Is Concern For Notre Dame About Piety Or Aesthetics?

Is Concern For Notre Dame About Piety Or Aesthetics?
Philippe Lopez/Pool via AP

Responses to the devastation of the Notre Dame Cathedral went some way toward confirming Edward Norman's judgment of some 30 years ago: "Of all the modern substitutes for religion, it is the aesthetic sense which is most esteemed." An ecclesiastical historian and Anglican priest with deep sympathy for Catholicism, Norman argued that the aesthetic sense had become an unexpected, even paradoxical, handmaid of modern materialism. It mimics a sense of the sacred and borrows its vocabulary for refugees from mass culture.

More than a century and a half earlier, John Henry Newman anticipated the eventual melding of aesthetic response with religious sentiment. He predicted that feelings aroused by "accomplishments"—art, music, poetry—would blur with religious experience and, in time, be identified with it. Jacques Barzun concurred. In his 1973 Mellon Lectures, he stated: "The equivalence of art and religion is a fact." To bolster the assertion, Barzun added: "A believer such as Cardinal Newman observed it."

Echoing the cardinal, Norman warned against confusing aesthetic worth and its emotional promptings with religious sensation. To do so would sanctify Christianity's secular replacement, a hybrid belief system that speaks in a Christian idiom while it adapts to an idol of the age. By way of example, consider the Catholic Artists Society. Without intending to, its reaction to the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral illustrates Norman's contention that contemporary Christians approach religion as if it were "a dimension of aesthetic consciousness."

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