“The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
—G. K. Chesterton
The other day I was listening to an interview with an actor. He brought up the fact that he had been raised Catholic but fell away after reaching adulthood. His reasoning was something along the lines of “I realized the answers people gave me didn’t add up.” And so he left and became an atheist.
There are many other people I’ve spoken to who have a similar story. They were raised in homes where religion was practiced, but sooner or later they found the answers being given didn’t make logical sense to them or some crisis or other wasn’t placated by the pat responses.
What struck me about what all of these responses have in common is “answers”. But what about “questions”?
Earlier this week I happened upon an article by Martin Gayford on the artist Paul Gauguin, who was hardly a model of faithful behavior. In it, he explores why religion haunted the work of the painter. He attributes it partly to the religious education Gauguin had as a boy:
His imagination was filled with Catholic imagery and doctrine, and had been from an early age.
At 11 he had become a boarder at the petit séminaire de la Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, near Orléans. There Gauguin underwent what he called ‘the theological studies of my youth’. He was taught by the Bishop of Orléans himself, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, an influential campaigner for religious education. The way that the Bishop’s instruction shaped the young artist’s mind is suggested by the questions Dupanloup posed in a text on the catechism. ‘Where does the human species come from? Where is it going? How does it go?’
The Bishop believed such rhetorical inquiries would linger in the pupils’ inner worlds, so that in later life, even if they were living irreligious lives and had lost their faith, ‘instinctively, instantaneously’ such questions would come into their consciousness. In the case of at least one ex-student he seems to have been correct.
This is a crucial point. Not that it isn’t important to provide answers for children via religious education—far from it—but that in addition to answers, the big questions should also be laid out there. Because in addition to the refrain of “the answers didn’t add up” that many people give for having left the practice of the faith, there is almost always a corresponding lack of interest in the big question of why we are here, who we are, and what we are for. As Fr. Robert Spitzer points out in his book The Soul’s Upward Yearning, a loss of interest and belief in the transcendent dimension of reality has lead to a great restlessness among many people. In his book A Turning Point for Europe?, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) sees in the rise of drug use and terrorism a deep need for a belief in some form of paradise. According to Ratzinger, “Drugs are the pseudo-mysticism of a world that does not believe yet cannot get rid of the soul’s yearning for paradise… Terrorism’s point of departure is closely related to that of drugs; here, too, we find at the outset a protest against the world as it is and the desire for a better world.”
This has bearing on art. Many Christian artists seem to have difficulty asking questions, feeling that their work should be about providing answers. As said before, this isn’t entirely wrong, because answers are crucial. But questioning is also of great importance. Perhaps this is why sincerely questioning agnostics who still have a grasp on transcendence have often made better religious art than their religious counterparts.
So as we work to provide answers to the many people out there who are seeking, another thing we should be considering: are we asking the questions, and are we embedding those questions in the young people we are responsible for educating?
Image: Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ (Autoportrait au Christ jaune), 1890-1891, by Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.