Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Potential of Art and the Limits of Rigid Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred


The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting
popular culture becomes, the more we need
the truth of a beautifully phrased song,
dredged from a real person’s depth of experience,
delivered in an honest voice; the more we need
the simplicity of paint on canvas,
or the arc of a lonely body in the air,
or the photographer’s unflinching eye.


– Rosanne Cash



I have to say that the older I get the more I realize that the most appropriate language of humanity’s attempt to grapple with the mystery of God is not the language of catechesis, doctrine and dogma but rather of poetry, metaphor, myth and art. The former, it seems to me, is generally far too crude in its absolutism to even begin to acknowledge let alone explore the complexity, diversity, beauty and mystery of the sacred’s presence and action in and through human experience
.

Yes, I understand that the desire for absolute certainty is a very human one, but in our pursuit of such certainty we tend to create rigid, monolithic and very absolutist institutions that accordingly are very dehumanizing. Indeed, they become the very antithesis of what Jesus was all about.


A false god

It shouldn’t have to be this way, of course. Yet without doubt we’re witnessing in our time and across the religious spectrum a rise in fundamentalist thinking and the subsequent lifting up of rigid orthodoxy to the status of a false god. Mind you, orthodoxy doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In fact I don’t think of orthodoxy as an idol demanding unquestioning obedience but as a way of the church as the people of God simply (and humbly) saying this is the best we can say about this or that issue given what we currently know.


In a recent article over at The Progressive Catholic Voice, my friend Bob highlights the tragic trend within Catholicism of reducing orthodoxy to the level of idolatry (and thus rigidity and stagnation) when he notes that “the Roman leadership has spiraled further and further into a more aggressive absolutist, monarchical and judgmental kind of leadership that . . . has embraced a power that is neither pastoral nor loving.”

A visitor to The Wild Reed recently commented: “The clerical Church has pretty much banished art since it has banished any honest expression of human feeling.” There is a connection between this observation and Bob’s as encouraging and honoring the “honest expression of human feeling” is what being pastoral and loving, i.e., a follower of Jesus, is all about.

To be sure, there is a definite link between “honest expression of human feeling” (and all that such expression entails – vulnerability, trust, compassion, community and relationships) and the creation of art. And the power of art, as Jamake Highwater reminds us, resides in its capacity to “awaken imagery within us, to compound mystery with more mystery, and to illuminate [and I would say connect us to] the unknown without reducing it to the commonplace.” It’s a link and a capacity that rigid orthodoxy has a hard time grasping and expressing. Accordingly, I don’t consider such orthodoxy to be an authentic expression of religion.


A deeper strata of truth

Indeed, I resonate with John Haught when in
What Is Religion? he notes: “Religion is not in the same category of understanding as, for example, knowledge of the multiplication tables. It hardly possesses that kind of clarity and distinctness. People do not become religious simply by performing automatic operations in logic. Religion instead is closer to interpersonal kinds of experience and knowledge” that open people to the reality of the sacred.

Similarly, I appreciate filmmaker Werner Herzog’s understanding of “the deeper strata of truth in cinema . . . [the] poetic, ecstatic truth [that is] mysterious and elusive” and which can only be reached “through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

Anyway, I mention all of this as recently I finished reading Rosanne Cash’s memoir Composed in which she similarly reflects on the role of art in the spiritual life and the limits of rigid orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that appears to have been her experience of religion as a child in a Catholic school.

I’ll close this post (as I began it) with Rosanne’s words of insight and beauty.


We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen. The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person’s depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice; the more we need the simplicity of paint on canvas, or the arc of a lonely body in the air, or the photographer’s unflinching eye. Art, in the larger sense, is the lifeline to which I cling in a confusing, unfair, sometime dehumanizing world. In my childhood, the nuns and priests insisted, sometimes in a shrill and punitive tone, that religion was where God resided and where I might find transcendence. I was afraid they were correct for so many years, and that I was the one at fault for not being able to navigate the circuitry of dogma and ritual. For me, it turned out to be a decoy, a mirage framed in sound and fury. Art and music have proven to be more expansive, more forgiving, and more immediately alive. For me, art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion.


Recommended Off-site Link:
Cash Walks the Line – Jon Bream (Star Tribune, August 28, 2010).


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Wisdom and Beauty of Rosanne Cash
”Movin’ On” with Rosanne Cash
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 3)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 4)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 5)
The Catholic Challenge
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
The Journal of James Curtis: Part 6 – Father Brandon


2 comments:

Mareczku said...

I read with horror the story of how a young boy was trained not to be a "sissy boy." If he did masculine things he got blue chips. (Not sure of the color.) If he did things that were not masculine he got red chips. When he got a certain number if blue chips, he got a treat. When he got too many red chips he got a spanking. Ah, the joys of NARTH and their propaganda. Just think, if you are a little boy and like art and music you are defective and deserve punishment. If you like sports and getting into fights you are normal and deserve rewards. I want to thank you for your previous comment on NARTH and exposing them.

brian gerard said...

A thoughtful and well written post Michael. Doesn't it point to just leaving churches behind in favor of a truly lived experience of Christ in the world?