Art and theology, beauty and truth, work together in the New Evangelization
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” But the poet Keats is wrong; that is not all we need to know in life. In an unusual and rewarding new book, Father Robert Imbelli guides readers along the path of beauty toward the realization that all truth, all beauty, and all goodness reflects the one reality that truly does matter—the one thing we do need to know: the person of Jesus Christ.
The title, Rekindling the Christic Imagination may intimidate some prospective readers, and they will not be reassured to learn that Father Imbelli plans a “mystagogical approach.” But if they overcome their trepidations, and dip into this little book, they may soon be won over, as I was. Knowing Imbelli as a distinguished theologian, I expected to encounter truth and goodness in the book. I was surprised by how much beauty I found as well.
Rekindling the Christic Imagination is a series of meditations, each one introduced and illustrated by examples from works of art. Commenting on paintings and icons, poems and musical compositions, the author shows that the most profound truths can be expressed by the artistic imagination. If all truth is ultimately one—a point of unity in a changing world—then we might expect that the lessons about human life taught by great artist match those taught by philosophers and theologians. Imbelli makes a compelling case that they do. Particularly when seen through the eyes of faith, all the world’s wisdom comes together, snapping into focus on the face of Christ.
In the past the “way of beauty” was widely recognized as a path to faith. Stroll through a museum, or listen to some early music, or explore European cathedrals, and notice how much artistic talent was absorbed in the exploration and expression of Christian belief. Over the past several generations, unfortunately, the best-known representatives of the world of art have grown indifferent to faith, if not actively hostile. Many people still do travel along the way of beauty and enter the Catholic Church, but their stories are rarely told. That path is no longer marked on the charts that guide the secular world.
Not coincidentally, the modern world—even, regrettably, the Christian world-- has also ceased to organize its energies around the person of Christ. Each of the past three Roman Pontiffs has spoken frequently about the dangerous tendency to think of Catholicism in terms of principles, or practices, or programs, or all of the above, rather than as the devotion to a Person, the incarnate God.
Father Imbelli argues that the overarching problem of the Church today is the “loss of cogently compelling Christocentricity.” He contends that the most important contribution of the Second Vatican Council was to address that problem, adjusting the focus of the Catholic world back onto the person of Christ.
Among the documents of Vatican II, Imbelli sees Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, as the most important text for a proper understanding of the Council, the “first among equals” of the main conciliar documents. Dei Verbum, he explains, shows that the source of faith is the Word of God, made present to the faithful in Scripture and through the living Tradition handed down by the apostles. Yet the Word of God is a Person: Jesus Christ. Thus whether it is through the sacraments, through teaching or through tradition, the Church always draws on, and draws toward, Jesus.
In the Old Testament, Imbelli points out, the reader cannot help but notice that God takes the initiative. The Creator acts first, and then his creatures react, as he unfolds his plan. Then with the incarnation comes the fullness of revelation, and with the descent of the Holy Spirit the divine power activates the institutional Church. “Trinitarian theology,” Imbelli concludes, “is the necessary fact of professing the divinity of Jesus.”
In this book, Imbelli encourages the reader to see the exploration of Catholic doctrine as an adventure. “Dogma is the guardian of mystery,” Flannery O’Connor said, and the truths of the Catholic faith help the believer to appreciate—if never to plumb—the inexhaustible mystery of God.
The mystery of the Trinity, for example, shows us that God lives in an eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. We, made in God’s image, are also creatures made for relationships. We are not inserted into the universe as isolated individuals; from the time of conception we are members of a family, a neighborhood, a community. Imbelli makes the point that while man may be defined as the rational animal, it would be equally accurate—and maybe more productive—to think of man as the relational animal. We exist not just for ourselves, but for God and for others.
Therefore, Father Imbelli reasons, the Christian faithful live not only to work out their own salvation, but also as “witnesses to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.” He quotes Pope Benedict XVI, in Spe Salvi: “Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus it is truly hope for me too.”
So Rekindling the Christic Imagination is not only an aid for the Catholic who wants prayerfully to think through his faith. It is also, as its author promises that it will be, a resource for the New Evangelization. Father Imbelli illustrates how the truths of the Catholic faith resolve the problems of our life, and also how, in living out those truths, we must perforce communicate them to others.
Along the way, Father Imbelli makes the interesting observation that we also live in relationships with our ancestors (from whom we inherited our faith) and our successors (to whom we will bequeath it). The Church of today owes debts to the faithful of the past and of the future. “Our sense of Church is greviously truncated,” he writes, “if we fail to realize that it includes many more members than its visibly earthly manifestation.” In many superficial ways the Church revitalized by the New Evangelization may appear different from the Church we knew years ago. But it will not, and cannot, be different in its essential identity, founded on the person of Christ.
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