Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Collapse and Culture

A strange voice sounded through the trauma of the unfolding financial crisis of the past few weeks, picked up by the newswires. After all the experts had been quoted about the worsening conditions of the credit markets, the right and wrong ways to resolve these, and the apportionment of blame, an entirely different message was heard.

It came from Pope Benedict XVI. It was startling in its starkness. There was no cajoling or handwringing. It was a statement so straightforward as to seem suddenly obvious, nakedly true:
We see it now in the fall of the great banks. This money disappears; it is nothing -- and in the same way, all these things, which lack a true reality to depend on, and are elements of a second order. The word of God is the basis of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realists, we should count on this reality.
In the Pope's Meeting with the Representatives of Culture, he describes how the Christian culture was born in a specifically Christian institution, the monastery. The context was the "collapse of the old order and its certainties." The Christian Church rebuilt the fractured West based on: "quaerere Deum – setting out in search of God. We could describe this as the truly philosophical attitude: looking beyond the penultimate, and setting out in search of the ultimate and the true."

Within the monastery the culture of the word was cultivated based on Scripture. Secondly, work was honored as a participation in God's work in the world. "God himself is the Creator of the world, and creation is not yet finished. God works, ergázetai!"

From this Christian institution, which survived the old assumptions, came a new communication, a cultural outreach.
In fact, Christians of the nascent Church did not regard their missionary proclamation as propaganda, designed to enlarge their particular group, but as an inner necessity, consequent upon the nature of their faith: the God in whom they believed was the God of all people, the one, true God, who had revealed himself in the history of Israel and ultimately in his Son, thereby supplying the answer which was of concern to everyone and for which all people, in their innermost hearts, are waiting. The universality of God, and of reason open towards him, is what gave them the motivation—indeed, the obligation—to proclaim the message. They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally.
To build, we have to start with the right materials. The bricks the monks recovered from the rubble were the culture of the word and the dignity of work. In many ways, the Christian cultural messages have become obscured because they're still chained to the wrong certainties: the free market system, the prosperity Gospel, American exceptionalism.

The movement to defend the child in the womb has been so shackled to other "certainties" as to be largely obscured as an urgent message of human dignity. While a hierarchy of human concerns is necessary, the reductive packaging has muddled the announcement, and in particular the cause has been cut-off from a larger culture of life based on a vision of man as loved by God. This is not so much the fault of opponents as of ourselves. The lived witness, the unity which testifies to the truth, has been lacking. As the Pope wrote in the same address to cultural leaders:
To put it yet another way: there are dimensions of meaning in the word and in words which only come to light within the living community of this history-generating word. Through the growing realization of the different layers of meaning, the word is not devalued, but in fact appears in its full grandeur and dignity. Therefore the Catechism of the Catholic Church can rightly say that Christianity does not simply represent a religion of the book in the classical sense (cf. par. 108). It perceives in the words the Word, the Logos itself, which spreads its mystery through this multiplicity and the reality of a human history.

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