From the earliest stirrings of Western civilization, religion and art have gone hand in hand.

Some of the world's greatest painters, sculptors and musicians have found inspiration in religion and, equally important, financial support from its institutions.

In this country, the Puritan ethic, combined with a native pragmatism, has sometimes stifled the blending of these two disciplines.

Now, in the nation's capital, there are signs of renewed interest. This month alone, half a dozen churches and other religious institutions are sponsoring or taking part in festivals of the arts, competitions, exhibitions, and concert and drama series.

In addition, a handful of organizations devoted to various aspects of religion and the arts have developed here within the past few years.

* Every night this week, Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown has been humming with classes in everything from hymn-writing to pottery-making, during its Festival of the Arts in Worship, which continues through this afternoon.

* Earlier this month, Christ Church in Silver Spring staged an arts competition on the theme "Visions of the Spirit." It drew some 230 entries.

* Next week, the eight-member Washington Theological Consortium, the area ecumenical association of theological schools, is sponsoring a week-long multi-media art and architecture exhibition, open to the public, at Holy Trinity Seminary, 9001 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring. The showing will include, among other items, the top winners of the "Visions of the Spirit" competition.

* More and more churches, synagogues and other religious institutions are using arts in their celebration of religious holidays, special events or anniversaries.

Interest in the relationship between arts and religion "is growing, at least in Washington," said the Rev. J. Bruce Stewart of Annandale, who is director of the three-year-old Center for Liturgy and the Arts. "There is a growing communication between the artist and the theological community."

In the years following World War II, an era of rapid church growth and relocation of many long-established congregations from center cities to the suburbs, interest in religious art was most often expressed through church and synagogue architecture. Groups such as the Guild for Religious Architects--now a part of the Washington-based Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture--worked to bring together members of church building committees, architects and artists.

"Our goal is to encourage excellence in integrating art and architectural design in religious space," both in constructing new buildings and remodeling old ones, said Sally Ewing, executive director of the organization.

But the economic crisis of recent years and declining membership in many denominations have brought new church building to a near standstill. Interest in the arts today often is manifested in less costly investments: paintings, textiles for vestments and hangings, stained glass, sculpture, pottery and metal work for altar vessels and in the permorming arts.

Catherine Kapikian, artist-in-residence and director of the Center for Religion and Arts at Wesley Theological Seminary, links the renewed religious interest in the arts, in part, to the resurgence of handicrafts in this country. There has been, she pointed out "a grass roots movement all over the country."

But in a world where hunger and homelessness are widespread problems, how do churches and synagogues justify spending money on the arts?

Kapikian has a ready reply. "Number one, it has to be a balanced situation and the needs must be prioritized," she said. "Number two, people need to be nourished spiritually, and, number three, the arts don't need to be expensive. Churches go to catalog art" for altar supplies or refurbishing space.

"Why not employ the artist in the community?" she challenged, an option that would give employment to the artist and at the same time involve the church or synagogue in the creative process, she said.

"I believe creativity is the resource with which we build our world," Kapikian said. "I see all these attributes of creativity everywhere, in every human endeavor. There has been no society on this earth without art."

The churches are coming to realize that art--a painting, dance, a piece of statuary, music--can communicate as effectively as words, Kapikian said. "We are coming back to the realization that God's word can be received through all the senses--that just hearing the word is only one way."

The Rev. Robert Marsden, pastor of Christ Church, which organized the "Visions of the Spirit" competition, said he sees art as a dimension of life that is particularly needed in today's world.

"With all the cosmic happenings in our world, we do well to cultivate the spirit," he said. In light of current preoccupation with aggression, confrontation, and war, he said, "the arts become more important. They offer another way of looking at reality."

"What I see the arts doing," said Stewart, of the Center for Liturgy and the Arts, "is [providing] the context in which people can have a vision of how to change."