St. Edith Stein 2
Because Lent is a time for reflection, events naturally seem to line up so as to prevent one from doing much reflecting. This past week I made no more than a start at reading Edith Stein’s “Ways to Know God,” a somewhat lengthy essay in explication of the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagite (or Pseudo-Dionysius, if you prefer—not being a scholar I don’t feel obliged or even entitled to have any opinions about the identity of the writer). And not having read him I’m mainly interested in what he may provoke Edith Stein to say, mindful that it may not be clear what is her thought and what is his.
I haven’t gotten very far, and have made only a few notes, but the effort has already been fruitful. Dionysius views the world as a hierarchy having the task of “lead[ing] all creation back to the Creator.”
For although not everything can receive divine enlightenment…nevertheless even the lowest creatures, those lacking reason and even life, are fit to serve as tools and being-images [Seinsbild] of spiritual and divine being and acting.
I had a few years of German long ago, and retain just enough to have a feel for the sense of Seinsbild. “Being-images” is adequate but has, as is naturally the case when there is no equivalent term, an unfortunately vague quality. I’m struck here by the applicability of the idea to human art: I’ve always liked Tolkien’s idea of art as a sub-creation, or perhaps I should say sub-Creation. And the sub-Creation is itself composed of Seinsbilder: being-images which are so designed and ordered as to comprise a single Seinsbild by means of which we can speak (if we’re the artist) or hear (if we’re not) some truth about the sub-creator, the greater Creation, and the Creator. Tools, in short.
And, looking at it from the other side, we could say that the entire Creation is a work of art of which the purpose is (as the now scoffed-at but in fact very accurate old formula put it) to delight and instruct.
Knowing and witnessing go together.
This is now an aphorism that will stay with me. Maybe what I have seen in stray bits of Edith Stein’s work is not so much mystical theology as mystical poetry. At any rate I always seem to head straight for the possibility of bringing her insights to bear on the question of art, and in particular the question of the relationship between art and religion. That last sentence could serve—could serve me as a theology of art, or at least the foundation of one. I spoke last week about my incomprehension of the idea of art as “self-expression.” When one sees—knows—the splendor of being, and at the same time has the impulse to make, the result is a need to make something which communicates the splendor—to witness.
Since the Catholic faith is the most truthful account of being in its foundations, art which is informed by the Catholic faith (and this may be at several removes, as in, for instance, the English novel of the Protestant centuries) is at an advantage in bearing witness to the truth, which is to say, the splendor. Art is not religion, and breaks down when it is treated as one, as it often has been over the past hundred years or so. But it is another form, a way, of witnessing.