Monday, July 7, 2014

Society may not be going to hell in a handbasket; but it isn't headed towards heaven either. (Part Two: A reflection on the relationship of the "religious" and the "secular" domains, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the so-called "culture wars".)

Part Two. Christ of culture. 

Niebuhr's second "model" is based on the idea that while the religious and the secular, on many occasions, may in fact be in opposition to one another, there is no need to posit a complete and irreconcilable difference between them. There is no unbridgeable gap between the sacred and the profane, between what is "of-God" and what is "not-of-God", precisely because all things "belong to Him".

In fact, Jesus can be viewed as the one who "completes" and "perfects" what is human, which necessarily includes culture. He is precisely the Messiah, the Savior, because he is the one who fulfills all the hopes and aspirations of humanity. He is the "perfect human being" and in him, the hoped-for fullness of humanity is revealed. He discloses humanity in its perfected form. Gloria dei vivens homo. "God's glory is the human person fully alive".

On the one hand this perspective interprets culture through Christ, where those aspects that are most like Jesus are given the most honor. On the other hand, it also interprets Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching that which best harmonizes with what is best in human civilization.

As such, it can be regarded as a "progressive" view, one that sees humanity as being "on the road" towards becoming what God intends it to be. And culture, society, and human civilization in general, are likewise seen as being on the path towards the development and evolution of better and more humane forms and structures.

The chief strength of this perspective, says Niebuhr, is that it seeks to harmonize Christianity with what is best in a culture and society. And unlike the "conflict" paradigm which holds that  only  those who refuse to adapt to culture and society can ultimately make an impact in the world, this model argues that history has shown that people were attracted to Christ also because of the “harmony of the Christian message with the moral and religious philosophy of their best teachers”.

Consider, for instance, that the earliest apologists of Christianity in its infancy sought to present the message of Christ in language and ways of thinking that were understandable to the men and women of the age, i.e. in ways that spoke to the best of their culture, society, and civilization. St. Paul's speech concerning the "altar to the unknown god" in the Book of Acts represents a kind of adaptation of the Christian message, with the aim of allowing his pagan hearers to understand what he preached.

Even St. Augustine in his Confessions, used the analogy of the Hebrews taking Egyptian gold as they left Egypt for the Promised Land to show that even what is pagan - in Augustine's case, his use of Neo-Platonic philosophy - can be used to articulate the truth of the Christian message. After all, quipped Augustine, gold ultimately belongs to God, wherever it is found. 

And there is good in the world; there is good in society. As I keep telling my students, the idea of the inviolability of the self, the notion that all human beings have a right to the pursuit of happiness, and even the notion of "human rights" itself, are all products of secular culture and society, not to mention the amazing advances in science, medicine, and technology. As the American Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray pointed out in his essay, "We Hold These Truths", we cannot subscribe to an all-too easy Lutheranism that fixes a "gulf of separation" between what is of-God and what isn't.

There is good in the world, because it is "God's world"; He is its maker who, in Genesis, declared all his creation "good". But it is also good because God's Spirit continues its work of renewing the world. And just as there is goodness in the human person - despite the fall, we Catholics do not believe that humanity's original goodness was completely wiped out - so there is goodness in what human being's create: culture, society, and the secular world.

In fact, without a recognition of the inherent goodness of created things, the edifice of the Catholic sacramental way of thinking collapses. And even the concept that lies at the very heart of Christian theology, the Incarnation - that God became, fully, a human person - would make little to no sense. The world is still a manifestation of God, and human beings, no matter how fallen, weak, and sinful, remain images of their Creator, and His Spirit continues to dwell in them.

The recognition of the ineradicable goodness of the human being and his world, despite the darker shades that have characterized both after the Fall, is perhaps the single greatest strength of this perspective. Everything isn't simply "going to hell in a hand basket", and the world, despite being a vale lacrimarum (a "vale of tears") remains the stage where the ongoing drama of redemption takes place.

But what of the weak points of this model? Notice that if the model of "Christ against culture" contains a rather negative and pessimistic view of the human person, the world, culture, and society, this model takes exactly the opposite perspective, and with that, becomes susceptible to the opposite danger, namely, an overly-optimistic, perhaps even utopian, and therefore unrealistic view. In fact, Niebuhr’s biggest problem with this view lies in its distortion of Christ and his message, especially when seen with the intention to make Jesus "conform", even to what's best in society.

Jesus isn't only some kind of "avatar", or "cipher", even of what is most noble in humanity. He isn't simply one of the many great and noble men who have walked the face of the earth, taught and enlightened human beings, and showed them the way towards becoming their "better selves". There is an inescapable uniqueness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, irreducible to anything immanent or terrestrial. Jesus isn't only a man, not even the most holy, noble, enlightened, and perfect man. We believe that is he likewise the Son of God, one in being with the Father. And it is as such that he was sent in order to redeem weak, fallen, and sinful humanity.

To focus our gaze solely on the fact that Christ represents "what is best" in humanity, is to lose sight of the fact that the human person he came to save is truly fallen, sinful, and weak, and only God can save him. If the first model manifests too dark a view of human nature, this one reveals a too bright and, therefore, unrealistic - or to use Niebuhr's word, "inauthentic" one. To repeat Stanley Hauweras' words, there is an inescapable "againstness" built into Christianity's understanding of the human person and, consequently, of the world, society, and culture as well. 

The refusal to accept an all-too-easy rejection of the world, society, and culture (as the previous "Christ against culture" model suggests), should not amount to an all-too-easy embrace of everything one finds in these (which the "Christ of culture" paradigm seems to advocate); for though not "going to hell in a handbasket", they aren't necessarily headed towards heaven either.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD." (A reflection on the relationship of the "religious" and the "secular" domains, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the so-called "culture wars".)

Part One. A number of years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend, a bishop, who was lamenting the fact that they had just "lost" what was a hard-fought battle with the government on an issue that was so important to the church.

"We did all we could", he said. "We fought the good fight, and I suppose that's all that the Lord requires. But losing does sting; I can tell you that. I know some of the guys (he was referring to other bishops in the conference) are feeling quite down right now." 

What do you say to a "successor of the apostles" in a situation like that? Are there any words of wisdom at all that you can share with someone whom you've been taught speaks in the name of The Teacher himself? "Jesus lost too, you know," I said. The good bishop just smiled. He knew what I meant.

What's a sufficiently reflective and engaged Catholic to make of the so-called "culture wars" that have now been raging for quite some time? Must we win them? What should our attitude be if we lose? Is there really a point in speaking about "winning" or "losing"? Should we even be engaged in them? What does it mean to speak of a "culture war"? And what should a believer's attitude toward "culture" in general be?

In his book, Christ and Culture, the Protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr (whom Cardinal Avery Dulles credits in his own book, Models of the Church, for providing a point of departure for his reflections on the different ways of understanding the nature of the church), discusses five "models" or "ways" by which Christians throughout the centuries have tried to "square" a faith that asks them to "fix their gaze on heaven" with the need to concern themselves still with things of this world.

But what exactly do we mean by "culture"? In Niebuhr's work, the term is used to denote that which stands in contrast, at times, even opposition, to anything that is "of Christ". It refers to anything that belongs to the domain of the "profane" or "secular", and therefore lies outside the realm of the "sacred".  There are, according to Niebuhr, five basic ways by which the domain of the religious and the secular have been understood to interact, each way or "model" has its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

Before attempting to answer some of the questions we've listed earlier, its is perhaps helpful to, just briefly, enumerate these five models and lay out their strong as well as weak points. These models are: (i) Christ "against" culture, (ii) Christ "of" culture, (iii) Christ "above" culture, (iv) Christ and culture in a relation of "paradox", and (v) Christ, the "transformer" of culture.

Let's begin with the first model, that of "Christ against culture". 

Christ against culture 

The first model pits the religious against the secular, faith against reason, Christ against culture. As Niebuhr points out, it is the most uncompromising view towards culture which “affirms the sole authority of Christ over culture and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty”. 

We could perhaps refer to it as the "conflict model" which sees a perpetual clash between the domains of faith and the world. It sees little to no point in trying to "bridge" or even attempt to find points of contact between these two spheres. Perhaps the most radical of all the models, it is the worldview we find among religious communities that separate and even isolate themselves from the world as much as they can. The Amish are an example, though certain past ways of understanding the monastic life can also be regarded as manifesting such mindset. There is nothing salvific or even worth redeeming about the world or secular society. This is not the believer's home; and while he has to live his or her life here and now, his gaze and his mind must forever be focused on heaven and the world to come.

In 2010, a new edition of the Bible—nicknamed “the Green Bible”—was published. It’s stated aim was to “equip and encourage readers to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it. This first Bible of its kind included inspirational essays from a number of spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul II. The aim of the edition was certainly noble and admirable.

Surprisingly though, when the Bible did hit the shelves at bookstores, the first words of critique and rejection, came not from non-believers, but from certain fundamentalist Christian groups, their main argument against the edition – that Christians are called to “flee”, “shun”, and “reject” the world as the place of evil, torment, and suffering, and should instead look to the “world to come”. Talk of care for the environment, some of them insisted, was really no more than a facade for a kind of secularism that seeks to “water down” Christianity’s rejection of the world and its coming condemnation at the end of time.

In the early Christian era, the theologian Tertullian was among those who first articulated this paradigm of "conflict", even "warfare" between faith and reason, religion and secular life. "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" he asked. What his question really meant was, "what does worldly reason have to do with revealed faith?" His answer, of course, was nothing. We believe, not because what we believe is rational or can be given sense by human reason, faith isn't faith if it doesn't hold onto what is inherently absurd. Credo quia absurdum. "I believe (precisely) because it is absurd".

Niebuhr is quick to point out that it is the radical nature of this paradigm that makes it both so admirable as well as dangerous - and in this consists both its strength as well as its weakness.

Martyrdom, for instance, is impossible without such mindset. The early Christian martyrs who so willingly shed their blood for the sake of what they believe saw no room for compromise between their belief and the demands of the world. There is no "middle-ground" between Christ and the world, and there can be neither conciliation nor cooperation. To borrow the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard's words, faith is a case of "either-or", not "both-and". One therefore has to stand in awe at the power of conviction of those whose blood became the "seed of the Church".

What's the "downside"? For the sake of emphasizing the point, let's use a rather "extreme" case. In 2001, the 8200-feet Bamiyan Buddhas, cultural and historical possessions of all humanity, and built some 1500 years ago on the Silk Road running through the Hindu Kush of Central Afghanistan, were blown to bits by the Taliban when they took control of the country. Though different reasons were given, the bottom-line was, they were regarded as idols, impure artifacts, unacceptable in the new fundamentalist leadership's vision of building a "purer" religious society.

Now, we're not trying to compare the Amish or Catholic monastic desire to shield one's faith from the depredations of the world with radical fundamentalism, but there is something to be said about a worldview that sees nothing but evil and degradation in the world, that sees very little that is salvific or even remotely useful to religion and faith, in the domain of what is perceived to be properly secular or profane.

(A "disclaimer" is perhaps called-for at this point. While the Catholic monastic tradition has, in its history, included tendencies that suggested "flight" from the world, the tradition has itself evolved and does not, i.e. without qualification, see one's taking-leave of the world as a simple rejection of it, nor has the tradition ever regarded the realm of the secular as totally corrupt and depraved.)

The theologian, Stanley Hauwerwas has argued - and I do make it a point to emphasize this idea to my students - that whether we like it or not, there is a necessary "againstness" that is built into the very attitude that a believer must have towards the world. The two are forever in opposition with each other. This isn't the Christian's home. At the same time, to emphasize this opposition is not to say that "conflict" and "opposition" must always mark one's view of the world. There is simply no way a believer can "barricade" himself against the influence of the world.

There is no other world, after all, just this one; and one's worthiness of a hoped-for life-to-come is premised on how one lives his or her life "in this world". Rejection isn't enough, and the simple vilification of this world won't do. Moreover, as Niebuhr himself points out, the perspective itself is most inadequate in describing how a Christian ought to relate himself to the world and society, primarily because an actual separation between the world and Christianity has never actually been achieved at any time, and thus we should not think that it can ever be. It is just as hopeless as the ideal of a secular irreligious utopia.

We must resist the temptation to think that sin lies in culture, in society, and in the world alone, and that when the Christian escapes these realities, he can therefore effectively escape sin. This is certainly not the case. Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the simple pitting of Christ against culture, faith against reason, the sacred against the secular, reveals an impoverished view of Christ and his Spirit's role in creation. As Niebuhr argues, "the rejection of culture is easily combined with a suspicion of nature and nature's God", leading ultimately to the temptation "to divide the world into a material realm governed by a principle opposed to Christ and a spiritual realm governed by a spiritual God". 

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (John Courtney Murray, SJ)

The Question of Christianity and Human Values

If it be a question here of touching on some unfinished arguments, there is one that can hardly be overlooked. In 1948 M. Francis Hermans published a four-volume work entitled, Histoire doctrinale de l'humanisme chretien. It is the story of an argument that has been going on, in a variety of fields and with varying degrees of intensity, for long centuries. Perhaps it was Clement of Alexandria who started it. Certainly it was given a mighty impulse by Origen, that towering genius of the third century, who first seriously raised and persistently explored the issue, never to be laid aside or finally settled, of the stature of human intelligence within the ambit of Christian faith.

The whole patristic period was full of the argument, in Antioch and especially in Alexandria, which was then the "capital of the creative half of the Empire." None of the great Fathers could, or even attempted to, avoid the issue posed by the collision of the Church with the classical culture of antiquity. "Look, Master! What wonderful stones and buildings!" Variants of this Gospel exclamation (Mark 13: 1) were heard, as Christian men surveyed the impressive edifice of Hellenism. But was the answer to be that of the Gospel: "Not one stone shall be left here upon another that shall not be torn down"? If Christian men shrank from this answer, as in general they did, what then was to be the disposition of these pagan "stones and buildings" within what they called the new "economy," the new order of salvation, whose roots were in Judaism and not in Hellenism; in the events of a salvation-history and not in the achievements of the human mind.

            The essential question has been restated in many forms, in many contexts, as the Christian era ran on. It arose sharply in each of the three Renaissances (we all hold now, I think, that there were three, not one). Erasmus raised it again just before the outset of the baroque era, through all of which it ran, despite Luther's efforts to damn and down it. And—to telescope the history—it is here with us today.

            On February 28, 1951, in his reply to the address of the new Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Liberia, Pius XII thus stated it:

            “The profession of Christian truth and fidelity to the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith are indissolubly bound up with the sincere and constant assertion of human nature's most authentic and exalted values….True religion and profound humaneness are not rivals. They are sisters. They have nothing to fear from one another, but everything to gain. Let each remain loyal to the law of its being, while it respects the vital needs and varied outward manifestations of the other, and the resultant harmonizing of two forces will endow any people engaged in the fulfillment of its appointed tasks with the most valuable incentives to real prosperity and solid progress.”

            This statement touches firmly, confidently, though in general terms, upon the perennial problem of Christian humanism. The problem itself is trans-temporal because it is doctrinal, based upon the principles of being, in the present order of nature and of grace. At the same time, the precise manner in which the problem appears must vary from age to age, because the virtualities in it cannot become explicit in any one historical context.

            After World War I the problem came to the fore in Europe, as the last vestiges of Jansenism[1] lost their tenacious hold on the Catholic conscience and as men of the Church undertook to define a more positive Catholic attitude towards what is called modern culture, after the lines of battle, as drawn in the nineteenth century, had ceased to mark real areas of conflict. The great crisis of World War II and the compelling necessity of some vision of a "new Christian order" gave further urgency to the problem. And it has been widely discussed in its various aspects, notably that of the theology of history and of "terrestrial realities," the concept of progress, the general significance of the dimension of time in its relation to the concept of nature and to the life of grace, the relation of science and the mastery it has achieved over the material world to the coming of the Kingdom.


            The problem, as it exists in the United States, would seem to be the more acute in proportion as it is unrecognized. Obviously, the type of humanism called "classical" has had little influence on American culture. With us the problem has other roots. America represents a human achievement of a unique kind, not paralleled in history. In a quite different sense from France, America has been revolutionary, the home of a revolution that at least claims to be permanent. The dynamism of this revolution has been an emphasis put by Americans on the assertion, which must be considered sincere and surely has been constant, of certain human values. The sheer constancy of the assertion of these values gives challenging point to the claim that they are authentically human. And a certain greatness that invests the achievement which America has spread across the pages of history is proof that the values upon which the achievement drew for inspiration are exalted.

            There is undoubtedly an impurity about the American achievement. Is it altogether a human achievement? Or does it reveal traits of the inhuman? The questions are valid, but they are in a sense peripheral to the central question which the achievement itself, in its present reality and in its promise of continuity, presents to the Christian conscience.

            If the problem of Christian humanism be the dual problem of acceptance of the human, as the human stands revealed in each particular historical juncture, and its transformation by the powers of faith and grace, then the question rises, whether, and in what sense, and to what degree this total res humana (human reality) which America represents can and ought to be accepted, can and ought to be transformed? Is this res humana simply a rival to the res sacra (sacred reality) which is Christianity? Or can they be made "sisters," in Pius XII's metaphor? Can the forces which lie behind each be so harmonized as to endow our people "with the most valuable incentives to real prosperity and solid progress"? Has America any significance in regard to the Christian man's quest of an earthly culture at once human and Christian? Or do the colossal structures of temporal life erected by this national giant simply encumber the ground, as sheer obstacles to a progress that could merit the qualification, "solid"? What are we to do with this staggeringly enormous thing—reduce it all to ashes and lay other foundations for a different structure? Or can a program of acceptance and transformation be justified in the light of Christian faith?

            It is not the purpose of this chapter to answer these questions. The purpose is more modest. It is simply to indicate the problem, and then to present, as relevant its solution, the two lines or tendencies which the Christian intelligence has taken as it has reflected on the problem in its more general manner of presentation.

            The American problem can only be indicated, not constructed in its full detail. But the general architecture of it can be seen well enough if one looks for a moment at two things, the American economy and the American political system. Together they have powerfully determined the ethos of American culture, formed the homo Americanus (the American person, American consciousness) and shaped a special kind of institutionalized res humana.


            By "economy" here I mean that most intricate and powerful combination of science, technology and business which is perhaps the dominant and most characteristic aspect of the national life. (With business one should join advertising, as tail to the kite though it would be hard to know which is tail and which is kite.) In the context of the problematic of Christian humanism, the American economy demands attention perhaps chiefly by its unique historical claim to have abolished the problem of poverty. Not that poverty itself has yet been fully abolished. There are still "depressed areas" and underprivileged groups; and many people whose income lies below the 1958 per capita median know what poverty is. But, the claim of some goes, poverty as a problem has been abolished, in the sense that the means for its solution exist and are known. A general freedom from want is not a politician's promise but an economic certainty.

            This is, if you will, an accomplishment of the material order; but its moral implications are extensive. It means, in the first place, that the American people as a whole possesses, or has within reach, that minimum of material abundance which is necessary for the practice of virtue. Here is a greatly human goal. The shackles of a secular fear, that has weighed heavily on mankind throughout its history, have been struck off, or loosened, in one vast quarter of the globe. How far want and the fear of want have been destructive of the human soul, and how far they have been sanctifying, would be a nice, and likewise an impossible, judgment. In any event, judgment on the validity of freedom from want as a human goal must be clear and affirmative. Christian thought does not consider poverty as a good in itself.

            This raises the question, what is to be the Christian judgment upon that great res humana, that sprawling product of human energies, the American economy, which has wrought this human achievement and reached this human goal? In itself it appears as a force for humanism against a force that is in itself dehumanizing. Does one accept this res humana or not? Or, if this disjunction is too violent, what is the Christian attitude? Even if the acceptance is reserved, what is the program of transformation? In the form of the American economy, nature confronts grace. It is in the milieu generated by this thing of nature that grace must work. Must it here work against nature? Or is this thing of nature something that grace can perfect?

            In sheer point of fact, the Church in America has accepted this thing which is the American economy. Her life, the life of grace, is tied to it in multiple respects. It is, in fact, the thing that has given peculiarity both to certain institutions of the American Catholic Church and to certain forms of Catholic life. The major instance is the whole system of Catholic education, supported by the voluntary contributions of the faithful; who have found in it a means of professing their faith and expressing their spirit of charity and sacrifice. Catholic education in its present many-storied structure would be impossible apart from the American economy, the wealth it has created, and the wide distribution of this wealth that it has operated. Important alterations in the economy (not to speak of changes in the tax structure) could deal a serious blow to the res sacra which is Catholic education. Other institutions of the Church's work would be similarly affected; the involvement of any large diocese in the workings of the American economy is fairly deep.

            Is there then some manner of "sisterhood" here, to be frankly recognized? Has grace struck an accord with nature? Certainly the Christian and the human are here entangled; but how are they related? And what duties toward the furtherance of this thing of nature, which itself furthers the work of grace, are engendered? The problem, as thus put, is indeed on the institutional level; but thence it goes to the depths of the Christian conscience.

            It might also be noted that here is an aspect of the Church's alliance with, and to that extent dependence on, the people and their energies, which is a unique characteristic of American Catholicism. In this it stands in contrast to its European ancestor, whose tradition has been one of alliance with, and to that extent dependence on, government and its favors, for the material support which the Church (as an institution that occupies ground in this world) inevitably needs. Again, important alterations in the structure of the economy, in the direction of "state socialism" (using the term only descriptively), could subtly alter the relation of the Christian people to the institutions of the Church. And this change would in turn subtly qualify in new fashion the life of the Church in America-whether desirably or not, that is the question.


            A problem similarly appears when one considers the American political system. The essential peculiarity of the system has not been the assertion that in the words of John Locke, "the people shall be judge" of "the prince and the legislative act," nor in the determination that government shall be by the people. The Middle Ages knew this meaning of the sovereignty of the people and acknowledged that a sense of justice presumed to be resident in the people empowers them to judge the prince and the legislative act. The genius of the American system lies rather in the bold answer given to the urgent nineteenth-century question, "Who are the people?" After some initial hesitation America replied forthrightly, "Everybody, on a footing of equality." This is a greatly humanist statement, pregnant with an acceptance of the human that was unique in history. This answer denied that the people are the great beast of aristocratic theory. It also denied that the people are immature children, as in the theories of the enlightened despot, who reserved to himself, as Father and King of the nation-family, the total ius politiae (the law of the state) and the right of spiritual and political tutelage over his subject-children. The American proposition asserted that the people can live a life of reason, exercise their birthright of freedom, and assume responsibility for the judgment, direction, and correction of the course of public affairs. It implied that there is an authentic and exalted human value in this commission to the people of the right of self-government.

            On this premise the American system made government simply an instrumental function of the body politic for a set of limited purposes. Its competence was confined to the political as such and to the promotion of the public welfare of the community as a political, i.e., lay, community. In particular, its power of censoring or inhibiting utterance was cut to a minimum, and it was forbidden to be the secular arm of any church. In matters spiritual the people were committed to their freedom, and religion was guaranteed full freedom to achieve its own task of effecting the spiritual liberation of man. To this task the contribution of the state would be simply that of rendering assistance in the creation of those conditions of freedom, peace, and public prosperity in which the spiritual task might go forward.

            Within the problematic of a Christian humanism the question here is whether this concept of the people in their relation to the temporal power can and ought to be accepted. Can the human value in the statement that the people shall judge the prince and the legislative act—as well as elect him, limit his powers, and direct the manner of their exercise-be affirmed? Can all its implications be loyally accepted? Nature has made the statement. Is the work of grace one of contradiction, or of transformation?

            Heretofore the Catholic answer has been somewhat ambivalent. The American political idea and the institutions through which it works have been accepted in practice, rather completely and perhaps naively. At the same time there seems to exist an implied condemnation of the system in theory. The condemnation appeals to the stand taken by the Church against Jacobin democracy, the type of government based on radically rationalist principles that emerged from the French Revolution. A condemnation of the American idea is implied only because there has been an official failure to take explicit account of the fact that the American political system and its institutions are not of Revolutionary and Jacobin inspiration. The question now is, whether this ambivalent attitude is any longer either intellectually or morally respectable, whether it takes proper account of the realities in the situation and of the special affirmation of the human that America has historically made.


            One further area of the problem may be noted with a brevity not commensurate with its importance. America illustrates in uniquely striking fashion the commonplace that there has been a constantly ascending progress in man's knowledge and control of nature. The human creature has followed a steady upward curve in the development of his scientific creativeness. The "Cartesian dream" of men “commes maitres et posseseurs de la nature” (“as masters and possessors of nature”) has steadily assumed real substance. The contrast in the matter of man's spiritual and moral progress is a commonplace, but the fact of material progress remains. And it is visible in America almost to the point of shockingness. What then is the value of all this in terms of the coming of the Kingdom? Nature is making resounding assertions and writing a record of enormous scientific and industrial achievement. What is the answer of grace to these assertions? What is the judgment of faith upon these achievements?

            All this has been said simply to show that sufficient evidence confronts us to make us realize that the problem of a Christian humanism is really in our midst in an indigenous form, not elsewhere paralleled. A practical consideration gives the problem added urgency. Lengthy and deliberate cultivation of a mystique de la terre (“mystique of the earth”) has tended to paralyze the action of any specifically Christian mystique. Affirmation of the res humana, once made in the context of belief in God and an all-ruling moral order, has gone over into exclusive affirmation of the res huius saeculi (properly secular realities), under ignorance or even denial of the transcendent. Belief in man has proved, with some groups, to be an enemy of belief in God. The cultivation of human values by human energies, under no appeal to higher sanction or assistance, has found as its counterpart the theory that all values are simply immanent in man and have no transcendent reference. A mentality has been created to which the idea of the absolute is a horror.


            In the face of these aberrations and the present corruption of the intellectual and moral climate that they have induced, the temptation has been felt to utter prophetic condemnation of the total res humana which America represents. The sequel to this condemnation, some may feel, can only be withdrawal from the doomed city-a spiritual withdrawal, made as completely as it is possible to make it. Nature as well as history is to be refused and denied. And the energies of the spiritually withdrawn are to be spent solely in the search for the Kingdom of God, whose coming is not upon this earth.

            This temptation, I say, is felt. There are among us signs of an “integrist” movement which looks upon nature and history only as sources of corruption. And there are the beginnings of an American Catholic Right, with a historically unique and curious mentality. The Old French Catholic Right, for instance, firmly believed that the spiritual fortunes of the Church were wedded to the earthly fortunes of monarchy. The new American Catholic Right believes that the fortunes of the Church—and of the individual soul—are completely divorced from all manner of earthly fortunes.

            The former attitude had its roots in history, in the long alliance of the Church with monarchy. It erred against the transcendence of the Church to political forms. At least, the error was clear and the reasons for it understandable. The latter attitude also has its roots in history, in the secular separation of Catholics from the main currents of national life, which has helped to induce a certain abstractionism of thought. How this attitude is to be reconciled with the immanence of the Church in history does not appear. The attitude is not yet clear and the reasons for it are difficult to understand.

            An observer may therefore say that there are discernible in the United States certain signs of the two orientations that Catholic thought has taken, as it has faced the problem of a Christian humanism. But neither of the orientations-participation vs. withdrawal-is clearly defined or fully reasoned. Each of them ought to be, and it might help in this direction to look briefly at these two orientations. One looks towards what may be called an eschatological humanism; the other, towards an “incarnational” humanism.


            The first, orientation makes its dominant appeal to Scripture, and its emphases coincide with certain scriptural emphases upon fundamental aspects of the res Christiana (Christian reality). The first emphasis is upon the fact that in the present order the end of man is transcendent to any end that man himself might envisage. The human purpose, as set by grace, not only extends beyond time and earth; it also looks to fulfillment in a manner of perfection that, properly speaking, is not worked out but received as a gift. This perfection will lie in seeing God as He is in Himself, in knowing and loving Him by grace as He knows and loves Himself by nature. This perfection will be indeed a perfection of the human, but it is discontinuous with all purely human effort. By the same token, heaven, the state of this perfection, is radically discontinuous with history, the arena of human effort and achievement. And even history has a Master who causes all things within it to work together towards a good that is not of this world and that lies beyond human desire and striving. The meaning of history lies in the Pauline "mystery," the hidden divine action, the ever-renewed act of divine power whereby the Kingdom of God comes. The Kingdom is not built from below, nor does it repose upon any cornerstone laid by human hands. It is a divine act; it is an irruption from above.

            And this City of God is the proper city of man. Within the earthly City man is an alien; it is not his home, he does not find his family there, he is no longer even native to it, he has been reborn. At best, he is a pilgrim in its streets, a man in passage, restless to be on the way toward the Holy City that is his goal. While he lingers, almost literally overnight, his attitude is one of waiting and expectancy. He can strike no roots; for the soil is not such as could nourish the life he cherishes. Ever before his eyes is the dies Domini (the day of the Lord), the day of the Great Catastrophe, when all the laborious magnificence of this man-built City will suddenly vanish, as the ground beneath its seemingly solid substance is withdrawn. Abruptly, there will be an end; this City will no longer be. And that which is will be only “He Who Is,” with those who are in Him. In these perspectives, only those human values are worth affirming which grace itself evokes; all others will end in insubstantial ashes. All true humanism is therefore eschatological; the only true human values are those which are supernatural and eternal.

            The works of earth, the objects upon which human energies may be poured out, the multiplicity of tasks which make up the whole human cultural enterprise-upon these the judgment of the early hermits is still fundamentally valid. They are the works of time, only valuable because they fill in the time of waiting. The old monk wove a basket one day; the next day he unwove it. The basket itself did not matter; but the weaving and unweaving of it served as a means of spending an interval, necessary to the frail human spirit, between periods of performance of the only task that did matter, the contemplation of heavenly things. Only the making of a soul was the true human value. For the rest, what did it matter whether one wove baskets or wrought whole civilizations?

            Again, the eschatological[2] view lays emphasis upon sin as a permanent human fact that casts a shadow over all human achievements, whatever the purity of their conception. If sin be not overcome by grace, and a new principle of life imparted to man by God, even the highest human virtues are but spiendida vitia (illustrious defects). Even when sin is overcome and man is healed by the grace of redemption, he is not made whole, made fully "continent" in the Augustinian sense with all his energies permanently unified upon the good. Still (so runs the theme of St. Augustine upon which all Christian writers have played their variations) man does not fully know himself, nor is he master of circumstances. He has dominion over his acts, not over their consequences, which can run on inexorably out to the limits of that solitary unit which is humanity. How then shall man know that this res humana, over which he sincerely and laboriously works, will retain the humanity of his intention and not be unrecognizably disfigured, once it has escaped his control and is loose in a world of shaping circumstances?

            Sin is a constant. Matter is resistant to human purposes, cursed in man's work. And there is a Principle of Evil abroad, an enemy of human nature, who can organize even the good that men do into a pattern of evil, sow tares among their wheat and send fish of poisoned flesh into the nets which they let down to gather food for mankind. All the works of sinful man stand under the judgment of God. The divine promise is not of peace but of the sword. And the thrust of the punishing sword is into the very marrow of the human into the mysterious place of division between flesh and spirit, whence sin takes its origin.

            How then shall man promise himself that he will create the human, only the human? The very promise is prideful. Humanism is a goal that only pride can conceive. At the very moment when the structure of it is complete, its very weight would bring it down.

            Finally, the eschatological view lays emphasis on the central truth that Christianity is the Cross. And the Cross represents the inversion of all human values. The human is put to death; and out of death comes life. Darkness overtakes the light; and in that moment the light disperses the darkness. The truth goes down to defeat; and that is its hour of victory. The Kingdom is refused; and thus it comes. Earthly hopes find their definitive disappointment; and out of their wreckage there rises by the sole power of God a new hope, glorious, immortal, the creation of the Spirit.

            Moreover, the crucifixion was not only an act in history; it was also the utterance of a judgment and the promulgation of a law. The law says that he who would save his life must lose it; the things of this life have their value in that they provide the material for renouncement. Only through this renouncement, this acceptance of a similitude of Christ's death, is there resurrection to the true life. The judgment permanently shatters the illusion that is nonetheless a permanent temptation of the human spirit-to want salvation to come here on earth in some manner of new or renewed "Kingdom of Israel," a realm of peace and plenty, ruled by the elect of God. In these perspectives the true man appears as the homo coelestis (the heavenly being), who has eaten his Pasch, accomplished his transitus (exit and transformation), gone over through a death into the life that is really life.

            These, briefly, are the dominant accents in the doctrine of eschatological humanism. Pushed to the extreme, the conclusion would be that man not only may in fact neglect, but even should by right neglect, what is called the cultural enterprise-the cultivation of science and the arts, the pursuit of human values by human energies, the work of civilization-in order to give undivided energies to the invisible things of the spirit. No Christian of course draws this extreme conclusion and makes it a law for humanity, though individuals may hear it, in one or other form, as the word of God to them, and hearken to it, and be God's witnesses to the oneness of the one thing necessary, by the completeness of their contempt for the world.


            The tendency towards an “incarnational” humanism is founded on accents laid on other, and no less Christian, principles. The end of man, it asserts, is indeed transcendent, supernatural; but it is an end of man and in its achievement man truly finds the perfection of his nature. Grace perfects nature, does not destroy it-this is the central point of emphasis. There is indeed a radical discontinuity between nature and grace, but nature does not therefore become irrelevant to grace. There must be no Lutheranism, which would fix a great gulf of separation between orders that are only distinct. Again, the perfect man of St. Paul will achieve the fullness of his age and stature only in heaven and not in history; nonetheless he grows in history. The Body of Christ is really a-building here in time. And its growth is that of a Body, not simply of a soul. There must be no Platonism, which would make man only a soul. The res sacra which grace would achieve is likewise a res humana in the full sense.

In the stage of growth proper to its earthly pilgrimage the Body of Christ finds organic place for developed human values. It carries on the mission of Christ: "to save that which perished." And that which perished was not only a soul, but man in his composite unity, and the material universe too, in that its relation of subjection to man was shattered and it fell into a mysterious slavery, of disobedience to human purposes, from which it longs for deliverance.

            The Church then is catholic in her redemptive scope; all men are to be saved, all that is human is to be saved. There is indeed to be a war upon the flesh, but in order that the body may be dignified. The Christian heart must cultivate a contempt for the world, but diligently cherish its reverence for the work of the Creator, who is Creator not only of heaven but of the earth, of the visible as well as the invisible. In order to protect the true meaning of the doctrine of sacrifice, its premises must be strongly affirmed-that the life which one loses, gives up, renounces, is a good life. Otherwise the losing of it would not be a saving loss but a sheer loss, a destruction and not a redemption (one would not and could not "buy back" that which was destroyed as of no value).

            Therefore in the perspectives of an “incarnational” humanism there is a place for all that is natural, human, terrestrial. The heavens and the earth are not destined for an eternal dust-heap, but for a transformation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth; and those who knew them once will recognize them, for all their newness.

            Again, this view emphasizes the Christian doctrine of merit and its implications. Gratiam non propter merita dari, “grace is unmerited”—the Augustinian adage is still a battle-cry against permanent Pelagian naturalism. Nonetheless there is such a thing as merit. And if the doctrine be transposed out of a purely juridical universe of discourse, it means that human effort remains real and really valuable, integrally itself, though now necessarily situated at the interior of a larger unity of action wherein the divine motion retains the primacy. The doctrine asserts the essential soundness of human nature, which is sinful but not corrupt. And it carries the heart-lifting implication which Irenaeus enforced against Gnostic Manichaeism: "the material is susceptible of salvation."

            There is the further implication that all that is good in the order of nature and of human and terrestrial values "merits" doing, and that the doing of it can be meritorious, salvific of the doer, incorporative of the thing done into the one overarching Christian endeavor, the bringing of all things under the headship of Christ. The Christian takes the Pauline phrase in its full universality. For him the development of the natural and the human is not an effort apart from the intention of grace; it is a part of this intention. The two efforts of nature and of grace are not indeed continuous and of the same order; but they are in themselves related and they can be related in the one intention of the Christian man.

            Though nature stands in no relation of proper causality to grace, it is both dispositive and disponible in regard of grace. The supernatural is not the same as the miraculous. It does not follow upon nature, but it does not go against nature. There must be disposition of the subject, whether the subject is an individual to be interiorly justified, or a civilization to be rectified in its manner of organization. The concept of the praeparatio evangelica (preparation for the reception of the gospel) is a valid one; it implies the value and the providential character of human cultural effort. God, the Father of all, does indeed fix by His own authority the times and the seasons; but their advent is not wholly unrelated to the strivings of men.

            Furthermore, this “incarnational” humanism stresses the fact that He who entered the stream of history as its Redeemer is the Logos, Eternal Reason. Through His Spirit He is still immanent in history, there to do a work of reason—that work of reason which is justice, and that work of pacification which is in turn the work of justice. Hence all efforts, by whomsoever put forth, toward the rationalization of human society, its "justification" and its pacification, are put forth in the line of action of the Logos Himself. He is in mysterious alliance with them. That kingdoms should be magna latrocinia (“great thieves”) is not inevitable; nor is the civil power an institution simply for the punishment of sin—a divine instrument to whose actions, even when unjust, man must attribute justice. What we know as "the state," the order of law and justice, is in its own sphere ministerial to the action of the Logos. It does not, and may not attempt to, lead men to the eternal life of grace; only Christ, as Son and Head of the Church, has that power. But it does and must lead men to the life of reason; and in this sense its humanizing action is participative in the action of Christ, as Logos and King of kings.

            Finally, an “incarnational” humanism appeals to history and sees in history a manner of law. The fact is that Christianity did give rise to a culture, to an enormous explosion of human effort that altered the face even of this earth. This was not its primal mission, of course. But, as Leo XIII loved to repeat, Christianity could not have operated more beneficial effects upon the whole process and order of human living-together, if it had been instituted precisely for this purpose. Christianity freed man from nature by teaching him that he has an immortal soul, which is related to matter but not immersed in it or enslaved to its laws. Christianity released man from a Greek bondage to history and its eternal cyclic returns. It taught him his own uniqueness, his own individual worth, the dignity of his own person, the equality of all men, the unity of the human race.

            On the impulse of these lessons he set about building himself a world in which he might live as a man and a Christian, in the enjoyment of his birthright of freedom and in the discharge of the responsibility this birthright imposed upon him. He assumed in fact the post that is his by right-that of being lord of the world, endowed with the intelligence to understand its laws and processes and harness its energies to his own purposes.

            History shows that the whole cultural enterprise was not unrelated to Christianity in its origins. And history proves too that it was not unrelated to Christianity in its finality. The faith was once supported by a civilization. It does not, if you will, absolutely need this support-at least the individual Christian does not. He can live the Christian life amid the barren horror of a concentration camp. But the Church, the community of the faithful, not all of whom are heroes, does need this manner of support. And therefore the creation of a temporal order of justice and civic fraternity has been a humanistic aspiration connatural to the Christian heart. The aspiration is never Utopian. The Christian knows how intertwined are the human and the sinful; how "the Christian world" is not "the Church" and cannot be. Achievements in this order are never ideal; but they are human achievements. Their value is real, if limited, and is not to be undermined by any exaggerations of the Christian contempt for the world. In their humanism they are Christian achievements.


            Here then, in very brief compass, are the two general orientations which Christian thought has taken as it has meditated on the problem of a Christian humanism. It is obvious that the doctrines upon which the tendencies respectively rest are not mutually exclusive; these doctrines are integral to the Gospel and complementary to each other. However, the emphases made in the eschatological view are exclusive of those made in the “incarnational” view; and each set of emphases, when really lived, results in a distinct style of life. The choice of emphasis is one of the privileges of Christian freedom. Every Christian must make the effort to live out of the whole Gospel. However, each Christian is limited as a man, and the lines of the structure which grace erects must somehow be obedient to the contours of individual human nature. Each Christian has his gift from God, Who would have each man wholly His witness but not necessarily a witness to the whole of Him. Only the Church herself as the community of the faithful, in her many-splendored variety, is witness to the whole counsel of God. And even she, while still in via, is this manner of witness only imperfectly. There can therefore be no question of dissolving either one of these two tendencies and the style of life it creates.

            Finally, there are risks inherent in each tendency. An eschatological humanism runs the risk of entrusting the fortunes of this world and the forms of all its institutions to the dubious wisdom of the unregenerate. And this would condemn the faithful to live in conditions of barbarism-perhaps the highly civilized barbarism which the wisdom of the flesh, making use of the instrumentalities of science, is capable of creating. The Egyptians can indeed accumulate great spoils; but as long as they remain only in Egyptian hands they can only help make Egypt a land of bondage. On the other hand, he who would seek to make his way toward the Kingdom of God and His grace through a search for the common good of the earthly City and an affirmation of the goods of nature is taking a long and difficult road. The effort to despoil the Egyptians can result in inner self-despoilment.

            All this and much more must be borne in mind when one approaches the problem of Christian humanism in its American position. Actually, there are two problems. First, is there a place in good theology for the human values which America has historically emphasized? More practically, is a terrestrial, “incarnational” humanism possible within the conditions of society which the American emphasis tends to create? More important, can this manner of humanism be useful to the Christian in his especially Christian quest, the quest for sanctity? Are conditions of freedom and great material prosperity valuable only because they enlarge the opportunities for Christian renouncement? Or are they simply analogous to that Ciceronian period in which the patrons of "devout humanism" preached? They preached in these cadences not because they are particularly "good in themselves," but merely in order to be heard and heeded in an age whose ear was attuned to the Ciceronian period. In application, have these conditions of freedom and prosperity simply an "apostolic value," such that one should simply "use" them as means to an end no more related to them than a Ciceronian period is related to the Gospel message? On this hypothesis these social conditions, institutions, and ideals might well have only the character of a necessary evil.

            Or is this whole American situation and the humanism to which it tends and the style of life to which it leads capable of being affirmed as a human good, an end-in-itself-an intermediate end indeed, but not solely a means? (The question here obviously concerns only what is good and of human value in the total dynamism which creates what is called "the American situation.") Concretely, is the ideal of a "free people" and a "prosperous nation" a genuine value, a legitimate end to be striven for as good in itself? Or is it simply a means to an entirely disproportionate end, in the sense that a free people can protect the freedom of the Church and a wealthy nation can support her institutions?

            The second problem is analogous but wider. What is the relation between terrestrial and eschatological humanism? In other words, does the cultivation of human values by human energies deployed in an effort that is not directly aroused by grace but is open to its direction, once aroused-does this manner of humanism contribute to the coming of the Kingdom of God? Or is it fundamentally irrelevant-a form of basket weaving? To ask this, of course, is to raise the question of the relation between history and the Church -the relation between the great human effort at unification, which is the basic cultural enterprise, and the divine effort of the Spirit, which is to "gather into one the scattered children of God." This is indeed a mighty question. And to raise it is to invite to a journey down avenues of mystery, which, for all that, are legitimate avenues of reverent Christian inquiry.

            It remains only to indicate the spirit of the inquiry, as set by the Church herself. In her doctrinal affirmations the Church is confident, even optimistic. True religion and profound humaneness, she says, are not rivals but sisters, who have nothing to fear from each other but everything to gain. This is a very firm assertion. On the other hand, the Church is prudent, even cautious, in the area of practice. Her concrete counsels to her children have not the same confidence as her doctrinal statements; they are touched with an accent of warning, even of fear. She boldly urges the truth; she carefully guides action.

            The reason for this difference in attitude is clear. The wound of nature, which is our heritage from the original sin, makes itself felt in two lines-in the line of intelligence in its relation to the true, and in the line of the will in its relation to the good. But in the latter line the wound is more profound, mysterious, crippling. The will deviates from the good more easily and radically than the intelligence deviates from the true. Hence the Church stoutly defends reason and its powers of knowing and of harmonizing its knowledge with its Christian beliefs. She is less certain of man himself in his total being and less confident of his power to harmonize his whole human effort with his Christian faith, in that ever precarious synthesis known as a Christian humanism. It is in this same spirit of both confidence and prudence that the problem is to be approached.


                [1] Jansenism is a theological view that emphasizes original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. In Jansenist thought, human beings are born bad, and without divine help a human being could never become good.
                [2] “Eschatological” – pertains to the “last things” or “ultimate concerns” of human existence.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)