Lost Piety

A former student and good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that has passed since his return from England with his father in 1868: “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman is speaking about art, but we must remember that art creates culture; where the artist goes culture follows.“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel): “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore. We are capable of love but feel only animus toward all but a few. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we recently learned in Japan. Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

One thought on “Lost Piety

  1. I have been thinking about this blog of my former professor and good friend, Hugh Curtler, for a few days now. He, apparently, has been thinking about Bergman. Good for my friend. I think about Bergman and his work a great deal, too much perhaps. I have a facebook page with many, many notes written on the topic of Ingmar Bergman’s films, the actors who worked for him and the impact of his lifelong obsession with the power of the cinema.

    I also think about this notion of lost piety, although I never use that term. For me, “lost piety” really means “sin.” More accurately, the reason we, as human beings, have lost our sense of piety is as a direct result of sin. Let me explain.

    Piety is commonly defined as “religious devotion and reverence to God” or as “a devout act, thought, or statement.” In either case, the Bible tells us that the reason we do not act with religious devotion and reverence, and our lack of devout actions, thoughts and statements can be traced to the idea that man is, by nature, at enmity with God. We are not pious because we cannot be pious. Timothy Keller has defined sin as “failing to acknowledge God in the world which He has created.” This is the core of what sin is; the inability to acknowledge God in the world He has made. Whenever we do become genuinely pious, and not simply become an individual who acts in a pious manner, we do so only because of the power of God’s love and grace in our lives.

    Now, there is a distinction to be made between “acting piously” and “being pious.” The first is simply an outward expression or action. Acting piously may or may not be the result of having a heart, mind and soul which desires to know God and desires to know God genuinely and sincerely. In some cases, pious actions are done by very impious people. We should not be confused by this. Religion is Big Business in America and it often does attract a certain kind of huckster, scam artist and vaudevillian into its ranks. The false piety of the falsely pious should not deter those who seek genuine piety. The prophet Jeremiah who is chronicled in the Old Testament once wrote, “The heart is deceitful about all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) One of the mistakes I used to make is to confuse the impious acts of the hucksters, scam artists and vaudevillians who act in allegedly pious ways and who claim to speak in God’s name, as a reflection on God and Christianity. I am now convinced this was a mistake. Hucksters are hucksters, plain and simply. God is no huckster, nor are the genuinely pious who seek to know God. Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. My response to my former professor and good friend is not intended to be a lesson in the identification of religious hucksters, scam artists and vaudevillians. Let me get to my major point.

    In a very foundational way, “lost piety” is a bit of a misnomer. We have not lost our ability to be pious; we, in fact, never had the ability in the first place. At least not since the garden of Eden. I am not, let me be clear, not making a claim about the historical existence in time and space of a place called “the garden of Eden” or the idea that it was populated by two historical individuals named “Adam and Eve.” That story from the book of Genesis may or may not be an accurate historical account of actual events or it might be a well told and clever allegory written by an individual from antiquity whose identity remains a mystery. In either case, the point is simply to suggest that if humanity was ever a genuinely pious kind of creature, this was so long ago and we are so far removed from that genuine pious nature, it no longer makes any sense to use the words “piety” and “humanity” together in the same sentence.

    If this seems depressing and leaves us in a hopeless position before a living God, I will tell you this is not the case. This is simply the starting point of our conversation with God, not its conclusion. The conclusion rests in the person of Jesus Christ and His desire and power to return us to a state of piety through faith in His atoning sacrifice and His life-giving resurrection.

    Finally, Bergman apparently spent a great deal of time think about the notion of God’s silence. He created a series of four films which deal with this very topic: The Virgin Spring, Through A Glass Darkly (winner of the 1962 Academy Award for Best Foreign film), Winter Light (my personal favorite) and The Silence. In each, the central character demonstrate the very behavior Bergman bemoans in the essay quoted by Hugh. “The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance.” The central characters of these films draw the conclusion that God is silent because He is not clearly heard, or because an existential crisis remains, or because the answer received from God is not the answer desired. Ray Stedman, in a lovely commentary on the book of Job titled “Let God Be God,” offers us a solution to the silence of God, seemingly never investigated by Bergman. Stedman writes, “The silence of God ends when our silence begins.”

    I am not suggesting that questioning God, His existence, His motives and plans, is never appropriate. I am one who continues to have differences with the Almighty from time to time. My point it this: the universe, the world and all that is contained within them belong to God. Sometimes, the greatest action we can undertake, if we desire to restore piety, is the act of listening to what God is desperately trying to tell us and has been trying to tell us for about 2000 years.

    Toward the end of hearing from God, let me suggest a reading of the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s