“A friend of mine, who is a clinical psychologist, says that knowledge is bottom-up, right-left,” explains Makoto Fujimura. “What he means is that when we enter the world, we come to know the world through touch and sight and smell and taste, and that creates an affective way of knowing the world. These emotions trickle up into the rational. And if knowing is bottom-up, right-left, then what are we doing in our churches? What are we doing in our schools? And what are we doing at work?”
At the heart of these questions sits an epistemological idea that making things — woodwork, omelets, or fine art — forms an integral part of knowing who God is and the world he made. What Fujimura, a studio painter who blends a kind of abstract expressionism with ancient Japanese techniques, calls the “practice of knowing.” He wrote a new book about it, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (Yale 2021), and we discussed it in February.
When you talk about the practice of knowing, what are you talking about?
As an artist, I manifest my knowledge into works of art, which is material and visible. The test? If the work isn’t good, I’m not going to convince anybody that whatever I’ve made, or the thought behind it, is relevant. We do that with everything we eat and drink. If an apple pie or omelet doesn’t taste good, we don’t care what the recipe is. It’s only when it’s good that we care. In that sense, we should test knowledge through the fruit of experience.
In the book, it seems you’re opening up the definition of creativity into the broader work of creation.
Our epistemological base needs to shift theologically. When I began to think about that, I emailed [N.T. Wright], and he emails back with this long email saying, “I started a chapter on Philippians trying to argue that the hymnal in Philippians is ultimately the consummation of [Paul’s] argument.” Then he said, “When you emailed me, it struck a chord because I realized that I had it backward.” Tom writes to me that, “The gospel can only be inhabited in a congregation singing that hymn in the poetic form, that’s the only way that the gospel can come alive. ... Poetry and art are fundamentally the way that God communicates the gospel and the community’s response should be to sing, to create, to make beauty and provide mercy, and do works of justice with beautiful lives in beautiful communities.”
I was just reading about the tiny percentage of people who read poetry. I’ve been thinking about how that bears on our understanding of God — who extensively reveals himself in that form.
Well, that percentage of Americans reading has just gone up because of Amanda Gorman. Here’s a girl influenced by Hamilton — it traces back to the Brooklyn, post-9/11 community — who is able to look square at the fractures of this nation and polarization and the fears and anxieties and she says, “Oh, this is just like Hamilton.” We look at moments in history that have so many issues and tensions and brokenness, and all of a sudden she’s able to bring words and even conduct that to the nation. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
Coming out of culture wars, coming out of the rhetoric, the shallowness, an industrial base that ignores poetry, and all of a sudden, something of deep humanity bounces out. T.S. Eliot used to fill Wembley Stadium when he read poems, and now Amanda Gorman is at the Super Bowl. There’s something happening; there’s something hopeful happening despite the darkness.
“Walking on Water—Azurite” Mineral pigments on polished gesso, 82×132, 2012 www.makotofujimura.com ©MakotoFujimura