Icon (Close Menu)

The Arts Transcend Reductionism

Review by Ben Lima

In the modern world, reductionism, the drive toward claiming that something is nothing but what is expressed by this or that simplified concept or model, is a powerful and prestigious way of thinking, owing to its association with the success of the physical sciences. If reductionism seems plausible and credible, this poses a formidable challenge to orthodox Christianity. Jeremy Begbie’s newest book strikes a forceful blow against this challenge. Abundantly More both explores reductionism on its own terms, showing its logic and limitations, and shows how the arts in particular offer resources for a better alternative.

Right away, Begbie offers a helpful analysis and critique of the elements of reductionism. He identifies its four principal components as ontological singularity (the idea that there is really just one kind of being, such as subatomic particles), exclusionary simplicity (Occam’s razor), one ideal discourse (detached, literal, declarative), and a drive toward control and mastery. He shows that reductionist explanations are often incoherent and unsatisfying on their own terms, and observes that all of these represent ways for an observer to contain or limit an object of study, rather than acknowledge its full richness.

Throughout, Begbie draws strong contrasts between the poverty of reductionism and the abundance of God. In a synthetic and wide-ranging chapter on “God’s Uncontainable Pressure,” Begbie concludes that the best response to God’s “blessing in abundance” and “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:8, 15) is not apophatic silence, but praise, or what Augustine, in interpreting Psalm 33, calls “loud shouts” of jubilation. The next chapter, “God’s Own ‘Ex-pressure,’” draws out a theology of the Trinity that offers us “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

In two brief but compelling chapters, Begbie shows how Jesus’ encounters with the man blind from birth (John 9) and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) resonate with the themes he develops throughout the rest of the book. As the light that enlightens the world, and as living water that gives life, Jesus in John’s gospel offers an irreducible abundance to those who will receive it. Begbie cites numerous other scriptural passages only in passing, but a reader is immediately inspired to imagine how they might be interpreted along the lines given here.

Along with the central theological argument, Begbie masterfully weaves together two other strands of thought. One draws on critiques of reductionism from scientists and philosophers, and the other builds on accounts of how artistic practice has a distinct cognitive value (art as a means of understanding the world more deeply). With a wonderful combination of clarity and rigor, this threefold combination is more than the sum of its parts: readers familiar with only one of these fields will find themselves well-grounded in the other two, and ready to go further.

Begbie’s most distinctive contribution, here and in his other books, is to show how the arts help to resist reductionism, especially by means of “defamiliarization,” that is, showing what is strange and wonderful about familiar things (or, in the words of Coleridge, giving “the charm of novelty to things of every day”).

While a reductionist might see art as a pleasant diversion that momentarily distracts its participants from the emptiness of the world (i.e., temporarily taking them out of reality), Begbie carefully shows how attending to art actually brings one further into reality. The better that, with Begbie’s help, one can see what is real and valuable about art, the better one can resist reductionism.

To mention only two of the many suggestive ideas in the book: Begbie argues that language is not a purely transparent “window,” as a reductionist would insist it must be, nor is it a hopelessly opaque “screen,” as a postmodernist might say. Rather, language and thought are irreducibly metaphorical. When Jesus calls Herod “that fox” or Churchill refers to an “iron curtain,” that language reveals something real and true about its object that could not be said in some other way.

Or again, it is the nature of music to provide a uniquely powerful connection between one’s spirit, one’s body, and the people and things that surround us (the vibrations produced by one’s fellow singers, by the violin’s wood, or by the crash of metal cymbals). A funeral march, with its slow pace, limited range, and minor key, expresses just what it is to be walking toward a gravesite, filled with grief, and mourning the death of a loved one — nothing else could do that in the same way. Numerous individual artists, from Bach and Caravaggio to today, are insightfully brought into the discussion as well.

Those readers who already love art, as well as those readers who might consider it trivial, distracting, or illusionary, will already know that art can be absorbing and emotionally powerful in a subjective sense. Abundantly More will benefit both audiences, with its strong argument that since art has objective, as well as subjective, value, it is neither a superfluous luxury nor a guilty pleasure, but instead a pointer to the goodness of creation.

Dr. Ben Lima is an art historian and critic, and a parishioner at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

GSFA Meets with Coptic Pope, Elects New Leaders

Delegates also visited a historical museum, library, and baptistry on the grounds of the papal compound.

GSFA Discusses Wartime Suffering, Sexuality

Delegates to the First Assembly of the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA) heard from the Episcopal Church...

People & Places, June 14

Appointments across the Episcopal Church

Title IV Charges Revealed as PB Election Nears

The church released information about disciplinary complaints involving three of the five candidates