The unusual sub-freezing temperatures that gripped much of the U.S.A. in the first months of this year brought hardship and suffering to financially challenged persons, especially the elderly who are locked in with a fixed income. Why is it that in a country with so much affluence (despite the downturn of the stock market) the poor and elderly are sometimes faced with choosing between paying for heating fuel or purchasing food and medication? At the same time that billions or trillions of dollars are being allocated for a “preventive war,” funding for nutrition, health care, and education are being cut back.
Those of us more fortunate have been able to ignore the rigors of the cold outside, by curling up in a comfortable chair in a heated room with a work of fiction in hours saved from the demands of teaching and researching theology. In the last several months, there has been no shortage of engrossing stories, some of them nominated for awards such as the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. During the break between semesters, I was able to enjoy the winner of the first place, Yann Martels delightful novel Life of Pi about a young boy marooned on a life raft in the Pacific with a Bengali tiger. Several other books from the top five Booker list helped me prescind from the whistling winds and swirling snow outdoors. Among them were William Trevots The Story of Lucy Gault and Carol Shieldss Unless. From the U.S. literary scene, I discovered Alice Sebolds mesmerizing novel, The Lovely Bones, the much acclaimed story narrated by a murdered 14-year-old girl from her new home in heaven. Apart from being rewarded in the realms of imagination, I felt invited to expand my theological search for understanding the human situation. Each of these novels offers insights into what theology tries to articulate about grace, sin and repentance, the afterlife, ecology, and multifarious other themes. Although theologians dont often admit it, the fact is that our reflections and meditations on God and humans remain sterile and lifeless without the stimulus of characters we discover, both in real life and especially in fiction or biography. Curricula in theology departments may include an occasional optional course devoted to “Theology and Literature” but continued involvement between theological reflection and literary narratives, however much needed, is rare.
Other artistic mediums serve similar purposes. For those willing to venture outdoors and fortunate to purchase tickets, there is the excitement of plays and films, trips to museums, tours of architectural landmarks. For theologians who experience a revival of Chekhovs Uncle Vanya or a touring production of Michael Frayns Copenhagen, it is hard to imagine that such dramatic embodiments of personal and political challenges will not impact ones theological anthropology. Thoughtful films not only stir our imagination but invite us to ponder our moral challenges. As the season for Golden Globes and Oscars approaches, movies such as The Hours depicting the troubled life and death of the author of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, or About Schmidt, the telling of the crippling effects of mourning, ageing, communication breakdowns, allow us to contemplate the living and the dead. Even the fantastic non-human depictions in films of J. R. Tolkiens The Lord of the Rings raise questions about whether other intelligent creatures apart from ourselves may co-exist in our cosmos.
Musical performances also, especially opera, whether featuring a religious theme such as Olivier Messiaens St. Franois dAssise or depicting secular events such as John Coriglianos Ghosts of Versailles, lift us out of the here and now, and remind us that we are created for Beauty. Some find this invitation to transcendence in contemplating on site or in books the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or Santiago Calatrava or Alvar Aalto.
Because of recent crises in the Catholic Church, theologians have been more drawn to focus on the teachings of Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, neglecting in many instances the challenges of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, especially two remarkable chapters comprising Part One, namely Chapter Three: “Humanitys Activity in the Universe” and Chapter Four: “The Role of the Church in the Modern World.” The emphasis in the latter chapter is not on what the Church can offer the modern world, but rather what the Church receives from the world of learning and beauty especially from “artisans of a new humanity.” One sentence from Chapter Four of the constitution articulates this conviction eloquently: “With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the whole people of God, particularly of its bishops and theologians, to listen to and distinguish the many voices of our times and to interpret them in the light of Gods word, in order that the revealed truth may be more deeply penetrated, better understood, and more suitably presented” (Gaudium et spes no. 44). We cannot meet our demands as theologians without being open to the voices and images of artists.