My article is in response to “The Fork in the Road: Religion, Philosophy and Art” by N. Katers. I found it very interesting because of my deep and abiding interest in religious ideas from my study of my own and other faiths, from the philosophy studies I’m currently undergoing, and from my love of art. I was intrigued by his ideas, but could not agree with his final findings.
The roots of his idea that art is a superior tool of enlightenment go back at least as far as the early 1920’s when Matthew Arnold’s ideas were popular at Cambridge and on other university campuses in Europe. Arnold stated that “Religion has attached itself to the fact, and now the fact is failing it; but for poetry the idea is everything.” This was also happening at the time when Darwin had published his works, and a veritable storm was brewing over this new idea of evolution replacing the creation in Genesis as the acceptable thought of world creation.
The religion-science conflicts seemed very deep. Arnold believed that religion was failing, and that art had to make up the moral difference. It’s a very attractive idea in some levels to think that it’s possible to live a moral life from art, from music, and from poetry. Coleridge himself was also a proponent of these ideas. He would say that, when reading poetry, you can suspend disbelief willingly, and thus have an emotional reaction to it, and be changed and affected in the same way that those who follow religion are changed and affected, even though the poem itself is not true.
There are some problems with this viewpoint, however. Mr. N. Katers points out the benefit of the universal nature of art; that it is available to everyone, and that is true. But it is an individualistic view. Art lacks the ability to make a group hold together, as religion does. How is morality to be learned and practiced in isolation?
Another problem is the problem of tragedy. Art often expresses tragedy, and acts as a catalyst for our own emotions. In that way, great art can be very satisfying on a personal level, but it is insufficient in holding us up personally in the face of our own tragedies. If a loved one dies, how is poetry supposed to help? What comfort would a play give to one who suffers from a painful disease?
How are we supposed to live AS IF certain moral values are true, divorced from the source from whence they spring? Who would have the strength to be honest with his fellow men because of a painting? We cannot gain strength enough to weather the challenges of life from art. Art, at its finest, is the servant of religion, not the other way around.
Art by itself as a moral teacher is insufficient because art, disconnected from religion, degenerates into misery. Look at the art that has come from the medieval and Renaissance periods, where so much of it was based around religious themes. Compare that to the art that has come to us in more recent times. Look at Goya, or Picasso, or Hemingway. Instead of greatness and courage, there is self-pity and cynicism and destruction.
On the question of philosophy, it is another tool and not the “bane of religion” at all. I believe the reference that was quoted in the article was that of I Corinthians 1:11. Actually, the reference extends further out to about verse 18, and is not concerning philosophy at all, but to divisions that existed amongst the members of the ancient church on points of doctrine. Some were claiming to find authority for the doctrine they were teaching from Apollos (not necessarily the god Apollo), or from Paul, or from Cephas.
Paul stated that the church’s doctrine was from Christ, and no other, and that those members of the church should follow after Christ, and no other man. He was emphasizing the need for the church to teach a unified doctrine, which was difficult to do amongst the far-flung churches in many lands, with converts coming from many traditions.
Philosophy is not completely independent of religion. Socrates, as he was portrayed by Plato, was concerned about reason and wisdom, but was first and foremost a strong theist. His discussions with Crito at the end of his life as recorded by Plato strongly suggest this, even though Socrates may have found the more popular gods of his day lacking. If our religion does not bear up under basic philosophical scrutiny, then it is right to question it, but religion very often goes beyond the reach of philosophy, which is concerned primarily with what can be seen and proven, and there is much of religion that is beyond our natural senses.
Philosophy concerns our ideas about the nature of the universe, and these have always changed over time, but the moral and religious truths are permanent. Facts that we have we must acknowledge and accept, but those facts continue to change. Thus they are not incompatible with religion, because we do not have a full knowledge of religious truth any more than we have a full knowledge of all facts in the universe. Until we have that full knowledge, different interpretations of facts are continually open for investigation and discussion, for which a study of the principles of philosophy are invaluable.
So I respectfully beg to differ with Mr. N. Katar on his conclusions. Art and philosophy, in both their origin and their practice, serve as the tools of religion. I know that those who feel askance towards any religion of any kind will disagree with me out of hand, but in this world of unanswered questions, there is nothing else, no other road that can adequately take its place. The only other path is despair. There is more to life than simply knowledge. There is that peace that surpasses all understanding.