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Epiphany and Empiricism

A theological perspective on aesthetic cognitivism.

Source: Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
San Damiano Crucifix (replica) in Cathedral of St. Francis, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Source: Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

We continue this series of comments on aesthetic cognitivism with reflections by the theologian Natalie Carnes, author of Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia. Aesthetic cognitivism refers to the philosophical claim that aesthetic engagement advances knowledge and enhances understanding. Is this claim true? How would we know?

By Natalie Carnes

World-weary in her old age, theology eyes her mercurial younger sisters of the scientific disciplines distrustfully. Their hypotheses, theories, and conclusions—they are known to change in a matter of years, even months. For a discipline like theology committed to centuries-old claims, entering into conversation with rapidly evolving empirical approaches to aesthetic cognitivism can feel fraught.

And yet theology shares with aesthetic cognitivism its central conviction: that art has cognitive value. It is affirmed again and again in the history of Christianity. When Saint Francis first receives his vocation to rebuild Christ’s church, for example, it is from the lips of an image of the crucified Christ, who literally speaks to Francis, “Go, repair my church,” it says. “As you can see, it is in ruins.” In this encounter with the San Damiano crucifix, Francis is changed. According to an early story of his life, he is “amazed,” “deranged,” “affected,” “melted,” and from then on, his heart bore the stigmata of Christ. Francis obeys the painted image, rebuilding first the structure of San Damiano and then the church universal.

The image at San Damiano both moves and teaches Francis, two different capacities of art that become central to Christian justifications for images. Images incite tears that bring a person closer to holy events and people, early Christian theologians insisted. They also teach the faithful, as “books for the illiterate” that do not just repeat the text but extend, reframe, and nuance it, as seen in the traditions of illuminated and illustrated manuscripts. In one famous page of an ancient Psalter, the crucified Christ is offered some vinegar to drink by a Roman soldier as a similar soldier dips an image of Christ into a vat of vinegar that will erase it, a series of visual homologies connecting the two acts. To destroy an image of Christ, this image insists, is to crucify Christ again. In the theme of this image’s commentary, as well as its form, it displays art as a revelation, as offering a distinct way of apprehending (or failing to apprehend) the divine.

Source: Image from Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Chludov Psalter, 9th Century
Source: Image from Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In this apprehension, the viewer can be transformed. Medieval theologian Peter Abelard describes Christ as redeeming humanity as a moral exemplar. The cross, in this view, extends salvation because it discloses or manifests God’s grace in Christ, whose example binds us in love to God, “enkindling” our love in return. Many theologians, including the Reformer John Calvin, similarly talk of “looking upon” Christ to know God’s love—and where is such sight more literally possible than in the myriad images of Christ’s Passion? The idea that looking can transform is deep in Christianity, encoded in Scripture and stories of epiphany, revelation, and conversion. The Apostle Paul chides one church for straying from his teaching, insisting that in seeing him, the church has seen Christ crucified—and in reading his crafted letter, the church encounters him again as the crucified Christ.

If theology bears witness to a long history of ascribing cognitive significance to visual and literary images, can it overcome its squeamishness about changing, empirically-based disciplines in order to engage with empirical aesthetic cognitivism? I believe it can. There are, on the one hand, longstanding precedents for working with empirical disciplines—like the Catholic Church using scientific experts to investigate and confirm miracles during the canonization of a saint. And there are, on the other, current hopeful signs. A stream of theological inquiry called science-engaged theology has opened up in which theologians think with a wide range of scientific disciplines, including astrobiology, neuropsychology, and evolutionary biology. Those committed to deep natural law thinking based in integral ecology have been practicing a similar mode of theology even before this recent development, and some, especially practical theologians, have engaged ethnographic and sociological methodologies as part of making their theological claims. These conversations offer hope that theology can enter into dialogue with empirical disciplines like those addressing aesthetic cognitivism in ways that pressure theology to clarify and extend its commitments, to revise its metaphors, and to thicken its descriptions, rather than to surrender its disciplinary identity.

Similarly, empirical aesthetic cognitivism can give theology a way of asking what properties of images move people like Saint Francis to tears, to action, to mercy? How might we develop a deeper appreciation for Abelard’s suggestion of the transformative power of looking upon God’s love in visualizations of Christ’s Passion? Or delve into Saint Paul’s conviction of the epiphanic character of some visual and literary representation? Not only does theology have no very worked out answers to these questions; it has for the most part failed even to ask them. One of the gifts aesthetic cognitivism offers as an invitation to linger over the work art does in revelation, conversion, and transformation and to marvel over how, to use old theological words, nature rhymes with grace.


Thomas of Celano, “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas of Celano,” in 233-393 Francis of Assisi, The Founder: Early Documents Volume 2, ed., Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, (New York, NY: New City Press, 2000).

Peter Abelard, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, 276-87 in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, ed. and trans. Eugene Fairweather (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1956).

“Science-Engaged Theology,” Special Issue of Modern Theology 37:2 (forthcoming April 2021) .