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.