By Gregory Wolfe
When I first contacted John Dillenberger I was not quite thirty years old and he was not quite seventy. He was a former seminary president and distinguished theologian, with nearly a dozen books to his credit. I was...a guy who wanted to start a journal.
I sent off a letter to Dillenberger with a certain amount of fear and trembling. But I knew it was the right thing to do. By the late 1980s, he stood out as a pioneer in calling the religious community to reflect upon the role of art and aesthetics in the life of faith. He had written a couple important books on the subject, including A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church.
And as one of the founders of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he had established it as a center of vibrant thought on religion and the arts. The scholars he helped to gather there included his then-wife Jane Dillenberger, the late Doug Adams, and Michael Morris, O.P.
To my surprise, he wrote back, suggesting that we get together at a meeting of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture (ARC) in New York. ARC had been started in 1961 by a group of cultural and scholarly luminaries, including theologians Paul Tillich and James Luther Adams; Alfred H. Barr, Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art; Joseph Campbell, writer on myth; and Amos N. Wilder, a premier thinker about the religious dimensions of modern literature.
At the ARC meeting, the Dillenbergers heard me out patiently as I waxed enthusiastic about my hopes for Image. For obvious reasons, they treated me with a certain caution and reserve, but they made a number of valuable suggestions and agreed to put me in touch with others in this burgeoning field.
When I sent him the pilot issue of Image in 1989, he remained a little cool. That issue featured the representational artist, Steve Hawley. The Dillenbergers’ taste ran more toward abstraction. They had come to maturity in the mid-twentieth century, under the strong influence of Tillich’s existentialist theology, and saw in abstract expressionism an inherently spiritual search—which had the virtue of leaving behind the exhausted religious iconography of Western art.
While I couldn’t embrace that point of view as an exclusive vision—I believed then, as I do now, that Image should remain open to every possible style and approach—I stayed in touch with the Dillenbergers and their circle. In the second issue of Image, their colleague Doug Adams wrote an essay on the use of the body in three contemporary artists: Jasper Johns, Stephen de Staebler, and George Segal.
Thanks to Adams and the Dillenbergers the first Image conference was held in 1992 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The theme was: “Learning to Believe Again: Artists Talk about Their Faith and Their Art.”
Over time I came to learn about some of the other ways John Dillenberger had influenced the field of religion and the arts, not only through his students and his leadership in seminary education but also in collaborations with art patrons like Jane Owen, who commissioned contemporary artists from Richard Meier and Philip Johnson to Stephen de Staebler and William Schickel to create works in New Harmony, Indiana.
And though he championed modern abstract artists like Barnett Newman and Cleve Gray, in his later years Dillenberger returned to the art of the sixteenth century. In one of his last books, Images and Relics, he wrote about such artists as Matthias Grunewald, Albrecht Durer, and Michelangelo.
While thoughtful people might differ with his theology and tastes, Dillenberger was a pivotal figure in the realm that Image continues to explore. I remain deeply grateful that he answered my letter.
John Dillenberger passed away on February 7 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. May he rest in peace.