Pablo Picasso is one of the best known artists of the 20th century. He is largely credited for being one of the founders of cubism. “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.”[i] But this is not how Picasso started painting. I’m sure that he began by drawing stick figures, much like most children, and as his skills progressed he eventually developed the abilities to produce highly realistic and representational works of art. And as he continued to develop his skills and explore the boundaries of art and what it meant to express the depth of a subject matter, his painting style changed and his abstract work is a part of that exploration.
People seem to either love or hate Picasso’s cubist work. There’s a story floating out there, I’m not sure if it’s true, that captures people’s reaction to Picasso’s abstract work. “A wealthy man commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a portrait of his wife. Startled by the non-representational image on the final canvas, the woman’s husband complained, “It isn’t how she really looks.” When asked by the painter how she really looked, the man produced a photograph from his wallet. Returning the photography Pablo observed, “Small, isn’t she?”[ii]
Picasso’s comment illustrates that no work of art or photograph for that matter can ever really capture the essence of reality. So the question we might ask is this? If it is so hard for any of us to capture or express reality, can we truly express or fully comprehend who God is? And if we’re exploring the boundaries of the world we live in, trying to understand it and/or God, will any of our discoveries or new insights be truly representational?
What if our understanding of God needs to grow in abstraction?
Some Christians gravitate to a quasi-scientific approach to understanding the Bible, parsing out each word in an attempt to prove the validity of God to those around them. Others simply gravitate to a relative approach to Bible and treat the words as truth to live by if you so choose, often as only one of the buffet items in the religious smorgasbord. When we approach our understanding of God in a scientific way, we will always come up short. Even the sacred text of the Bible begins by telling us that the one tree that humanity may not eat from is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Trying to pin down an understanding of God in a scientific way is like trying to collect butterflies and pin them to a board. It may help you understand the distinctions between each butterfly but you remove the life and beauty. And when we approach our understanding of God in a purely relative manner, we put ourselves at the centre of the universe as though any sort of truth is defined only by our choice to believe it. Making truth relative is to fall into the trap of the old story that says people who follow religions are all blind people feeling different parts of an elephant and describing the elephant from the part they’re holding. Except to describe God in this way assumes that you are the only one who isn’t blind and have the ability to see what everyone else doesn’t (rather arrogant and condescending).
But to understand God in abstraction is to acknowledge a definite truth but admit that our understanding of the truth is limited and can best be expressed by trying to get at the core colours, shapes and lines of what we believe. Abstraction is different from relativism in that it isn’t saying that I define what is true, but it is saying that there is something deeper to be understood than just what I can see and know.
When the gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”[iii] It isn’t that he’s telling us that our faith must become ignorant and blind. It could be argued that he’s telling us to become abstract. Let us return to the journey of the artist. Sometimes we hear people comment on abstract art saying things like, “My kid could paint that.” But anyone who has studied art or spent time with a trained artist will understand the idiocy of such a statement. But there is a similarity between children’s art and abstract art. A child expresses what they see and know and it is often filled with colour, shapes and lines. Children’s art is beautiful because through their expression we see the world in a very simple yet profoundly complex manner. This is true of abstract art as well, but there is an underlying journey underneath this art that adds to the complexity. The abstract artist has honed their skills, learned to shade and draw or paint landscapes or portraits with the greatest of detail. But as the abstract artist has learned to reproduce things in the greatest of detail, the desire to capture the essence of what they’re producing causes them to look deeper into the images and thoughts of the world(s) we live in. It leads them to produce lines, shapes and colour which appear to not contain the detail but in truth expresses the deeper detail of our world in so far as we can know it.
Our journey with God must be similar if we adhere to Jesus teaching. We begin our lives believing in simple truths (Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong). But as we grow the world becomes complex and the questions grow. To be faithful is not to ignore the complexity or the questions but rather to grapple and grow with them. But the journey of exploration should not lead us to perfect representations of God in our lives that we can hang on our walls as though we can contain His truth. The journey should lead us to abstraction whereby the beauty and simplicity of colour, lines and shapes (Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong) make us want to look deeper each time to see something more.