In a recent interview, Mary Gordon, one of the brightest young novelists in America, commented on the Catholicism that she was raised on and how she feels about the church today.
For her, Roman Catholicism, both of the past and of today, has an impressive aesthetics. There is a beauty in its form and its (classical) language that has the power to hold her. She speaks less impressively of its content.
Asked whether she still goes to church, she replied: “Sometimes, I can’t say that it shapes my life in a central way. It’s not that I never desire to go or that I feel nothing when I go. I like hearing the gospels read and I like feeling that I’m in a room with people who at least pretend to believe these words that are of great beauty.
“I like being in a large room with a lot of different kinds of people . . . all of whom have their hearts tilted towards one thing which, at its best, I find very beautiful.”
In the same interview, at one point, she comments on how she felt as a young girl, going to the Latin Mass:
“It had a kind of austerity and richness in form and language and sensuality that was wonderful training, that really created a standard of aesthetic formality. I was utterly absorbed in it.
“Religious Catholics (then) would be ashamed to talk about the beauty of the Mass, as if it were a work of art. It was utterly functional; it was the vessel that housed the truths by which you lived.
“To consider it a species of beauty rather than truth, rather than an utterly sacred vehicle for transformation that they believed to be real—they actually believed that bread and wine were turned into the body and blood of Christ—to reduce the immensely powerful and important experience to mere beauty would have been unthinkable” (Catholic New Times, June 27,1993).
I am not sure where exactly Mary Gordon, herself, lands on all of this, whether she sees the language and ritual of Catholicism simply the way an aesthete might see a well-done ballet or whether she admits, as well, the existence of God and the communion of saints underneath. She never quite tips her hand.
What her comments do serve to express, however, is a certain atheism, a practical bracketing of God’s existence, that is today quite common within theological and church circles. Simply put, for more and more people today faith is more a question of aesthetics than it is of truth. In such a view, religion is not judged as true or false on the basis of the existence or non-existence of the realities that it claims underlie it.
Does God actually exist or not? No, religion is judged not to its truth. Rather it is seen to be of value if its language, ritual and moral code, analogous to a work of art, have the power to catch one’s heart. Less and less is religion focused on God and more and more is it focused on us.
This is not all bad. Real truth does focus on you—and it often takes your breath away. It has, precisely, a burning aesthetics which has you looking back on many things and saying: “Were not our hearts burning within us!” I suspect it is because of this that Mary Gordon still feels drawn to church. More than a little faith and truth are carried in aesthetics.
But in the end, not enough of them are. There is no salvation in aesthetics alone. Faith and truth need to be carried by other things—private prayer and a personal relationship to God—as well.
Otherwise it doesn’t take long before someone looks at Christian worship (either with the cold gaze of the pure analyst or with the con- descending stare of the someone pitying the naive) and sincerely says: “They actually believe that bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ,” as if belief in the transcendent and the miraculous were simple superstition!
What is missing in reflections such as Mary Gordon’s is any reference to the actual existence of God. Christianity is approached the way we approach a great centre for the arts: Great masters have created beautiful things and put them there. These things move us deeply . . . but it is incidental, of no importance whatever, that the masters who created those treasures are now themselves dead. The treasures alone are important. Nobody prays to a dead artist.
But Christianity asks that we pray to a live existent God. It also asks that we actually believe in some rather miraculous things, including the truth that bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.