Intelligent believers often find themselves near despair over our civilization’s slide into immaturity and sterility, a senile adolescence. Great truths exist that people are dying to hear, and transcendent goods offer themselves freely to us. So it’s hard to fathom, even allowing for the labyrinths of grace in a fallen world, why our affluent contemporaries are willing to settle for so little.
If the True and the Good are muted, what’s left? Gregory Wolfe’s scintillating new book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, responds on behalf of the third of the transcendentals: Beauty. There is more to be hoped for from some contemporary art, literature, and music, he argues, than most people think – even amid vexing moral and philosophical disputes.
More importantly, says Wolfe, for over twenty years the editor of Image: A Journal of Religion and the Arts, the preeminent publication of its kind, such art may give us back Christian humanism and a humanity freed from near total politicization.
In Wolfe’s reading, Catholic and other traditional Christian forms of faith and morals have little purchase on the culture because they have been turned – by design or default – into mere political positions, i.e., ideologies. Wolfe is a graduate of Hillsdale College and Oxford, and a convert to Catholicism, and part of the charm of the book lies in his account of disillusionment at how political conservatism betrays the deeper conservative vision of his teachers Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer, indeed, how merely political conservatism is not conservative. Once the transcendent becomes just another political option, it not only loses the battle, but, in a way, its soul.
Wolfe suggests that several realms of the beautiful, even if modestly and ambiguously, can open us to whispers of transcendence. Contemporary culture desperately needs this, as do we all to resist the temptations of ideology – including an ideological version of religion. The near total withdrawal of believers from engagement with contemporary culture – except as culture warriors – has virtually assured that things will get worse. But it also limits the horizons of the orthodox.
In this he is surely right. The hard surface of materialism, what William Blake called “single vision and Newton’s night,” cannot much be cracked by philosophy, which can only reach a few specialists.
Holiness, of course, has represented the good for people in every age. You don’t need to be a philosopher or theologian to grasp Francis Assisi or Mother Theresa.
But even holiness needs its proper image. Would St. Francis have been as great without Giotto’s frescoes and other artistic representations? Yes. Would he have spoken as clearly to the world? There’s the question. The same is true of Mother Theresa: Malcolm Muggeridge, another Catholic convert about whom Wolfe has written an important biography, brought her to the world’s attention via a splendid documentary.
Wolfe’s point is not that the Good and the True need better PR. They need Beauty, which brings us the presence of things otherwise unseen. Politics, economics, and our ideologized culture ridicule the idea. But as the French poet Charles Péguy put it: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”
We have no Dantes or Michelangelos at the moment. Still, to give up on contemporary culture entirely, says Wolfe, is to accept defeat. We may, however, attend to lesser writers, poets, and artists; though their voices are quieter and somewhat less certain than the great ones, they may still tell us something quite urgent.
Wolfe studies painters and musicians, and writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Evelyn Waugh, Shusaku Endo, Geoffrey Hill, Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode, Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, and many lesser known names – and as background Christian humanists like Thomas More and Erasmus – and beautifully explains what they are up to. James Joyce famously employed “silence, exile, and cunning,” to escape the Church and Irish society. Today, artists fleeing empty aestheticism and self-absorption often use the same craftiness for quite different ends.
This inevitably involves some ambiguity, a favorite term of Wolfe’s. To reach people who are nearly blind, Flannery O’Connor once said, you have to draw large cartoons. Others like Waugh and Percy satirize modern society, but also show its attractions and real achievements. In a book like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, a young woman who bears the stigmata in early twentieth-century America may be a hysteric, but she just might be an authentic religious sign as well.
For people bone-tired of doubt and disorder, this prescription may sound like more of the disease. But to open up spaces for new perception – where it’s possible to entertain the real possibility of a religious manifestation like the stigmata, for instance – is no small achievement.
If there is some weakness in Wolfe’s view, it may lie here. Ambiguity may help in ways, but it may also become another form of skepticism or perspectivism, as he well knows. The contemporary artists he most admires actually might be better characterized as able to present a world charged with multiple meanings, Christian but not crude or sentimental propaganda.
In the end, we cannot expect too much of art absent other dimensions of culture. There was a notable Catholic cultural Renaissance from about 1850 to 1965, precisely when traditional believers were allegedly closed to artistic subtleties and ambiguities. But Catholics and other Christian thinkers and artists were taken seriously in mainstream culture. Indeed, Wolfe is a worthy descendant of Newman, Maritain, Gilson, and von Balthasar in these matters.
And it all but dissipated at the touch of the fleeting utopianism of the 1960s.
Yet Wolfe’s book is worth reading for a thousand crucial points. His Christian humanism is about as good as can possibly be in our time of exile. Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn and Wolfe have all endorsed the idea that “Beauty will save the world.” Not literally true, of course. God will save the world. But at least beauty may get us looking in the right direction.