Art and War

The terrorist attacks of September 11th have shaken the entire Western world, shattering our complacency, revealing to us the state of our unpreparedness, both sociopolitically and spiritually. We must hope that the subsequent turning to God in public and private prayer will continue, and that the present conflict will not spiral out of control into a global conflict. We must pray that Christ’s peace and his true justice will triumph over man’s instinctive desire for vengeance, and his need for security.

Freedom from fear is a good, but it cannot be purchased at any cost. If our highest value is only security, then we may for a time secure the borders of the West against the fanatics who hate us. But the internal life of a people is ultimately its best guarantor of strength. If we do not return to the principles God has written into creation, and live by moral absolutes both in our private lives and in our culture, we will suffer more attacks from violent individuals and groups. Moreover, violence will also be increasingly internalized, self-inflicted. If this comes to pass, the free democracies of the West will be living under a self-imposed totalitarianism, preserving the outer ring-wall of protection, but hollow at the core.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both and deserves neither.”

Are we there yet? I do not think so. But we have arrived at a hiatus point in history. From now on we will make more and more choices based upon our concepts of what constitutes the human person and what is the nature of human community. Our spiritual life and our culture will be the most profound influences on how we discern these questions.

A few days before the terrorist attack, I read an essay by the philosopher Max Picard, “Atomization and Modern Art”, first published in 1950. Here is an excerpt:

“There is an integrating, healing power issuing from a picture in which things have been restored their integrity by the artist, or in which they have been given sorrow for their dismemberment. The world opens, unfolds, and is enriched this way; otherwise it shrivels. For there is something consuming in the phenomenon of demolition, consuming far beyond the object which has been demolished. (The end of this demolition is the atom bomb which tolerates nothing whole besides itself.)”

Will atomic warfare be the ultimate artform, the final artform? If to destroy is to be “above” life, to destroy absolutely and totally is to be absolutely above life. For those who hate and for those who believe they have nothing to lose, the temptation to destroy increases dramatically. The German philosopher Nietzsche (whom the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson described as a precursor of the spirit of Antichrist) once wrote, “He who would be a creator, both in good and evil, must first of all know how to destroy and wreck values.” Thus the Nietzschian ethos (in its myriad modern manifestations) will inevitably strive to destroy as its defining act of “creation”.

Ultimate negation will be man’s last temptation, his final attempt to make himself lord over life and death. This is the satanic deception above all other deceptions. Satan was a liar and a killer from the beginning.

Satan cannot create, cannot love, cannot restore the harmony of the creation he has shattered. For this reason he envies and hates mankind above all created things, for man is made in God’s image and likeness. If he can seduce man-the-maker into becoming man-the-destroyer, he will have achieved the depths of his great revolt, he will have struck a blow at God, declaring, “You say you have redeemed this creature. Watch as I make him destroy himself. You say you have created this world and that it is good. Watch as I make man destroy it. In this I will refute your word, and you will not be able to unrefute it.”

The significance of both the Resurrection and the New Jerusalem of Revelation is that God has the final word in this debate. He will not be refuted.

All creating (in the measure that it springs from the wells of truth and love) is a foretaste of the harmony that will become complete and eternal at the end of the world.

“Only love creates.” St. Maximilian Kolbe

“We are God’s work of art.” St. Paul

“The fruit of abortion is nuclear war.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

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