While the question may sound absurd to many, people devoted to the arts debate it with great seriousness. I believe the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”
· Yes, because beauty nurtures the human spirit, helping it flourish in the inhospitable climate of our times and culture.
· Yes, because artists also are prophets. They create beauty which expresses the ugly realities that must be faced, implicitly calling viewers to endure or overcome what is revealed in their art.
· Yes, because artists help us see the value, the dignity, and that which is sacred in the people and things around us, inclining us toward compassion.
· And, yes, beauty will save the world because, in each religious tradition, there have been artists who have used their skill to aid the devout in worship, prayer, and discerning divine truth -- as it has been revealed within that tradition. Religion, in spite of the evil done in its name, is a primary motivation for good in this world.
[“Beauty will save the world” is a statement attributed to Prince Myskin by another character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Bantam, 1981), 370].
I am not saying beauty all by itself will save the world. Beauty will save the world only if it is yoked to the glorious host of world-saving ventures that give us hope and propel us toward curiosity, compassion, and understanding, and motivate us to work for justice, fairness, and peace.
The Art of Interfaith Understanding is Interfaith Philadelphia’s series of programs offered in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The series brings people to art that expresses the faith found in the world’s great religions and the spirituality of diverse individuals. The people we bring to the museum contemplate beauty, slowly, absorbing details and the art’s impact. We take our time, share insights with each other, and in the process, come to understand not only the art, but ourselves and the others in our group.
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, American (active France), 1859 – 1937, Date: 1898, Medium: Oil on canvas, Dimensions: Framed: 6 feet 1 3/4 inches × 7 feet 3 1/4 inches, Accession Number: W1899-1-1, Credit Line: Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1899
Rabbi David Ackerman was in a small group including an Imam and two Christian pastors. They were discussing Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation. Rabbi Ackerman shared his thoughts and later wrote of his experience in his congregation’s newsletter. I paraphrase: The light in this painting reminds me of the pillar of light that led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Here, the light is leading Mary, and all Christians, toward their promised citizenship in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom Christians believe will be ushered in by Jesus. In both Judaism and Christianity, God’s light leads God’s people into new and more authentic ways of being a community. Tanner’s painting provided an occasion for seeing similarities in two faith traditions. It prompted interfaith understanding, and at the same time sparked a discussion that moved interfaith colleagues into a deeper relationship with one another.
I trust that the titles of this summer and fall’s programs offered by The Art of Interfaith Understanding will illustrate the breadth of opportunities this series offers. It is meant to bring together people with different answers and hunches to our common questions about life and spirit. It is meant to bring diverse persons together, so they can be in conversation with one another, be stimulated by the spiritual power of great art, and become able to affirm that, “Yes! Beauty will save the world.”
· June 1: Praying the Liturgy Aided by Works of Art (for the Church of St. Martin in the Fields, Chestnut Hill)
· June 26: Religious Pluralism in America: Insights from Art (for Temple’s Dialogue Institute summer program for International Scholars)
· July 10: Nature’s Revelations in World Religions
· August 11: Prayerful Looking: Art and Spirituality
· September 11: What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?
· October 5: The Visions and Values of St. Francis
· November 20: Graven Images: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Responses to Commandments Forbidding Imagery
To experience beauty saving the world, register for future events by going to: https://www.interfaithphiladelphia.org/art
Rev. John Hougen is the coordinator of Interfaith Philadelphia’s series, The Art of Interfaith Understanding.