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.

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