Arts and Culture

Earthly Beauty Can Speak To Us About God and Faith

by Father Robert Lauder

AS I MENTIONED in last week’s column, I no longer experience anxiety in trying to turn out a weekly column. Even anxiety can’t last for 40 years! However I do find that I am frequently looking for ideas and insights that I might use in a future column.

Some time ago I came upon a talk that Pope Benedict had given on Aug. 31 of last year at Castel Gondolfo. The talk dealt with beauty as a way to God. Because of some courses that I teach at St. John’s University and because of various adult education projects that I am involved in I knew that I wanted to read the talk with the hope that I might borrow some of the Holy Father’s insights into the mystery of beauty.

Several courses that I teach at the university directly deal with the meaning and experience of beauty. One course is called “The Problem of God.” In that course, after dealing with traditional proofs for God from St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas and Descartes, and after reading and discussing the most influential 19th- and 20th-century atheists, we discuss some new ways of thinking about God. One of those ways is to think of God as Ultimate Beauty. I find this part of the course especially interesting and challenging. In fact teaching this part of the course has changed the way that I think of God.

The Way of Beauty
I was pleased to see that some of the points that I make in class about beauty the Holy Father also made in his talk. After mentioning that the Lord offers us many occasions to remember Him, Pope Benedict says that he wishes “to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: the way of artistic expression, part of that ‘via pulchritudinis’ — ‘the way of beauty’ — of which I have spoken many times, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.”

In trying to grasp how earthly beauty can speak to us of God, I find it helpful to recall the philosophical vision of St. Thomas Aquinas. We often say that God created us from nothing. It is more accurate to say that God is creating us from nothing. I cannot write these words except that God is creating me, all of me, at this very moment. God cannot create anything that does not resemble God in some way.

Everything that God creates is good and beautiful. God cannot create anything that in no way is beautiful. This means that if we have the ability to see the traces of God in God’s creation then we are surrounded by beings that are beautiful. Poets, mystics and saints may be more aware of this than the rest of us.

Pope Benedict appeals to our experience of works of art and suggests that through art we may have experienced something that is much more than material, something that “speaks” to us on a deeper level. I suspect that all of us have had this experience. Watching a Shakespearean play, listening to a piece of music by Mozart, viewing a painting by El Greco or a sculpture by Michelangelo, watching a great film — all of these experiences mysteriously can give us a sense of something far greater than the material components of the artistic work.

Pope Benedict said the following:
“Art has the capacity to express and to make visible man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it manifests his thirst and his search for the infinite. In fact, it is like a door opened to the infinite – to a beauty and a truth that goes beyond the everyday. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, carrying them higher.”

Lately I have been doing quite a bit of reading about why religion has no appeal to many people today. An idea that keeps reappearing in almost everything that I read is that people have to be helped to ask important questions about what their life means, about what is important to them and that our society does not encourage or foster such questions. I agree with the idea that people should be encouraged to reflect deeply about their lives and about what values they embrace and why they embrace them. Could great art help people focus on what is important? Pope Benedict seems to think that it can.

I agree with the Holy Father but I know from teaching philosophy and from running adult education courses about great films and literary classics that art does not supply a “quick fix.” Patience is required and it may not be easy to evaluate the impact of great art on people’s lives [hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.