Everything is Breath, 2015

To live in the Spirit of wisdom is to inhabit God where one finds him.

In his work Found Theology, Ben Quash proposes a method of theological inquiry that requires a commitment to the development and transmission of theology that is found rather than made. Quash offers the modes of searching and finding as a helpful procedure for engaging scripture.”Scripture remains profoundly important here as a locus for finding and knowing God, but just as important are ‘the things of the world, and the persons and events of history’, for…God will be found and known in these things too: To live in the Spirit of wisdom is to inhabit God where one finds him – where one finds God in Scripture and where one finds him in the world and in history.” (1) Quash argues that this form of theological exegesis requires a leap of imagination and creativity that is responsive rather than initiatory, thus reflecting the presence of the Holy Spirit. Theological imagination heeds the voices of others, allowing another’s perspective to refine and stretch our own imagination.[2] It adopts a position that is dependent, responsive and reflective of the presence of the Holy Spirit, thus enabling the researcher to hold and engage with the tension of divergent thinking and experience in what Frank Rees describes as a correlative conversation.[3] This approach thereby avoids the temptation of too quickly explaining away the dissonance between our ideas about God and our lived experience, creating the time and space for new ideas to brew before coming to fruition. Thus the artist who seeks with the materials in the studio works with a spirit of participation and waits in anticipation for the expansion of new perceptions and ideas, rather than designing them from a position of authority.

Seeking

The themes that emerged from the first stage of art-making and exhibiting illuminated a broad range of interrelated human experiences, summarised by the Organising Themes of Becoming, Identity and Mystery and the Global Theme of Desire. The task that then lay before me was to make some sense from these experiences in the light of scripture and the Christian witness of faith. Where is God in the midst of all of this, and how could the presence of God in these places shed light on the research question: Is it possible to learn about healing and transformation through the practice of making, being with and seeing art?

The thematic analysis of the viewers’ responses to Untitled suggested that the exhibition had been an opportunity for different people to experience many different things. Whilst some people were ready to see grief in the artwork, others were ready to see joy. This one exhibition was able to hold all of these seemingly disparate responses and note them as seen and therefore equally valid. This apparent capacity to evoke a comprehensive range of human experiences caused me immediately to remember a widely known passage of scripture. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 offers one unit of text that acknowledges a significant variance of experience that can be expected within the course of any human life.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

Having claimed authorship of the Book of Ecclesiastes Qoheleth begins by proclaiming,

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Qoheleth begins his work by emphatically employing the Hebrew word Hebel, which has been frequently translated as vanity or meaningless. It is possible that Qoheleth may have intended this reading of Hebel as a recollection of the familiar cry found in David’s Psalms.

Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. (Psalm 39:5-6. KJV)

This translation of Hebel does render a particularly negative message. The description of people who “walketh in a vain shew” evokes the sense of a person engaging in a conceited, foolish and futile pursuit. The literal translation of Hebel is, “vapour” or “breath”. When Hebel is translated as “breath” the same passage evokes the humility required to live a temporal human existence.

You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah. Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather. (Psalm 39:5-6. NRSVA)

The translation of Hebel has a significant impact on the felt sense of the scripture, if not upon the meaning. The word is used 38 times throughout the book and so it frames the intention of the text. The associations of meaning between the words vanity and meaningless are close. Both suggest a lack of value, something worthless and trivial. By contrast, the word breath has particularly different associations. Whilst vapour might be considered to be transitory, it is a visible sign of air exhaled; the result of breath that is necessary for sustaining life. Vanity may be meaningless, but vapour speaks of breath which is essential to our existence. This was a clear point of connection with a theme that was important in my work so far. My commitment to reflexivity led me to work with the connection between these ideas and explore what the Book of Ecclesiastes might look like if Hebel is translated as ‘breath’. Breath, Breath, everything is breath’.

Finding

ecc1

Desire

Ecclesiastes 1:5-7

The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.

 

 

 

 

ecc2Desire for Recognition

Ecclesiastes 2:11

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ecc3Desire for Stability

Ecclesiastes 2:14-16

The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise? And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools?

 

 

 

 

 

 

ecc4Resistance

Ecclesiastes 3:1

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ecc6Acceptance and Belonging

Ecclesiastes 5:18

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ecc8Repetition and Recollection

Ecclesiastes 1:10

Is there a new thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ecc5Vitality in Sickness and in Health

Ecclesiastes 7:4,10.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. Don’t say “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ecc7Formed and Re-formed

Ecclesiastes 6:1-2

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind: those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honour, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enduring and Engagingecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 3:14-15

I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

 

Whilst The Book of Ecclesiastes states clearly that it is God alone who endures, Qoheleth encourages us to find ways to both endure and engage with life. The Latin word indurare, from which the English word endure is derived, means to make hard. The word is also informed by the Latin, durare, meaning to last long. There is therefore a double sense of meaning in the word endure, requiring both a quality and capacity. In producing a body of artwork that becomes an exhibition, the artist draws on their capacity to endure or last the long distance of the project to produce something that has an enduring quality, a material expression of an ephemeral experience. Enduring throughout the process of making a body of work both requires and promotes the quality and capacity that the word entails.

As these small gouache paintings gathered in the studio, it seemed that they belonged together as part of the whole and yet the whole was surely  so much more than the sum of these parts. This became evident when I decided to gather these individual works together and fix them to a larger blank canvas. The enduring capacity of the whole is something that BE attributes to God and God alone. Qoheleth acknowledges that multiple pieces of experiences cannot be pieced together to make the whole, but none the less urges a courageous engagement with the portion that is ours, in the face of contradictions (Ecclesiastes 5:19, 9:9, 11:2).This mode of being promotes our capacity not only to endure the whole as it unfolds but to engage with and participate in life’s possibilities wholeheartedly. Fiddes suggests that in this way we can know the narrative of the whole by participating in it and, in so doing, bring something into the whole ourselves.(4)

 

 

[1] Ben Quash, Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit  (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013).

(2) Jeremy Law, “Theological Imagination and Human Flourishing.” 292.

[3] Frank Rees, “Beating around in the bush: Methodological directions for Australian theology.” 285.

(4) Paul Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God. 323.