Philosophy and Spirit of the Foundation

The purpose of the Foundation is to support the creation of spiritual art. But what is spiritual art and why is it important? Our fundamental artistic creation is our own life, whether or not we call ourselves artists. “My song is my life, my life is my song.”

And what is our life in the twenty-first century? We are beset by problems at every hand, and it may even feel like we are living in end times, as captured by the poet Yeats a century ago.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

A stunning visual and musical image of contemporary life is presented in the Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi, with score by Philip Glass. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”.

Art can vividly portray our predicament and can point to the spiritual reality that offers transformation.

I believe the fundamental remedy for our condition is not to be found at the social or political level but at the spiritual level, in what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. His vision of a higher conception of life has reached across two millennia to guide human beings on their quest for the inner transformation needed to save themselves and the world.

Albert Schweitzer was one of those whose life was guided by Jesus. Deeply connected to the arts through music, Schweitzer dedicated his life first to scholarship and then to service. He had a compelling vision of the message of Jesus. At the dawn of the atomic age, he wrote the following, which I believe is even more pertinent today (italics added).

 We are no longer content like the generations before us, to believe in the Kingdom that comes of itself at the end of time. Mankind today must either realize the Kingdom of God or perish. The very tragedy of our present situation compels us to devote ourselves in faith to its realization.

We are at the beginning of the end of the human race. The question before it is whether it will use for beneficial purposes or for purposes of destruction the power which modern science has placed in its hands. So long as its capacity for destruction was limited, it was possible to hope that reason would set a limit to disaster. Such an illusion is impossible today, when power is illimitable. Our only hope is that the Spirit of God will strive with the spirit of the world and will prevail.

The last petition of the Lord’s Prayer has again its original meaning for us as a prayer for deliverance from the dominion of the evil powers of the world. These are no less real to us as working in men’s minds, instead of being embodied in angelic beings opposed to God. The first believers set their hope solely upon the Kingdom of God in expectation of the end of the world; we do it in expectation of the end of the human race…

But there can be no Kingdom of God in the world without the Kingdom of God in our hearts. The starting point is our determined effort to bring every thought and action under the sway of the Kingdom of God. Nothing can be achieved without inwardness. The Spirit of God will only strive against the spirit of the world when it has won its victory over that spirit in our hearts.

How is that victory to be won in our hearts? I believe the Spirit of God is always present, and when we are open we are able to connect with it. Art, in its many forms, is a universal language for expressing that connection.

The most immediate connection to spirit is through nature, and even before the advent of language human beings created visual art inspired by nature. Art is as old as the human race, dating long before the ancient Egyptians. The Chauvet cave paintings in France are estimated to be between 32,000 and 36,000 years old. The Paleolithic paintings at various sites portray humans, animals and abstract images. The natural world and creatures within remains an enduring source of inspiration for art.

But what is the nature of spiritual art that the Foundation seeks to encourage and support? In my view, it is art that touches and elevates the soul. Art may be powerful yet not meet this criterion. For example, many years ago I viewed an exhibit of paintings by death row inmates. The paintings were very strong and emotionally stirring. I believe their creation may have been a spiritual activity for the prisoners, and the paintings certainly touched me. But, to me, these works themselves were not spiritual in the sense I am attempting to articulate. I did not experience through these paintings a deepening of my connection with the Divine.

Likewise a work of art that is aesthetically beautiful does not necessarily open this Divine connection. For example, Michelangelo’s David is an unquestioned aesthetic masterpiece, but it does not move me beyond appreciation of the perfection of the human form. By contrast, the Pieta of Michelangelo in a single beautiful image captures for me the whole Christian drama of Jesus’ sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

An example from a different spiritual tradition is Egyptian art. Consider how an Egyptian temple conveys a sense of the timeless.

What perhaps gave [Egyptian art] such consistency for so long was the ancient Egyptians’ unique sense of time. Unlike Westerners, who perceive time as essentially a straight line, with the future stretching ahead into infinity and the past receding behind, the Egyptians believed in two fundamental dimensions of time. One was eternal, or djet, time, which was the realm of the gods and the state of being people entered at death. The other was the cyclical time dictated by nature.

In djet time, all things were  happening simultaneously and creation was constantly occurring. When people entered an Egyptian temple, they passed into this dimension of eternity as they walked between the twin entrance pylons, or towers, that represented the mountains of the horizon. The papyrus-columned halls, screened from profane view, represented the great papyrus swamp that existed before creation and the birth of light. In the back sanctuary, where the creator god dwelled, creation began anew every morning at dawn…

A contemporary example of spiritual art is this sculpture of Mother Mary by my wife Marianne. Mary’s expression of peace and compassion leads me to a place of stillness and closeness to God.

Recently I had a striking experience of spiritual impact from a painting. I had been searching for a way to convey a vision for this new Foundation. I have also been working with my artist friend Carlos Alvarez to create an image for the cover of a forthcoming book, Communion: Love Continues, which will include photographs of Marianne’s artwork and poems by me. The sculpture selected as a starting point is of an abstract white angel, from which Carlos was to create a painting.

Our original conception was to use soft, muted colors. As Carlos worked, however, he was drawn to go strong with a deep purple at the base. He “saw” the angel, with this result.

When I first viewed the completed painting I was surprised, because I was still visualizing pastel colors in my mind’s eye. But then I realized that my own conception, while it would have been aesthetically pleasing, would have lacked the intensity of Carlos’ finished work. For me the painting represents the victory of Spirit in our hearts, and I remembered the Schweitzer passage quoted near the beginning of this paper.

But there can be no Kingdom of God in the world without the Kingdom of God in our hearts. The starting point is our determined effort to bring every thought and action under the sway of the Kingdom of God. Nothing can be achieved without inwardness. The Spirit of God will only strive against the spirit of the world when it has won its victory over that spirit in our hearts.

Then everything jelled for me to craft this vision statement, and I realized this is what I believe spiritual art should do! Moreover, the angel in the sculpture and painting also reminds us that we are not in this by ourselves.

We Are Not Alone

It was the trees that captured my attention
Our planet’s oldest living things
An intelligence not of the mind
The tall pine trees sway in the gentle wind
Which refreshes my body
And cools my fevered head
As my mind ponders the koan of my life.

Why am I here when my loved one is gone?
Why must my mind find the answer?
Why cannot I be like the patient trees?
And why is there such sorrow in the world?

The world is out of balance
We have made it so
Time grows short
We must change, but how?

We are not alone
There is a wisdom of a higher kind
We are not in this by ourselves.

And what is my role?
Sometimes I have glimpsed the simplicity of happiness
Can I share it?
Can I lighten the hearts of others?
And let them know
That every deed of kindness is special
Every act of love is a blessing
And that in truth
We are not alone.

There is another element that enters into my understanding of spirit and art. That is a sense of fun, of lightness. I remember a picture that captured that lighter spirit for me. It was of two mischievous young monks in a zendo. Marianne and I both enjoyed the picture, for we saw ourselves in it!

Another picture that captures this light-hearted spirit for me is a child’s Easter banner. Marianne colored it in late winter and early spring following a very difficult year. We hung it in our bedroom and I am looking at it now. It has for me an enduring spiritual quality to it, signifying renewal and joy.

Spiritual art is not a static thing. It flows. I think of the second verse in the Book of Genesis:

… and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

I felt this flowing quality last winter after a period of heavy rains while walking in a favorite park. This little poem came, which in a sense epitomizes for me the quest for unity in spiritual teachings that Marianne sought to capture in her angelic sculptures.

 The Divine Sea

“All things flow” said the ancient philosopher
It is a wondrous vision
The tiniest rivulet flows into a stream
Each stream flows into a river
And every river comes at last
To the great Sea.

The forgoing expresses my own personal view as best I am able to render in words. But by its very nature Spirit cannot be conveyed in words, as was stated two and a half thousand years ago by Lao Tzu.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

So if you are an artist for whom this vision resonates in some measure, I invite you to contact us and share your own vision for spiritual art and how you would like to pursue it. Perhaps the Foundation will be able to support you in your endeavor.


Bob Oberg
Founder, MOFSA

Download my complete paper, containing references.

Also, for further reflections on the nature of spiritual art and some examples, please read this statement prepared by members of the MOFSA Board.