Faith & Thought

Searching for the Ultimate Meaning Through Art

by Father Robert Lauder 

In an earlier column in this series I reflected on how many artists who might be characterized as secular humanists have influenced my view of the human person. 

As examples, I mentioned playwright Eugene O’Neill and film directors Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. I think I have admired these three artists because of their extraordinary talent. 

In my opinion, Eugene O’Neill is the greatest American playwright, Bergman is the greatest talent in the history of cinema, and no contemporary film director raises the kind of questions that Allen raises in his films. 

The more I think of these three artists and others who do not share my faith, I think I should not be surprised how much I admire their work. Each in his own way reveals genius in his work. Each has greatly enriched my experience. 

In her book “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose,” selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor offers some reflections on those she describes as the “searchers.” I think she means those artists who are looking for some vision of reality that responds deeply to their search for ultimate meaning. Why have they not found it? I suppose only God can answer that question. 

Even in their searching, O’Neill, Bergman, and Allen have seen deeply into the mystery of the human person and have tried to embody in works of art what they think they have discovered. I remember many years ago a friend of mine, Father Charles Breslin, told me that the playwright Tennessee Williams saw one aspect of reality deeply and was able to embody that vision powerfully in his plays. Charles wondered what Williams would write if his vision broadened. 

Flannery O’Connor wrote the following: “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. The fiction which celebrates this last state will be the least likely to transcend its limitations, for when the religious is banished successfully, it usually atrophies, even in the novelist. The sense of mystery vanishes. A kind of reverse evolution takes place, and the whole range of feeling is dulled” (pp. 159-160). 

I suspect Flannery’s judgment was correct. To settle for meaninglessness has to be a devastating experience. Flannery continues: 

“The searchers are another matter. … These unbelieving searchers have their effect even on those of us who do believe. We begin to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness, to purify them in the heat of our unbelieving neighbor’s anguish. What Christian novelist could compare his concern to Camus’? 

“We have to look in much of the fiction of our time for a kind of sub-religion which expresses its ultimate concern in images that have not yet broken through to show any recognition of a God who has revealed himself. As great as much of this is, as much as it reveals a wholehearted effort to find the only true ultimate concern, as much as in many cases it represents religious values of a high order, I do not believe that it can adequately represent in fiction the central religious experience. That, after all, concerns a relationship with a supreme being recognized through faith. It is the experience of an encounter, of a kind of knowledge which affects the believer’s every action” (p. 160). 

If I had the opportunity to speak with Flannery I would question her use of the word “adequately.” I don’t think any artist, or for that matter, any theologian, can offer concepts or images that “adequately” express God. I think that we can speak truthfully about God, but we cannot speak clearly about God. 

With any statement that we make about God we can immediately add “and more.” God is Infinite Being and hence no concept we use to describe God can fit Him adequately or perfectly. God is always more than how we think or speak about Him. In his wonderful book “Doing the Truth in Love” theologian Father Michael Himes writes: 

“The first and most important thing to know in theology is that whatever you think of when you hear the word ‘God’ is not God. However deep, rich, however noble, however powerful, however loving, however scripturally based or traditionally sanctioned, whatever the image is, it is not God because God remains mystery. We must take that very seriously” (p. 9). 

Writing this series about culture and religious faith has brought back wonderful memories of the blessings that theater, film, novels, and other arts have provided in my life. I feel very grateful. I hope anyone who reads this series has memories similar to mine. 

by Father Robert Lauder 

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.