Great artistic expressions and the finest music doesn’t seek to please you.
Bishop Robert Barron provided several examples of this. His first example involves the Woody Allen movie Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. The plot centers on two American women, Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson). They spend a summer in Barcelona where they meet an artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He is attracted to both of them while still enamored of his mentally and emotionally unstable ex-wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz). The Bishop says that the issue with the characters in Vicky Christina Barcelona is that “What they all do, to varying degrees, is to reduce true, meaningful love relationships to the level of good food and music and art; something that satisfies at the aesthetic level.” The problem is that it never goes deeper.
Barron continues with another example and that is “second-rate” art. This includes music heard in an elevator or a doctor’s waiting room or paintings that hang in hotel rooms or corporate lobbies. They’re meant simply to provide low-level decor or a mild distraction or a feeling of calm in the listener. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, its likable, but it presents no challenge to the sensibilities of the one who takes it in.
A great and true work of art or a fine piece of music does not aim to please you. It challenges you. It presents itself with an integrity on its own terms. It is totally indifferent to the reaction of the viewer or listener. It doesn’t care what you think, and your opinion about it doesn’t matter.
What about faith and religion?
The 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, thought there were three stages to spiritual maturity:
- The aesthetic / beautiful
- The moral / ethical
- The religious.
The aesthetic is easiest. Few doubt the power that a beautiful song, painting, film or book can have over our imagination. The not-so-pleasant news, is that the journey toward truth – demands much more than an appreciation of the aesthetic and the beautiful.
And that is the problem with those skeptical about faith and religion. Like the Woody Allen movie, some people only want the good stuff – the art, the beauty, the pleasure, the good food and drink and entertainment. That’s why a lukewarm, vanilla Christianity and unserious “spirituality” can garner our allegiance with ease. We can keep the nice parts of spirituality as comforting distractions requiring nothing of us except “oooohs” and “awwws.”
BUT – it can just as easily be jettisoned.
The not-so-pleasant news, is that the journey toward truth — about art, about music, about life, about faith, about God – demands much more than an appreciation of the beautiful. And that journey toward truth — about a real Christian faith — demands much more than an appreciation of the beautiful. The jump from the “aesthetic” to the “ethical,” and then finally the “religious” – that’s hard and it’s awkward and it’s scary and it’s demanding. It keeps coming back with questions like the woman at the well in today’s Gospel. And quite frankly – like good art, according to Bishop Barron, doesn’t really care what you think. Great art, like great prayer, like great love, like great religion – doesn’t please you – it changes you.
So here’s where the statements of the religious skeptic break down. They typically go in two directions.
- “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.”
- Religion and faith is outdated. They are pre-scientific. They believe in make-believe things that you don’t see – the way children think. Whereas SCIENCE is rational, emperically based, self examining and self correcting. They will say something like, “Isn’t it great the western civilization has moved away from superstition and into clear minded enlightened space of reason?”
This betrays a total misunderstanding about faith, about religion and – ultimately – about God. I’ll use scientific method and emperical evidence to prove it.
You’re a teenager and you go to a dance or party. In a room you see dozens of people but one person catches your eye. You observe them, find them attractive and eventually find out their name. What do you do next? You go home and you do a Google search “about” that person.
So you now know them, correct?
No. That’s “data.” You know about them. You don’t know them. You start “knowing” the person when you first meet them. Then something mystical and magical happens – THAT PERSON SPEAKS. They begin to tell you about them-self. They reveal aspects about them-self that you find attractive – or unattractive – but that you could never find on Google. You begin to know a person through an encounter that you could not achieve any other way.
This inevitably leads to you having to make a decision: Do I believe him/her or not? Google search won’t give you the answer. The realm of empirical data won’t give you the answer. The scientific method won’t give you the answer. You have to decide – based on evidence – but mostly on trust and belief – whether or not it is TRUE.
THIS IS TRUE FAITH
Faith is moment of trust. Faith says, “I accept the truth about you – and what you have revealed to me about who you are.” Only when you have FAITH in that person – can you begin to love that person. And like Kierkegaard’s three stages of faith, love doesn’t stay at the level of beauty. It has to go deeper. It challenges you.
Two closing points – First, this all does not mean that, when learning about the person, you sacrifice the “Google search” You don’t leave that behind. St. Thomas Aquinas writes that true Catholic faith NEVER involves sacrificium intellectus. Sacrificing your mind is one of the sure signs that you are NOT dealing with authentic faith – that you are not dealing with the truth. But you can’t use science to get to relationship. It is a false notion to state, “I will only believe about you and love you in as far as I can determine it through analytical reason.” That is basically saying “I will only accept what I can absolutely control.” You’ve “objectified” to person. Good luck with that first date.
Second point – Faith and love and religion are not about dogmas and rules, and dusty books and old men in robes in Rome. Faith – like love – is not a feeling or a private sentimental conviction. Faith in God isn’t saying, “Well, I will love you because you love me and you do nice things for me.” That isn’t a relationship. It’s reciprocal egotism.
Faith and love are about an encounter – with a person. Faith and love are about a relationship – with a person. Faith and love are about a conversation- with a person – who speaks to you.
So – like the woman at the well – you have to make a choice … Is what God saying to you, and revealing about himself to you – true? Will you believe him or not? Will you enter into that relationship with him – or not?
Audio version of the homily is here: