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Janusz Królikowski

Kraków, The Pontifical University of John Paul II


The article proposes a general reflection on religious experience whose aim is to show that the latter is open to art; its other objective is to define what precisely expresses its specificity. Issues relating to sensual experience, the integrality of the religious experience, the meditative function of image in the Christian religious experience have been analyzed. The text also raises the issue of the difference in the experience of man and woman as regards the sphere of religion and art which is associated with it.

Keywords: religious experience, art, Christianity


Today, religious experience is studied within a number of different academic disciplines. Discoveries made within phenomenology and the natural sciences have turned it into something of a raison d’être for any discipline that claims to concern itself with religion. Judging by the profusion of publications on the subject, it may well be the very litmus test for true commitment to religious questions. This is also because the experiential perspective reflects the great importance of religion in human life and justifies the need for scholars to address the religious experience in a systematic fashion. However, as one delves into the available scholarship on religious experience, one is in for a surprise; the issue is hardly ever, if at all, discussed from a male, or female, perspective.[1] Even the influence of phenomenology, which first grasped the importance of a gendered approach and defined its limits, did nothing to increase its actual presence in the practice of research. The issue comes up at times but it is usually mentioned as a suggestion rather than a concrete solution. Researchers tend to forget that religion does not address humanity in the abstract; all it knows is an individual human being who exists as this or that particular man or woman. Sexual difference is crucially important whenever human personality is involved – and what touches human personality deeper than religious experience? Some currents of feminism have been attempting to draw attention to the issue; their ideas, however, often come across as little more than ideology, if not pure gibberish, completely out of touch with objective reality. The same can be said of the various monographs inspired by the ideology of gender studies; with a lack of critical insight, not to say with utter naiveté, the authors follow the prevalent fad and in vain struggle to say anything of importance.

In his meditations on the essence of Christianity, Ludwig Feuerbach makes several noteworthy observations concerning the importance of distinguishing between the male and the female perspective in discussions of religious experience. For instance, he writes: “The body alone is that negativating, limiting, concentrating, circumscribing force, without which no personality is conceivable. Take away from thy personality its body, and thou takest away that which holds it together. The body is the basis, the subject of personality. Only by the body is a real personality distinguished from the imaginary one of a spectre…But a body does not exist without flesh and blood. Flesh and blood are life, and life alone is corporeal reality. But flesh and blood is nothing without the oxygen of sexual distinction. The distinction of sex is not superficial, or limited to certain parts of the body; it is an essential one: it penetrates bones and marrow. The substance of man, is manhood; that of woman, womanhood. However spiritual and super-sensual the man may be, he remains always a man; and it is the same with the woman. Hence personality is nothing without distinction of sex; personality is essentially distinguished into masculine and feminine”.[2]


Our situation, as outlined above, demands that we ask questions about the female religious experience; we need to arrive at an answer that could serve as a point of reference for future explorations. The difficulty in giving such an answer is self-evident – as Karl Rahner famously pointed out, any discourse about women, especially male discourse, always runs the risk of sliding into mere poetry. The complexity of the challenge increases still further the moment we attempt to bring art into the equation.[3] As of now, there is no coherent theoretical proposal available that would instruct us how to combine art and religious experience within a single framework. This, however, might be the least of our problems. More importantly, the subject of woman as a theme in art has already been partially addressed; that of woman as a recipient of art, especially religious, let alone that of woman as an artist, is yet to receive comprehensive treatment. I am fully aware of the complexity of the task. It is not my intention to avoid it altogether, but the current reflections are to be thought of as only preliminary in nature. I am writing from a Catholic perspective. My aim is not to suggest a possible solution; rather, it is to demonstrate that there are good grounds for considering the issue within the framework of philosophy, aesthetics, and theology.

Sensory experience

Christian anthropology treats man as a being whose experiences are a posteriori, historical, and sensory in character. This also holds true for that dimension of existence in which his relationship with God is shaped and manifested. Until recently, philosophical anthropology attempted to posit an autonomous source of religious knowledge, independent of man’s sensory and historical experience. It was argued that no other source could underlie religion as a relationship to an absolute and personal God. Christian anthropology today usually sees the human cognitive capacity as encompassing two separate moments: sensory experience, which starts from the sensory and the material; and the conceptual and spiritual faculty, transcendentally attuned to being in its generality. Against various ontologisms and the prying apart of the religious experience from other aspects of human cognitive activity, traditional Christian anthropology always argued that sensory experience and spiritual revelation in human beings are inseparable, i.e. spiritual knowledge also finds its primary source and content in the senses. In his metaphysics of knowledge, for instance, St Thomas Aquinas clearly emphasizes that even the most spiritual and sublime concepts can exist in the human mind only when grounded in conversio ad phantasma. This also holds true for religious experience, which is supported and shaped by sensory and historical experience.[4]

I assume, accordingly, that all religious experience is rooted in sensory experience and can only occur on the basis of sensory intuition, even though God infinitely transcends all things sensory and available to visual contemplation. Religious language, to be sure, contains concepts, representations, and images of a very vivid nature. More often than not, it also resorts to abstraction, or pure conceptuality. In the end, however, the religious domain consists of nothing but concepts and words, which, in general, are intelligible only insofar as they include a moment of visual contemplation or intuition. The sensory element is present in every religious act that involves consciousness or is a conscious event pure and simple. The more vivid an experience, the more manifest its sensory aspect. This is particularly emphasized in Catholic piety. At its centre lies the act of proclaiming the Word; the conceptual element, however, is always supported by accompanying representation, which enters consciousness through sensory experience and remains present in the concept throughout, even if the latter seems completely unrepresentable and abstract. This particular form of piety also traditionally employs a variety of sacramental signs, specific body postures during prayer, song, and pilgrimage…as well as thousands of symbols through which man’s sensory corporeality is incorporated into the religious event and shapes his piety.

Inarguably, there will always remain a certain tension between the material aspect of the religious act and its transcendental reference to the ineffable God, who has never yet been seen (J 1:18). A doctrine (by no means universally accepted) exists, which posits that one can ascend to God through pure contemplation and argues for the rejection of all representations and images, the abandonment of the object, for the sake of an unmediated immersion in the incomprehensibility of God; it insists that one day we will be able to contemplate God directly, without the mediation of concepts and earthly representations. The Church, however, continues to place a strong emphasis on the incarnation of the Word, the timeless value of its life on earth, and the bodily resurrection of Christ. It promotes a form of religiosity which aims to perfect man as a whole; it calls for perfection which man continues to pursue, even when profoundly transformed, in all the manifold dimensions of his singular reality. Non single human dimension can be excluded from the process. The Church holds that man brings all of his reality into his glorious perfection, including his body, sensations, and earthly history. It flatly rejects the Enlightenment idea according to which man’s “immortal soul” can enter the kingdom of ultimate perfection even during his lifetime, without the need for radical transformation, and which dismisses the body as nothing but a purely provisional instrument.

Keeping in mind what was said before, it is now necessary to turn our attention to the issue of corporeality or, to be more precise, of sensory experience, a very complex reality which, despite the underlying unity of the human subject, is expressed in diverse human capacities. It is only once we have properly understood the issue of corporeality that we can adequately grasp the importance of the image in the religious domain. What does it mean, precisely, to state the multiplicity of sensory experiences as basically unmeasurable events? The question can be answered very simply. Everyone has the experience of their five basic senses. The multiplicity of the senses accounts for the multiplicity of sensory experience. We hear, we see, we touch, we smell, we taste, we feel pain and tranquility. Under no circumstances are we able to eliminate the multiplicity of sensory experience; in our subjective life, we cannot reduce one sensory experience lived in time and space to another. We can, it is true, bring them all under the common heading of sensuality as an a posteriori capacity of experience situated in time and space. At the abstract and conceptual level, it is even conceivable that even more types of experiential faculties could exist.

This does not challenge the fact that there exists a multiplicity of mutually irreducible sensations. Seeing and hearing are not the same thing. Through the ability to create abstract concepts, human beings can, indeed, use words and concepts to describe seeing and hearing in their difference as well as their abstract similarity. He who has never been able to see, however, will learn nothing about seeing from a description; a person blind from birth will not understand what vision is from a mere verbal explanation. The same holds true for other senses. Sensory experiences are, and remain, irreducible to one another despite the unity of the subject; they are irreducible also when the spiritual subject undertakes the task of reflection. By accepting the irreducible nature of sensory experience, we do not intend to question the unity of the experiencing subject, in which they come into contact and combine to form a complex whole; nor do we argue that each of these faculties and dimensions of experience is of equal value and importance from the perspective of human existence.

When we argue the multiplicity of irreducible sensory faculties and experiences, however, we do mean to say that whenever man considers himself (to the extent possible) as a whole, all his sensory faculties are actualized simultaneously. In other words, in his ultimate perfection, man should come to resemble a complete work of art; all the skills placed at his disposal must ultimately come together and become manifest. This might come off as a radical vision; it is not inconceivable after all, that man could equally well find fulfilment in the partial expression of his sensory nature through experiences which follow one after another in a chronological sequence. In any case, each individual sensory faculty has a special significance of its own and cannot be replaced by any other. We are and must remain human; our very nature demands that the mutually irreducible dimensions of our sensory self become manifest.

The integral nature of religious experience

These reflections on human sensory experience also apply to man as a religious being. With regard to religious experience, the Church has traditionally accorded special importance to the word and to the sense of hearing. Martin Luther once aptly noted that the ear is the Christian organ par excellence; in doing so, he echoed the words of St Paul, whose Epistle to the Romans contains the essentially Christian dictum: “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17).  However, if man exists in full only insofar he actualizes all his manifold sensory faculties harmoniously, it follows that his faith can also achieve full and perfect expression only when it penetrates through all the gates of perception, not just through the ears. It is a mistake to believe that the reality of God can only be revealed to man in its fullness and completeness in one way, that of hearing. This is not to say that all gates are wide open and equally important for God’s self-revelation to man; we do not intend to take issue with the idea of St Paul, and, consequently, that of Luther and the whole of Christian tradition, which holds that God reveals and confers himself supernaturally through the word and the audible message. However, as long the language of Christianity contains references to the “eyes of faith”[5], as long as the eternal word is thought of not just as the self-expression of God the Father but also as his eternal and perfect image, and last but not least, as long as eternal beatitude is described as the contemplation of the Holy Trinity “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and not as listening, we can hardly reject the idea that seeing cannot be replaced by any other form of sensory experience and thus forms an integral part of the sensory aspect of religious experience as well. The issue is, of course, more complex than this, but even without going into details, the above statement can be adopted as a firm basis for further deliberation.

In fact, the Church has always accorded a great deal of importance to the image. Its tradition, within which religious images have always been produced, approved, and worshipped, squarely sets the Catholic rite apart from the religiosity of the Old Testament with its prohibition against graven images, as well as from Islam. Throughout centuries, the rejection of religious images in the latter two religions, at least as a matter of principle, has continued to fuel recurring opposition to religious representation in the fold of the Church itself. It is common knowledge that iconoclastic controversies have continued to arise ever since the 8th century. Closely examined, the official defence of images differs as a function of mentality and relies on various arguments. In the East, the dignity of images is typically justified in mystical terms, based on a proposed continuity of incarnation between the image and its object. In the West, the debate tends to gravitate towards rationalism; the main argument holds that the word and the image are complementary in their role as forms of expression. The two interpretative tendencies derive from actual Church practice and draw on theoretical solutions suggested over the ages by philosophers such as John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, or Robert Bellermin in order to justify the veneration of images.[6] There is no need to discuss the phenomenon in greater detail; at this juncture, our purpose is only to offer general observations about the religious image, without going into detailed distinctions such as the cultic image, religious image, sacred image, etc.

What was said before allows us to conclude that the religious image and the act of its reception have a religious significance that cannot be supplanted by the word. The religious image is more than a teaching aid (in the popular sense of biblia pauperum), more than a dispensable illustration of religious reality that can be fully imparted through the verbal medium alone. While the word must be accorded a basic and ineradicable role within historical and social religion, it is also imperative that the image is not seen as a mere illustration, but as an autonomous event of religious significance in its own right. The nature of its significance, of course, is open to discussion and interpretation; an image can be explained in words. Discourse, however, can never take the place of seeing, especially when considered as a religious event. That theology hardly ever, if at all, discusses the irreplaceable and autonomous importance of religious seeing does nothing to undermine our position. Theology never discusses religious dance either. Sacramental theology quickly deals with the issue of the sacrament’s matter and hastens to focus on its form, that is, the sacramental word; it thus sees the material aspect (ablution, anointing, the placing of the hands, etc.) as a question of more or less arbitrary rites which could just as well be replaced with others. We are still a long way from applying, both in theology and in our personal experience, the somewhat prophetic statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1153): “The liturgical actions signify what the Word of God expresses”. This statement, after all, refers not only to sacraments but to all the external expressions of the life of the Church.

The mediating role of the image

When we now ask ourselves how visual contemplation and its irreplaceable role within the religious act should be properly understood, it first bears repeating that since what is at stake here is the most basic and irreplaceable moment of the act, it can only be fully grasped in practice, not in discussion. If our argument is correct, the emphasis on the contemplation of images and its teaching to the faithful merits particular respect and attention. It is only in the light of this basic truth, for instance, that we can understand the method of St Ignatius of Loyola, as expounded in the Spiritual Exercises, which involves the “use of the senses” not only as the point of departure, but also as the crowning point of meditation.[7]

How, then, can we more accurately describe the role of seeing, relative to that of hearing, as an irreplaceable moment of the religious act? No particular difficulty is involved if a religious image depicts scenes from the history of salvation that are perceivable by the senses; the images simply transmit the sensory experience of an actual historical event. The problem only arises when we ask about the manner in which the historical experience of contemplation, verified through the historical event of salvation, acquires its theological significance. The question is not easy to answer.  It can, however, be argued that since human experiences can be conveyed through vision, as well as through hearing, the same should hold for the historical events of salvation. The events should be viewed in an image that would give them visual form for the benefit of those who were not there to witness them directly.

The discussion thus far, however, has not yet captured the specific nature of the image and its contemplation as a genuine religious phenomenon. Religious reality is religious insofar that it mediates in creating an immediate relation to God. When it comes to the living God, the mediating role of reality, which is completely of this world, can only be understood in connection with grace; at the same time, it is inconsequential whether grace is actually reflectively perceived as such.

Importantly, insofar as the religious image is said to exist, it should play a mediating function with respect to God, and not merely relate to the word. This statement is already implicit in our basic argument, which holds that all our sensory faculties can serve as a basis and element of the religious act. That it is so, however, is on the whole more readily and directly acknowledged with respect to the word than the image. The word, with its inherent moment of negation, seems to allow us to pass over the finite object and ascend directly to God. In contrast, at least at first glance, vision seems to stop at the limited object of direct contemplation and thus prevent reaching out in the direction of God. This misconception, however, should be firmly dismissed. Any objective experience of a definite and limited object already rests on an a priori apprehension by the sensory faculty of an object as a whole; it is not merely directed at a particular individual object grasped through the senses. While the sensory faculty and the mind are distinct from the limited and limitless nature of their object, different from their a priori anticipation, every sensory act already contains a certain experience of its own transcendence. When we hear a sound, for instance, it is always accompanied by a certain sensation of silence, which envelops it and constitutes the space in which the individual sound can be heard to begin with.

A similar experience of transcendence, no matter how limited, is necessarily present also in the act of seeing. Looking at an object, our gaze reaches beyond it to embrace the broad field of the visible. We see a specific object but in doing so we always experience the unseen fullness of the visible. We can grasp the particularity of the object immediately perceived and experience its boundaries only as our gaze extends over and beyond them to the broad field of the invisible and the unseen. It follows that in seeing, as in hearing, we also find a certain sensory experience of transcendence. Transcending oneself advances the subject on the path from sensory experience to God.

Let us, for now, put aside a number of questions such as whether an image with no explicitly religious content can also serve as the vehicle of religious experience (I believe it can). It is still correct to say that people in general, and Christians in particular, need images that are objectively religious. For this reason, the expression of Christian religiosity cannot do without the image of the cross and similar themes and limit itself exclusively to abstract art. This applies in particular to the community of the Church, which is constituted in the confession of faith through the universally intelligible word; the Church cannot simply discard images that explicitly comment on the history of salvation, the subject of its faith, and can be readily understood by the entire congregation. However, it would be likewise mistaken to claim that images with no explicit religious content are unable to evoke a religious experience.

By recognizing the autonomous, irreplaceable religious significance of the image, we do not seek to deny that it also needs to be accompanied by verbal explanation. An explanation helps believers recognize the image as properly Christian; it allows the symbol to fulfil its social and ecclesiastical role as the image of the Christian community. There is no visual reality that could be grasped in its Christian meaning by contemplation alone. It is simply not possible to identify the man on the cross as our Lord and Saviour by just looking, even if the religious meaning of Crucifixion is not exhausted in its verbal explication. The image requires a verbal commentary to be seen as Christian by the community of the faithful. In this sense, the word and the image are mutually complementary and together constitute the basis for religious experience.


To sum up, our preliminary analysis of human cognitive faculties in relation to art, as well as their impact on religious experience, has led us to formulate a few general but critical conclusions. Since religious experience is closely linked to human cognition and experience, both of which are shaped by art, it is reasonable to inquire into the positive role of art in religion in an open and systematic manner. Cognition and experience, in turn, are rooted in the personality of a particular human being; hence, the issue of personality also demands in-depth reflective treatment if its influence on the discovery and formation of the individual religious experience is to be properly determined. The personalities of men and women are arguably different and acquire knowledge in different ways; religious experiences, therefore, must also be conditioned by sexual difference. There is no reason to doubt that religious experience in general, and religious experience through art in particular, are also distinct and differ in their forms of expression. This distinctness and specificity, however, both require further study.


Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1] Cf. S. Głaz, Doświadczenie religijne, Kraków 1998; R. Scruton, Beauty, New York 2009.

[2] L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, transl. Martin Evans, London 1854, p. 90.

[3] By “art”, I primarily mean the visual arts.

[4] For more on the subject, see Thomas Aquinas, Intellect, in: Disputed Questions on Truth.

[5] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 5.

[6] Cf. P. Krasny, Visibilia signa ad pietatem excitantes. Teoria sztuki sakralnej w pismach Roberta Bellermina, Cezarego Baroniusza, Rudolfa Hospiniana, Fryderyka Boromeusza i innych pisarzy kościelnych epoki nowożytnej, Kraków 2010.

[7] Cf. I. Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, transl. M. Bednarz, Kraków 1991, p. 60 (no. 121).

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