Belief is justified and our faith must be true, religionists tell us, because of the beauty it inspires.
It’s an argument we hear often – that we have religion to thank for the treasures of da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Titian; the Masses, Passions and cantatas of Bach; and the monumental architecture of the Middle Ages.
It’s true that, in the 2,000 years or so since Jesus was said to preach his apocalyptic message, most art in the western world has been religious. But not all.
In painting, and even without venturing as near as the 20th Century, without even mentioning the Impressionists, there is much secular work to admire. As far back as the 16th Century, Brueghel the Elder painted ordinary people living ordinary lives. There was a strong humanist streak in the Dutch masters. And we honour Rembrandt especially for his portraits.
Most of Bach’s output was religious – he was, after all, employed specifically to churn out church music. Yet the Goldberg Variations were written to make a man more comfortable on sleepless nights.
Religion gave us towering cathedrals, but think of the great buildings of our age and see how many are churches. (The mega-churches of American evangelicals are, without exception, vulgar and tasteless expressions of ill-gotten wealth.)
Religion gave rise to great works because it was the church that held the wealth and the opportunity to patronise artists. Whatever else the church did, in terms of pastoral care, it certainly made sure it was itself comfortably well off. The church also wielded considerable influence over affairs of state and individuals’ lives.
So it was not religion that gave us these treasures – it was power.
In attempting to stem the tide of secularism, the faithful often resort to warning us about what we might lose. The implication is that there is some innate connection between the faith itself and what it has produced.
In the current issue of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, Michael Arditti writes a lament to modern literature’s lack of engagement in religious themes. He says:
Cranmer’s Prayer Book has played a greater part in framing our language than any other single source, including Shakespeare. Even the most diehard secularist would find himself hard-pressed to expunge religious idioms from his speech.
To which my answer would be, And your point is…?
That faith has resulted in great works of beauty, power and elegance is an accident of history. It does not mean that there is any intrinsic validity to faith. It does not mean that we cannot have works of equal majesty from other sources of inspiration.
You could argue that the stories of the Bible and the awe, wonderment and passion invoked by faith are what give rise to these creative masterpieces. But these sources of inspiration are easily replaced. The natural world at all levels of engagement – from simply gazing at a landscape to marvelling at the mysteries of quantum mechanics – have at least an equal power to move us.
At the same time, there is much to be said for artists engaging with their world on a more realistic level. Perhaps what Arditti doesn’t understand is that writers may have abandoned religious themes because they are irrelevant. Most writers want to explore the real world, not some arcane realm of fantasy (unless it’s to invent one themselves). It’s easy to be awe-struck by stories of miracles and supernatural phenomena. It takes more skill to find truth and beauty in our quotidian existence.
And so, by rejecting faith, we are not abandoning a source of beauty. We are seeking new and more meaningful sources.