2014 Annual Kuyper Prize Lecture: Nicholas Wolterstorff on Art, Justice, and Liturgy

Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, is this year’s recipient of Princeton Theological Seminary’s annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life. As part of the prize, the recipient delivers the Kuyper Prize Lecture in the seminary’s Miller Chapel, the lecture serving as the inaugural event in a three-day conference to honor the memory of Abraham Kuyper. The conference theme this year was “Philosophy, Worship and Art.” I had the pleasure of attending Wolterstorff’s lecture Thursday evening and here offer you a brief summary of its content.


Wolterstorff’s lecture was a philosophical investigation of the affinity between art, justice, and liturgy. He opened his lecture with a brief discussion of Kuyper’s thought on these three subjects. He then drew special attention to Kuyper’s famous Stone Lectures on Calvinism, which treated “Calvinism and Art” in the fifth lecture of that series, as well as the fairly recent translation of Kuyper’s Our Worship.


Next, Wolterstorff offered an autobiographical sketch that tracked his own interest and work in the areas of art, liturgy, and justice. His interest in art began as a young man when he found his father’s old drawings and learned that it was his father’s unrealized dream to become an artist. This interest took shape early in Wolterstorff’s teaching career with his courses in the philosophy of art. It was his teaching of these courses, or so Wolterstorff supposes, that led his denomination, the Reformed Church in America, to appoint him to its liturgical revision committee in the 1960s. The theme of justice became a particular interest for Wolterstorff, one might say a calling, after he participated in a conference in South Africa in 1971, a conference in which the conversation often turned to the injustices of apartheid. It was on the plane ride home from South Africa that Wolterstorff began to experience his life as “fragmented” between his loves for philosophy, art, liturgy, and justice. This set Wolterstorff on a course to discover what synthesis or affinity might exist between them, and also set up the central problem for his Kuyper Lecture. In short, Wolterstorff set out to demonstrate how the enjoyment of art, the doing justice, and participation in liturgy each function as “modes of acknowledging goodness.”


In his treatment of art, Wolterstorff criticized the prevailing functionalist or instrumental view of art, which holds that works of art find their value in their ability to gratify the viewer’s aesthetic sensibilities. In contrast, Wolterstorff developed his understanding that works of art have intrinsic worth according to their ability to meet the standards of excellence that accord with their particular genre. Wolterstorff thus inverts the prevailing instrumental view and claims that art patrons find works of art aesthetically gratifying because they recognize the intrinsic goodness, excellence, and worth of the work they are enjoying. This means that reading poems, listening to music, and viewing paintings with “absorbed attention is a mode of acknowledging their worth.” You can read more on Wolterstorff’s view of art in his book Art in Action.


Next, Wolterstorff turned to a treatment of justice. Here, Wolterstorff rehearsed some basic claims from his book entitled, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, published in 2008. In his lecture, Wolterstorff rejected a Platonic conception of justice as “right order” and instead affirmed Ulpian’s conception of justice as rendering one his or her due, i.e. a conception of justice that views human beings as bearers of “inherent rights.” Wolterstorff then distinguished between two kinds of rights: permission rights (the right to do something) and claim rights (the right to have something done to one). As claim rights imply one’s responsibility to render certain goods to others, Wolterstorff went on to underscore the inherent sociality within his conception of rights. But what is the grounding for this conception of rights? According to Wolterstorff, one’s rights are grounded in one’s worth. While recognizing that some rights derive from one's achievements (for example, if you do well in a course, you deserve a high grade), Wolterstorff emphasized that the source of human dignity, the ground of one’s worth, is one’s status as one who bears the image of God. Thus, Wolterstorff offers a non-instrumental conception of worth, and therefore, a non-instrumental conception of justice. According to Wolterstorff, respect for another’s worth requires rendering that person his or her due. Therefore, treating others with justice, as we saw above with art, is a mode of acknowledging their intrinsic worth, their excellence, and their goodness as imago Dei.


Wolterstorff then turned to liturgy, a theme that he has pursued throughout his career, but one which he has recently developed in detail with his 2011 book entitled, Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and the World and his Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School entitled, “The God We Worship: A Liturgical Theology,” which he delivered earlier this year." Wolterstorff began this section of his lecture by noting the relationship between liturgy and justice made explicit by the Hebrew prophets (see Amos 5:21). He then distinguished between two understandings of liturgy: liturgy for the sake of pleasing or appeasing God (or for deriving some other benefits) and liturgy as an intrinsically good act. According to Wolterstorff, the Christian liturgy is non-instrumental, that is, Christians enact the liturgy to worship God, and to worship something is to respect it for its inherent worth. As a good analytical philosopher, Wolterstorff next clarified the borders between the concepts of worship, justice, and art. For example, worship and justice are not the same thing; while worship may be an instance of treating someone justly, namely God, treating someone justly does not necessarily require that one worship that individual. Next, Wolterstorff, clarified the distinctive nature of worship, which fundamentally includes a "face to face" orientation toward God. Wolterstorff here claimed that it is not enough to speak of God's excellence; that alone does not constitute worship. For Wolterstorff, worship requires a certain attitude, a certain regard for the object of worship, and he identified adoration as the requisite posture. But Wolterstorff pressed further to describe the particular character of Christian adoration. Christian adoration is awe inspired by God's glory, an awe suffused with reverence. Finally, Christian worship is characterized by gratitude, as the Christian acknowledges God's holiness, excellence, and worth in the enactment of the liturgy.


Wolterstorff ended his lecture with a brief reflection on his own vocation as a philosopher and its relation to art, justice, and liturgy as modes of acknowledging goodness. This brought Wolterstorff back to that moment of fragmentation that he had experienced on his flight home from South Africa. Wolterstorff concluded that philosophy too is a mode of acknowledging excellence, which, when rightly practiced, leads to understanding. It is Wolterstorff's hope that the understanding pursued by philosophy is a substantial good, thereby joining philosophy with art, justice, and liturgy as modes of acknowledging excellence.



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