Vincent wanted to be a preacher. On a pretty Sunday in 1876, he preached his first sermon. It went well enough, but his eyes only began to sparkle as he described God’s beauty in the world. He said
I once saw a very beautiful picture: it was a landscape at evening. In the distance on the right-hand side a row of hills appeared blue in the evening mist. Above those hills the splendor of the sunset, the grey clouds with their linings of silver and gold and purple. The landscape is a plain or heath covered with grass and its yellow leaves, for it was in autumn. Through the landscape a road leads to a high mountain far, far away, on the top of that mountain is a city wherein the setting sun casts a glory. On the road walks a pilgrim, staff in hand.
Nothing much came of Vincent van Gogh’s hopes for ordination. He pursued theological studies in Amsterdam in 1877 unsuccessfully before moving to Belgium to begin a ministry without it. By the end of 1879 he had become convinced that he was a failure and decided to take a break to figure it out.
He thought painting would help him relax until God’s will for his life became clear.
St. Augustine wrote:
I asked the earth and it answered, “I am not He”; and all things that are in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered, “We are not your God; seek higher.” I asked the winds that blow, and the whole air with all that is in it answered, “Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and they answered, “Neither are we God whom you seek.” And I said to all the things that throng about the gateways of the senses: “Tell me of my God, since you are not He. Tell me something of Him.” And they cried out in a great voice: “He made us.” My question was my gazing upon them, and their answer was their beauty.
Are you looking for God’s will for your life? Well, what did He give you when you were born? What gifts? What talents? Just what is it that thrills your heart – that heart He made for you?
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
D I G D E E P E R
You can read all the biographies you want about him, but through it all van Gogh will still not have revealed himself to you. For van Gogh to reveal himself to you, you need to look at his paintings. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes: “We know the person of van Gogh, what is unique, distinct and unrepeatable in his existence, only when we see his paintings. There we meet a reason (logos) which is his only and we separate him from every other painter. When we have seen enough pictures by van Gogh and then encounter one more, then we say right away: This is van Gogh. We distinguish immediately the otherness of his personal reason, the uniqueness of his creative expression.”
The difference between the arts and the sciences now becomes clear. When I see a painting by van Gogh, I know immediately that it is his. But when I come across a mathematical theorem or scientific insight, I cannot decide who was responsible for it unless I am told. The world is God’s creation, and scientists in understanding the world are simply retracing God’s thoughts. Scientists are not creators but discoverers. True, they may formulate concepts that assist them in describing the world. But even such concepts do not bear the clear imprint of their formulators. Concepts like energy, inertia, and entropy give no clue about who formulated them. Hermann Weyl and John von Neumann were both equally qualified to formulate quantum mechanics in terms of Hilbert spaces. That von Neumann, and not Weyl, made the formulation is now an accident of history. There’s nothing in the formulation that explicitly identifies von Neumann. Contrast this with a painting by van Gogh. It cannot be confused with a Monet.
The impulse to create and thereby give oneself in self-revelation need not be grand, but can be quite humble. A homemaker arranging a floral decoration engages in a creative act. The important thing about the act of creation is that it reveal the creator. The act of creation always bears the signature of the creator. It is a sad legacy of modern technology, and especially the production line, that most of the objects we buy no longer reveal their maker. Mass production is inimical to true creation. Yes, the objects we buy carry brand names, but in fact they are largely anonymous. We can tell very little about their maker. Compare this with God’s creation of the world. Not one tree is identical with another. Not one face matches another. Indeed, a single hair on your head is unique-there was never one exactly like it, nor will there ever be another to match it.
The creation of the world by God is the most magnificent of all acts of creation. It, along with humanity’s redemption through Jesus Christ, are the two key instances of God’s self-revelation. The revelation of God in creation is typically called general revelation whereas the revelation of God in redemption is typically called special revelation. Consequently, theologians sometimes speak of two books, the Book of Nature, which is God’s self-revelation in creation, and the Book of Scripture, which is God’s self-revelation in redemption. If you want to know who God is, you need to know God through both creation and redemption. According to Scripture, the angels praise God chiefly for two things: God’s creation of the world and God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. Let us follow the angels’ example.
Global Journal of Classical Theology 1 (1999).