Out with sado-masochistic mysticism

"How did the Roman Catholic Church maintain its grip on European hearts and minds for so long? Judging by this exhibition, the answer seems to be by artfully managing the fear, ignorance and superstition of the faithful. The rise of humanism from the Renaissance on came as an exhilarating release for the Western world's cramped imagination."Richard Dawkins? Christopher Hitchens?No, Ken Johnson, a New York Times art critic, writing a review of 59 works in a Yale exhibit, "Italian Paintings from the Richard Feigen Collection." http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/arts/design/11feigen.html?scp=1&sq=Ken%20Johnson&st=cse One of oddities of being a religion reporter and columnist for over twenty years at The Times was that book and movie reviewers, art critics, even science and health writers, to say nothing of editorial writers and Op-Ed page columnists, seemed to have much more leeway to hold forth with judgments about religion than I did.There is nothing very new or particularly insightful about Johnson's Whiggish view that "secular humanism, inspired by the pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, was bound to triumph over the authoritarian, other-worldly, sado-masochistic mysticism of medieval Christianity." That has been a staple of cultural right thinking for two centuries.Not without some reason. The modern mind recoils from a good many aspects of medieval religiosity--as it does from many aspects of the pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome when these are not prettied up. Fortunately, the modern mind knows that understanding another culture doesn't end with those reactions."How did the Roman Catholic Church maintain its grip on European hearts and minds for so long?" It's a perfectly fair question. But Johnson's simple answer surely does not emerge from an exhibition of 59 paintings, the dates and subjects of which, by his own review's testimony, do not neatly substantiate his sweeping indictment. It's a pre-judgment. Maybe even a prejudice?

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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