Art, Faith, and Christian Humanism with Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe giving his lecture, “The Erasmus Option.”

On Friday, March 16, 2018, the library was open a little later than usual. Thanks to our wonderful library staff around 150 people were crowded into the Warner Library third-floor atrium. Why would there be 150 people in our library on a Friday night? Because the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good hosted one of the Christian art world’s finest, Mr. Gregory Wolfe. Wolfe studied both at Hillsdale College and Oxford University. While at Oxford he started the world renowned C.S Lewis society. Wolfe then went on to write many books, including The Operation of Grace and Beauty Will Save the World. He also founded the prestigious Image journal in 1989.

The Agora Institute, led by our new director Dr. Lia Howard, hosted multiple events with Wolfe this past week, including a tour of the art in Adena Potok’s synagogue and home. Adena is the wife of Chaim Potok, one of the 20th Century’s great Jewish artists and writers, and coincidently a contributor to Image. This was a wonderful experience: the chance not only to experience the beauty of the art and culture but the generosity of Adena, her willingness to teach, and her desire for us to learn about Jewish culture and art. Later on that evening, some of the Agora Fellows and Templeton staff met at the Merion Tribute House to have a conversation about art, beauty, and culture with Adena and Mr. Wolfe.  Their graciousness and wisdom was greatly appreciated and we thank them both deeply.

Wolfe’s lecture Friday night pertained specifically to an idea that has shaped his life. In response to Rod Dreher’s, The Benedict Option, Wolfe came forward with his own “Erasmus Option.” According to Wolfe’s reading, Dreher suggests that the narrative of decline is true. Western civilization is getting worse by the day and any attempt to save it by Christians is futile: Christianity has lost. Therefore, Dreher invokes the movement of St. Benedict and his monastic order, who in response to the fall of Rome pulled out of society to live in small closed off communities. Dreher proposes the same move by Christian communities today.

 Wolfe’s Erasmus Option suggests that this narrative of decline is false. Good Christian art, beauty and culture is out there; we just have to go find it. The tradition will revive itself, it is not doomed, it just needs to be worked with. Wolfe proposes a dialogue between faith and culture—art that grapples with faith. This is exactly what Wolfe has done with Image. Wolfe and his colleagues are living out the Erasmus Option, searching for and finding good Christian “culture-creating” art. Wolfe believes that Christian Humanism is the way to break this narrative of decline. Humanism does not have to be secular; in fact, Wolfe would assert that it did not start out secular. It started with great Christian thinkers.

Today, Christian’s everywhere get frustrated with art that, if we are being honest, is downright awful. Art is not beautiful because the person who created it goes to church every Sunday. Art is beautiful because the person who created it has honed their craft, and they use that craft to describe, love, fight, and struggle with their faith. That art is out there; that culture exists. It is our job to search for it, to not be lazy, and to spread it like wildfire. I leave you with words from Wolfe that I believe center the Erasmus Option; “Christianity spreads by envy.” Others do not envy piety, they envy beauty. Therefore, let our art and our lives portray the beauty of the faith—not just the good parts but the struggles as well.

James Davenport ’20 is a Templeton scholar, studying Politics, Philosophy and Theology. After finishing his undergraduate studies James plans to pursue a law degree. 

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