In The Lives of the Poets, Samuel Johnson warned against mixing theology and literature, claiming that “the ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.” Johnson’s warning—that to treat the ideas of Christian theology in literary form is necessarily to sully them—is a familiar one, though it’s advice more honored in the breach (think of Milton, Herbert, and Hopkins) than in the observance. On one side, we have sacred truth, which for the Christian means the revelation of God through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the other side, we have poetry, full of images and metaphors, figures and filigree, all of which distort the true nature of God’s divine grace. Theology is theology, and poetry is poetry.
Here are some very different words, written by the Catholic philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain. In his 1920 work Art and Scholasticism, Maritain wrote that European culture in the years after World War I needed “a conversation between philosophers and artists.” In making this claim, Maritain had in mind a very specific kind of philosopher: Catholic neo-Thomists like himself, Etienne Gilson, and Martin D’Arcy. These thinkers sought to wed traditional Catholic sacramentalism (what Maritain called the “Metaphysics of the ancients”) to a critically realist epistemology. They argued that, because the intellect and what it perceives arise from and are sustained by God, the world is an “intelligible mystery.” Maritain also had in mind a very specific kind of artist: post-Impressionist painters like Picasso and Cézanne and modernist writers like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.
The historical moment at which Maritain was writing seemed ripe for such an interdisciplinary conversation. After the horrors of World War I, Maritain wrote, “all feel the necessity of escaping from the immense intellectual disorder inherited from the nineteenth century.” Maritain believed that, just as Catholic neo-Thomists were challenging the “original sin against the light” that was philosophical idealism, so the period’s best painters, poets, and novelists were challenging the supremacy of unthinking mimesis in art. Picasso, Joyce, and others realized that “art, as such, does not consist in imitating, but in making, in composing or constructing, in accordance with the laws of the very object to be posited in being.” If only theologians and artists would speak with one another, Maritain suggested, then we might be saved from the previous generation’s reductive thinking, which in philosophy privileged epistemology over metaphysics and in art privileged mimetic convention over formal experimentation.
Maritain knew of what he spoke. He was perhaps the preeminent Catholic public intellectual of the day, writing seminal texts on metaphysics and Christian epistemology, shaping the modern Christian Democratic movement, and helping draft the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was also, however, a prolific and respected aesthetic thinker. In books like Art and Scholasticism, The Frontiers of Poetry (1935), and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), as well as in a series of essays on poetry and religion he wrote for Eliot’s little magazine the Criterion, Maritain attempted a synthesis of aesthetics and theology, outlining what Rowan Williams calls “a comprehensive theory of artistic labor on the basis of a very ambitious religious metaphysic.”
How exactly did Maritain go about connecting “artistic labor” to a “religious metaphysic”? Why did he believe that modern artists and modern theologians had a great deal to say to one another? In short, because they were engaged in a similar task: trying to show how the everyday, physical world, when seen properly, is shot through with claritas and consonantia; how it has a radical openness to that which simultaneously exceeds and sustains it. In Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Maritain wrote that true art is always fractured and incomplete because it can never fully contain the perfect vision that it seeks. It always possesses “that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.” Both the theologian and the poet inevitably reach a moment when words fail, when the vision so exceeds its expression that an admission of defeat becomes the best way to express that vision. On the poetic side, we might think of Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” where we hear that “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden.” On the theological side, we might think of a claim by Karl Rahner: “Every theological statement is only truly and authentically such at the point at which one willingly allows it to extend beyond his comprehension into the silent mystery of God.” In both instances, words fall short of the Word (whether that means poetic truth or divine revelation), yet this falling short is the only means by which the Word and its mysteries might be approached.