Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Religion and art

I've only read reviews of Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity; but those reviews, whilst uniformly respectful and even enthusiastic, suggest that one of the arguments is that the truth of religion is like the truth of art rather than (say) the truth of science. It's a familiar thesis. Here's John Cornwell's summary [FT, Sept 12-13]:
“I make no pronouncement as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is true,” [MacCulloch] warns us. “Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet true?” he asks. “It never happened”, he goes on, “but it seems to me to be much more true ... than the reality of the breakfast I ate this morning, which was certainly true in a banal sense.”

The comment locates the author squarely within the concluding drift of his own history. For the culmination of 2,000 years of the Christian religion in secular societies has widely resulted in the relegation of Christianity’s realism to the ambit of imagination, comparable to art. Would you die for your personal interpretation of Hamlet? Most of the battles fought between Christians down the centuries, and between Christians and non-Christians, have been precisely over the hard realism of religion, as opposed to its soft metaphorical values. Who would object, including scientist Richard Dawkins, to the soft “realism” of uplifting fiction? Once the Book of Genesis is taken as a myth rather than a realist account of the origins of the world, it takes the sting out of the heated science-religion polemic unleashed by Darwin’s theory of evolution.
I think I'd have more respect for this argumentative strategy by theologians if they followed-through with it. If, for instances, they showed more respect for, and put some intellectual effort into writing about, religious practice literally derived from art: the Jedi religion, for instance. They don't do so, I suspect, because they don't in their hearts take such things seriously. But doesn't such a reaction radically undermine their position? (You'll notice I don't say anything about whether the Jedi religion, as it manifests in our world, merits being taken seriously; I don't need to, because I'm not trying to advance the case that Christianity is true after the manner that Hamlet is true.)


David Moles said...

Well, it's the quality of the fiction, innit? Lewis & Tolkien were convinced the Gospels were the greatest story ever written. I'm not, myself, but I'll admit they beat Star Wars hollow. Particularly if you throw in tie-ins and fanfic.

Adam Roberts Project said...

I don't think that's it, though. What I mean is: I agree with you about the respective aesthetic merits of those texts, but the sort of claim being advanced by theologians doesn't depend upon the aesthetics as such, but rather upon the veracity, in some existential sense. They have to, I guess, or they get into some awkward knots: if the Qu'ran is a greater aesthetic achievement than the New Testament, say (and there's a case to be made: some of the poetry of the suras is tremendous; and a good chunk of the Bible is pretty stodgy qua art), does that make Islam a truer religion than Christianity? Clearly Christian theologians wouldn't want to go down that root.

More broadly, of course, this is a response to Dawkins, or to the cultural momentum to which Dawkins has gotten his name attached. So, whilst there's a lot that's objectionable to what Dawkins argues, I'd still say that his main point, about religion not being true, is a strong one. One response from various believers has been: 'religion may not be true in the manner that science is true, but that's not the only specie of truth. Great art is "true" in a non-scientific sense, and religion is like that.' It's a neat rhetorical move, and it leaves a lot of believers comfortably going on with their beliefs untroubled by Dawkinsesque literalism; but I'm not convinced it's an argument that's been very thoroughly thought-through.

Adam Roberts Project said...

'...go down that route ...'

Ugh. Tired.

David Moles said...

I wonder. I suspect an intellectually consistent Christian theologian would allow your argument but fall back on the subjectivity of art. Hamlet's clearly more true than Coriolanus, but is it necessarily either more or less true than The Brothers Karamazov?

Adam Roberts Project said...

Yes: although it seems to me that if it's going to work it needs to work on more than just a level of content. Do we think of Karamazov (say) as being of more 'religious' worth because of all those edifying dialogues it contains about good, evil, sin and salvation? Or because it does something uniquely as a novel that a church sermon couldn't?

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

What I actually would say, personally, is that the truth of religion is neither precisely the truth of art nor the truth of science, but a third thing. But the different "truths" of art and science are valuable to refer to when you want to roll your eyes at people going "See? The Hebrew Bible's cures for leprosy are totally out of date so that must invalidate the whole thing, right?"

The Bible is a very poor guide to medicine, cosmology, geohistory, and many other aspects of physical reality; some of it is also clunky as art (though a lot less, in the original Hebrew); and most of it is appalling if read in a superficial way as an ethical manual. But it's not a science textbook, (merely) a work of art, or a simple ethical text -- though of those, work of art comes the closest. It's something else again.

I wouldn't die for my personal interpretation of Hamlet, but lots of people do die for the truth of art -- the Gulag archipelago was full of them. Renaissance Popes were just as eager to turn satirists and other renegade artists over to the Inquisition as they were to turn over Copernicans. The right to speak the truth of the world is a crucial right, for any realm of truth.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Interesting stuff, Benjamin. I don't believe you intend to be vague, and it's possible by your own lights you're not being vague ... but I'll confess it reads a little vaguely to me. What is this 'third thing'? Or is the point that it can't be pinned down?

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Huh, it seemed pretty straightforward to me. When I go to synagogue and daven, I am not participating in a scientific inquiry -- and I certainly don't think of myself as engaging in any kind of thaumaturgical excercise of propitiating some big, powerful, easily flattered or pissed off supervillain in the sky to give me more goodies and not kill me, which is the conclusion that a reading of the scriptural tradition as "science" and of prayer as "engineering" would lead you to.

What I am doing is in fact more like art, but it's not exactly art. It isn't that we are play-acting, or producing a purely aesthetic effect. What we are doing is "religion", which seems to me to be straightforwardly a third thing. To imagine that it follows the methodology of science and engineering -- or attempts to, producing a competing account of physical reality and its manipulation -- is to misunderstand it, at least as I know it, completely. To consider it to simply be art is closer, but is still to miss something.

I'm president of a religious congregation and on its religious committee. I can tell you that when the religious committee works with the rabbi to think about the service, we never say "but are we following the proper steps to propitiate the deity and atone sufficiently such that we will avoid divine wrath and achieve divine favor?" Honestly: it doesn't come up. (That some people still imagine today that we are doing this makes me skeptical about whether this traditional account of religious doings in fact ever obtained, though I am willing to accept that it might have at some point in history.)

What we are doing is much closer to managing a theater production. What should be the entrances and exits, how can we get the kids involved, what will appeal to whom? How much of what kinds of truth, what emotional effects (joy, contemplativeness, peace, warmth, connection, excitement, restless inquiry...?) and what intellectual challenges and openings can we produce with the resources, the timespan, the audience, the materials available?

But a secular ethnologist who saw us purely constructing a piece of theater would be missing a crucial piece of what's going on. Maybe the best way for a secular person to understand what's going on is to think about weddings. A wedding planning meeting would similarly resemble a theatrical production, but one can see where the bride and groom would be a bit insulted by the notion that what they are doing is entirely theater. They are not playing at getting married; they are getting married. They might greet the ethnologist who believes them to be engaged in a purely esthetic exercise with more equanamity than one who asks "but aren't you concerned that if you do not cast the proper spells and perform the proper rituals, you will not have created the proper extrauniversal 'marriagium' which will endow your union with fertility and durability?"; but the former ethnologist is still a bit in the dark about the reason for their seriousness of purpose, which is distinct from a purely artistic seriousness of purpose.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Again, very interesting Benjamin ... thank you for your detailed, eloquent reply to my question.

I have to concede that standing on the outside of the sweetshop staring in may put me in the wrong place properly to grok what's going on in terms of religious observance. My wife's Jewish, and when she goes to synagogue (so she tells me) she's motivated not by any investment in the metaphysical side of things, but rather by a desire taking her place in, and in bringing our kids into, a particular community. That, I take it, is what you're saying too.

I can see the merit in that; I really can. But I don't see that this is an aesthetic thing: it's not art, it's (to repeat myself) community. It has more in common with going to see a football match, or attending a science fiction convention, than it has with a poem by Yeats or a painting by Van Gogh.