In his book, The Divine Milieu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin confesses that throughout his life he was haunted by two great loves, God and pagan beauty. Both had the power to take his breath away. To feel the reality of God, he says, is to be overwhelmed by something so profound that all else is dwarfed. However, to look at pagan beauty, the loveliness of this earth and so much of what’s in it, is also to be held captive by a power so great that, for a moment at least, all else seems unimportant. In this world, he submits, there are two great enticements, the reality of God and the stunning beauty of paganism.
The stunning beauty of paganism! How fierce its attraction! How near to God its power! But the reality of God is also real and enticing, even more so than the grip of this world. To live with open eyes and an open heart is, as Teilhard submits, to find oneself painfully torn between two worlds that are not easy to keep in harmony. Invariably we sell one out for the other. How? In one of three ways:
Distortion. If we are religious, the danger is that, in the name of God, we will ignore and denigrate the real beauty of this world and see its glories and achievements as superficial and unimportant, crass and ignoble in comparison to eternal things. There is always the danger of living a one-sided religion that sets God against this world. God and pagan beauty are made out to be competitors and we are forced to choose one over the over. Teilhard calls this distortion since, in such a view, the true order of things is indeed distorted because created beauty is denigrated or denied in the name of claiming a place for God.
Passing strange, but it is not just religious people who are prone to this type of distortion. We see this all over, whenever some value is seen to be so important (godly) that in its face simple beauty is judged to be superficial. To offer one such example: Camille Paglia, an iconoclast feminist, made this particularly poignant, insightful comment on her generation of feminists. A paraphrase: “What’s wrong with our generation, the fifty-something radicals, is that we can’t accept the fact that we have all this learning, all these degrees, have written all these books, have all this maturity, but if a seventeen year-old girl walks into the room she has more power (in that particular moment) than any of us – because there’s a beauty in a seventeen year-old body that in a given situation is more powerful than all the degrees and learning in the world. So we want to change the rules, as if it were possible to change this! But, and this is the point, that beauty, the beauty of that young body, should be honoured, because it’s beautiful and it’s temporary.”
A second attitude is that of disgust, the opposite of distortion. It’s the attitude we take when we become so taken by pagan beauty so as to feel that other-world, especially its call for self-renunciation and for a perspective beyond the present moment, is repugnant and dehumanizing. The effort then is to try to live a full human life by deliberately pulling away from all that is not directly of the goodness and beauty of this life. This attitude too sets God and pagan beauty in opposition and forces us to make an unhappy choice between the two.
A third option is one that Teilhard calls division. We live this out when we give up the attempt to bring God and pagan beauty into harmony and simply live a divided, schizophrenic life. We compartmentalize the two, God and pagan beauty, keeping them separate from each other. We take God seriously and we take pagan beauty seriously, but never at the same time.
Neither of these is a happy solution. What is the solution? How do we take both God and pagan beauty seriously? How do we give them both their due? Karl Rahner affirmed that the secret here is to see created beauty against the horizon of the infinite. That’s correct, theoretically, but how do we do this practically?
By never denying, denigrating, or ignoring any beauty or any truth that we see, pagan or divine. By being honest, pure and simple. What takes your breath away takes your breath away! Never pretend otherwise. God and pagan beauty are both real, but they are not in our lives as two warring parties that must be brought to a neutral table for a negotiated settlement, but are two storms on a collision course. Be true to both and see what happens. Let the storm takes its course, trusting that the Author of all beauty, pagan and divine, will, while respecting both your struggle and the legitimate reality of pagan beauty, gently lead you into that great harmony within which nothing is lost and everything has its proper place and value.