"Beauty will save the world," said Dostoevsky's Idiot. The search for salvation through aesthetics rather than theology began in earnest during the Romantic period. In God/Terror: Ethics and Aesthetics in Contexts of Conflict and Reconciliation, Volker Küster takes up this possibility with the bold claim that “in late modernity, theology has to perform an aesthetic turn if it wants to break out of its current isolation” (1). Küster’s aesthetic turn in theology means to “address the God question in the context of terrorism and oppression by the state, and its consequences from an aesthetic perspective” (2). However, for Küster, aesthetics means more than just beauty. Rather, he wants to know how aesthetic representations of evil can help theology grapple with terror. In doing this, Küster ties together theology and art—both attempt to interpret human life and transcendent experience—and, ultimately, ethics. While this interdisciplinary perspective is appealing, its lack of precision confuses the argument.
Küster begins part 1 by saying he will focus on depictions of 9/11 in both the Arab and Western world and the images of God that are implied by these depictions. However, he mostly alternates between describing the Western cultural memory of 9/11—specifically the “spectacle” of terror in the media (6)—and analyzing Islamic extremist theological conceptions of God that produced 9/11. He then argues that the connection between aesthetics and ethics cannot be ignored because an image of 9/11 is an aesthetic representation and a “symbol of evil” (13). Through introducing ethics, the argument switches to theological reflection, asking “what images of God guide the opponents and how can we counteract them theologically?” (24). Here there is some ambiguity in the way the term “images” is used (one of the central ambiguities in the book). At times, and previously in this section, the word means material and artistic representations.
However, in this instance and others, it is used to describe theological concepts that produce abstract images of God. For example, the “image” of God as patriarchal; this is not a literal image of God, but rather a common understanding of God as male. Küster takes this use of “image” to discuss liberation theology as a response to suffering and as a critique of oppressive image-conceptions of God. The conclusion: remembering narratives of God as just and an embodied participant in suffering helps us understand and respond to evil.
Part 2 begins with South African writer Adam Small's premise that “only literature can perform the miracle of reconciliation” (31). The author modifies this to “art can anticipate the miracle of reconciliation and serve as a catalyst in societal transformation processes” (31). For example, there is an exhibition in Germany (Made in Germany at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover ) where actors handed cards to visitors asking, “have you come here for forgiveness?” (31). The exhibition both implicates modern-day German citizens in the atrocities of WWII while presenting itself as a space for reconciliation. Reconciliation, in the Christian tradition specifically, is a theologically loaded term, prompting the author to ask: “to what extent can secular art be interpreted theologically?” and “how far can theological language elucidate secular circumstances?” (32). Most of the rest of the chapter describes historical details of atrocities and some art and literature that come out of personal experiences of the atrocity. However, for much of the analysis, Küster does not use his aesthetic-ethical categories, but rather references the work of contemporary theologians.
Part 2 ends by reflecting on the religious themes of guilt and reconciliation that arise in response to images of terror. Küster references some South African artworks that foster reconciliation by depicting the victims of apartheid in the manner of martyrs in religious iconography. This art plays the ethical role of transforming evil from a source of suffering to a site for reconciliation. From these examples, Küster again turns to liberation theology as the ethical response to suffering that is prompted by art.
By the conclusion of the book, it appears that the “aesthetic turn” entails finding theology in secular art in order to understand atrocity. Artists and theologians can and should talk to each other since they both discuss “generative themes of human life” (2) and create “interpretive spaces” (86). The theology that Küster finds elucidated by art is liberation theology which emphasizes the presence of God in suffering and the biblical mandate to overcome oppression. In his final paragraph, Küster states: “theological/religious language can serve to illuminate secular circumstances; at the same time, in the secular language of art, theological content might emerge” (86).
In the end, the ambiguity of key terms in the book compromises the powerful potential of an “aesthetic turn” in theology. The argument appears to begin with art in order to rethink theology but ends up doing theology while using pieces of art as examples. Theology in itself has not "turned" and the theological conclusions would have been the same if no art was referenced. Art is being used as a steppingstone to theological reflection and the question remains: what would an aesthetic turn in theology actually be? If theology is “isolated,” can art fundamentally change what theology is rather than act as an unnecessary supplement? Liberation theology doesn’t need art, so why an aesthetic turn at all?
Despite these remaining questions, God/Terror still serves as a valuable depiction of the importance of art for responding to suffering. Küster is at his best in a sentence embedded near the end: “The strenuous reconstruction of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics is not about an aestheticization of suffering in the sense of its glorification but about its disclosure, its treatment and the preservation of memory” (73). The author reminds us of the importance of articulating and sharing suffering in the way that only art can. The clearest and most beautiful example of this, in Küster’s references, is a series of woodcuts by Hong-Song Dam. In an 8-piece series The Twenty Days in Water (1999), Dam transforms himself in relation to his memories of water-boarding torture by representing himself as a fish, a symbol of resistance in that a fish is still in water, but it can breathe. As Küster shows through Dam, art is often necessary for speaking the unspeakable, a task that theology regularly attempts but often fails to do. Perhaps this is the “aesthetic turn”— but if theology is still speaking in the same language, has it really turned?
Sarah Denne is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Virginia.
Date Of Review:
October 17, 2022
Volker Küster, Rev. Prof. Dr., born 1962, studied theology in Heidelberg and Seoul / South Korea (1982-1990); 1990-1997 lecturer at the Theological Faculty, University of Heidelberg, 1994 Dissertation, 1998 Habilitation, ordained as minister 1999; research fellow Theological University Kampen 1999-2001 and researcher IIMO, University of Utrecht 2001-2002; 2002-2012 Professor of Cross-cultural Theology, Protestant Theological University, Kampen, The Netherlands; since Oct. 2012, Professor of Comparative Religion and Missiology, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.
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