God(s): A User's Guide
God(s): A User's Guide

God(s): A User's Guide

The exhibit rightly conveys that religion takes practice, not merely observation. But does it "use" God towards other ends—human sociality, the aesthetics of ritual, inexhaustible discourse?

December 21 st 2011
God(s): A User's Guide

God(s): A User's Guide. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, QC. December 2, 2011 - September 3, 2012.

Four calm, dignified faces at prayer introduce the new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, ambitiously titled God(s): A User's Guide. In the hallway approaching the show, the striking black and white portraits morph on the screen from one practitioner to another—Muslim to Christian woman, Orthodox Jew to Buddhist monk.

The portraits communicate that religion is not merely about objects and texts behind glass; faith, they would suggest, takes practice. And such practice, as we are increasingly aware, takes place amidst a plurality of others. The figures at prayer are peacefully intent, heads slightly bowed and eyes shut. Although their inner lives might seem thus enclosed, the show nevertheless boldly bills itself as an "insider's view" of the faiths.

This focus on still, individual piety transitions to a video displaying dynamic communal gatherings, strikingly conveying shared passion in pursuit of God. Visitors then enter the opening room, which features stylized clouds and dancing lights. While a small display highlights objects of illumination, the text claims that light itself is universal to all religions (indeed, all Enlightenment heirs are in its host of witnesses). From there, points of commonality and divergence between the faiths are arrayed in eleven thematic modules—from divinities to rites of passage, time cycles to sacred places.

Pilgrimage and Kitsch: The View from Inside

Adapted from an international exhibit to the Canadian context, the gallery design and textual content show sophisticated and principled neutrality. While certain objects are larger than others, their arrangement seeks to not privilege any one faith. Still, the thematic approach leads to curious combinations: in the Worship section, a small corridor is flanked by copper Buddhist prayer wheels that are inscribed with prayers from a Tibetan monastery, and then opens to a large and elaborate Torah Ark commissioned for a synagogue on Cape Breton Island.

Each set of items has a succinct, generally well-informed description, which occasionally encourages the visitor to brave interaction. With the Buddhist prayer wheels, for instance, visitors are enjoined to release a prayer from the cylinders: "Don't be afraid to spin them (always clockwise). You don't need to be Buddhist to do so. With each rotation, a prayer is released from the cylinder." What is there to fear? You don't need to know the entity you're addressing, or how your virtue is being formed.

The prayer wheels are an example of the inevitable presumption that comes when there is an attempt to give an "insider's view" on the religions. There are significant cultural and linguistic dimensions to this, but the untranslatable element can run as deep as the waters of baptism; in Jesus' teaching, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

The irreducible difference between insider and outsider perspectives comes through in the Places module, which uses transcribed media—email, phone, and letter—to relate Aïcha's pilgrimage to Mecca to her sister. The young pilgrim's passion for seeking the righteous life by circling the Kaaba throws her sister's response, and the gallery visitor's, into somewhat uncomfortable relief. Her passion also transcends her anticlimactic realization that most pilgrimage tokens are made in China.

Other such tokens are arrayed on the wall opposite Aïcha's textual journey. From a Virgin of Guadalupe phone card to Shinto thousand-year candy and a Pope John Paul II bottle opener, the objects tend towards kitsch. This might draw visitors' condescension, but what does such unabashed enthusiasm access that onlookers do not? As Paul Griffiths provocatively argues, the devotee to Christian kitsch can be closer to vital faith than the religious connoisseur, that "acolyte of the aesthetic" whose gaze "values sublety, complexity, ambiguity, irony and (above all) novelty, and it is self satisfied." The presence of kitsch in the exhibit may go so far as to expose the detachment of the sophisticated insider, for those that have eyes to see.

Border Crossings: Faith(s) in a Secular Age

While the exhibit's form and content maintains studied neutrality for inter-religious valuations, the show skillfully raises provocations on the place of religion vis-à-vis "secular" society. A word from curator Stephen Inglis highlights the abandonment of the secularization thesis—the theory that religion would decline through globalization—and notes the agility of evolving acts of devotion. Such faith, he says, extends behind sensational headlines to a series of quotidian rituals and beliefs, a point underlined by objects drawn from everyday settings, such as an ornate statue of Shiva borrowed from a restaurant in Ottawa's ByWard Market.

The introductory Points of Reference section furthers Inglis' point by stating that "the word religion itself is problematic, since it refers to a specifically Western tradition of separating the realm reserved for God from that of humans." It cites Islam, Judaism, and traditional religions in Africa and Asia, for whom "this distinction makes no sense." It also points out that the term "secularism" is, surprisingly, originally borrowed from the church. A nearby display case demonstrates the challenge to distinction between religious and secular spheres: it features an "iconic" image of Che Guevera not far from the sculpture of a Jain saint. Nearby are two identical Chinese good luck pendants—the type hung from car rear-view mirrors—featuring Kuan-Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, alongside Mao Zedong, leader of the Cultural Revolution. The display case has a large frosted question mark on its front, questioning the hazy boundary between religious faith and political or pop-cultural acts of devotion.

Such a question certainly deserves a place here, and could well have been extended. In the Body module, for instance, images from scarification techniques in Botswana were placed alongside a classroom discussion during the evangelical True Love Waits chastity campaign. (James K.A. Smith's recent work on cultural liturgies might prompt us to ask whether rites such as university Frosh Week or Black Friday might also feature here. Such unexpected juxtapositions could startlingly show how such practices surely and pervasively shape our loves towards what is understood to be ultimate.)

In troubling secular and religious boundaries, the exhibit's design is sometimes incongruous with its content. The Conflict and Coexistence theme could have rightly employed images to express the very real anger and anxiety attached to border infringement. Instead, it is the sparsest module, with clusters of white couches and chairs for quiet reflection, all focused on two essays plainly printed on the blank wall. The writing is sophisticated, but the question is led too easily towards peaceable coexistence. Even the typography shows no sign of distress.

Ethereality and Enjoyment: Designing the Afterlife

The eleven thematic modules are each set apart by reflective white fabric, tautened and suspended by wire above the floor and screen printed with type. These luminous walls are elegantly set within an otherwise predominantly black gallery area. Meanwhile, objects such as the fierce Garuda, vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu, are so lavish with colour that the surrounding exhibit fades in comparison, which is perhaps the intent. In contrast to the vivid colours, tactile objects, and sensory rituals of the religions, though, the show's own minimal palette, restrained typography, and light, airy design could suggest an ethereal quality all too familiar to the "design" of spirituality.

It is interesting that the Body module was perhaps the most "excarnate" presentation—to adapt Charles Taylor's term. Stirring acts of bodily devotion—from a Shiite Muslim lashing his face with chains to a baby's immersive baptism in a Moscow Orthodox church—were statically represented through a wall of illumined, still photography. But even if a live ascetic performance by the artist Marina Abramovi? might be too much to ask, such displays are noticeably bloodless. Similarly, the white gloves, dress, and veil of a first communion outfit are meticulously laid out behind glass, lacking a sense of the youthful vibrancy that can attend such an event. Such constraint is highlighted by comparison with the Museum's neighbouring exhibit entitled Canadian Arctic Expedition, which features giant artifacts like basket sleds in open display, as though ready for use. Moreover, the bright, inviting layout and large colourful type of the Expedition draws visitors into the thrill of such historical adventures—in marked contrast to the staid representation of a young girl's reception of the divine life.

The lack of sensory engagement in the overall presentation seems to run deeper than aesthetic preference, encouraged perhaps by common (mis)representations of the afterlife. To introduce the Beyond section, an uncharacteristically reductive gallery statement informs visitors that, "for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the soul is freed from the body to inhabit an eternal world." Even the exhibit video's Christian representative, a Greek Orthodox woman named Christine, anticipates her soul in flight. The harmful effects of such disembodied statements become clear in the affecting testimony of Mélanie, an atheist, who relays her belief that the soul and body are inextricably linked elements of human personhood, leading her to the conclusion that they must expire together. On the contrary, what would be the material implications—from personal integrity to gallery design and the structure of "worldly" institutions—of the Christian creedal belief in "the resurrection of the body," looking to Jesus as the fleshly firstborn of all creation?

God(s): A User's Guide rightly conveys (including in its subtitle) that religion takes practice, not merely observation. The show succeeds in displaying the variety and pervasiveness of such ways of life, educating the visitor on the faiths of her neighbours while probing "secular" forms of devotion.

At the same time, the subtitle calls to mind Augustine's famous distinction between that which is to be used—an instrumental good, employed to attain that most worthy of love—and that which is to be enjoyed—an intrinsic good, loved for its own sake. While not a conscious allusion, we might question the extent to which a God is inadvertently used towards other ends featured in the exhibit—human sociality, the aesthetics of ritual, inexhaustible discourse—rather than being enjoyed for his own sake. The attention to afterlife states of existence over the beatific vision would seem to point in that direction. To feel the difference, of course, you would have to be an insider.

Topics: Arts Religion
David Robinson
David Robinson

Dr. David Robinson is a sessional lecturer in Theology and Ethics at Regent College and a research associate at Vancouver School of Theology. He was previously the Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theology and Science at Regent College (2018-19), a role which involved directing the inaugural Interface lecture series.

David is the author of Christ and Revelatory Community in Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Hegel, which is based on his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Edinburgh. It offers the first sustained treatment of Bonhoeffer’s critical variations on Hegel’s philosophy, particularly his use of the phrase “God existing as community.” The book includes investigation into how faith and reason are socially composed, how a sacramental event might be conveyed conceptually, and what forms of recognition exist between the state and religious bodies. He has also published articles in the journals Modern Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Ecclesiology, and Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, among others.

David has previously lectured at the University of Edinburgh and has presented at conferences including the American Academy of Religion, the Society for the Study of Theology (U.K.), and the International Bonhoeffer Congress. Alongside his academic work, David has worked in Anglican and Episcopal ministry since his ordination in 2009, serving congregations in both Ottawa and Edinburgh.

David lives in Coquitlam, BC with his wife Jolene, who works as the marketing and communications manager for Jewish Family Services, and their four-year-old daughter, Naomi.

Stuart Miles
Stuart Miles

Stuart Miles works in the aesthetics of type, image, and relationship, having supported a variety of organizations in discerning and disseminating their identity. Most recently, Stuart co-founded onesixtyfive, an Ottawa consultancy that creates distinctive media for organizations in response to their graced identities.


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