From the film Amelie, 2001
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis encourages us to receive great art rather than use it, seeking to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.” We should refrain from the easier project of reducing a work to a message we might find problematic. Instead, we should seek to approach a work of art with the same level of charity with which we approach people.
Art is a dialogue. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that all beauty compels dialogue: it causes a response in us that we instinctively want to engage and share. This sharing is what an artist does when they create, from choreographers to filmmakers. But, as Lewis argues in his book, we have to become good dialogue partners: we must learn the language of the art form we wish to engage. Lewis characterized readers as either “literary” or “unliterary” in their responsiveness.
Paradise Lost by Gustave Dore
Chesterton on the problem of evil from his book, The Everlasting Man:
“…But if [Christianity] is not a mythology neither is it a philosophy. It is not a philosophy because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture. It is not one of those simplifications which resolve everything into an abstract explanation…It is not a process but a story. It has proportions, of the sort seen in a picture or a story; it has not the regular repetitions of a pattern or a process, but it replaces them by being convincing as a picture or a story is convincing. In other words, it is exactly, as the phrase goes, like life. For indeed it is life.
Fra Angelico’s “Conversion of St. Augustine”
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.”
“Now I had read many works of the philosophers and retained a great deal in my memory, and … What the philosophers taught seemed to me the more probable, though their power was limited to making judgment of this world and they could not pierce through to its Lord.” Augustine writes this as he looked back on the process of trying to find God in philosophy. Yet the wiser convert could see the pride at the heart of his search. He writes, “The proud cannot find You, not even if they have skill beyond the natural to number the stars and the grains of sand, and measure out the places of the constellations and plot the courses of the planets.” He laments that it was the pride of the intellect and vainglory of learning. He writes that “surely a man is unhappy even if he knows all these things but does not know You; and that man is happy who knows You even though he knows nothing of them.”
Philosophical and Psychological Road Blocks
In his Confessions, Augustine knits together the intellectual and emotional seamlessly. Philosophy involves arguments, yes, but the true lover of wisdom will not merely contemplate, but apply the deliverances of truth to his life. Conversion for Augustine is not only an act of the intellect, but it is psychological, involving the will and emotions as well as the mind. Through him we see that the reasoning faculty can be blinded by one’s psychological state, God’s truth being darkened in proportion to one’s sin. Augustine writes that God opposes the proud and he allows this truth to be on full display as he recounts his conversion narrative.
The process of resolving one’s intellectual reservations about Christianity often involves a disentangling of legitimate conceptual difficulties with its truths from volitional resistance to its ethics. The two are tightly woven together in human nature, complex as it is. The Christian Augustine expertly utilizes Scripture, the penetrating sword that divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow in order to separate these strands. In this way, he is able to cast his glance back over his life and see his motives more clearly from within the context of biblical wisdom. “Man is a great deep, Lord,” he writes. “You number his very hairs and they are not lost in Your sight: but the hairs of his head are easier to number than his affections and the movements of his heart.” G.K. Chesterton wrote that “one may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.” Augustine shows us that without God’s gentle grace, no one would be saved, no one would come to God, for who can fully penetrate the mysteries of the self?
Bishop Augustine of Hippo by Antonello da Messina
“Truly my soul finds rest in God …”
“Grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee,” Augustine writes in the opening lines of what is widely acknowledged as the Western world’s preeminent autobiography. “What goal are you making for wandering around and about by ways so hard and laborious?” Augustine asks.  Penned in the form of a conversation with God that brings to mind the Psalms of David, Augustine’s Confessions are the recollections of an intelligent and passionately sensitive mind as it considers its search for God in the midst of earthly distractions. The goal is rest. “Rest is not where you seek it,” Augustine writes, for “You seek happiness of life in the land of death, and it is not there.”
Written between 397-398 A.D., one might think that such a conversion narrative would have little of value to offer the modern world. What would a fourth-century bishop in a Roman province in the northern part of Africa have to say to our twenty-first century world filled with the fruits of modern science?
In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972
Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory. Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded. In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave. The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality. The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention. The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.” Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful. The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations. Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.” Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.
Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC
The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.” Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides. Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.” Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day. This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.