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David Wood

Reflections, from the Heliotrope series, 2010, Wood, wire, laser discs, solar lights, Lake Watauga, Parthenon, Centennial Park, Nashville, TN, © David Wood. Photo: Aerial Innovations Southeast

Fra Angelico

The Coronation of the Virgin, c.1435, Tempera on panel, 112 x 114 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Inv.1890 no.1612, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy / Bridgeman Images

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Narcissus, 1597–99, Oil on canvas, 113.3 x 94 cm, Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome, inv. 1569, Artexplorer / Alamy Stock Photo

The Changeless God—and This Human Heart

Comparative Commentary by

Modern commentators have described the Letter of James as ‘the most consistently ethical document in the New Testament’ (Laws 1980: 27) and pointed out its continuities with Hebrew wisdom literature (see Johnson 2005: 33). This passage in particular is philosophically rich. It certainly advances ethical concepts: temptation and righteousness, wickedness and meekness, law and liberty, deception and purity. Yet these concepts draw their meaning from a complex interplay between three metaphysical elements: the self, the world, and God.

At first glance, James 1:17 stands out as suggesting a Platonic division between a perfect, unchanging reality ‘above’ and a corrupt, shadowy, mutable world of deceptions and appearances below. Yet the contrast between what is ‘pure and undefiled’ (v. 27) and what is dirty, wicked, and ‘vain’ (v.26) turns out to be within human beings. The passage is concerned not with an opposition between heaven and earth, God and world, but with two ways of being a person, two ways of inhabiting the world, two ways of living religiously.

The three artworks in this exhibition comment in obvious ways on themes within the passage: a spiritual coronation; a ‘Father of lights’ making a world ‘from above’; solipsistic desire that leads to death. Yet they also, in their circular compositions, speak to the deeper philosophical structure of the passage. David Wood’s Reflections invokes the circle of God; Caravaggio’s Narcissus depicts the circle of the self; Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin draws the circle of the world, considered as a social reality. Taken together, they pose the question of how to occupy each of these spheres simultaneously. How can a human being who faces the ‘trial’, ‘test’, and temptation (v.12–13) of being in the world ‘work the righteousness of God’? How can she be a ‘doer’, engaged in active social life, yet keep herself ‘unstained from the world’?

This passage was the favourite biblical text of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. During the 1840s he returned repeatedly to James 1:17, and in 1851 he gave a remarkable sermon in Copenhagen’s Citadel Church on ‘The Unchangingness of God’, inspired by this verse. Kierkegaard was preoccupied with the questions posed by this text—questions that he has taught us to recognize as ‘existential’ as well as spiritual questions. He sought a kind of religiousness that was neither reclusive and other-worldly, nor so immersed in the world that the ‘stains’ of worldliness went unnoticed. For Kierkegaard, reconciling the spheres of self, God, and world was a practical paradox, and inhabiting this paradox was an inescapable test of spiritual life.

Besides their circular form, another compositional element shared by all three artworks is a vertical axis, evoking an interplay between above and below. Fra Angelico shows Mary ascending from earth into heaven; Wood’s installation discloses a space (a world) illuminated from above, drawing one’s attention upwards; Caravaggio’s Narcissus looks down as his reflection gazes back up at him. Like the passage itself, these images refuse any easy dualism between a perfect, unchanging, radiant ‘above’ and an impure, changeable, shadowy ‘below’. Reflections suggests the generative power of the Father of lights, whose ‘perfect gifts’ are continually ‘coming down’, while conversely Fra Angelico depicts an ascending perfection. In Caravaggio’s painting, by contrast, we see a solipsistic self, worldless as well as godless, in a state of sterile, morbid changelessness, caught in a dark trap that eventually ‘brings forth death’ (v.15).

In his 1851 sermon on James 1:17, Kierkegaard explored the human being’s relationship to God along the vertical axis invoked by the text: ‘And now the eternal Changeless One—and this human heart!’ If you could yourselves become constant and unchanging, Kierkegaard told his listeners, ‘you would at every moment freely rest in God with the same necessity as a heavy body sinks to the earth, or with the same necessity as something that is light rises toward heaven’. Yet such constancy is too difficult, even for someone who longs for God as a thirsty traveller in the desert longs for a cool spring. And yet, Kierkegaard concluded, one paradox of God’s changelessness is that it continually, actively seeks those who long for him—just as the righteous person ‘visits’ those in need (v.27):

O God, you do not remain on the spot like a spring; you travel along. No one strays so far away that he cannot find his way back to you, you who are like a spring that even searches for the thirsting, the straying … Thus you are unchanged and everywhere to be found. (Kierkegaard 1978: 263–81)

 

References

Johnson, Luke Timothy. 2005. The Letter of James (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Kierkegaard, S. 1978 [1855]. ‘The Changelessness of God: A Discourse’, in The Moment and Late Writings, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press), pp. 263–81

Laws, Sophie. 1980. The Epistle of James (London: A. & C. Black)