stone, plastic – is alive. Rather than dividing the world into ‘dull matter’ (things) and ‘vibrant matter’ (beings), she argues instead for a ‘vital materiality’. She wants to know ‘how political responses to public problems would change if we were to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies’. Part of her project is epistemological; it is about how we know and whether we can learn to leave room for what is, always, not known. ‘We knowers are haunted…by a painful nagging feeling that something’s being forgotten or left out,’ Bennett writes. She is referring to Theodor Adorno’s nonidentity, that ‘which is not subject to knowledge’, the ‘discomfiting sense of the inadequacy of representation [that] remains no matter how refined or analytically precise one’s concepts become’. The ethical challenge, Bennett writes, is not to eliminate this ‘discomforting experience’ but to ‘accentuate’ it. Bennett reminds her reader of the origin of the word absolute: ab means off, and solver means to loosen. The absolute, she writes, is that which is loosened off; it is on the loose – and she argues that it would be a mistake to think ‘the absolute’ refers only to God. For Bennett – and for me, and for most artists too – everything is on the loose.
ARTISTS KNOW THAT art always means more than one thing – and sometimes art means something you didn’t intend for it to mean. Images can’t be trusted – which is what makes them so interesting, and which is, perhaps, what makes them ‘true’ or worth wrestling with. It is also what makes images theological.
I have long been distressed by weaponised drones – those machines in which camera and gun are one: we kill people (and animals and landscapes and neighbourhoods) based on what we think we see. But if the history of photography has shown us anything, it’s that you can’t trust what you see in an image. I’m thinking of spirit photography. I’m thinking of colonial photography. I’m thinking of the photographs used to start the war in Iraq. I’m thinking of deep fakes. I could go on.
Oppression is tied to sight. Racism, in addition to being structural and insidious, is visual: we sort bodies by how we see bodies. Part of my learnt and inherited privilege as a white person is the false belief that my view of reality is reality. I have been trained to mistake my slanted perspective for objectivity, for truth. Though it is the lens through which I look at the world, whiteness remains largely invisible to me, even as it (mis)shapes how I see myself and ‘others’. And these have been years of mis-seeing, from police violence against people of colour in the United States to the use of militarised drones against civilians around the world. It is imperative, then, to question the how of seeing, to render the act of looking itself visible. I think art can help with this disruptive work. Art can remind us that what we think we see is not all there is to see.
I’ve been thinking about drones, and I’ve also been thinking about redaction – the practice of blocking out classified information in government memos. For me, redaction is a theological enterprise, a visual sign of transcendence, the ongoing and necessary failure of language to describe a god (or a plant or a starfish or another human being), who must, by definition, elude all attempts at capture. Several years ago, I heard the poet Robin Coste Lewis give a talk, ‘The Race Within Erasure’, about redaction. She shared the work of an artist who highlighted the violence of racism by taking a white supremacist handbook and cutting out all the black. Which meant the artist cut out all the words, all the racist language – leaving nothing. Without blackness, meaninglessness.
When the iconoclasts took hammers to statues, they removed noses first, the place where breath enters and leaves the body. They did not destroy the statues. They did not render them unrecognisable. They made them incomplete and broken. The missing parts made sure no viewer would forget the statues were artifice, constructed.
For me, through a theological lens, redaction works as a reminder of mystery and unknowability, which, in these tyrannical times, feels both ethical and urgent. Redaction undermines the supposed certainty of the words and images we use, whether those words and images are used to generate memos authorising torture or laws that put children in cages or images that construct the enemies we’re told to fear.
Good theology troubles certainty, too. It always remembers that if you think you know God, it is not God you know. This sense of the limits of human knowledge can be used to trouble authoritarianism, hegemony, right answers, kill lists. Kaufman used to remind me that the most ethical thing a human being can say is: I might be wrong. Admitting you might be wrong doesn’t mean you can’t stake your life on your beliefs, but it does mean you can’t kill someone else over them.
AS ARTISTS REVEAL that it’s possible to make something new, to introduce a new idea, a new sentence, a new painting, they also remind us that if that’s possible, then the world is alterable, and if the world is alterable, then it’s possible to vote into office a new president, to make a neighbourhood where everyone has a place to live, to create a world where no one is hungry, where children are not locked in cages, where boats fleeing violence are welcomed, where there is no violence to flee.
I have always been drawn to the image of Moses breaking the tablets. Shattering what was written in stone seems to me the most faithful action he could have taken. It is a gesture of failure, of transcendence, a way of saying there is more to God than anyone will ever know, a reminder not to mistake our words for God’s words, an invitation to use fragments to make something new. Artists pick up where Moses left off. Their work is both shattering and generative. It is an invitation to transcendence. A reminder that there is always more.
‘Our real lives hold within them our royal lives; the inspiration to be more than we are, to find new solutions; to live beyond the moment,’ Jeanette Winterson writes in Art Objects. ‘To see outside of a dead vision is not an optical illusion.’ To be able to live in ways that have been forbidden requires imagination. ‘When the world fails to provide an object, the imagination is there,’ Scarry writes in The Body in Pain. The imagination is the first step for generating the objects we need, the objects we don’t yet have. ‘Missing,’ Scarry writes, ‘they will be made up.’
And this kind of imagination is exactly what artists practise. My training as a theologian and an activist and a feminist has taught me it’s possible to imagine a world other than the version peddled to us by people in power. And my training as an artist has taught me it’s possible to make that world. For I can see it; it’s just and it’s beautiful and it’s life-giving for the most vulnerable and precarious among us, for those who have been shut out and shut up and not believed, for the ungrieved and the untended, for the trees and the beasts and the winged ones and the rivers and the mountains, for the missing and the terrified and the suffering.
We are all artists, and the muscles of our visionary minds are growing stronger and stronger. With every word, every piece of clay, every brushstroke, every stitch, we create that imagined world – and we choose to live there now. Can you feel it spinning into being? Can you hear its song? Will you answer its call?
Bailes, Sara Jane. Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service. London; New York: Routledge, 2011.
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004.
David J. Getsy, ‘Ten Queer Theses on Abstraction,’ in Jared Ledesema, queer abstraction, exhibition catalog for ‘Queer Abstraction,’ exhibition at Des Moines Art Center, June-September 2019.
Gordon Kaufman, In the Beginning…Creativity. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.
Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Gordon Kaufman, The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981.
Robin Coste Lewis, ‘The Race within Erasure,’ Portland Literary Arts, February 25, 2016: https://literary-arts.org/archive/robin-coste-lewis-2/.
Elaine Scary, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Amy Sillman and Gregg Bordowitz, Between Artists. Canada: A.R.T. Press, 2007.
Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
I first explored some of these ideas in other places: Sentilles, ‘Artists Make Good Theologians,’ Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2015, https://bulletin-archive.hds.harvard.edu/articles/winterspring2015/artists-make-good-theologians and Sentilles, ‘Sentinels: Pat Boas and the Art of Reclaiming Freedom,’ exhibition essay for ‘Deeds Not Words: Women Working for Change,’ Sun Valley Museum of Art, 2021. I also gave two speeches making a case for the urgencies of art. The first was at Cranlana in August 2018, ‘Why Art Now?’ The second was my acceptance speech for the PEN-America Award in Creative Nonfiction for Draw Your Weapons in October 2018.