Vincent van Gogh took his own life at age 37.
Though an intensely evangelical Christian in his earlier years, in the final decade of his life van Gogh found life and meaning far more in nature than in nature’s God. Writing to his sister Wil in this latter phase, he reflects with no little regret:
“…I tell myself that in the years gone by, when I should have been in love, I gave myself up to religious and socialistic devotions, and considered art a holier thing than I do now. Why is religion or justice or art so very holy?”
In a stimulating and at times heart-rending read entitled Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt, Harvard professor David Hempton contrasts this letter to van Gogh’s sister with the following excerpt from his only surviving sermon, which he gave at the height of his devotion to Christianity. It is worth quoting at length:
Psalm 119:19. ‘I am a stranger on the earth, hide not Thy commandments from me.’ It is an old belief and it is a good belief, that our life is but a pilgrim’s progress–that we are strangers on the earth, but that though this be so, yet we are not alone for our Father is with us….
There is joy when a man is born into the world, but there is greater joy when a spirit has passed through great tribulation, when an angel is born in Heaven. ‘Sorrow is better than joy-and even in mirth the heart is sad-and and it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasts, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.’ Our nature is sorrowful, but for those who have learnt and are learning to look at Jesus Christ, there is always reason to rejoice. It is a good word that of St. Paul: ‘as being sorrowful yet always rejoicing.’ For those who believe in Jesus Christ, there is no death or sorrow that is not mixed with hope–no despair–there is only a constantly being born again, a constantly going from darkness into light. They do not mourn as those who have no hope–Christian Christian Faith makes life to evergreen life….
Yet we may not live on casually hour by hour–no we have a strife to strive and a fight to fight…. The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, its tides and its depths; it has its pearls too. The heart that seeks for God and for a Godly life has more storms than any other….
What is it we ask of God–is it a great thing? Yes, it is a great thing, peace for the ground of our heart, rest for our soul–give us that one thing and then we want not much more, then we can do without many things, then can we suffer many things for Thy name’s sake. We want to know that we are Thine and that Thou art ours, we want to be Thine–to be Christians–we want a Father, a Father’s love and a Father’s approval. . . .
Our life is a pilgrim’s progress. I once saw a very beautiful picture: it was a landscape at evening. In the distance on the right hand side a row of hills appeared blue in the evening mist. Above those hills the splendor of the sunset, the grey clouds with their linings of silver and gold and purple. The landscape is a plain or heath covered with grass and its yellow leaves, for it was in autumn. Through the landscape a road leads to a high mountain. Far, far away, on the top of that mountain is a city whereon the setting sun casts a glory. On the road walks a pilgrim, staff in hand. He has been walking for a good long while already and he is very tired. And now he meets a woman, or figure in black, that makes one think of St. Paul’s word: As being sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
The emotional and artistic–not to mention spiritual–power of these words should not surprise us, coming from an artistic genius. But it’s precisely this power that begs the question: how did van Gogh’s own journey take him from fervent evangelical to…it’s hard to say…a deistic devotee to nature?
Biographers and scholars of van Gogh dispute the answer, and to argue for any singular cause would almost certainly be simplistic. But from reading Hempton’s sketch of the brilliant, if troubled, artist’s religious life, I would offer a few humble thoughts.
First, let me say that van Gogh’s story is–like so many–heartbreaking. (As a pastor, if there is anything that I have done over the past two and a half years, it is to weep with those whom I’m privileged to serve. This is more precious and more sacred to me than a thousand sermons or service projects.)
What follows, then, is nothing if not a lament. It is, first, a lament, but, second, a plea. It is a plea for–and to–the truly beautiful lonely sojourners of this world: for Jesus’ sake, let us walk together. So it is a lament and a plea, but, if I’m honest, it is a probably also a rant.
For all the extraordinary truth of van Gogh’s sermon above, its tragic dimension consists not in the presence of the tragic–e.g., his quotation of Ecclesiastes (‘Sorrow is better than joy’) or his beloved phrase of the Apostle Paul’s (‘being sorrowful but always rejoicing’).
The tragedy of the sermon–and of van Gogh’s story–is that it reflects a life lived in isolation, a life always in transition, introspection, and even withdrawal. The fresh description of a landscape (in the final paragraph) is glorious yet profoundly lonely. When the pilgrim encounters another, it is (I suspect) not truly another pilgrim whose company will provide solace but a dark and mysterious woman, who symbolizes hardship and grief.
A cursory overview of van Gogh’s life reveals constant transition and isolation–geographical, familial, vocational, ecclesial, relational.
There are no roots.
Even when he returns to visit his family of origin, they have moved to a new location. This endless transition characterizes the entirety of his so-called “evangelical phase.” But after this phase, van Gogh came to value relationships far more. In the same letter to his sister he strongly encourages her to pursue romantic relationships–possibly more than one at a time.
And yet what is so tragic is that, despite the increased value which he placed on relationships, he only felt more lonely during this latter phase. He admits to his sister:
“As far as I am concerned, I still go on having the most impossible, and not very seemly, love affairs, from which I emerge as a rule damaged and ashamed and little else.”
I believe the near absence of sustained, sincere Christian fellowship (in the true sense of the word fellowship–namely, community united in mission) played a significant role in van Gogh’s ultimate abandonment of the faith.
But in addition to–and in some ways in stark contrast with–this isolation, contributing to van Gogh’s abandonment of the faith was his deep disappointment over the failure of his relationship with Cornelia Vos. Indeed, van Gogh’s life is smattered with intense affections, even romantic preoccupations that ended in rejection. From my limited vantage point, he had overwhelmingly high expectations from these relationships, and when they ended, they nearly ended him.
To risk a generalization: for reasons I do not know, throughout his life little spiritual and relational sustenance was received by means of community, but much was sought by means of individual romantic relationships. Therefore, aborted or unrequited love devastated him, and it was in the aftermath of his relationship with Vos that van Gogh made “his final retreat from conventional Christianity” (says Hempton).
In addition to the near absence of sustained Christian fellowship and the near obsession with 1-on-1 romantic relationships, there is a third contributor to van Gogh’s tragic departure from the faith–namely, his disillusionment with unhealthy Christian leadership.
Undoubtedly, van Gogh ran into some deeply unhealthy ecclesial authority. Hempton writes that van Gogh was probably “one of thousands of nineteenth-century seminarians who neither admired their teachers nor cared for what they were taught.” On several occasions church leaders significantly failed him by expecting him to fit into narrow (or outdated) molds, failing to discern his strengths and weaknesses, and having unreasonable expectations of him. This is grievous.
Yet Hempton, who writes with great sympathy for van Gogh, nevertheless states:
“No doubt piqued by a sense of rejection, and schooled in the evils of hypocrisy by his readings in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Vincent developed a passionate cynicism for those in authority, especially those in religious authority.”
If there is a common theme running through these three (undoubtedly incomplete) reasons for van Gogh’s departure from the faith, it would be that the people of God–both leaders and laity alike–are crucial for perseverance in the faith.
Why is this?
Because truth comes to us primarily from the outside–i.e., through other people. Even when we read the Bible for ourselves, its truth must come to us through others (so great is our capacity to dismiss or distort Scripture). Our faith is fed first and foremost through the fellowship of God’s people as they are fed the Word through ordained ministers.
Apart from the body of Christ, I listen to the deceptive and despairing voices of my heart and my culture. But within the body I receive encouragement, hope, wisdom, instruction, confession, celebration, assurance, and admonition.
These are life-giving and life-sustaining.
Hear the humble yet hopeful words of Paul, as he anticipates his visit to the Roman Christians:
“I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”
Paul can’t wait to see the Roman Christians, not only so he can strengthen them, but so that his own faith might be encouraged.
Are we struggling in our faith? Are we living in doubt? Consider:
1. How intentional am I about prayerfully and persistently pursuing Christian community? At my church, in my small group how committed am I? How regular is my attendance? Would others say that I’m a catalyst for community? Am I seeking to be mentored and mentor others? Can I say with King David:
“I say of the saints who are in the land, ‘They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight'” (Ps. 16.3)?
2. Do the leaders and laity at my church value community? Does the leadership demonstrate and exemplify that community and provide venues and constraints that winsomely call people to commit to community? Can they express respect, admiration, and affection for one another publicly (e.g., in the way that Paul speaks of Timothy in Phil. 2.20)? True Christian community begins at the top. If my church’s leadership and laity don’t value true community, am I willing to step out in faith to look for a new church family?
3. How much disappointment do I experience in my most important 1-on-1 relationships? Are my expectations in dating or marriage unrealistic, even idolatrous? Have I substituted my marriage (or other significant relationship) for sustained, serious Christian fellowship? Am I waiting for that special one to complete me? Or do I see the church as the primary venue for giving and receiving love (1 Cor. 13)?
4. How open and approachable am I? Have I invited others into my life so they can encourage, instruct, and admonish me? Can I say with King David, “Let a righteous man strike me–it is a kindness; let him rebuke me–that is oil on my head” (Ps. 141.5). Could I admit before the gathered people of God (e.g., in a small group), “Troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see” (Ps. 40.12)?
5. What are my expectations of Christian leaders? Am I submitting to Christian leaders who want accountability and who hold one another accountable? Am I willing to submit to imperfect and at times failing leadership? Do I trust my leaders? When I disagree with leaders, how and to whom do I express my disagreement? Are my leaders afraid to challenge and rebuke? Do I want them to do that?