A Faith Connected to Everything

By now the controversy regarding the “Fiat Lux” light show – a series of artistic nature photographs projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica for three hours on Dec. 8, to highlight the Church’s ecological concerns – has surely passed, perhaps being all-but-forgotten even by those who spoke out loudest against it last month. Such is the way of most contemporary Arguments-Of-The-Week, to flare up and die out quickly.

At the time, the artistic display was – at least in some quarters – surprisingly controversial. It was denounced by one outspoken priest-pundit as a “sacrilege,” while a certain Catholic novelist was quoted saying that the light show savored of a neo-pagan Gaia-cult ideology. A moderator of Catholic News Service’s Facebook page had to step in and call for civility, in the comment thread that resulted from its photo coverage of the event; and the suspicions of some of the faithful were reflected in an article that charged event organizers with “making dogma out of unsettled science” (though of course, no actual dogmatic proclamation was involved).

Despite the unexpected vehemence of some commentators, this is a minor controversy in itself, deserving of a short shelf-life. It does, however, touch on a long-running concern of mine: the question of our ability, or inability, to convey – both to the world, and within the Church – the fact that our faith connects to everything, not merely to those things we are accustomed to put into the “religious” category.

The light-show at St. Peter’s may be a minor matter, but this is not. Everything, in some way, connects to the mystery of God’s presence and action in Christ. God’s grace impacts different aspects of life differently, sometimes in less clear and more “hidden” ways. But the Church’s mission involves the whole created order, and there can be no purely-secular realm in which faith becomes an irrelevant or indifferent matter. There is no area of life where the Church has nothing to say and can simply “mind her business,” as if her business were not the whole of life.

Hence, I was dismayed to see commenters acting like the environmentally-themed light show – inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ – was a distraction from authentically “religious” concerns, or a radically-inappropriate “profanation” of a sacred space. Staunch believers, thinking to defend the faith, were seen claiming that the Church should limit its communications efforts to topics like prayer, personal morality, and the sacraments; or that the Vatican had no right to broadcast its care for creation on the major Marian feast day of the Immaculate Conception.

These well-meaning assertions strangely resemble the argument often made by radical secularists: that the Church ought to stick to the “religion business” and keep its nose out of “the rest of life.” It seems that some fervent Christians – perhaps due to pre-existing political commitments – now share a major premise of their cultural rivals, with both camps buying into some version of the idea that there are distinct spheres of “religious” and “non-religious” activity and concern. There are many arguments between these two camps, as to the boundaries of each sphere; but a shared assumption shows through: there is “the religious” here, “the secular” over there; and, like foods on the child’s plate, they must be kept separate.

*

To be clear: the fact that all of life is a “religious” concern, with God ever-present and active throughout, does not mean there are no uniquely sacred spaces, objects, or events. St. Peter’s Basilica is indeed consecrated property; and a true sacrilege would be involved if we were speaking of turning its facade into a projection screen for superhero films, or adorning it with billboards for skin cream and designer slacks. All realities are connected in some way to the mystery of Christ (and, by extension, his Church), but a certain decorum befits those things that pertain to him more explicitly: a chalice is not for ordinary use, the liturgy is not the place for pop songs, and so on.

And yet, an ambiguity still surrounds the category of “religion” – especially insofar as it is understood as something separate and over-against the “secular,” rather than as something which in fact mysteriously encompasses its apparent opposite. This problem is but one instance of a general problem surrounding the question of nature and grace – which are distinct in principle, yet inseparable in the actual world, in such a way that the latter somehow includes the former in its entirety. The “religious/secular” distinction really only makes sense if we consider the secular realm as a distinct subset of the wholly “religious” reality that is created existence. Anything less effectively amounts to the positing of a finite, limited God.

While I am generally not in favor of efforts to recast Christianity as something other than a “religion,” it remains true – as the Eastern Orthodox author Fr. Alexander Schmemann pointed out – that the entire category of religion is problematic except when radically transformed by the fact of the Incarnation. A conventional notion of religion tempts all of us – believers and non-believers – to think there are distinct “religious” and “non-religious” spheres of life. Which is really to say, nonsensically, that there are some areas of life from which God is absent or with which he is not concerned.

This was, I think, at least implicitly part of the “Fiat Lux” display’s intended point. I would grant that there is something at least slightly provocative about its location and scheduling; but I do not think the provocation was meant in any negative, impious sense. Rather, I think it was meant to spur thought and reflection on the global, practical implications of religious devotion, so often unappreciated by both believers and non-believers. Faith without works, as we know, is dead; and a faith that sees no work to be done, in any area of human endeavor, is arguably moribund.

The display itself could of course be defended on many grounds. It is entirely possible that our Byzantine-appreciative Pope was aware of the Eastern Marian hymn which begins: All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace.” At the very least, it is hard to think that some of the display’s organizers did not have in mind those scriptural verses – well-suited to the season of Advent – that recount how “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” awaiting the fullness of redemption (Rom. 8:22). It is not modern or “liberal,” but simply Biblical, to link the mystery of human salvation with the present condition and ultimate destiny of creation as a whole.

Ultimately, I would regard the “Fiat Lux” event as a worthwhile challenge to a problematic conventional understanding of the division between the sacred and the secular. This has been a concern of mine for many years – dating back especially to a time I have rarely discussed here, my two years as a journalist in service of the Church. How this concern arose for me during that period is somewhat illuminating in its own right, giving some indication as to why I think things like “Fiat Lux” are valid and important.

*

During 2010, somewhat on impulse, I applied for an internship position at an international Catholic media outlet. All of my experience with news was from the other side of the glass, as a consumer, but I felt I could pick up the necessary skills quickly enough – which turned out to be more or less true.

I was soon a full-time staff journalist for this service, working in a newsroom on the second floor of a building whose first floor was a Catholic religious-goods store (unaffiliated with the news organization). The contrast between the first and second floors was thought-provoking for me: every morning I passed by the store’s display of home-sized statues and other religious art – much of it rather kitschy and fairly unappealing, in a way one would associate with a certain style of supposedly “traditional” (though in fact surprisingly modern,  mass-produced and commodified) Christian piety. One could look in the store’s full-length windows and see walls covered with Cruxifixes, Madonnas, and saint-figures of this distinctive kind, alongside the racks of often similarly-styled holy-cards, Rosaries, and so on.

I am in no way averse to traditional Western Christian devotional art, which at its best is glorious. But poorly-done, saccharine, kitsch-approximations of it are a different matter altogether. (I recommend Thomas Merton’s essays “Sacred Art and the Spiritual Life” and “Absurdity in Sacred Decoration,” in the book Disputed Questions, as introductions to this problem.) Granting that such objects have an authentic religious value for many people, and should be respected for the sake of what they portray, I must say that I often find their style objectively bad and even scandalous – insofar as they portray the Church’s faith in a wrongly sentimental and aesthetically off-putting light, making holiness appear to be a matter of becoming a “plaster saint” with a bleached-out, pastel personality.

Nonetheless, it was not lost on me – as a journalist working for a Catholic organization – that the objects I passed in that window each day were in many ways representative of the Church’s image in popular culture. This was philosophically problematic and personally vexing for me, as someone who was at the time seeking to present world events and cultural currents from the perspective of faith. It seemed wrong to me – and still does – that a faith which connects to everything, and which likewise connects everything, should appear to many outside the Church, and even some within, as a narrow and somewhat antiquated matter of sentimental attachments and family-heirlooms.

So I would occasionally find myself standing on the fire-escape of our office building, clutching a cup of coffee and staring into the distance – as I contemplated the problem of this disparity between the truth of a faith embracing all of reality, and the widespread public perception of an unimaginative, sentimental, sectarianism. The Church, in her authentic and foundational reality, is as “catholic” (in the dictionary sense) as she is Catholic. But there was almost no sense of this deeper catholicity – meaning wholeness, universality, an integration of all things good and true – in the “Catholic-store” image of Catholicism.

The world is not getting the truth about God from these things in the shop window, I thought. How do we get it across that the mystery of Christ touches everything, all of reality? I never quite answered that question, and I left journalism partly because I felt personally unable to pursue an answer in that context.

But when I think back on that experience – the frustration of feeling unable to overcome the narrow, kitschy image of the Church in our culture – I am appreciative of things like “Fiat Lux,” and I think it reflects a right intention: to overcome conventional categories that make religion self-enclosed and choke our cultural witness.

If one cannot see what connects St. Peter’s Basilica and the Immaculate Conception with the life of the Amazon or the Arctic, I would suggest that one is missing something profound – even, in some respects, missing the point of the Incarnation, and the truth about the “religious” and “secular.” I hope such a mindset continues to be challenged, by appropriate means, in the Church and the world.

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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  • Mulligan’s pal

    Pope Francis’ light display with no reference to God or the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception came across as a Pantheistic display to highlight the act that he’s pushing the socialistic driven belief of man caused “global warming.” The encyclical is beautiful, as was Pole Benedict’s encyclical on the environment. Intelligent and orthodox, Benedict ID “global warming” as unproven science, even though Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican’s Peace and Social Justice department tried to win him over and attempted to lead people into believing that BXVI was a proponent. Pops FrNcis is so similar to President Obama–glitzy displays (Obama celebrated sodomite marriage with his rainbow disagree–gaudy!!) a push toward buying into MCGW which even the EPA admits will hurt the poor; concern for capital punishment but a missed opportunity in never having mouthed the word “abortion” while he was in the U.S., yet Congress was deeply into the discussion of baby body parts being harvested and sold by Planned Parentdood right at the time of his visit!!! Most disturbing!!

  • Kevin Smith

    Amen

  • Kevin Smith

    God must have been very “Pantheistic” when He created the host of all life in the world — the Planet Earth. It is interesting to me how someone so offended by abortion could be so ignorant about the facts regarding climate change. Climate Change — if left unabated and probably even if we only keep it from getting worse than projected otherwise — will end more life on this planet than all the abortions ever performed. Yet you find more contempt for our Pope who seeks to prevent this than you do your corporate masters and their mouthpieces at FOX News and in the blogosphere. Perhaps politics is what you really care about, not life. But I guess that is a question you have to ask yourself. As for me, I will not keep my head in the sand like a good corporate subject, but will support Pope Francis and my church as they fight to arrive at sanity in a world quickly committing suicide in the name of greed and corruption.

  • BXVI

    I too am a global warming sceptic. Not a denier, a skeptic. The whole thing sure smacks of Malthusianism to me. Assuming global warming is caused by us (which is not a scientific certainty), there is more empirical evidence for mankind’s ability to adapt to it than for the idea that we can stop it. The reality is, it can’t be stopped or even slowed given that India, Russia and China refuse to do anything about it, and to pretend that they will do something about anytime soon it is either extremely naive or intellectually obtuse to the point of being a poseur. Witness the result of Paris.

    I also think there is more evidence that the poor will be harmed greatly by the so-called cure than by the supposed disease. Economic growth reduces poverty; climate-control efforts stifle or reduce economic growth.

    So, in this context, it is quite distressing to see the Holy Father make belief in man-made global warming and embrace of the U.N.’s so-called solutions essentially an article of the faith. No, no, not dogma or doctrine, of course, but he has made it quite clear that he thinks all of us who have doubts about his views on the matter are BAD CATHOLICS.

    Now, to the light show. It was a complete and utter disaster. Why?
    1. It was produced and displayed by non-Christian, anti-Catholics, and it contained zero Christian imagery.
    2. It stole the day, and the entire news cycle, from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Can anyone imagine this Vatican making as big a deal out of the Immaculate Conception? Or a light show concerning the Blessed Mother projected on St. Peters? Not really.
    3. It may have won a few Catholics over on the global warming issue, but I am highly dubious that it won many (if any) non-Catholic global warming believers over to the Faith.

    In sum, many of us feel the Holy Father is allowing the prestige of the papacy, and that of the Church, to be used by secularists for secularist purposes, without receiving any benefit in return. No one likes to see their leader allow the Church to get used by people who loathe it.

  • Kevin Smith

    The only issue science is more in agreement on is the Theory of Gravity. The next time you see the doctor for an illness, be sure to ask what FOX News thinks about it before proceeding w any recommendations by medical science. The next time a doctor prescribes penicillin be sure to check w Breitbart. Or you could bypass the middle men and just go straight to the oil and coal lobby for their suggestions. Drink two quarts of oil and call me in the morning. Smart.

  • BXVI

    Wow, what a thoughtful reply.

  • Kevin Smith

    I thought so.

  • Kevin Smith

    Btw the Catholic Church also believes in evolution, that the Earth is not the center of the universe, and had a priest who was a physicist and was the first to pose the Big Bang Theory. The Vatican even has an observatory. Welcome.to the new era. The Dark Ages ended several years ago now. Perhaps the only thing secular about your position is your source of information. It certainly isn’t scripture or the Church. Happy New Millennium!

  • Denise Smith

    ….after reading the comments…. The polarization continues. It’s unfortunate that God’s creation has been turned into a political football. But, after all….that was/is the intent of those pushing the ‘sky is falling’ mentality on all the world. Is it not part of our duty as Christians to take not only surface information but…go deeper to ‘intent’? We claim that we cannot know what’s on a person’s heart. That is often true. But the Word also tells us, “..by their fruits you shall know them…”. There is no doubt where Mr. Smith stands. I would suggest Mr. Mann give more thought to this: Do we worship creation…or the Creator? It is truly that simple.

  • BXVI

    Here are a couple of things for you to consider:

    1. Scientists are unanimous in their conclusion that DDT can cause cancer. So they got the international community to ban it. The cure was worse than the disease. Untold millions have perished from malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases as a result. The point is that even when the science is incontrovertible (i.e., DDT can cause cancer) the policy prescriptions to address the scientific problem can be misguided and counter-productive.

    2. Until very recently it was scientific dogma that eating fat makes you fat. There was near-unanimous scientific consensus on this point. The entire food industry catered to the universally accepted low-fat mantra. Now we are learning that this scientific “certainty” was false.

  • BXVI

    Kevin, the science of climate change is infused with politics.

    There is a “climate industrial complex” that feeds on, and feeds, itself. Virtually all climate science is conducted and driven by university research. Univerisities are in a virtual arms-race to create and build climate programs, often called departments of sustainability studies. They depend on grant money for their existence, and those who provide the grants won’t tolerate results that run counter to the climate change narrative. The grantors (usually the government or leftist non-profits) want what they paid for. No skeptic would ever be hired, so these become echo-chambers of self-affirmation and self-congratulation where dissenting views are simply not tolerated. And, given that the climatists have been consistently proven wrong (e.g., the “hockey stick” that never materialized) or corrupt (e.g., the falsification of statistics that formed the basis for climate research in “climategate”) one would think a little humility and openness to other perspectives would be in order.

    But that’s not even the point. The point is, assuming the science is accurate, what are the appropriate policy prescriptions to address the situation. This, of course, is a mixed question involving not just science, but politics, economics, ethics, and yes, theology. The climate alarmists seem to believe they, and only they, have all the answers in these areas as well, and they will not broach any dissent. Because anyone who suggests a different approach than that put forward by the Left is by definition a BAD PERSON, you see. Your posts reveal you to be the worst of this sort of bully. Rather than engage in discussion (or even in any form of persuasion) you resort immediately to ad hominem. And of course now a BAD CATHOLIC as well.

  • Giacomo

    Woah, brother. I care nothing for politics and science won’t save us, Jesus is Savior and Lord. These things matter only if we return to God, putting Him first. It is all connected.

    “The LORD has a dispute with the inhabitants of the land: There is no fidelity, no loyalty, no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land dries up, and everything that dwells in it languishes: The beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and even the fish of the sea perish.”
    (Hosea 4:1-3)

  • Kevin Smith

    All of that is nothing more than extreme Right wind dogma and propaganda w no factual basis whatsoever and spread by the coal lobby. It also displays an incredible lack of education regarding what is the scientific method and the peer review.process. that goes for all that DDT craziness also. Pop science vs real science.

  • Kevin Smith

    To say that the two are different in worship — the creator and his creation — is not to say that you should cherish his creation the same as you would a child. The Earth sustains all life. We have the technology today to literally end all life through nuclear war, yet we have not out/so far of sense of self-preservation. Surely that is worthy of concern to His church. We can also now do the same thing by using our thin atmosphere as a public sewer. To say that this should be left to God does nothing but deny our own personal responsibility to our children and especially to God and all His creation. To say we are not responsible is to escape accountability, out of laziness and greed and really just for sheer comfort. In short, it is a great sin. This is from our Holy Father and not just my opinion. You would do well to read him more and watch FOX News less. Put none before Me is absolutely right. Even when it conflicts with your normal political leanings. If abortion and the death penalty are wrong, if suicide is wrong, if it is wrong to let the beggar die on the side of the road and do nothing, if it is wrong to assist someone’s suicide, then how do you justify escaping personal responsibility for ignoring your duty to all mankind and to future generations, and standing by while your planet does the same? #sevendeadlysins

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