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Give beauty back: art, morality and mission: for Vincent MacNamara

30 November, 1999

To celebrate his friendship with and the contribution to moral theology of Kiltegan missionary Vincent MacNamara, Enda McDonagh explores the connections between art, morality and mission in the Christian context.

Vincent MacNamara’s artistic interests were always evident to his friends. Music in particular was the great love of his life. His work and person have always conveyed a sense of the beauty at the heart of things. It is not surprising that in his writing, his sensitivity to language and his range of literary reference, explicit and implicit, made him the most readable of moral theologians. And he had a theology to match the style. His theology was not self-consciously or deliberately aesthetic, but in its grace and subtlety of analysis it rendered Christian ethics a matter of aesthetics also. Ever conscious of his missionary background he thought and wrote for a globalising church and world and moved easily between Kiltegan/Kimmage and Nairobi. This small contribution to celebrating his life and work wishes to explore some connections between art, morality and mission under a title borrowed trom that most elegant and powerful of poets, Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Give Beauty Back’. Poetry is Vmcent’s second artistic love and Hopkins he has used in his ethical and theological writing to significant effect.

Creator, creation and creativity
From the theologian’s perspective art and morality have their roots in creation and creativity, the creation and creativity of God and of humanity. In the sharp debate about the relation between Christian faith and ethics and how far ethics was autonomous, a debate to which Vincent MacNamara made a notable contribution, some confusion occurred among Christian moral theologians whose terms of debate centred either on revelation versus reason, or on revealed morality versus natural (law) morality. A more radical resetting of revelation, reason, morality and natural law within the context of the Christian doctrine of creation would have illuminated some of the
difficulties. The particular difficulties of Christians in dialogue with those of other religious and moral traditions or those of a purely secular moral tradition would then need further investigation, but should not prevent Christian theologians trom clarifying their own starting points now or even trom entering into effective conversation with these others.

For the Christian theologian the Creator of the universe and the Lord of history is the God of the Old Testament and the New. Creation is Yahweh/ God’s first testament or covenant both in the sense of God’s original commitment to his world and in the sense of his original script or scripture, in which his intent and achievement might be finally deciphered. With the creation of human beings, God had partners to his creating covenant and decipherers of his creation script, ‘In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.’ Creation had become personal and relational, establishing community, however fragile, between Creator and creatures and between creatures themselves. How fragile it was and is needs further attention later. For now it is important to dwell on the divine originator and creator, on the action or better the process of creation, not only in its week-long fable of Genesis but also in its incalculably long cosmic evolution and in its millennia of human history, and finally on the product of creation, unfinished as it may be, the world we experience, celebrate and lament.

‘Creator’ (and its associates) appears in a theological context to be a properly divine term. Only God can create in the full and proper sense. The Bible itself begins with the announcement that God created the world: barah elohim. Later theological speculation favoured the interpretation that this was creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothingness. A favourite theological apologetic poses the question: how can there be something rather than nothing? Converging questions and insights would suggest that creation, creating and creativity should be used strictly as attributes of God. Yet these terms are human terms and in whatever language they are used of God, they must be originally human terms, applied, as technical theology might say, in an analogical way to God, that is, in a way similar to regular human usage and yet one as profoundly different as the profoundly different and transcendent God requires. As with so many other crucial words like person, love, community, law, only a continuing dialogue between the Christian biblical/theological traditions and particular cultural traditions with their philosophical, political, moral and artistic usages can provide the deeper discernment needed in moving between divine and human creation.

The divine image characteristic of human creatures, according to Genesis, was symbolised and realised primarily in their covenant-partnership with God and one another (their communicating, relating-loving and life-giving capacities) and their responsibility for and therefore ability to decipher the world entrusted to them (intellectual and imaginative capacities). From their life-giving, deciphering and communication endowment the entirely new continued to emerge; in another human being, in a fresh understanding and depiction of the world, communicated to one another by newly minted sentences, stories, songs, by primitive paintings or sculptures, in new and fruitful ways of encountering that world, ensuring survival and developing human communities. Human creativity was at work from the beginning not only in interaction with other humans and the world about them, but also in interaction with their God in ritual, song and story.

Theologically speaking, human creativity is a derived creativity, deriving ultimately from the originating creativity of the Creator-God, however mediated in biological-genetic and historical-cultural terms. In range human creativity is as wide as the world of human encounter and its potential reaches as deep as Godself, as mystics and religious geniuses bear witness. In form it is primarily responsive but no less free and innovative for that. Human encounter with the environment, cosmic and human, elicits a free and multi-form response in farming and engineering, in desiring, loving and hating, in speaking and writing, painting and praying, in all the moral, skilled, artistic and religious activities which characterise human living. In that larger context morality and art belong together to humanity’s responsive and creative capacity. In that larger context also, humanity’s reach and response is always on the move, seeking to transcend current boundaries, imbued with a fresh mission. The mission statements of today’s commercial enterprises, for all their pretentiousness, signal something of that human urge to go forth and go forward in terms which they may have immediately borrowed from a religious context but which also belong to the human enterprise and vocabulary as a whole. The more exact connections between art, morality and religious mission will be explored later against this background.

Creating and differentiating
If God be truly God how can there be anything else, different, other? A recurring intellectual difficulty for believers. Christian scripture and tradition, building on their Jewish inheritance, wrestle and live with the paradox without finally resolving it. Resolution would undoubtedly deny one or other term of the Creator-God and fmite creation duo or at least dissolve the difference between them. And the difference is essential to the identity of both and to the whole value of the cosmic and human enterprise. Creation as differentiation at the originating, divine level, differentiation between Creator and creation and differentiation in a necessarily different sense within creation provide the structure for all human creativity, including the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The emergence of the different, of the other, enables creative dialogue between Creator and the creative creatures we know as human beings as well as between human beings themselves.

At the divine level and in Christian belief it is clear that creating results is something totally other than the Creator. Yet the otherness of creation in relation to God does not exclude communication between Creator and creation. On God’s side this includes the continuing and one may say creative care of the whole universe, even to the sparrow that falls to the ground. Divine providence has always been seen by both Jews and Christians as part of God’s commitment, as part of the fidelity and self-giving involved in the very act of creating. So divine creating might be better described as a process of divine activity without which creation would lapse into nothingness. The clock-maker God of deist thinking, whereby God set the universe ticking and then abandoned it to its own resources and devices, could never be reconciled with the God of Abraham and of Jesus Christ. Not that the understanding of God as continually caring and creative does not present its own serious difficulties, some of which will have to be considered later, but fidelity to the biblical tradition allows for no other understanding.

On the creation side communication with God belongs to humanity, at least as far as our current knowledge goes. Divine-human dialogue permeates the history of Israel and Christianity and indeed of the whole of humanity in different ways. Even the atheistic surge in recent centuries in the western world may be no more than a historical phase as some sociologists, previously defenders of the inevitable secularising of the world, now seem prepared to admit. In any event secularising comes in many forms, not all of them necessarily atheistic. And some forms of atheism may be healthy rejections of a distorted God in a search for the final truth, in Christian terms a search for and so a response to the ultimate other or God, however implicit or nameless that search and response may be.

Without impugning the integrity of those who declare themselves atheists, if they belong with the searchers they belong in that sense with the most sensitive Christian believers, whose journey of faith lies between darkness and light. It is a journey in hope, always incomplete, often uncertain about its next step and supported only by trust in the frequently elusive guidance of the Spirit. In the image of dialogue with their God rather than of journey towards that God, humans stammer and stutter; ill-chosen words and unfinished sentences are too often the best that the believer, individually or in community, can offer. Creative responses in prayer to God despite or perhaps because of a long sophisticated tradition from the psalmist to the mystic, are seldom adequate for the occasion. For this inadequacy there are usually aesthetic and ethical reasons, although the deeper reason remains that of the sheer difference, the infinite otherness of God in relation to humanity. That otherness was expressed for the Hebrews in the word qadosh, translated later as hagios, sanctus, holy. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Israel.’

The pattern of divine creating issuing in others, human and cosmic, is reflected in a limited way at human level, both in human participation in the introduction of human others to the world in procreation and in parenting, in the useful development of the resources of the cosmos and in the artistic creation of beautiful objects for their own sake and for the illumination and joy of human observers. Such human creating, dependent as it is on the givens of divine creation, requires a God-like respect for the humanly created others. This applies in a unique and irreducible way to the human others, unique and irreducible as they are in their imaging of God, and in Christian terms’ other Christs’, manifestations of the Incarnate God. For Christians this is the ultimate foundation of morality between people, whether it be expressed in values and virtues, in rights and responsibilities, in law, natural or divine. The human face of the other, in Levinas’ figure, calls for unconditional regard. In more rounded, Christian terms each human other is gift (grace) and (moral) call in his or her human otherness. Using the other as means simply and not as end to be respected in herself violates that condition of uniqueness and irreducibility, her status as (ultimately divine) gift and call.

The details of such respect and implied response in all the dimensions of human relating and living are for another occasion. It might however be emphasized that this recognition and respect for human otherness is not an individualist ethic as some readers of Levinas and of other personalist philosophers might assume. Respecting difference as a way of building community is the lesson of the Scriptures, Hebrew and Christian. Beyond these intra-human concerns God’s celebration of the pre-human creation in Genesis, Job and elsewhere and the divine entrusting of the earth to human care as well as use, provide a basis for treating our cosmic environment as gift and call. If its otherness is not so sacrosanct as that of human beings who may and should use it, they must all respect and cherish it and not simply exploit it.

The relationship between divine creating and human moral responsibility could seem self-enclosing or at most open to religious activity and responsibility. Yet human creativity is an immediate reflection of the divine
and human morality itself has always had close, if sometimes contentious, ties with morality. The contention usually turned on the content of the artist’s work which appeared to some to be pornographic, humanly degrading, politically seditious, even blasphemous. Such controversies may never be disregarded as trivial or irrelevant but in Christian perspective they need to be subordinated to the sheer wonder of humanity’s creative and artistic capacity. Although involving many of the crafts and skills which humans are continually developing in the reach for a better life or sometimes just survival, artistic creations are not primarily useful. They enrich human living as ends in themselves, not as means to something else. To use them primarily for prestige or profit, as many collectors or dealers may, is to miss the point and the experience. The experience may be multifaceted and varies with the particular art form, be it music or painting or poetry. One recurring facet is that of joy in the sounds, the colours and the words. ‘And God looked at it and saw that it was good,’ indeed beautiful so that Solomon in all his glory could not compare with the lilies of the field. The artist looks and listens and feels the world about her and looks and listens and feels her experience into notes and brush-strokes and word-rhythms. Not of course in any simple or direct translation. The way of the artist is often indirect, whether by recollection in tranquillity or forgetfulness in clamour as mind and hand, ear and eye draw out of the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart the images which she expresses and discovers in sound and colour and word and which have the power to challenge the listener or viewer or reader.

The creation of the real artist invites our recognition of it as truthful in its account of her interaction with the world and solicits our appreciation of it as beautiful in its form of expression. For the artist and the viewer the completed artistic creation as an end in itself forms in some sense an independent world. It is a new other open to fresh encounter with the artist as well as the viewer. And of course it may elicit quite different reactions from artist and viewers and be subject to varying interpretations. Yet as an independent and, in an important sense, an original expression of truth and beauty it enables and calls for recognition of its particular truth and joy in its particular beauty. Such recognition and joy affect its audience more or less deeply, in proportion to the power of the creation and the receptivity of the audience. With a really powerful created object and a really receptive audience illumination and elation may be apt descriptions of some of the effects. As the music of Bach or Beethoven resounds through a sympathetic and attentive listener or she surrenders to a beautiful poem or painting, the sense of new creation and creativity, and of new dimensions of the world and of the self may be experienced. Artistic creation as source of illumination is revelatory of the deeper mystery of humanity. While in its finitude it remains opaque to the fullness of that mystery, it may alert the recipient to the further and fuller possibilities of what may be called the transcendent. Such spiritual effects of the true and beautiful as incarnate in music or word are part of the religious tradition of Christianity certainly. In a more secular era artistic experiences may be the primary spiritual experiences for many people, but however secular in content they may still provide gateways to the religious transcendent for believers and openings for a spiritual if less specific transcendent for the others. At their limit artistic experiences with their potential for self-transcending are akin to prayer and sometimes important preliminaries or companions to it, even if they may never be simply identified with it.

Creation, differentiation and reconciliation
The created as an expression of the creator and yet differentiated from and other than it causes a certain tension, even estrangement or alienation between creator, divine or human, and created. Parents and children begin their lives together as strangers, as aliens. Over time this differentiation may prove the foundation for a loving community or for yet another dysfunctional family. The drawing together of family members as distinct others into a genuine community respecting, indeed encouraging and rejoicing in that otherness, is a life task, the life task of reconciling diversity in unity. It is now increasingly a global human task if the compression in time and space of so many different peoples, cultures, religions and interests is not to cause the human family as a whole to self-destruct. Such reconciliation might well be considered the primary moral task of humanity at present. A
great deal of moral imagination and creativity will be required for its fulfilment. In Christian theological terms the task of global reconciliation could be interpreted as crucial to the promotion of the Reign of God as announced and inaugurated by Jesus Christ, the task of Christian mission. To this we must return.

At the micro-level of the individual artist’s work the differentiation of creator and created demands a different kind of reconciliation. The artist has at some stage to accept the work as his own best self-expression at least for the present and he has to let go of it into the wider world. In all this he is both trusting himself and entrusting himself to what may prove a critical and even hurtful audience. The differentiation achieved in his artistic creation may also become a source of hostile estrangement for himself and from his critics. Creation and reconciliation should belong together in the artistic as well as in the moral life.

If human creativity and creation are rooted in the divine so is reconciliation. The otherness of the Creator-God and the divine creation already discussed have at least the potential of hostile estrangement. The Hebrew scriptures wrestled with the actuality of such estrangement in the very first accounts of creation, in the story of the Fall which is at once accompanied by the promise of salvation and reconciliation. The subsequent stories deal with divine attempts to reconcile humanity with its creator, with itself and with the wider creation. The climax reached in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as Son of God made man is described by St Paul in the same passage (2 Cor 5:16 ff), as both ‘new creation’ and God’s presence in Christ ‘reconciling the world with himself’. This divine creating-reconciling mission will be led by the Spirit until Christ comes again. Humanity is finally re-created or reconciled in hope, beyond history, but the first fruits of that hope are already at work in history. The Reign of God has already begun.

The cost of creating
In letting others be, bringing them into existence, the creator, divine and human, may and frequently will enjoy the process and the product. In the Genesis story the divine Creator rejoiced in his handiwork, he looked on it at various stages in the process and saw that it was good or very good. The beauty of his world had made him glad. But it came at a price even for the infinite and infinitely loving creator. It was different and demanded that it be respected in its difference. Creation imposed what the Scottish theologian Donald MacKinnon among others has called a self-limitation on God. And in a much cruder image one could say God was stuck with creation. Of course a God of infinite power could undo his creation but what would this say of a God of infmite wisdom and love? This self-surrender of God both in the act of creating and in the living reflection which the divine product manifested was only the beginning of the price which God had to pay.

As creation in its climactic achievement, humanity, turned sour, as the difference became hostile estrangement, God became more deeply, more lovingly and more painfully involved. The inadequacies of human language invoked here should not obscure the painful trajectory of God’s increasing engagement with human and cosmic history. Last of all he sent his own Son. The reconciliation and the new creation issued by divine choice in the self-emptying of God, the complete surrender to the human, created condition in all its vulnerability and mortality (cf. Phil 2). Not grasping at equality with God which was his by right, Jesus Christ went to his death as a criminal on the cross, the ultimate testimony to God’s creation-commitment and the source of his new creation initiative in finally reconciling the original creation with Godself. The costly beauty of divine creation, process and product was transfigured and transformed by the mission of Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection was revealed the real extent of the divine creative loving and of the painful surrenders which it involved. It is in this context of the painfully wrought beauty of new creation that Hopkins speaks of Christ as the touchstone of all human artistic achievement.

Hopkins, like so many other human artists, was intensely conscious of the pain of human creation, with one of his later sonnets, as he put it in a letter to Robert Bridges, ‘written in blood’. His reaching after God, which on his first entry into the Jesuits seemed to him to preclude him from writing any more poetry, later became embodied in his poetry, adding to the joy of creating in poems such as ‘The Windhover’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ and to the ‘crucifixion’ of it in the’ desperate sonnets’.

The pain and the joy, the agony and the ecstasy have always been closely associated with human creation and procreation. Yet the judgements of Yahweh in Genesis, ‘In pain you shall bring forth children’, ‘in the sweat of
your face you shall eat bread,’ yield to the consoling words of Jesus in the gospels of the mother’s labour pains turning to joy as her child is born into the world. For Hopkins as for Jesus the joy beyond all further pain and suffering only comes with the fullness of new creation, in final resurrection. Divine and human creativity can in history only reach towards that fulfilment.

A much more secular worldly version of the joy and the pain is reflected in the work of another favourite poet of Vincent MacNamara, WB Yeats. In a poem, significantly entitled Adam’s Curse’, he has much to say on the labour pains of the birthing of the beautiful:

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I talked of poetry.
I said, A line will take us hours maybe,
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught,
Better go down on your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one will find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know
Although they do not talk of it at school
That we must labour to be beautiful.’

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring’. …

The painful self-giving of the poet, as a line may take him hours, at its best issues in the birth of the beautiful. But the process and product have a further regenerative and healing effect on the language itself and on the community which uses it. Without the redemptive effects of literature the banal, the cliche and the crude would have a more seriously corrupting effect on the language and its community. In labouring for the beautiful, artists are serving the community in ways of which most of the community that ‘the martyrs call the world’ may be entirely unaware. This is not true just of literary artists but of all artists. The great painters enable one to see more clearly and deeply, the great composers to hear more deeply – provided of course people are willing and able to respond to them. This will require effort and pain on respondents’ part also; the effort and pain of loving surrender to the otherness of the artists’ words, sights and sounds, of their different, healing and enriching worlds.

The ethics of creation
The ethics internal to artist and art audience is kin to other ethics, personal or professional. As one expects doctors or lawyers or bus drivers to undertake their training and carry out their operations responsibly, one may expect of artists, art critics and audiences that they also adhere to the internal ethical demands of their operations. In all these areas of ethics, personal, professional and artistic, there are important differences which may be easily
ignored by some outsider ignorant of the particular gifts and obligations of this professional or that artist. Of course, the professional and the artist are primarily human beings and the ethics particular to their avocation may never properly include destruction or degradation of their own humanity or that of others. Scientists may not use other human beings as fodder for experimentation, although how far experimental drugs or surgery may be used in certain circumstances may be a matter for legitimate moral debate. Similarly artists will need to retain a certain basic respect for human dignity.

In the notorious example of erotic literature versus pornography, Professor Peter Connolly of Maynooth explored in a groundbreaking article in the Theological Quarterly in the 1960s how differently the novelist William Faulkner and the ‘pornographer’ Harold Robbins treated apparently similar rape scenes. While Robbins increasingly focused the reader on genitalia and genital activity, Faulkner opened the reader up to the larger humanity and larger world of both the rapist and the victim. In the Robbins example the writer was clearly reducing the protagonists to genital agents and so exploiting sexual preoccupations of the reader to the exclusion of any larger human sensitivity. For Faulkner these remained two human beings as the language, imagery and dynamics of the story of the episode revealed. By using literary criteria internal to the works themselves Connolly was able to show how the one was art and the other not. Not every example will be as clear-cut as that and not every literary critic, let alone reader, enjoys Connolly’s literary acumen. However, the main point is clear: it is by criteria internal to the artistic work and its genre that the work must be first evaluated. That evaluation has larger ethical significance for artist and audience as human beings.

As the would-be producers of works of truth and beauty, artists must, as Yeats once instructed Irish poets, learn their trade. The relation between talent or genius, learned skill and dedicated application varies from artist to artist and from work to work. Yet it is the honesty and integrity of the artist which is at stake in achieving the right relationship of the three in any particular work. Lack of talent is not blameworthy unless the untalented unfairly seek to lure their audiences into false estimates of their work. In the commercial art-market of the day such deception of the self and others is inevitable and frequent. From the talented or the genius there is a justified expectation of developing skills and persistent dedication. They remain, however, free to create or not to create, to create in this way or that independently of the audience’s expectation. It is to their expectations of themselves that they may feel most bound as they sit in front of the blank screen or empty canvas. As screen or canvas begins to fill up their commitment to truth and beauty, their honesty and integrity as artists come into play with all the pain they may entail. It need hardly be said the destructiveness and destruction of human beings is a suitable, indeed often a necessary, subject for the artist. Depiction of such ugly scenes does not obscure deeper truth and beauty as Picasso’s Guernica or any of the powerful paintings of the Crucifixion demonstrate. 

Art, morality and mission
The ethics internal to art forms a distinctive part of the ethics internal to human community and its life in the cosmos. Personal, social and environmental ethics are illuminated and enriched by the less easily defined or described ethics of the artist in relation to his gifts, his training, his application of his materials and skills, is respect for his audience. An artist like Marc Chagall would push this artistic ethic further towards the ethical summit of love when he says: ‘If the theoretical and scientific sources of art of which I have spoken could be subordinated to love, their results might become more valid and more just. In connection with Art I have often spoken of the colour which is Love.’

For the good artist as for the good (moral) person there is a desire to promote the beauty and goodness which is appropriate to their talents and situation. Desire becomes commitment as they seek seriously and urgently to enable others to share their vision and practice of beauty and goodness. These are the missionaries of beauty and of goodness, often in some particular form like freedom or justice. They frequently enjoy the sense of calling and of being sent which have been traditionally associated with religious missionaries. WB Yeats and his companions were missionary in this sense, as were so many artists and artistic movements over the centuries. In more obviously ethical terms the world is teeming with missionaries as freedom movements, justice seekers and peace makers and a host of other governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental bodies labour for a better world. Beyond the strictly ethical missionary movements, if one may call them that, there are very large and energetic religious missionary movements of which the most newsworthy at present is Islam. How far Islam offers a single missionary movement and how far that movement is the menace it is often represented to be, are at least disputable. In the context of this essay priority must be given to Christian Mission.

Renewing Christian Mission
When Vincent MacNamara began his theological studies at St Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, locus of the headquarters and seminary of the Missionary Society of St Patrick (the Kiltegan Fathers), the twentieth-century Irish missionary movement was at its height. There has been a famous decline in numbers since, right through the Irish clerical and religious church, missionary and domestic. More important may be the decline in morale undoubtedly intensified by the spate of clerical and religious scandals. Yet even previous to that, the Irish Church’s sense of mission had been weakened, despite the obvious success of development agencies such as Trocaire which attracted many lay workers who in previous decades might have joined missionary societies like Kiltegan. For the sake of the local church itself as well as for the sake of the churches around the world with which Ireland still has very close ties and in service to the emerging global Reign ofGod preached by Jesus, the Catholic Church in Ireland badly needs to renew its sense of mission.

The artistic and moral missions discussed earlier can and should feed into this renewal. They can do so first of all by Christians recognising that the promotion of beauty and truth, goodness and justice are clearly aspects of the in-breaking reign of God, although art and morality may not be simply colonised for religious purposes. Christians and their leaders must rather seek dialogue and partnership with the artists and justice seeken who may well wish to steer clear of any explicit religious involvement. Further lessons may be learned for the integrity and commintment of these people in their search for the beautiful and the good and from certain artists’ humility in offering their work to be freely accepted or rejected by critics and public. The hurt which rejection often entails and how it is borne may have its own lessons for preachers of the gospel, for Christian missionaries. Writing to his son in 1944, JRR Tolkien suggested art, virtue and insight as the primary requirement of the good Christian sermon. It might well be applied to Christian missionary work as a whole. The Christian insight and knowledge which the missionary brings to the work must be accompanied by some of the insight and skills of the artist as well as by the moral insight and practice of the good person. Beauty and justice are both a reflection of presence of God in the world and a summons to uncover that presence as Christian presence within and without the believing community. To the uncovering of that affirmng and empowering presence Christians are called, and called to be missionaries.

Jesus and the reign of God in a multi-faith world
In the afterrmath of Vatican II with its (limited) openness to other churches and faiths and to the modern world in general, some of the older concepts of Christian mission were in need of revision. Despite changes in the intervening decades older concepts hang on, slow down the rethinking and retooling which would renew the understanding and practice of Christian mission. One of the crucial difficulties is how one combines belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his mission as Incarnate Son of God vith the acceptance of salvific truth in other religions. The Vatican II document Nostra aetate did not and could not resolve that difficulty. Neither did the more recent Roman document Dominus Jesus. And it is not likely to be resolved satisfactorily in the near future.

Such a difficulty need not be paralysing as it has sometimes tended to be. Following the paths of artistic and ethical dialogue in a multicultural world may provide some guidance for multi-faith dialogue. The plurality of artistic traditions and achievements does not preclude some mutual appreciation, cooperation and indeed integration between them. Gauguin would be one obvious example but there are endless others between cultures and generations. The inter-ethical dialogue may appear more difficult but it carries on fruitfully despite being weakened by the economic, political and military power of dominant western partners. These are not simply examples which Christian missionaries might follow. They are in themselves testimony to the divine presence in beauty and
goodness throughout the world, a testimony, if implicit, to that universal Reign of God which Jesus preached and which his disciples are called to preach and promote.

If the God of Creation (and New Creation) is discernible in artistic and moral traditions and achievements of the diverse cultures in which religions very different from Christianity predominate, it is to be expected that these religions themselves reveal something of that one God. In its strictly religious mission Christianity will engage with these religions as partners in search of a fuller understanding of this God of Creation. The particular religious insights of non-Christian religions will at once challenge and enrich Christianity’s understanding of itself and its founder, Jesus Christ. Continuing and constructive dialogue is the way to conciliation in diversity as already emphasized. Such dialogue will serve religions in their distinctiveness and serve all humanity in its need to be
kept open to the immanent and transcendent mystery of the world, its Creator-God. The renewed Christian mission will embrace artistic and ethical dialogue and cooperation while making its own original contribution in the promotion of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation.

Justice, Beauty and God
In many ways the virtue and practice of justice has become the cutting edge of moral discourse in the contemporary world. One has only to look closely at any human situation to realise how many people are not being treated .fairly, not being given their due in accordance with their dignity and basic equality as human beings. Rampant injustice makes for rampant ugliness in exploitative human relationships, in deprived and scarred
human bodies and minds, in disfigured landscapes and polluted atmosphere. The mission for justice and beauty go together in restoring and revealing the inner and outer beauty of people and places, the beauty that is finally God.

In one of Hopkins’ most accessible but untitled poems the missionary unity of beauty, morality and faith is brought together for poet and reader in the person of Christ.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rims in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same;
Deals out that being within each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me; for that I came.

I say more; the just man justices;
Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It is in that spirit that the theological and missionary vocation of Vincent MacNamara with his artistic interests and ethical concerns may be summarised in Hopkins’ plangent call:

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s
Self and beauty’s giver.


This article is an extract from Enda McDonagh’s Immersed in Mystery: en route to Theology, published by Veritas Publications. To purchase online, go to www.veritas.ie