The Approach to Religion

IN the fourth millennium B. C. in Memphis and its necropolis of Sakkarah man-made beauty first appears, of all places in the world; and it is beauty of as high an order as that which was achieved in Greece three thousand years later. Apparently it came by some process of parthenogenesis, for behind is nothing but the crude dolmens and the rough artifacts of the Neolithic race. Religion arrived with this art, or vice versa, for there suddenly had dawned on man the consciousness of immortality: belief in a life after death. The pyramids from Medum and Sakkarah to those of Gizeh were sepulchral monuments, but when they were built to guard the bodies of dead kings each had its great temple of worship attached to it. The temples are gone, but the pyramids will stand forever.

From this moment which was the beginning of human history — the beginning of time so far as man himself is concerned — religion has inspired art and art has served religion, until a few centuries ago, when for the first time in six thousand years the golden cord was snapped and the relationship forgotten.

What was engendered by the religious impulse was at once transmitted to secular things, and showed itself in all the works of man, from the kitchen and its utensils to the palace and its furnishings. The beauty that man created through a score of arts, in a hundred styles and modes, over six thousand years of time and in the four quarters of the globe, was at the same time the offspring of the primal religious prompting and a valid evidence of the integrity and nobility of man as a new creature, of his kinship with the suprahuman forces of the cosmos, and of his dominion over all other forms of created life.

There is no need to catalogue the works of concrete beauty that the human race has produced since art first appeared on the banks of the Nile. Perhaps one one-hundred-thousandth part still remains after time and ignorance, war and greed, savagery and hatred, have played their part in wide destruction, but it is enough to prove that here, if anywhere, man shows the result of the touch of the finger of God. We, in our own day, are inordinately proud of our electrical refrigerators and submarines, our talking movies and turbine generators, our sanitary plumbing and aeroplanes. But the mutilated shards of the art man has made for himself are a greater gauge of his humanity. The diorite statue of Zoser, the Venus of Milo, and the ‘Beau Dieu’ of Amiens; the Parthenon of Athens, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and Bourges Cathedral; Giotto’s frescoes in Padua, da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper,’ El Greco’s ‘Burial of Count Orgaz’; a Bach quartette, a Beethoven symphony, a Wagner opera; Homer’s Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Tempest — these are enduring evidences of the creative power of man.

When a Neolithic potter scratched some geometrical devices on his clay bowl, he started something that led to the Victory of Samothrace, Memling’s ‘Adoration of the Virgin,’ the Cappella Palatina of Palermo. The patterns on the clay bowl turned a merely useful utensil into a work of art. The potter did not know this. He (and his successors for thousands of years) did things beautifully, not because he was an ‘artist,’— the genus was not differentiated from the run of men until some phase of culture was in decline, — but because he liked what he did to look that way and because it seemed the right thing to do. If it was very good it acquired value in his eyes and so he was impelled to bury it with his dead or offer it at some shrine or sanctuary of his gods. From this to the tentative fashioning of ‘idols,’ or symbolical presentments of dimly apprehended Divinity, was an inevitable step, and so, in time, came the supreme sculpture of Egypt, Greece, the Middle Ages, the Early Renaissance, China, Japan.

So beauty became both sacrifice and expression. Imagination, transcending experience, made art the vehicle of the Ideal. Religion became ocularly manifest by man to man. And it so became something more than simple expression; it acquired and exerted dynamic force. Religion that was only an emotion, an aspiration, — at the worst, if you like, a superstition, — now became a visible reality; it acquired Power. For the few

— mystics, philosophers, saints — who could lay hold of the abstract Ideal, come in direct relationship with Divinity, there were the multitudes who ‘had to be shown.’ A religion that has spread and maintained itself has, I suspect, done so quite as much through the concrete beauty of its artistic expression

— its architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, ritual — as through the exhortations of prophets, the preaching of evangelists, even the lives of its exponents.

Beauty is not truth, nor truth beauty, as has sometimes been said, but beauty is one of the infallible tests of truth, whether in art or a social system; in conduct, philosophy, or religion. The ugly thing is the thing that is untrue.

In the beginning the pathway to art was through religion; is a reversal now possible, and through art may we find a way back to religion? I use the words ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ as synonymous terms, for so they were implicitly held until a generation ago. Of course the quality and the degree of beauty achieved from time to time varied greatly, but it was always sought for. Even when this beauty was of a comparatively low order, as during a part of the Dark Ages, the reign of the English Elizabeth (except in literature), the Counter-Reformation in Italy, and under the Puritan régime, there was an honest effort at the accomplishment of a certain sort of beauty; it is only in the last few years that, for some obscure reason, small groups of human beings have identified art with ugliness; and the Congo fetish, Dali’s surrealism, the architecture of Corbussier, and instrumental cacophony, have been fantastically exalted as ‘art.’ This pathological episode need not detain us, for it can claim no more permanency than the earlier (and slightly more plausible) taste for art nouveau and the ‘mission style.’ I speak of it here in passing simply because it shows how far it is possible to go when the cord of tradition is broken, standards of value are denied or reversed, and anarchy takes the place of order. Through this sort of thing there is, of course, no line of approach to religion, or to anything else except an intensified lunacy. If a way to religion is to be found it must be through the old roads of absolute beauty.

From the outbreak of the Protestant revolution the old kinship between beauty and religion was lost and forgotten. Not only was there amongst the reformers and their adherents a definite hatred of beauty, and a determination to destroy it when found; there was also a conscientious elimination of everything of the sort from the formularies, services, and structures that applied to the new religion. In this the protagonists of revolution showed great perspicacity, for instinctively they realized the significance and the power of the man-made and God-inspired beauty against which they had set their hands.

It would be difficult to establish a greater antithesis than that between a pre-Reformation church — any one in any land — and the conventicle that succeeded it. In Europe and the British Isles new churches were not needed, while a good many of those that had been left over were destroyed as useless encumbrances. There all that needed to be done was to break up the altars, shrines, and tombs, to smash the stainedglass windows, whitewash the painted walls, mutilate the statues, and tear down a nave here, a choir or transepts there. Into the empty and desecrated shell was introduced a new type of service, barren of beauty of every kind, and the thing was done.

In the United States the situation was quite different. Here there was no old Catholic art to destroy, but churches (or ‘meeting houses’) had to be built, for even if ‘divine worship’ now consisted in the reading of passages from the Scriptures, some metrical psalms, extemporaneous prayers by the parson, and sermons that easily ran to two hours in length, a place had to be provided for these ‘exercises.’ The brickmasons, carpenters, and shipwrights did the best they could, according to their lights, and frequently did pretty well, especially when they were working for the aristocratic and ‘reactionary’ Church of England parishes, but they had to be content with the bare fabric; no art of any kind except that of building had a chance. The shell might have good proportions, simplicity of form, and honesty of construction, but within, it was as cold and dreary as its services.

Tradition still lingered, and this first ‘religious architecture’ was certainly as good as what was being produced in the mother country, sometimes better. When, early in the last century, tradition died of starvation and neglect as it always will under such circumstances, the end came swiftly, and for fifty years, with a very few exceptions, the churches built in America were without doubt the most barbarian, uncouth structures ever erected by man since Imhotep built his temples at Sakkarah.

Simultaneously, the old faith had been keeping step artistically with the new. There were no new churches to be built, but all the other arts pursued a career of progressive vulgarizing and deterioration. In America, Catholic art of every kind matched and sometimes exceeded Protestant art in flatulence and ineptitude. The severance between religion and beauty was finally accomplished.

I think this unprecedented break between religion and beauty had a good deal to do with the waning interest in religion itself. It was a case of interaction. The ‘age of reason and enlightenment’ had resulted in undermining the normal faith in spiritual realities and in persuading man that there were no valid sanctions beyond those he determined for himself by the process of ratiocination. At the same time Protestantism, with its derivative materialistic rationalism, was divesting religion of its essential elements of mystery and wonder, and worship of its equally essential elements of beauty. Under this powerful combination of destructive influences it is not surprising that the once faithful fell away and that youth refused to be bored by ineptitudes and offended by artistic sterility and vacuous ugliness.

It does not seem to me improbable that if once more beauty could be restored to the offices of religion, or rather if the redemptive process now under way could be carried to its ultimate conclusion, many who are now self-excommunicated from the Church would thankfully find their way back to the house they have abandoned, less from any fault of their own than from the failure and delinquency of formal religion itself, as these have been made only too visible to the naked eye.

So far, then, as this paper is concerned, the question is: If the way of beauty is one of the open roads to religion, how is it to be made available?

To this end I would see a new outpouring of artistic power inspired by a new consciousness of the sanctity of the church and its dynamic force. Once more a church should become a focus of beauty. The tendency to reduce it to the level of ‘the world without’; to secularize it into the semblance of a theatre or a lecture hall; to banish shrines and statues and pictures or sterilize them by the ‘modern touch’; to attempt a fictitious popularity by secular activities and startling and frequently uncouth novelties learned from the promoter, the efficiency expert, and the advertising agency— all this is but the sign of decadence and the surrender to the world: the selling of a birthright for a mess of pottage, which in the end proves to be without nutritive value.

The task has been well begun during the last few years, but it is uphill work. It has to contend against the strongest combination of prejudices and superstitions imaginable. These are of two sorts. There is, first, the heritage of ignorance and fear from the dark ages of the sixteenth century — I am speaking now of non-Catholic Christianity; ignorance of authentic history, fostered by protagonists of propaganda; fear of beauty because all that we now have in Christian art was engendered and formulated by and through the Catholic Faith; fear that the acceptance of beauty means that awful thing, ‘surrender to Popery.’ Second, there is the equally mistaken idea, already referred to, that religion may be made popular if it is affiliated to what we call modern civilization, and its formularies, its methods, and its outward showing through its buildings and its arts, made closely to follow the principles and tendencies of the times.

As Chesterton said: ‘There is no arguing with the choice of the soul.’ So in this case there is really nothing to be done except to wait and hope for the coming of further enlightenment — and a salutary banishment of fear. It is this, after all, that lies at the root of the matter, as it does in so many other fields of mental activity. If ever the world needed courage it is at this juncture, and the recovery of courage might well begin in religion and in its ways of outward expression.

Beauty is one of the ways of approach to religion. If, instead of building so many Sunday schools, parish houses, community centres, et cetera (useful as all these may be made), the Church would enter upon a consistent campaign for the restoration of beauty to those places where it preëminently belongs, results would follow. I know this is so because I have seen it happen in specific instances, in the case of parish churches and school and college chapels, where an early ugliness has been superseded by such a degree of beauty as it has been possible to accomplish in these latter, and much handicapped, days. Under the impact of a new and dynamic beauty, congregations have increased, sometimes doubled, while time after time those ‘who came to scoff have remained to pray.’

Beauty is man’s inalienable heritage; it is one of his natural rights, on a par with his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Modern civilization has denied him this right, giving him instead much ugliness of thought and act and environment. I do not think that this birthright can be restored to him except by concrete and operative religion. Religion, by cosmic necessity, brought art, which is the precipitation of beauty, into being. After four thousand years it became negligent of its trust; now if it will it can open the road so long closed, and by this road, not as the only path, but as one of many, an alienated world may come back to old loyalty and to a better way of life.