religious art

The Following article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine, of which Dr. McInerny is a cofounder. It is printed with the author's permission

Ralph McInerny

When I was in graduate school, a fellow student confided in me that his great ambition was to become Thomistic a 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 Tile Kantian Novel. Speaking of the arts as if they transposed into an imaginative key the austere reflections of the philosopher seen as 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 world views 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-cen-tury 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 analogical. 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 froth which the great works of the Western tradition have emanated. ·


Back to Articles