Faith & Thought

Religious Faith and Art Strongly Influence Each Other

Perhaps it is due to my vocation, but I want to do this series of columns both as a confession of my own interest in art, film, theater, literature, music, and painting, and as encouragement for others to take advantage of the revelation of God that can appear in art. 

My interest in various works of art goes back a long way, probably to when I was a college student, but it has increased greatly since I became a teacher. My interest might even go a back to high school. As I begin this series, both events and persons that have greatly nourished my interest have spontaneously entered my consciousness. This series of columns may turn out to be a long delayed “Thank you.” 

One of the very strong influences in recent years has been Pope St. John Paul II’s marvelous 1999 letter on art. 

Any residual guilt I may have had about my interest in art, guilt that perhaps I have allowed art and reflections on art to take up too much of my time, was completely rejected by the Holy Father’s letter on art. The letter makes clear that religious faith and art are not completely unrelated. In fact, religious faith and art can strongly influence one another. Both art and religious faith deal with mystery, ultimately with the mystery of God. 

The following is the dedication that Pope John Paul gave to his letter: “To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.” Every time I read that dedication I hope that many artists have read the letter. In his letter, Pope John Paul wrote the following: 

“God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God,’ and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power” (Pope John Paul II “Letter to Artists,” April 4, 1999. Online Edition-Vol. V, No. 5: July-August, 1999, p. 2). 

Because all creation ultimately owes its existence to God’s free act, everything that exists resembles God in some way. In his “What Is God: How to Think About the Divine” (New York: Paulist Press, 1968, 143 pp., $14.99), John Haught succinctly explains what philosophers mean by transcendentals: 

“Beauty, therefore, has what philosophers call a ‘transcendental’ nature. This means that the ‘beautiful’ is not any particular thing, but instead is a metaphysical aspect of all things. (Being, truth, unity, goodness and beauty are the ‘transcendentals’ usually mentioned by metaphysicians.) For this reason alone we may suspect that we cannot casually disassociate any possible encounter with beauty from the experience of the divine, which is said to be the supreme exemplification of the ‘transcendentals.’ 

“We experience beauty in nature, in the physical appearances or personalities of others, in great architecture, art, music, poetry and other types of literature” (p. 73). 

I think that what talented artists can do, even artists who may not believe in God, is see or feel reality more deeply than the rest of us and then share their insights or feelings with the rest of us through a work of art that they create. If that is true, it means that we can experience the divine even in works of art that are not obviously or explicitly religious. The transcendentals mean that we are surrounded in our experience by traces of the divine. 

God cannot create anything that does not resemble God because whatever God creates is necessarily being, one, good, true and beautiful. God cannot create evil because God is infinite good. God can create free human beings who can do evil, but God cannot create evil. I think that when we reflect on this, the importance of the artist’s vocation becomes obvious. I wish that all artists would read John Paul’s letter. Some artists may not realize how important their role in society is. 

If art is as important as Pope John Paul thought, then we should be discriminating in the choice of the works of art that we allow to take up our time. I have a habit of asking friends what they are reading. I do not do that to put them on the spot. One of my friends always answered by saying, “Just junk.” So I started encouraging her to read some of the novels that I had students at St. John’s read in a seminar I gave on the Catholic novel. She loved them and asked for more suggestions. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.