World View #2: Deism

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In this blog series, I'm looking back through history and tracing the effects of societal world views upon art.  By way of reminder, a "world view" is a fancy term (use it this week and impress your friends!) that simply refers to the "comprehensive conception of the world and how this world works", i.e. our basic assumptions about life. I think this is interesting and helpful because understanding the mind of an artist greatly helps us interpret (and maybe even enjoy) his or her artwork, and that is the point of this blog.

So in my last blog, I talked about theism, the dominant world view in Western Civilization until about the 17th century. Around that period of time, the mindset of the average European peasant was fixed in theism and the mindset of the average European academic was fixed in skepticism.  This was the time of the Enlightenment, when the West examined theistic explanations for why things are the way they are, collectively scratching societal heads wondering "WHY do we believe all this stuff?"  So you really had two basic camps: the religiously devout and the skeptics, and in between both of them stood the deists.

The basic assumptions about life according to a deist can be summed up this way:

Deism derives the existence and nature of God from reason and personal experience (rather than from a written scripture or religious institution).

Deism reject supernatural events (prophecy, miracles). According to a deist, God exists but does not intervene with the affairs of human life and the natural laws of the universe.

Deism accepts holy books of religion as interpretations made by other humans, rather than as authoritative sources.

Deism purports that God's greatest gift to humanity is not religion, but the ability to reason.

Deism teaches that there is right and wrong, good and evil based upon the laws set up by the Creator because by those laws, society runs best.

Where theism teaches that the chief end of man is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever", deism would postulate that that would be utterly impossible, because God is viewed as basically unknowable and distant. A deist would assume that God created the world but that he/she or it is aloof – somewhere out there beyond the stars but too busy and/or to grand to notice us much here on earth.  A famous illustration of what deism teaches pictures God as a watch maker who created this grand time piece and set it ticking. Then God left his work desk and left the watch to tick by itself.  And so a deist would believe that human beings still have the dignity of being created in the image of God but this God offers no personal relationship to men. So whereas theism teaches "God is here" (present), deism teaches that God is "out there somewhere" (unknowable).

How did all this affect artistic expression? Most notably, visual art was no longer centered on religious themes, but on natural situations in everyday life. Humankind was now at the center of attention rather than the Deity. To illustrate this, compare two examples. The first is of the Madonna and Child by Giotto di Bondone.

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What is the focus of this piece of art? It very obviously was painted to exalt the deity. Compare this piece to "The Concert" by Judith Leyster, ca. 1633.

later oil painting.jpg

What is the focus of this piece? Obviously, people...human interaction with each other. Is God there? Oh, maybe off somewhere, but definitely not included in this moment from "normal" everyday life.

This shift in world view rocked all human expression. I have noted an example of this regarding visual art, but as far as music goes, one the most famous pieces ever written actually illustrates this world view shift with remarkable clarity. Beethoven's masterpiece, the "Ode to Joy" from the final movement of his Symphony #9 has to be one of the most beloved pieces of music in all Western history and perfectly illustrates the influence of deism. See if you can catch it.

"Ode to Joy" by Ludwig van Beethoven

Joy, thou source of light immortal,

Daughter of Elysium!

Touched with fire, to the portal,

To your radiant shrine, we come.

Your sweet magic frees all others,

Held in custom's rigid rings.

All men on earth become brothers,

In the haven of your wings.

Whoever succeeds in the great attempt

To be a friend of a friend,

Whoever has won a lovely woman,

Let him add his jubilation!

All creatures drink joy

At the breasts of nature;

All the good, all the evil

Follow her roses' trail.

Kisses gave she us, and wine,

A friend, proven unto death;

Be embraced, you millions!

This kiss for the whole world!

Brothers, beyond the star-canopy

Must a loving Father dwell.

Do you bow down, you millions?

Do you sense the Creator, world?

Seek Him beyond the star-canopy!

Beyond the stars must He dwell.

Do you see the shift? Whereas the piece by Bach I referenced in my last blog (Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring) had the deity as the center of attention, Beethoven has humankind at the center. Is God there? Oh, yes...somewhere "beyond the star-canopy...beyond the stars he must dwell".

So bottom line, a theist would say "God is here" and a deist would say "God is out there somewhere, but certainly not here". Theism holds out relationship with God as prime, and deism takes a big step back from that.

In my next blog, we'll progress to the next world view that hit the stage, that of "Naturalism". And by "Naturalism", please do not think of organic food and care for the earth. It's not that nice at all. But I'll save that for next time.