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Peter Bannister The Necessity of Grace.pdf

Peter Bannister The Necessity of Grace.pdf

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 The Necessity of GraceThe Necessity of GraceThe Necessity of GraceThe Necessity of Grace© Peter Bannister 2008Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.Barth had always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart’s rejectionof Protestantism. For Mozart said that “Protestantism was all in the head” and that“Protestants did not know the meaning of the
 Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi.
Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to makethe examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly toMozart’s masses.But Mozart did not answer a word.
1
 THOMAS MERTONIt was once said of that other Swiss giant of modern theology, the ‘Catholic Barth’ Hans Urs vonBalthasar (1905-1988) that he wrote more books than most people have read. This may notquite apply to one of his foremost British admirers, Archbishop Rowan Williams, but it mightwell have been had he not been given the daunting (and currently somewhat thankless) task of guiding the world-wide Anglican communion. Given the undisputed intellectual substance,range and spiritual depth of his writing, the appearance of a relatively short but densely-packed volume of his ‘Reflections on Art and Love’ in 2005 was a major event.
2
 
Grace andNecessity
traces the influence on artists of the neo-scholastic thought of French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), focusing on the Anglo-Welsh visual artist and poet David Jones(1895-1974) and the American writer Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). The book’s finalsection draws powerful artistic and theological conclusions from all three figures, promoting“art which is intensely serious, unconsoling, and unafraid of the complexity of a world that thesecularist too can recognize.”
3
 That
Grace and Necessity
perhaps raises more questions than it answers would seem fullydeliberate. Recurrent in much of Rowan Williams’s writing is a concern for “what
resists
theurge of religious language to claim a total perspective,”
4
the suspicion of all discourses of closure as idolatrous. I wish to address three such questions: i) why has the Archbishop turnedto the aesthetic theory of an unfashionable philosopher whose output had fallen into relativeoblivion? ii) why is music omnipresent as a metaphor both in
Grace and Necessity
and itsMaritainian sources but conspicuously absent as a specific topic, especially when Maritain’sideas were clearly appropriated by Igor Stravinsky in his
Poetics of Music 
?
 
iii) what might theArchbishop’s analysis imply for contemporary sacred composition?
1
Thomas Merton,
Conjectures of a guilty bystander 
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday,1966), 11.
2
There have of course been other stimulating recent treatments of Christian aesthetics (beginning with Balthasar’smonumental
Theo-Aesthetik
) by philosophers and theologians including Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Viladesau, JeremyBegbie and David Bentley Hart, but Rowan Williams’ dual perspective as a thinker and churchman merits particular interest.
3
Rowan Williams,
Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love
(London: Continuum, 2005, hereafter
GN 
), 170.
4
Rowan Williams,
Theological Integrity
in
On Christian Theology,
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2000),
13
.
 
 Jacques Maritain’s name may be unfamiliar today, but in the mid-twentieth century he wasextremely influential, not only as a leading Catholic philosopher but also the Frenchambassador to the Vatican (1944-1948) and a prime mover behind the UN Universal Declarationof Human Rights (1948). His impact on Pope Paul VI was such that he considered makingMaritain a cardinal despite his being unordained. The post-Vatican II years however provedunfavourable to the intellectual current known as neo-Thomism – the affirmation of thecontemporary relevance of St Thomas Aquinas – associated with Maritain, while his “Christianhumanism” was judged insufficiently progressive by the Catholic left, particularly compared toemerging liberation theology. This begs the question of what prompted Rowan Williams to turnto Maritain’s aesthetics, particularly his
 Art and scholasticism
and
Creative Intuition in Art andPoetry.
An overall reading of 
Grace and Necessity
suggests several junctions between the writings on artof Maritain (or rather Jacques andandandand his wife Raïssa Maritain, whose import as a thinker and poetshould not be neglected) and Rowan Williams’s broader theological project. The most generalwould seem to concern faith’s relationship to culture. Both Maritain and Williams attempt toreconcile the spiritual, intellectual and artistic heritage of Christianity with critical opennessto the modern world, envisaging its transformation through the Gospel.
5
The French
renouveaucatholique
of the early twentieth century, extended by Rowan Williams to the English-speakingworld in his artistic case studies, provides a possible blueprint for the instantiation of Christianity’s generative power in the stimulation of artistic production. Maritain’s proximityto what Archbishop Williams terms the ‘heartlands of European artistic modernism’
6
is borneout by the remarkable constellation of artists of the first rank, including such unlikely figuresas Jean Cocteau, in his inter-war Paris circle.Williams is drawn in Maritain’s aesthetic
7
to his “sustained theoretical reflection on what theprocess of artistic
composition
entails and what it assumes”
8
. Significant here is theharmonization of practical aspects of artistry as human labour with the roles of intellect(intuitive as well as logical reason) and the senses. Secondly, Maritain seeks equidistance fromthe denial of human context implicit in ‘art for art’s sake’ and its subjugation to expediency. Hedefines art’s value for humanity in its character as gratuitous activity, its apparent uselessnessresisting the dehumanizing forces of the “two unnatural principles of the
 fecundity of money
andthe
 finality of the useful
9
. A third issue concerns the poetic intimation
(poetry being for Maritaina word linked to the impulse behind all art rather than tied to a strictly delimited art-form)
of a“depth in the observable world beyond what is at any moment observable”
10
, the visible’sconnection to the invisible, a recognition that perceived objects are “not exhausted by whatcould be said about them in descriptive, rational and pragmatic terms.”
11
A refrain throughout
5
The degree of commonality with the cultural agenda of the current movement spearheaded by John Milbank known as‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is no coincidence, given his attention to twentieth-century French philosophy / theology and his trainingunder Rowan Williams. Milbank’s close but critical reading of Maritain is in evidence in his substantial and philosophicallydense review of 
Grace and Necessity
entitled
Scholasticism, Modernism and Modernity
(
Modern Theology
22:4, October 2006, 651-671).
 
6
 
GN 
, ix.
7
Summarized neatly on pages 36-38 of 
Grace and Necessity.
 
8
 
GN 
, p. 3.
9
Jacques Maritain,
 Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry
, translated by Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974, hereafter
 AS
), 36.
10
 
GN 
, 154.
11
Ibid., x.
 
Grace and Necessity
which puts this succinctly and suggestively is Maritain’s dictum that “thingsare not only what they are”
12
. A final area of literally crucial (in the sense of being linked toWilliams’ own
theologia crucis
) interest for the Archbishop is the definition of the truth of artistic creation as indissociable from the artist’s disinterested relation to the work, allowing itto develop according to its own internal dynamic – the ‘necessity’ of the title – rather thanimposing external conditions upon it. This applies even to the search for the beautiful, whereWilliams stresses that as “Maritain insisted, beauty sought for itself will always elude – or elseit will seduce the artist into one or another sort of falsity.” Beauty rather “occurs” givenintegrity of artistic vision when the work is “released from the artist”.
13
Rowan Williams’scentral argument is that this by analogy reveals something of God’s unconditional love for theworld of God’s making; divine creation “bestows life unreservedly on what is other, but the lifeit bestows is a real selfhood, a solid reality. It is not the exercise of an arbitrary will, one subjectseeking to control another.”
14
 Williams discusses visual art, poetry and fiction; naturally when reading
Grace and Necessity
, thequestion of a possible musical application arises. I would suggest that this is problematic forseveral reasons which, when investigated, are rich in implications.Maritain’s view of the artist as a maker,
homo faber 
, raises immediate questions regarding musicby virtue of the ambiguity of music's 'material' which arguably exceeds that even of poetry.What, for the composer (restricting the present discussion to the Western art-music tradition),is the raw material? Pure sound? Patterns of sound mediated by tradition? Written notation? Isthe relationship to the listener intrinsic or extrinsic to that material? Maritain devotes lengthydiscussion in
Creative Intuition
to the relationship between artworks and their externalreferents; if this is ambiguous even for the visual arts, as his treatment of modern painting’srelationship to mimesis demonstrates, at least the discussion’s starting-point is relatively clear,a starting-point which in music’s case is lacking. There has been long-standing criticalcontroversy as to whether music has an external referent or not; latterly Daniel Chua in hisabsorbing
 Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning
(Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1999)
 
has justifiably exposed the myth-making behind the tradition of ‘pure’ music, yetmusic’s claim to the absolute in the last two centuries remains a cultural phenomenon worthexamining in relation to modern art’s striving for ‘purity’. In
The Frontiers of Poetry
Maritain laysbare the metaphysical pretension behind “the search for
 pure music, pure painting, pure theatre, pure poetry
” (which he specifically identifies with French culture since Mallarmé):To command our art to
be
art in the pure state, by freeing itself in effect from all itsconditions of existence in the human subject, is to wish it to usurp for itself the aseity of God.
15
 He insists that creation
ex nihilo
, presupposing
 
“independence with regard to things”
16
belongsto God alone. However, his reference to the irreducibility of art’s “conditions of existence in
12
 
GN 
, 26. The discussion of the theological implications of a sense of ‘excess’ in artistic perception suggests common groundbetween Rowan Williams and the ‘saturated phenomena’ tellingly analyzed by Jean-Luc Marion (an author surprisingly absentfrom
Grace and Necessity
’s list of references) in works such as
De Surcroît.
13
 
GN,
168-69.
14
Ibid.
 ,
164-65.
15
 AS
, 122.

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