From “Can Beauty Lead to Truth?” by Francis Phillips:
In the Herald’s Charterhouse column last week, Piers Paul Read asks “Can beauty obscure truth?” under the heading “Art can’t save your soul”. He concludes that cultured people today have replaced religious faith with art or music (or literature, it might be added). We are familiar with TS Eliot’s lines: “In the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo”. Read mentions Alain de Botton’s book,Religion for Atheists in which de Botton, himself a cultured atheist, yearns for secular “cathedrals” to satisfy the spiritual aspirations of fellow atheists. But as Charles Moore pointed out in his review of de Botton’s book, what matters for believers is not that their faith is aesthetically pleasing but that it is true.
Yet one might also pose an alternative question to Read’s: “Can beauty lead to truth?” Of course it can, as beauty is an attribute of God – and God will seek out souls in the way most suited to them. Journalist and Christian convert Peter Hitchens, about whom I have blogged before, testifies that it was gazing at an old master’s depiction of hell while on holiday in Venice that made him, then a non-believer, entertain the hair-raising notion that hell and heaven might be real.
I also read recently the moving testimony of a convert from Islam, whose journey into the Church was aided by Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s. Again, the French (secular) Jewish philosopher, Simone Weil, was deeply influenced by the metaphysical poets in her own journey towards acceptance of Christianity (though she chose not to be baptised). There are numerous other examples. So I think Art, through the action of divine grace, can help to save your soul – as long as pride doesn’t get in the way. When I was struggling with belief in God during my own youth, I often quoted to myself those enigmatic words of the metaphysical poet, George Herbert, in “The Pulley”. He describes the riches God has bestowed on man then concludes: “Yet let him keep the rest/ But keep with them repining restlessness/Let him be rich and weary, that at least/ If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/ May toss him to My breast.”