Faith & Thought

Saved by Beauty and What It Can Illuminate

In my previous five columns I have been trying to promote great literature and other arts and to comment on how they can be a great help in the life of a religious believer.

That they can be a great help I believe deeply, and I have spent a great deal of time promoting that view. Perhaps one reason I have devoted so many columns is that, looking back on my own education, I have come to believe that the value of the liberal arts in the life of the religious believer should have been emphasized more. Memory can play tricks on us, so perhaps the emphasis was present and I missed it. 

I struggled writing the previous five columns but recently came upon an essay entitled “The Apologetics of Beauty” by my deceased friend, Father Andrew Greeley, which says clearly and persuasively some of what I have been trying to say. Father Greeley wrote: 

“Beauty is a dimension of an object, event or person that may under proper circumstances hint at the transcendent and even provide an opportunity for the transcendent briefly to break through into our lives and illumine them. Beauty illuminates. … 

“Human artists see things more clearly than the rest of us. They penetrate into the illumination of being more intimately than do the rest of us. They want us to see what they see so that we can share in their illumination. They are driven to duplicate that beauty in their work. … The artist is a sacrament maker, a creator of emphasized, clarified beauty designed to make us see. Artists invite us into the world they see so that we can go forth from that world with enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life.” 

Andrew goes on to state what I have experienced in art many times in my life. Art that does not seem explicitly religious, through the illumination it provides, can open us up to what is explicitly religious. 

This can occur through literature, theater, film, painting, music, and any other art. 

Working on this series of columns has kept what philosophers call the transcendentals very much on my mind. The transcendentals — beauty, truth, and good — are qualities of every being. God cannot create a being that does not resemble Him. So God cannot create evil because God is infinitely good. God can create beings who are free, and they can do evil actions, but God cannot create evil. Every being is good, true, and beautiful because it imitates God as goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Reflecting on the transcendentals, I think of great artists who may not be religious, who may in fact even be atheists. When they try to depict some being, whether it be a tree, an animal, or a human person, they are actually trying to depict some reality that in fact mirrors God. 

Though they may not think of God in their effort to create art, in fact there is to all art a dimension of the divine because of the transcendental. As I write these words, great paintings and plays and poems and films come to mind. They are great because in some way they depict beauty. All beauty is rooted in the beauty of God. Even when the artist is an agnostic or even an atheist, he or she is creating something that resembles God. 

Of course, many artists might not accept my use of the transcendentals to interpret their work and attribute a divine dimension to it. Still I think if the transcendentals are qualities of each being then artists, even if they give a completely secular interpretation to their work, are producing a reality that resembles God. I would insist on this even if the work in the artist’s view is presenting a nihilistic vision of reality. In his letter to artists, Pope St. John Paul wrote the following: 

“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that even in situations where culture and faith are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” 

I agree completely with the Holy Father. Almost immediately, some of the films of writer-director Ingmar Bergman come to mind. In film after film Bergman depicted what critics referred to as “the silence of God.” 

By dramatizing that experience among his characters, Bergman raised many religious questions and raised them in films that are considered masterpieces. 

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.