Religion as Art
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze noticed a problem in his field. Despite centuries of philosophical argument about the nature of reality, it didn’t seem like philosophers were getting any closer to a definitive set of conclusions. Deleuze re-conceptualized his field and argued that we might understand philosophy better as a form of art rather than a search for truth. Philosophy, according to him, is a subjective interpretation of reality that helps us make sense of the chaos in which we live. I believe spiritual traditions can be thought of in a similar way.
It makes no sense to go up to a painting in a museum and ask, “Can you prove this painting is true?” Similarly, I don’t believe it makes sense to ask the same thing of religions. Religions, and any spiritual framework for that matter, can be more fruitfully understood as works of art. I don’t mean religious ideas expressed through art. I also don’t mean making a religion of art—as some artists aspired to do in the 19th century to replace traditional religion. What I mean is that religious and spiritual paths can be understood as providing an “art of living”—a vision for living beautifully.
A powerful example of such a vision can be found in Walt Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass:
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Whitman was an artist and he used his art to express his own self-styled spirituality. But we don’t need to produce art to live beautifully. Our flesh becomes a poem when we bring beauty into the world by acting beautifully in accordance with the values upon which we’ve founded our lives.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche advocated that individuals “must give value to their existence by behaving as if one’s very existence were a work of art.” As the artists of our own lives, Nietzsche writes, we can “survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.” (The Gay Science)
Rather than accept the values of our society wholesale, Nietzsche argues individuals must craft their own values through a personal process of creation. However, people can certainly live out a beautiful life in conformity with their society’s conception of a life-well-lived—and perhaps it’s impossible to live entirely outside that conception, even while rebelling against it. Religious traditions offer various robust and compelling visions of what such lives could look like: a life of grace and devotion, of ecstasy and gratitude, of equanimity and moderation, or of questioning and contemplation. These visions of lives-well-lived are often embodied in mythic lives like those of Jesus Christ, the Buddha, or Socrates—or lives that are closer to the touch, like those of Thomas Merton, D. T. Suzuki, or Carl Sagan. Their example may be what inspired us to embark on our spiritual journeys. Their writings and teachings may serve as waypoints and teachers. When the road becomes hard and our will falters, we can return to these visions of beautiful lives—historical or mythic—and thus recommit to the difficult task of fashioning a beautiful life for ourselves.
In this light, we can read the global Rolodex of saints, tzadiks, mythic heroes, martyrs, bodhisattva, prophets, gurus, philosophers, and even scientists, as a directory of lives well-lived. Each hagiography or myth serves as an example of what it means to live-out a masterpiece in that particular tradition. Among these masterpieces, none is supreme. Just like there can never be a final work of art after which no more art can be made, so too can there never be a final religion, a final way of living, after which no other can follow.