End Notes: Religious Art

When I was in graduate school, a fellow student confided in me that his great ambition was to become a Thomistic poet. Something of the alarm I felt then returned when I came upon a recent book by Dominique Millet-Gerard titled Claudel thomiste? (Was [French poet Paul] Claudel a Thomist Philosopher?). My reaction was not unlike what it would have been to a book called Wittgensteinian Poetry or The Kantian Novel. Speaking of the arts as if they transposed into an imaginative key the austere reflections of the philosopher seems quite a stretch. On reflection, however, it occurs to me that, at least in the case of some philosophies, it makes sense to think of them as animating the work of the poet or novelist. This is preeminently the case with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

George Santayana wrote a little book called Three Philosophical Poets in which he described Lucretius as the poet of Naturalism, Dante as the poet of Supernaturalism, and Goethe as the poet of Romanticism. He argued that it would be absurd to seek in poets the kind of discourse we expect of the philosopher. He believed, however, that poets’ worldview and their great background conception of reality was one that had been previously reached by philosophical means.

The Western tradition of art, now fallen on evil days, once embodied the Christian outlook. Religious art can make one cringe when it attempts to edify and preach. Doubtless this is why so many novelists who are Catholic refuse the title of Catholic novelist. The phrase suggests that they are apologists for the faith, writing subtle—or not so subtle—works of polemic. Graham Greene does not want his readers to pick up The End of the Affair as if it were a handbook of Christian dogma, a disguised catechism.

Religious art, in the best sense, is theological in the way that Santayana’s poets are philosophical. Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe do not argue for the worldviews their works assume. Similarly, the Christian artist does not argue for the truth of Christianity, but the truths of the faith provide the ambience within which his artistic imagination operates.

 

It is often said, perhaps too often, that the Divine Comedy is the Summa Theologica of Aquinas in verse. In a superficial sense, this is nonsense. But Dante himself tells us in his poetry collection La vita nuova that he devoted himself to the study of philosophy and theology to write of Beatrice as no woman had ever been written of before. What he studied was Thomism.

Dante thomiste? Yes, in the sense that Christianity as elaborated by Aquinas provides the framework of the great poem. The literal sense of the Comedy, Dante tells us, is the state of souls after death. Its allegorical meaning, however, is the way in which we determine our eternal condition by our free acts. That Christian truth about the ultimate sense of life is what Dante puts vividly before our mind’s eye in canto after canto in all three parts of the Comedy. One can say the same of the painting, music, architecture, and literature of the ages of Christian faith. It is because the common assumptions of our time are so different that we are surprised to hear a contemporary poet such as Claudel called a Thomist.

Claudel was advised by his confessor to read the two Summae of Aquinas, and this he did, over a six- year period, while he served as the French consul in China. Added to this was his lifelong reading of Scripture (in the Latin Vulgate) which led to the great exegetical works of his late years. Claudel was a product of the 20th-century Thomistic revival. Such realizations make Millet-Gerard’s title seem inevitable rather than surprising.

A reader who does not share the faith of such an author is a tourist in a world he does not inhabit. We can see this in Harold Bloom’s solipsistic writings on Shakespeare and Dante. But for a believer, Claudel’s poetry and plays speak to the deepest level of his being. The Catholic poet, the Thomist poet, is not so much an anomaly as an instance of what is inevitable in the arts. Flannery O’Connor called herself a hillbilly Thomist—she too pored over the Summa—and held that all art is anagogical. She meant that all serious imaginative work assumes a world view, a sense of transcendence.

There are strong instances of what O’Connor had in mind, herself included. T.S. Eliot is another, of course. So is Claudel. The surprise engendered by the title Claudel thomiste? gives way to the shock of recognition. Such an artist may seem not eccentric but rather at that very center from which the great works of the Western tradition have emanated.

Ralph McInerny

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU