Menu

Essay

…when you first begin to undertake [contemplation], all that you find is a darkness, a sort of cloud of unknowing…. This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.

The Cloud of Unknowing

I READ SOMEWHERE that the average life expectancy for a literary journal is three years. Whether that has any basis in statistical fact or not, I don’t know, but it sounds right. This is a risky business, especially in an age when technology and media—which by their very nature tend to favor the ephemeral—are changing so rapidly. In a recent article on the success of the London Review of Books the author writes: “Is it sustainable, I ask the LRB’s publisher, Nicholas Spice? He looks vaguely shocked at the suggestion.”

Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary thus feels like a miracle, though I know it has been sustained by the tangible support of the community that has grown up around it. The staff find ourselves awash in gratitude and wonder that we’ve arrived at this moment.

Of course occasions like this lend themselves to various temptations, including self-congratulatory nostalgia. In planning this issue we began where you’d expect: drafting prompts to long-time contributors asking them to consider Image’s impact over a quarter-century and how the culture has changed in that time. That approach can still be found in these pages, in a symposium of writers and artists who have accompanied us through most of our history.

But it occurred to us that a look backward might not be the most vibrant way to celebrate a publication we hope will be around for at least another twenty-five years. Looking at material we had recently accepted for publication, we realized that much of it was by a younger generation. And so, with very little active solicitation needed to complete the issue, we’re delighted to say that with the exception of that one section, nearly all the content in this edition of Image is by writers and artists under the age of thirty-five.

We also charged a group of young writers to tell us whether Image still has a purpose and what they need this journal to be. Their responses—and the quality of the creative work by the other contributors to this issue—bear out what we’ve contended from the beginning: that the making of art informed by religious faith is not a thing of the past but is an irrepressible human need.

Image was founded, in part, as a response to both secular intellectuals and pious believers who held that great art engaging the ancient western faith traditions was no longer possible in our time. Readers of this issue can judge for themselves whether these young artists are merely imitative of an older generation—or have absorbed the tradition and pressed on to find their own voices and visions.

Our gaze may be on the road ahead, but I can’t resist a few reflections on how we arrived at this point.

One benefit of perspective is that it’s easier now to see that whatever we’ve achieved came about because we managed to balance a few firm principles against the need for intuition and experimentation. As I think of it now, we let ourselves stumble into what the medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing.”

Those principles involved aesthetics and an approach to cultural engagement—both shaped by literary criticism and theology pioneered in the twentieth century by T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and Jacques Maritain. Some of those ideas are now commonplaces—for example, that a writer seeking to embody religious experience must avoid didacticism—but the working-out of those aesthetics constituted something of a pilgrimage of mind and heart for the founding generation of Image editors and contributors.

We also felt the need to focus exclusively on contemporary art and literature. Many people—especially in religious communities—had become alienated from modernity, and we believed Image needed to call our audience to live in the present moment rather than pining for a golden past. Given the tenor of some recent debates about the state of religious literature, it would appear that this decision retains its urgency. We may not be able to resolve those debates, but Image can at least present work that demands a hearing.

Two other choices were fundamental and interconnected: requiring that the material we published was world-class, and resolutely seeking a place on the cultural public square. Too often religious believers have been tempted to huddle in the safety of a subculture where faith substitutes for the hard work of mastering craft and devolves into unsatisfying platitudes. When Wordsworth said that literature should reflect “the language really spoken by men,” he was enunciating both a literary and a theological principle.

A final conviction was that Image should give primacy to the creative voice, that the journal should be a venue for art itself rather than criticism or argument. We live in a time when theories and ideologies have become more extreme and contentious as they drift further into the realm of abstractions—in other words, as they have left behind the messy ambiguities of life as it is lived. Without denigrating the necessary work of politics or intellectual reflection, Image nonetheless saw the need for public discourse to be balanced and enriched by the imagination.

A couple of decades before books by James Davison Hunter and Andy Crouch argued that real cultural change comes not from fighting culture wars but from the production and dissemination of rich, compelling cultural artifacts, Image had made this vision its raison d’être.

After establishing those ground rules, we decided to see what might emerge out of that cloud of unknowing. Over the years, some have wished that we would espouse a particular theological or political or aesthetic line, but we’ve deliberately avoided doing this. That Image should be ecumenical and interfaith were important early commitments. Given the number of arts journals centered on eastern religions, and aware of our own interests and limitations, we decided that our emphasis would be the western traditions. The hard truth is that in the early years this meant predominantly Judaism and Christianity. Then 9/11 happened, and we knew that we had to change. Artists and writers from the Islamic world remain too few in our pages, something we are striving to change.

Equally important was the sense that Image should welcome both those who felt at home with creeds and communions and those who felt themselves on the margins of religion. After all, there is a long tradition in the West of anguished and angry questioning of God. With the exception of a few themed issues and symposia, we have been content to allow the material in Image to come together randomly into what I can only call a beautiful mess. The hope has been that the reader cannot only experience the poems, stories, and artworks individually, but can also sense resonances and conversations taking place among them. Perhaps that’s why the word “mystery” has come to mean so much to us. In the early Christian church, a mysterion was a sacrament, which consisted of something ordinary that had been changed—shaped into an artifact by God and by man—and which enabled the grace of God to be sensed, as through a glass darkly. As the philosopher Gabriel Marcel once said: “A mystery is a problem which encroaches on its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem.”

This is not to extol the imagination as a form of irrationality. The editorial in the first issue of Image, “Intruding upon the Timeless,” had an epigraph from Flannery O’Connor which says, in part:

Saint Thomas called art “reason in making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art.

In recent years, O’Connor has been echoed powerfully by Marilynne Robinson, who has reminded us that, certain New Atheists and their popularizers to the contrary, religion draws on both reason and imagination to help us make sense of our lives. The more thoughtful among us, even among the resolutely secular, are aware that the attempt to force science to take the place of both philosophy and theology is a doomed and counterproductive effort.

At the same time, it would be naïve to pretend that religion isn’t a constant source of violence and division in our world. If religions can harden and become abstract and inhuman, then art can and should play a role in renewing and humanizing them by subjecting those abstractions to the mystery of life as it is lived. As we wrote in the first issue of Image twenty-five years ago:

Religion and art also need each other…. When we lack the kind of attention which only the imagination can provide, we make it more difficult to live the life of faith. And art, when it sees no creation to celebrate, and no soul in need of saving, loses its respect for truth.

Perhaps that was the most important insight that emerged from the cloud of unknowing we entered: that art and faith provide powerful analogies to each other. Poetry may not be prayer, nor vice versa, but could each benefit from being a little more like the other? What if our prayers were more poetic, more attentive to the lyric moments in experience? What if our poems were less virtuosic displays of ego and more like offerings to the mystery that envelops and transcends us?

We hope that Image has and will continue to foster the asking of such questions. We pledge to pursue this task—this attempt to live honestly in the cloud of unknowing—with as much integrity and passion as we can muster. We continue to embrace in the twenty-first century the words we published in our first issue:

A culture is governed by its reigning myths. In the latter days of the twentieth century, there is an increasing sense that materialism, whether of the Left or Right, cannot sustain or nourish our common life. Religion and art share the capacity to help us to renew our awareness of the ultimate questions: who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. In their highest forms religion and art unite faith and reason, grace and nature; they preserve us from the twin errors of superstition and rationalist abstraction. Religion and art are, in the end, prophetic, reminding us both of the glory of man and the fragility of human institutions.

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest