Courtesy of The Art Renewal Center at www.artrenewal.org
Is Bouguereau’s young priestess a pagan? Almost certainly so. Is this fascinating canvas therefore fit only for the bonfire? In medieval lore, the ancient hero Capaneus, who built a formidable reputation in Greek myth as a railing atheist overtly abusive of all religious customs, is uniformly treated as a desperate character. Christian authors like Dante viewed him not as an ally against heathenry; but as a depraved fool. They saw the essentially self-promoting character of his arrogance and charged him with the most extreme kind of vain pride. The inclination to revere something beyond us and superior to us–something whose service has a more authoritative call upon us than our petty egotism–must surely be applauded as the root of true faith whenever it appears in human culture or history. Quite apart from the genius with which Bouguereau has painted the young woman’s loose garb and the sumptuous veil behind her, his priestess deserves to be admired in any civilized art gallery because she stands sincerely, poignantly bemused before a great mystery.
The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
Religious Faith and CLV
The Center’s charter expresses a commitment to serving a supreme moral being, and its 501(c)3 tax exemption was awarded partly on the basis of its religious mission. Unfortunately, religion turns out to be a prickly subject handled by too many with silence and evasion. No matter could be more important than the ultimate purpose of human life, and no fact of our existence more immediately transparent than the body’s mortality. If such issues are avoided because they may create discomfort, then what claim can any ensuing discussion have to depth and enduring value?
All of The Center’s board members espouse a belief in the eternal life of the spirit and in the perfect justice and goodness of eternal truth. Within this accord, our board and our journal’s contributors describe a range of views from Protestant to Catholic (Roman and Eastern Orthodox) and a range of devotional practice from active participation in missionary trips to the quiet, introverted life of contemplation. There is no doctrinal “litmus test” applied to submitted works, and some of our contributors may indeed have no settled metaphysical belief–or even a profound metaphysical skepticism. We conduct no inquiry into such matters: we demand only that submissions be tasteful and thoughtful, not derisory or belligerent.
At the same time–and with the intent of encouraging discussions that must take place in the search for the good life–we do not shy away from controversy. Besides the ill-focused raillery of ivory-tower nihilists (who tend to be more argumentative than analytical), we have also drawn occasional criticism from those who accuse our faith of being too hesitant or fragmentary. In particular, what has been called neo-orthodoxy has disseminated the position with increasing success throughout our society since World War II that the Bible is the only source of Christian truth, that its truth is expressed with literal and indubitable clarity, and that indicating a biblical passage is the necessary and sufficient justification for any action. This position is not really fundamental to the Christian faith at all; and, indeed, it has seriously disturbing consequences seldom foreseen by its well-meaning exponents.
It turns the supremely good creator into an arbitrary figure, known not through any internal voice but only through external documentation introduced into history by revelation. This renders the Christian faith unreachable to those born into other traditions. That is, it debases Christianity (from the strictly impartial vantage of human reason) to the level, as it were, of one more loud competitor among a mob of prophets all claiming an exclusive access to God’s will and the sole possession of His word.
From the perspective of motive, the neo-orthodox position vitiates the quality of the believer’s adoration. The dictates of faith are not now followed because a personal inspiration (roughly equivalent to conscience) insists upon their goodness and finds a delightful fulfillment of human purpose in obeying them. Rather, the believer can “know” God only through the cultural accident (or inscrutable destiny) of having been born into the group entrusted with holy writ. A blunt fear of temporal misfortune, exile from the community, and eternal torture becomes the reigning motive of such believers–not the joy of approaching a light whose warmth emanates from one’s basic, God-created nature.
Human creations–art works such as music, painting, and literature–also become problematic in the neo-orthodox view. At best they are redundant, redirecting their audience back to the sacred text constantly. More often, they are anathema, the “filthy” products of cultures that did not know the holy book or did not properly receive it. For music and painting, a certain license may be granted which allows the artist not to revere the sacred text explicitly. Music is naturally limited to suggestion, while painting that goes beyond the iconic can only imply behaviors and contexts in frozen images and sketchy clues. Literature, however, employs a verbal medium, just as the Holy Book. A literary text can thus be held in rigid and meticulous juxtaposition to a sacred text–and will be openly proved to have strayed, of course, unless it is a bland recasting of sacred narrative into contemporary form. Such stinginess flies in the face of The Center’s mission, which is both to goodness and to beauty (on the reasoning that beauty nourishes goodness by refining the judgment).
Obviously, then, our endeavor will not be cheered in all quarters. Those with an open hostility to faith simply pass us by: those who initially mistake our commitment as identical to a program of narrow interpretation and tightly monitored expression more often tell us of their chagrin. We serve what we regard as the cause of truth and goodness, not what can be demonstrated as the trend with the most momentum or the set of beliefs most widely endorsed.
An index of some of this site’s writings on religious subjects can be found on the rubrics page under “Art and Faith”.