Thoughts on “Grace and Necessity” [part 1]

Rowan Williams

Photo by Brian. CC 2.0

As the semester progresses, our Art & Christ class is moving from art history to discussions about Rowan Williams’ book, Grace and Necessity: reflections on art and love. Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and has been a Lecturer in Divinity at the University of Cambridge. This book brings forward a new understanding of aesthetic transcendence through unpacking work from a philosopher, a poet/painter, and a writer. His main purpose in this book is to show that spirituality is a part of all art. 

Reading through chapter one (Modernism and the Scholastics Revival) was bit like trudging through mud with a blindfold on. Williams’ writing style is certainly a reflection of his high intellect and thorough understanding of the subject. Throughout the chapter Williams mainly unpacks what Jacques Maritain (a French Catholic Philosopher) wrote about art. Williams brings about many intriguing points, a few of which I will discuss here. 

One of the main themes of Maritain’s writings on art is Distinguer pour unir (Distinguishing so as to unite). This makes a distinction between grace and nature – “God makes a world in which created processes have their own integrity, so that they do not need God’s constant direct intervention to be themselves” (Williams, 9). But at the same time this theme shows the unity between grace and nature and says that created processes will be open to God’s purposes when pursued honestly. This view on creative freedom really stood out to me. I find it so amazing that despite how unworthy we may be, God still gives us choice and wants us to make our own decisions. In more than just creating, I hope that I am able to be open to God’s intervention without letting myself get in the way.

Another topic that stuck out from me in this chapter was what Williams wrote about beauty. This quote in particular really stood out to me:

“Beauty is not, therefore, a single transcendent object or source of radiance. It is a kind of good, but not a kind of truth – that is, it provides satisfaction, joy, for the human subject, but does not in itself tell you anything.” (Williams, 12)

Williams then goes on to say that Maritain is “cautioning against any suggestion that the sensation of being in the presence of the desirable gives you any information about how the world actually is” (Williams, 12). Reading this reminded me of the book Art and the Beauty of God by Richard Harries. Contrasting with the views of Williams and Maritain, Harries argues that God is the source of all beauty, with all experiences and creations of beauty pointing back to God in some way. Harries says that light is essential to beauty and that comes from the light of God (Harries, 104). Personally I think that I lean more towards Harries’ understanding of beauty. I do think that beauty can reveal truth to the viewer, though I don’t think it is the only way. 

Impasse by Jonathan Anderson. 2007. Oil on Canvas. 

A final piece that stood out to me was the section on realism. Williams and Maritain seem to find realism useless (26) and think that art should tap into this inner/spiritual life and should show more that what the world already sees. This plays into a painter that we discussed in class this week, Jonathan Anderson. Anderson creates pieces that appear to be  realistic scenes with abstract forms on top. In his process, Anderson actual paints the abstract forms first and then paints the background scene around the shape. I think that this is perhaps a practice of accepting that we cannot see the fullness of reality, yet we can still work to understand and fill in the pieces we cannot see. By “blocking” out parts of the realistic scenes, Anderson is in a way showing more. 


Grace and Necessity: reflections on art and love, by Rowan Williams. Pages 3-42.

Art and the Beauty of God, by Richard Harries. 

Impasse, by Jonathan Anderson. 2007. Oil on Panel. From