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Tutoring the Religious Imagination: Art and Theology as Pedagogues

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Raymond Studzinski*
Catholic University of America


This essay presents a psychological approach to understanding the creative functioning of imagination in art and religion. This approach drawn from psychoanalytic object relations theory further illuminates how the classics of art and theology engage the imagination and how distortions of the products of the creative imagination occur. Discussion of a particular innovative theme found in an artwork and related theological reflection in early Christianity exemplifies how both art and theology guide the religious imagination. Finally, various influences on the formation of personal God-imagery are assessed in the light of a case illustration, and the ongoing need for art and theology as tutors to the religious imagination is underscored.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 1987

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1 (New York: Crossroad, 1981).

2 For a clear statement of Freud's position on reality and fantasy, see Freud, Sigmund, “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 12 (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), pp. 220–23.Google Scholar For a discussion of Freud's various uses of the term “fantasy,” see Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B., The Language of Psycho-Analysis (New York: Norton, 1973), pp. 314–19.Google Scholar

3 Trilling, Lionel, The Liberal Imagination (New York: Viking, 1950), p. 44.Google Scholar

4 The Future of an Illusion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1964), p. 49.Google Scholar For discussions of Freud's understanding of religious beliefs as illusion, see Pruyser, Paul W.Between Belief and Unbelief (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 196205;Google Scholar and Meissner, W. W., Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 160–64.Google Scholar Meissner draws attention to Freud's, statements in Civilization and Its Discontents in Standard Edition, 21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), p. 81Google Scholar where Freud speaks of religions as “mass-delusions.” Meissner concludes: “Freud's view of religious belief, then, was that it was a delusion, not merely an illusion; nor was he slow to reiterate this view” (p. 163).

5 A statement of Jacques Barzun cited in Trilling, p. 45. Theological writing has not made much reference to illusion. Sometimes theologians employ the term in the way Freud used it, namely, to designate wishful thinking used to escape reality. See the call to surrender illusions in Niebuhr's, Reinhold essays, “Peace and the Liberal Illusion” (pp. 8394)Google Scholar and “An End to Illusions” (pp. 167-76) in his Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Scribner's, 1940).Google Scholar For a recent attempt to approach illusion positively in a philosophical and theological context see Haught, John, “Narrative, Truth and Illusion,” Religious Studies and Theology 5/2 (1985), 6878.Google Scholar

6 Object relations theory proposes that the human subject is fundamentally a relationship-seeking being. For an introduction to object relations theory, see Guntrip, Harry, Psychoanalytic Theory, Therapy, and the Self: A Basic Guide to the Human Personality in Freud, Erikson, Klein, Sullivan, Fairbairn, Hartmann, Jacobson, and Winnicott (New York: Basic Books, 1973);Google Scholar and Greenberg, Jay R. and Mitchell, Stephen A., Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).Google Scholar For a brief account of some of the diverging trends within object relations theory, see Robbins, Michael, “Current Controversy in Object Relations Theory as Outgrowth of a Schism Between Klein and Fairbairn,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 61 (1980), 477–92.Google ScholarPubMed For a clear exposition of object relations theory in relation to ego psychology, see Rubin, and Blanck, Gertrude, Beyond Ego Psychology: Developmental Object Relations Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.Google Scholar

7 Winnicott, D. W., “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” in his Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 230.Google Scholar Winnicott had first presented these ideas in a paper read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society on May 30, 1951. For an introduction to Winnicott's work, see Davis, Madeleine and Wallbridge, David, Boundary and Space (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1981).Google Scholar

8 Winnicott, D. W., Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971), p. 11.Google Scholar

9 Erikson, Erik H., Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 118.Google Scholar

10 Winnicott, , Playing and Reality, pp. 16.Google Scholar The transitional object and the related transitional phenomena have been explored by a number of researchers since Winnicott first introduced the terms. See Pruyser, Paul W., The Play of the Imagination: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Culture (New York: International Universities Press, 1983);Google ScholarGrolnick, Simon and Barkin, Leonard, eds., Between Reality and Fantasy (New York: Jason Aronson, 1978);Google ScholarHorton, Paul C., Solace: The Missing Dimension in Psychiatry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981);Google ScholarCoppolillo, Henry P., “Maturational Aspects of the Transitional Phenomenon,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 48 (1967), 237–46;Google ScholarPubMedidem, “The Transitional Phenomenon Revisited,” Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 15 (1976), 36-48; Gaddini, Renata, “The Concept of Transitional Object,” Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 14 (1975), 731–36;CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMedHong, K. Michael, “The Transitional Phenomena: A Theoretical Integration,” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 33 (1978), 4779;CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMedKahne, Merton J., “On the Persistence of Transitional Phenomena into Adult Life,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 48 (1967), 247–58;Google ScholarPubMed and Modell, Arnold H., “The Transitional Object and the Creative Act,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 39 (1970), 240–50.Google ScholarPubMed

11 Eigen, Michael, “The Area of Faith in Winnicott, Lacan, and Bion,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 62 (1981), 413–33.Google ScholarPubMed

12 Winnicott, , Playing and Reality, pp. 108–09.Google Scholar See also Bergman, Anni, “From Mother to the World Outside: The Use of Space During the Separation-Individuation Phase” in Grolnick, and Barkin, , pp. 147–65.Google Scholar

13 Winnicott, , Playing and Reality, p. 89.Google Scholar Susan Deri comments on transitional objects: “From the baby's point of view, these are neither external objects nor pure wishful hallucinations: they are both at the same time” (see Deri, , “Transitional Phenomena: Vicissitudes of Symbolization and Creativity” in Grolnick, and Barkin, , p. 51Google Scholar).

14 Kahne, p. 248.

15 Richard T. Knowles makes a distinction between imagination and fantasy which is one way of setting off the world of creative imagination from the bizarre or fantastic; see Knowles, , “Fantasy and Imagination,” Studies in Formative Spirituality 4 (1985), 5363.Google Scholar

16 Pruyser, , The Play of the Imagination, p. 9.Google Scholar

17 See David Tracy's discussion of Paul Ricoeur's position on the imagination where Tracy notes: “Imagination, for Ricoeur, is a rule-governed form of invention (alternatively, is a norm-governed productivity)…. Imagination is also the power of giving form to human experience. This position allows Ricoeur to retrieve mimesis as creative redescription and to develop the notion of fiction as a redescription of reality challenging everyday descriptions and thereby challenging earlier notions of image and representation” (Tracy, , The Analogical Imagination, p. 149Google Scholar).

18 Pruyser, , The Play of the Imagination, p. 67.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., pp. 68-72, 173-78. For a helpful discussion of the difference between hope and wishing, see Pruyser, Paul W., “Phenomenology and Dynamics of Hoping,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3 (1963), 8696.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 Ibid., p. 89.

21 Gombrich, E. H., Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 389.Google Scholar

22 Tracy, p. 200.

23 Ibid., p. 169.

24 Pruyser, Paul W., “Lessons from Art Theory for the Psychology of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15 (1976), 8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

25 Meissner, p. 181.

26 Pruyser, , The Play of the Imagination, p. 160.Google Scholar

27 Pruyser, Paul W., “Forms and Functions of the Imagination in Religion,” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 49 (1985), 363.Google ScholarPubMed

28 See O'Meara, Thomas Franklin, “The Aesthetic Dimension in Theology” in Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ed., Art, Creativity, and the Sacred (New York: Crossroad, 1984), p. 216.Google Scholar

29 See Toynbee, Jocelyn and Perkins, John Ward, The Shrine of St. Peter and the Vatican Excavations (London: Longmans, Green, 1956), pp. xv–xvi, 4243;Google Scholar and Kirschbaum, Engelbert, The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, trans. Murray, John (New York: St. Martin's, 1959), pp. 2527.Google Scholar For a recent popularized discussion of the mausolea under St. Peter's, see Walsh, John Evangelist, The Bones of St. Peter (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), pp. 931.Google Scholar A brief annotated bibliography of material on the excavations is found in Walsh, Michael J., comp., Vatican City State, World Bibliographical Series 41 (Oxford: Clio, 1983), pp. 89.Google Scholar

30 The presence of a niche containing urns for ashes in the tomb's rear wall points to its earlier pagan use. This niche was covered up at the time of the decoration of the tomb with the mosaics. See Kirschbaum, pp. 34-39; Toynbee and Perkins, p. 116; and Guarducci, Margherita, The Tomb of St. Peter, trans. McLellan, Joseph (New York: Hawthorn, 1960), p. 74.Google Scholar

31 Othmar Perler has emphasized the baptismal theme of the mosaics and notes parallels with scenes used in decorating baptistries. See Perler, , Die Mosaiken der Juliergruft im Vatikan (Freiburg in der Schweiz: Universitätsverlag, 1953), pp. 1314.Google Scholar

32 See Kirschbaum, p. 40; Toynbee and Perkins, p. 117.

33 In pagan mythology both Helios and Apollo were sun-gods and were sometimes identified. Helios was more closely linked with the physical sun. The sun-god had the power to reveal secrets as well as the future and was a peacemaker between the gods and humanity. See Rose, Herbert J., “Helios,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), p. 410;Google ScholarStapleton, Michael, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology (New York: Bell, 1978), pp. 32;Google Scholar 92-93.

34 Key texts in the Old and New Testaments, of course, provide the foundation for Christian reflection on Christ as the Sun. The prophet Malachi, proclaiming an oracle of the Lord, says: “But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2 RSV). The Fathers of the Church capitalized on this text by identifying Christ as the Sol Iustitiae and not the Sol Invictus.

35 Even the Emperor Constantine's (d. 337) position on sun-worship and its relation to Christianity seems ambivalent, at least initially. See Cullmann, Oscar, The Early Church, abridged ed., ed. Higgins, A. J. B. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), pp. 3132.Google Scholar

36 See Dölger, Franz Joseph, Sol Salutis, 2nd ed., Liturgiegeschichtliche Forschungen 4/5 (Münster in Westf.: Verlag der Aschendorffschen Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1925), p. 5.Google Scholar

37 De Natali Domini IV, Sermo IV (PL 17, 635).

38 Sermons 186 and 187, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, ACW 15 (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1966), pp. 80, 85.Google Scholar

39 Sermon 190, ACW 15, p. 102.

40 In Joannis Evangelium, tractatus 34, 2-3, (PL 35, 1652).

41 Sermo 22, SC 22, 84-86.

42 Sermon 27, PNPF, 2nd series, 12 (1891), 140.

43 A study of artistic depictions of the crucifixion especially in the medieval period would also show art operating as a theological pedagogue but in a more sustained and varied manner. See Grillmeier, Aloys, Der Logos am Kreuz (München: Max Hueber, 1956);Google ScholarGrondijs, L. H., “La mort du Christ et le rit du Zéon (réponse a la critique de Grillmeier S.J.),” Autour de l'Iconographie Byzantine du Crucifié Mort sur la Croix (Leiden: Brill, 1960);Google ScholarMartin, John R., “The Dead Christ on the Cross in Byzantine Art” in Weitsmann, Kurt, ed., Late Classical and Medieval Studies in Honor of Albert Mathias Friend, Jr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955), 189–96;Google ScholarPocknee, Cyril E., Cross and Crucifix in Christian Worship and Devotion (London: Mowbray, 1962);Google ScholarRahner, Hugo, “Patristisch-ikonographische Probleme der Darstellung des Gekreuzigten,” Scholastik 32 (1957), 410–16;Google Scholar and Thoby, Paul, Le Crucifix des Origènes au Concile de Trente (Nantes: Bellanger, 1959).Google Scholar

44 Rizzuto, Ana-Maria, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 149–73.Google Scholar

45 Ibid., p. 172.

46 Ibid., pp. 161-62.

47 Ibid., p. 7.

48 Ibid., p. 226.

49 Ibid., p. 46.

50 See Ann, and Ulanov, Barry, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 2733;Google Scholar and Meissner, p. 182.

51 Rizzuto, p. 172.

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