How can the Church express sacred things to a desacralized world? It is an urgent question that defies easy answer. The commendable desire to make the sacred attractive and approachable too often slips into making it cheap, arid, even tacky. Yet the well-meaning corrective impulse risks obscuring the sacred by expressing it in forms and practices that many find incomprehensible. Fifty years ago, the French Jesuit Jean Danielou devoted a fascinating little book to the question. Prayer as a Political Problem addresses the politics of the poor—the problem of creating the conditions that make the gospel accessible to the mass of mankind. The problem is not new but is newly pressing, Danielou argues, in a technologized, scientistic, and profoundly materialist world that values production over contemplation, tends “to turn men away from their spiritual calling,” (p. 17) and makes a lively interior life—a life of prayer—difficult or impossible. At times somewhat quaint in its descriptions of the Age of Technology and at others rather too optimistic about technology’s potential for good, the book nonetheless makes a sound case for Christian engagement in public life for the sake of the poor. More particularly, it insists that making the sacred accessible to everyman, embedded as he is in technocratic materialism, is an inescapable Christian duty. The trouble is how; how to present the ineffable to a world that has been conditioned to think that everything is, well, effable? Danielou’s enticingly simple answer is: art.
Before assessing his answer, we need to lay out the components of his argument in more detail. “Politics” has a broad and thick meaning here: it is the whole sphere of the temporal common good, and all of the various institutions that contribute to it. “Poor,” too, means not just the materially poor but “the undistinguished and unprivileged, those who lack money, education, and rank,” who “form the great mass of mankind” (pp. 11, 10). “Prayer” is the interior life of man seeking God and is a constitutive element of all religions, Christianity included. Religion, in turn, is a constitutive element of the common good. It follows, for the sake of the common good, that politics—again, in the broad and thick sense—must concern itself with creating the conditions that will allow the mass of mankind to engage in prayer. But even a minimum life of prayer requires a certain minimum of time and of solitude, which fast-moving technological civilization and “relentlessly collective” urban life make nearly impossible (p. 32). More pointedly, prayer is impossible—for most—in a desacralized world, a world organized without reference to anything sacred, one in which the “framework of living” is no longer shaped by “constantly renewed contact with sacred things” (p. 34). It is with that world that the politics of the poor must contend.
Danielou’s chief target is a Christianity that is inaccessible to any but a spiritual elite. Jesus Christ came to the poor, to the tax collector in the corner, to the bureaucrat in the faceless office building, to “all and sundry, the undistinguished and unqualified, the men in the street” (p. 29). Yet most of us live and move and have our being in an environment that is, to put it mildly, not conducive to a life of prayer. More on why in a moment, but first a clarification. Danielou is not a Christian populist. He is not suggesting that the Church dilute her teaching or yield to democratic whims. He is invoking St. Augustine’s image of the Church as a large and motley catch of fish. He is also a thoroughgoing sacralist who sees that a life of prayer is impossible for most people without some help from outside. “If monks feel the need to create an environment in which they will find prayer possible, if they think that prayer is not possible without certain conditions of silence, solitude, and rule, what are we to say of the mass of mankind? Should prayer be the privilege of a small spiritual aristocracy, and should the bulk of Christian people be excluded from it?” (p. 28) That is the danger: that Christianity will become a sort of detached Pythagorean brotherhood accessible to those only who can retreat from the world of relentlessly materialistic production and consumption to the conditions that make a life of prayer and contemplation possible.
That danger has always existed, of course. But the danger is heightened, Danielou submits, in a world that recognizes no mediator between the temporal and spiritual orders, which we have not just artificially split but violently divorced from each other. That claim calls for some elaboration, although its elements should sound familiar. On the one hand, the Church maintains that the temporal and spiritual are aspects of one reality, and the study or experience of the one should lead to the other. Physics points to metaphysics, “the sphere of the spiritual is as rigorous a discipline as that of any of the profane sciences,” and theology is “as much a science as physics or linguistics” (p. 39). But on the other hand, centuries of insoluble doctrinal controversy, the privatization of religion, and the segregation of theology as a discipline have left a chasm between the two orders. In simple terms, the spiritual and temporal aspects of reality—assuming the former exists at all—are generally supposed to have nothing to say to or about one another. Meanwhile, scientific discovery and technological development have filled the disenchanted void left by the retreat of the sacred. That is not a Luddite observation. Danielou is, if anything, a little too keen on the ability of scientific progress to “awaken a new consciousness” that is “more creative, more universal, and more organized” (p. 69). But he also denounces technological culture’s ignorance of “whole realms of reality” (p. 61) and scientism’s dogma of salvation through technocratic progress.
To be a bit more specific about the danger: when the world of nature is no longer understood to reveal something about deeper reality—when the material universe “is seen exclusively as a network of physical relations and not in its ontological dimension” (p. 121)—and the discoveries of science are interpreted in light of, and further reinforce, that impoverished understanding, then the powerful and accessible images that used to mediate between the orders of reality no longer serve that function. The sun, to take Danielou’s simple example, is no longer a sign of light, life, and justice. It is merely a glorified fusion reactor. Of course, nothing about the discovery that the sun is a fusion reactor means that we shouldn’t any longer understand it to express something about the attributes of Christ. But in fact we do not, because we have interpreted that discovery in light of (see, we can’t escape the metaphor) our prior assumptions about the nature of reality. And so we have lost a potent but everyday sign of the sacred. The problem runs even deeper than Danielou observes. To borrow from the Thomists, the study of nature rightly understood helps us think in terms of forms with inclinations to final ends. Those categories in turn help us grasp the concept of the image of God in man and its tendency toward greater likeness, its end. Lose those categories, as we are likely to do on the assumptions of materialist scientism, and the gospel as a pilgrimage toward God is suddenly less intelligible.
In sum, the danger that always existed is heightened because the everyday images and categories that once expressed the sacred to those of us who are not heroes of faith, and helped us limp along, have been robbed of their deeper meaning. Those who can’t withdraw to a life of contemplation are left adrift: dimly sensing, in Brunetiere’s words, “science’s radical inability to resolve questions of first and final things” (p. 42) but without a readily accessible medium that can translate the claims of the spiritual order into the language of the temporal. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that we seize on the distraction afforded by technological progress and consecrate ourselves to the production of material goods. (In an inadvertent prediction of the smartphone, Danielou remarks: “man grows into a screen which shuts off the sight of God, or a lens which concentrates attention and admiration upon himself” (p. 79).)
So that is the problem: how to express the sacred to the mass of mankind in a desacralized and demystified world? Art, Danielou proposes, should be our translator. Far from eclipsing the sacred, scientific knowledge “opens out upon” it and “comes by way of the infinitely small”—and large—“to that which is symbolic of the spiritual” (pp. 70, 75). Art can mediate between the realm of the sacred and the apparently disenchanted world by portraying accessibly the profundity of the discoveries of science. Art can also impose meaningful order on the data those discoveries reveal about the relationship of things to one another. In short, art can draw up the “constitution of a sacred cosmos” by representing “the sacral universe” and our place in it (p. 77). Danielou sums up splendidly: “The world of beauty is the world of intermediary hierarchies which are irradiated with the glory that cascades down from the Trinity even into the formless opacity of matter. The beautiful is the world of forms between that which is above form, being the sphere of God, and that which has no form at all, being mere matter. The modern world shuts out that intermediate order. It recognizes nothing between scientific thinking and mystical possession, and in so doing denies completely the sphere which it is the function of art to reconstitute by giving back the universe its depths” (pp. 77–78).
There is the seed of an intriguing idea here. To tie it back to the politics of the poor, as Brent Bozell puts it, “the beautiful is sensible, not intellectual or moral,” and so “it is always accessible to, and lures the poor” (p. 140). “Christian politics,” he agrees with Danielou, “will have to become centrally concerned with art” (p. 140). This is all very appealing. We can imagine Christians making a concerted effort to become patrons of beauty—from the music played on the radio to the buildings that the mass of humanity must walk or drive by every day. Unfortunately, Danielou’s treatment is long on vision and short on practical details. What kind of art? Does art encompass painting, sculpture, music, architecture? Books, movies? Fashion? Is art interchangeable with beauty, or at least applied beauty? How does it bear on liturgical practice? And how exactly, in practical terms, does it take on the difficult task of translator—how does it order and present the fullness of reality in a way that makes regular contact with the sacred possible and cultivates the conditions necessary for a life of prayer? We need more direction. After all, it is not as though Christians embedded in technological culture haven’t tried communicating the sacred through art, broadly defined. But so many Christian attempts at art—from church art to popular art—assume the self-expressive and utilitarian premises that underpin most contemporary “art” in all its crude and brute conceit. Christian popular art often just follows the trends, sanitizes a bit, and offers sappy songs set to flat music with lyrics that are hard to distinguish from bad erotic poetry, or movies with saccharine storylines, two-dimensional characters, and in-your-face moralisms. And for every beautiful church that escaped the iconoclastic ravages of modern church design, there is an architectural or aesthetic monstrosity that can fail to distract only the disembodied or the truly steel-souled from the worship of God. This is not just the rant of a crank: is our art really drawing the poor in? Expressing the sacred? Can it? It may be worth identifying a well-intentioned but misguided impulse here. That impulse is to make sacred art more democratic, for lack of a better term, more immediately intelligible, less ornate, less mysterious; a reflection of the ambient culture’s art but with a Christian veneer. The impulse is well intentioned because it aims to dispel Danielou’s fear that only a spiritual elite will find the sacred accessible. It is nonetheless misguided because it (probably unwittingly) cedes all the ground to a cheap understanding of art and a dim view of spiritual development. It may even paradoxically elitize the faith: the dreary nave, casual ceremony, and voguish crucifix might not faze the monkishly disposed, but they almost surely stunt the growth of the spiritually earthbound.
Christian art must reexamine its premises. Art is the “lyrical expression of philosophy,” in Fulton Sheen’s eloquent phrase, and the philosophy that informs the ambient culture’s art does not lend itself to the faithful expression of sacred things. It is egocentric, subjectively pragmatic, and materialist. The art it inspires is, not surprisingly, indulgently self-expressive, ruthlessly utilitarian, and dismally meaningless. The art that attempts to represent the sacred cosmos, by contrast—Danielou holds up the Byzantine churches whose cupolas “are as microcosms” (p. 77), and we might add any number of cathedrals and chapels and many non-Christian examples—is disciplined, universally yet also particularly beautiful, and layered with meaning. The philosophy that inspires this art, Sheen urges, is impersonal, dogmatic, and sacramental. Impersonal in the sense that it understands truth to be “eternal and common,” and never “the personal property of him who finds it.” Dogmatic in the sense that, because it is impersonal, it tends to seek out and express universal principles and concepts—not as “barriers to thought” but as colors and contours. And sacramental because it sees that the world itself is a means to an end, a “great channel of spiritualization” intended to lead all of us back to God.
Thought steeped in these elements is capable of inspiring art that will express the sacred to a desacralized world for centuries or millennia. Impersonal art so committed to the principle that all things are from and for God that it raises the radical possibility that Christian art might be unsigned (Sheen notes that we have no idea who built many of the most magnificent cathedrals—the stamp of self didn’t matter). Dogmatic art that takes seriously the claim that theology is as rigorous a science as physics or linguistics. Sacramental art that uses technological tools to present the discoveries of science in the context of the fullness of reality. In a word, art robust enough to serve the mediating function that Danielou proposes. This all puts some flesh on the bones of Danielou’s proposal, but it also raises new questions. First and most obvious is a chicken and egg problem: art may be the lyrical expression of philosophy, but environment also shapes thought, and there is reason to worry that we might be stuck between the mutually reinforcing influences of bad art and bad philosophy. To that perhaps the only answer is to trust that truth doggedly pursued will be found and can be expressed even in bleak circumstances. Second is a practical problem. Danielou’s ultimate ambition, recall, is to create the conditions that make it possible for everyman to have a life of prayer. Commissioning art to draw up the constitution of the sacred cosmos and mediate between the spiritual and temporal orders is just one modest step in that direction; it may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient. The relentless demands of consumption and production, the difficulty of ordering daily life to the ultimate end, these persist. How to revive or reinvent the quotidian practices and disciplines that assist us along the way is a challenge that demands its own treatment. Another and related practical problem is the seeming fancifulness of the entire project. Could even a monumental Christian effort devoted to the cause of translating the sacred to the world through art hope to make a dent in the grim, drab, cheap, and shallow options on offer? It is hard to imagine how it could, but good to remember that this kind of work may take lifetimes to bear full fruit. It must begin somewhere.
Sheen paints a picture of the Cathedral of Toledo, not set apart to show off its beauty but rather “almost smothered by the structures that cling around it” like a mother surrounded by her children. The mass of humanity hungers for sacred truth and it will draw near at a compelling invitation. Danielou’s project is daunting but far from hopeless. It is certainly worth beginning.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]