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To Evangelize trhe Culture

by Rev. Robert Barron


To evangelize is the edgy, subversive, dangerous quality of announcing the Lordship of Jesus to the world.  Now Jesus is described by Paul as “the icon of the invisible God,” that is to say, the human face of the unconditioned reality.  It must follow, therefore, that in Jesus the divine truth, the divine goodness, and the divine beauty take visible form and become sacramentally present within the world.  For this reason, the church has, from the beginning, presented Jesus as the ground and lure of culture.  A consideration of some concrete ways in which Christ can be proposed as the proper fulfillment of the culture follows by looking at, however briefly, Jesus’ relationships to the sciences, to politics, and to the arts.


What is Evangelization and what is Culture?

What does it mean to evangelize?  I submit that to evangelize is to announce the good news (euangelion) that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  The first evangelists — Peter, Paul, James, Philip — had comparatively little to say about the teachings and actions of Jesus, but they couldn’t stop talking about his resurrection from the dead.  So insistent on this theme was St. Paul that his sophisticated audience on the Areopagus in Athens thought he was declaring a new god called anastasis (resurrection).  Now the resurrection carries with it many implications, but the most significant of its ramifications is its confirmation of Jesus’ staggering claims in regard to his own person.  Despite many superficial suggestions to the contrary in both the wider culture and in the sub-culture of the theological academy, Jesus did not claim to be simply one religious figure among many, not one more in a long line of prophets or “symbols of God.” 

The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels consistently spoke and acted in the very person of Yahweh, the God of Israel.  To his disciples he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10: 37).  One could easily enough imagine a spiritual teacher saying that his followers should love God more than the highest goods in this world — but himself?  To the paralyzed man, Jesus said, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2: 5).  Again, we could certainly imagine a spiritual teacher telling people to forgive those who had harmed them, but who is this man who arrogates to himself the prerogative of actively forgiving the sins of someone’s entire life?  As the bystanders understandably observe:  “He is blaspheming.  Who but God alone can forgive sins” (Mk. 2: 7)?  Defending his disciples against the charge of picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds his interlocutors that priests serving in the temple can, under certain circumstances, violate the Sabbath and still remain innocent; and then he adds, with breathtaking laconicism, “I say to you, something greater than the temple is here” (Mt. 12: 5-6).  The Jerusalem temple was, for first century Jews, the dwelling place of Yahweh on earth and hence the most sacred place imaginable.  The only one who could reasonably claim to be “greater” than the Temple would be the one who was worshipped in the Temple.  In a number of places in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blithely states, “you have heard it said…but I say…” What would have overwhelmed a first-century Jewish audience is that almost casual dismissal of the Torah, which was, to any pious Jew, the revelation given by Yahweh to Moses himself and hence the court of final appeal.  Once more, the only one who could legitimately overrule the Torah with such insouciance would be the one who was, himself, the author of the Torah. 

I have purposely chosen passages exclusively from the synoptic Gospels in order to hold off the claim that the divinity of Jesus is affirmed only in the much later Johannine Gospel.  In point of fact, John expresses explicitly and directly — “The Word became flesh;” “I and the Father are one;” “He who sees me sees the Father;” etc. — the same truth that the synoptic Gospels stated more implicitly and according to a different symbolic system.  Now as C.S. Lewis and others have noted, these extraordinary claims could be explained as expressions of Jesus’ madness or religious megalomania:  obviously, many who claim their own divinity can be found, even today, in hospitals for the insane.  And though political considerations were undoubtedly at play, the principal reason why Jesus was put to death was precisely his blasphemous identification with the God of Israel.  The one over whose cross was placed a sign declaring him the King of the Jews was being presented as a pathetically deluded character. 

But all such explanations fade out before the event of the resurrection, Jesus’ return from death as the “first fruits” of those who had fallen asleep.  The first Christians came to understand this mighty act of God as the ratification of Jesus’ stunning claim to be Yahweh moving among his people.  And this is why they called him Kyrios (Lord), a Greek rendering of the Hebrew Adonai, the term used to refer to the Holy One whose proper name YHWH could not and should not be pronounced.  Iesous Kyrios (Jesus is Lord), a phrase often on the lips and under the pens of the first evangelists, is one of the pithiest and most evocative kerygmatic formulas of the early church.  To be sure, Kyrios had a Roman as well as a Hebrew overtone, for a watchword of that time and place was Kaiser Kyrios (Caesar is Lord), a declaration of one’s ultimate political and cultural allegiance.  The edgy, subversive, dangerous quality of announcing the Lordship of Jesus explains why many of the first Christians — Peter and Paul most famously — spent a fair amount of time in jail and were eventually put to death.  If I might conjoin the Hebrew and the Roman senses of the kerygmatic declaration, the first evangelists were insisting that Jesus of Nazareth is God and hence is the figure to whom final allegiance is due, in the political, cultural, and religious spheres.  Everything, they were saying, belongs to him; everything comes from him, leads to him, and finds its fulfillment in him.  Listen to the extravagant language used by Paul in Colossians:  “He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible…He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15-17).  We find much the same idea in Philippians:  “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD (Kyrios) to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2: 9-11).

To evangelize, then, is to proclaim precisely this Lordship of the risen Jesus.  And if Paul is right in saying that every tongue must confess Jesus’ Lordship and every knee must bend in acknowledgement of it, evangelization cannot be a privatized affair.  It has to take place publicly and boldly (though non-violently, lest in the very act of declaring the crucified savior we undermine him).  And it must be directed to every individual and to every institution of culture. 

Culture, of course, is a famously slippery word, capable of being defined in any number of ways.  I might propose, for our purposes, the following definition:  a culture is that whole congeries of practices, beliefs, convictions, and institutions by which a people finds and expresses its collective identity.  Now every culture develops out of three transcendental drives:  toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Thus, political, legal, and juridical systems are, at least in principle, ordered by the quest for the just or the morally good.  Newspapers, universities, schools, the sciences, the Internet, etc. are, again at least ideally, ordered to the pursuit of the true.  And literature, theatre, dance, music, painting, sculpture, television, and film are ordered, at their best, to the production of the beautiful.  What undergirds all of these cultural forms is some entelechy, some life-giving force towards the unconditioned, that is to say, the absolute good, the total truth, and perfect justice.  As I have been suggesting, cultures, like individuals, are fallen, and to that degree, they deviate from a trajectory toward their proper fulfillment; however, according to their own nature, they maintain an orientation toward the unconditioned, under one of its three principle modalities. 

Therefore, what does it mean to evangelize a culture?  It is to declare to the representatives and practitioners of the various cultural forms that Jesus Christ is their Lord and that their work and efforts belong finally to him and find their surest fulfillment in him.  There is, accordingly, something imperial but not imperious about this move.  The Church, as John Paul II never tired of repeating, only proposes, never imposes.  Nevertheless, the evangelization of the culture is ingredient in the overall commission to bring “all things under the feet of Christ,” and to assure that “every knee” bends at the sounding of his name.  To demonstrate what this looks like concretely and how it does not amount to a sort of religious suppression of culture will be the burden of the rest of this lecture. 


The Icon of the Invisible God

In order to grasp how the submission of the culture to Jesus is tantamount, not to a compromising of cultural integrity, but precisely to its elevation, it is necessary to understand clearly the peculiar nature of the God of whom Jesus is the visible representation.  According to the great tradition, stretching from the third chapter of the book of Exodus, through Augustine and Aquinas, to contemporary thinkers such as Rahner, Balthasar, and Ratzinger, God is not one being among many, but rather the sheer act of being itself, ipsum esse in Aquinas’s Latin formula.  This means that God does not stand over and against the beings of the world in a competitive attitude, as though he were jockeying for position with them on the same ontological plane.  Rather, precisely as radically transcendent to the creaturely mode of existence, he can function as ground of the being of created things.  Augustine caught this paradox in his neat observation that God is simultaneously intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo.  God, in a word, is not a being, but rather the unconditioned act of being, and therefore, finite things do not compete with him; rather, they exist through and in him.  Thomas says that God is “in all things by essence, presence, and power,” but this divine inherence, far from crushing the creature, is the condition for the possibility of the creature’s existence and ontological integrity.  This is the conceptual framework for the familiar adage gratia supponit et perfecit naturam, for God enhances rather than compromises the created order to which he comes close.

Since God is the sheer act of to-be itself, he must possess the three great transcendental properties of being, namely, goodness, truth, and beauty, precisely in their unconditioned form.  As Augustine argued, God is not a true thing among many, not one more item that the inquiring mind discovers; instead, God is the Truth itself, the illumination by which all true things are seen by the mind.  In a similar way, God is not one more good thing to which the will is attracted; rather, God is the unconditioned Good that in turn conditions the will when it goes about its work of seeking good things.  And finally, God is not the supreme instance of the category of Beauty, but rather the Beautiful itself, by which all beautiful things are assessed.  Paul Tillich is very much in the Augustinian spirit when he says that God is the great Prius, the great antecedent of all thought, action, and striving.  This is why God is the ground of culture, that collection of practices, convictions, and institutions centering around the transcendental properties of being.

Now Jesus is described by Paul as “the icon of the invisible God,” that is to say, the human face of the unconditioned reality.  It must follow, therefore, that in Jesus the divine truth, the divine goodness, and the divine beauty take visible form and become sacramentally present within the world.  For this reason, the church has, from the beginning, presented Jesus as the ground and lure of culture.  The mainstream of the Catholic intellectual tradition has consistently resisted the sectarian impulses of a Tertullian (“what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) and has embraced the broad-minded, culturally engaged theologies of Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Henry Newman.  It has realized that the Logos made flesh must have an important relationship to the various logoi spermatikoi (the “seeds of the Logos,” to use the patristic term) that appear within the cultural sphere. 

Let us take these transcendental qualities one at a time.  If God is the unconditioned truth, and Jesus is God’s visible icon, then we should not be surprised that the New Testament writers often employ the category of truth in order to make clear the meaning of Jesus.  Thus, St. John insists, as we’ve seen, that Jesus is the Logos made flesh, and John’s Jesus says of himself, “I am the truth.”  He is not one more prophet or philosopher who speaks true things about God; he is the embodiment of the divine mind itself, the manifestation of the pattern by which God has fashioned all things.  In Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus, the still-hidden Christ applies the hermeneutic that enables his dejected disciples to understand the whole of Scripture and hence the whole of God’s purpose.  And that interpretive key is none other than his own suffering and death, his willingness to go to the limits of god-forsakenness in order to save those who had wandered form the divine love.  In the light of this truth, the disciples begin to understand the Bible in its totality, and their hearts “burn within them.”  This metaphor is evocative of the moment of recognition, when the many disparate elements come together according to a form or pattern, what Lonergan called “insight” and Wittgenstein termed “seeing something as something.”  The point is that divine love — the radical being for the other which is the very nature of God — is the “truth,” the pattern that informs reality at the deepest level.  Any individual or cultural institution ordered to the truth, is ordered, finally, to this.

Let us consider the second of the transcendentals.  If God is unconditioned justice itself and if Jesus is the icon of the invisible God, then we should not be surprised that the authors of the New Testament often utilize the language and symbolism associated with justice when speaking of Jesus.  Law and covenant are, obviously, massively important themes throughout the Old Testament.  Again and again, Yahweh pledges fidelity to his people and invites Israel into a life of holiness, disciplined by the moral, juridical, and ceremonial precepts of the law.  He “cuts” covenants with them, and makes a blood bond with them, first through Noah and Abraham and then through Moses and David.  Throughout the history of salvation, the great prophets — from Amos and Hosea to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — call Israel back to fidelity to the covenant, to meet the divine love with an answering love. The covenants with Israel are not contracts, exchanges of goods and services, but more like a marriage, a mutual giving of hearts:  “I will be your God and you will be my people.” 

The first Christians understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of the law and the perfection of the covenant, for in his own person, divinity and humanity came together.  In Jesus, therefore, faithful Yahweh finally met faithful Israel and a perfect justice thereby appeared in the world.  Just as he is “the truth,” in the unconditioned sense, so he is, definitively, “the way” and “the life,” the Halakah by which humanity walks according to the divine purpose.  The central petition of the Our Father — thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven — is really a prayer that the justice obtained in Jesus’ own person might become normative throughout creation.  Here we can appreciate why St. Paul referred to Jesus as “the new Adam.”  Prior to the fall, Adam walked in easy fellowship with Yahweh, his powers and aspirations aligned to God’s will.  For the ancient rabbinic interpreters, this made Adam the first priest (“adoring” God, literally “mouth to mouth” with him), and the first scientist (“cataloguing” kata logon, the animals, naming them according to the intelligibility placed in them by the creator).  Jesus, the visible icon of the unconditioned justice of God is hence the one who establishes, on Paul’s reading, dikaiosyne (justice or righteousness).  That this takes place “apart from the law” is, as Paul insists, not a judgment on the law but a function of Jesus having brought the law to fulfillment in his own person.  What these first Christians saw in Jesus was a human love that answered the divine love so faithfully that it allowed grace to flood into the world.  In the consistent obedience of Christ, especially in his obedience unto death on the cross, they saw the visible icon of unconditioned justice.  And this is why any person and any cultural institution ordered toward justice is ordered finally toward Christ.

We now turn to the third of the transcendentals, the beautiful.  If God is the unconditioned act of Beauty itself, and Jesus is the icon of the invisible God, then it is only natural that the New Testament would present Christ as supremely beautiful.  The event of the Transfiguration, during which the splendor of Jesus shone through his ordinary appearance, is the most obvious example of this sort of presentation.  However, the whole of Jesus’ life — including and especially his crucifixion — can be read under the rubric of the beautiful.  In order to see this, it would be helpful to attend to Thomas Aquinas’s classical characterization of beauty as the coming together of integritas (wholeness), consonantia (harmony), and claritas (radiance).  Whether we are describing a beautiful day, a beautiful face, or a beautiful golf swing, we are noticing, if Aquinas is right, the coming together of those three essential elements. 

A beautiful object or picture or idea is marked, first, by unity or integrity.  Despite all of its complexity, it hangs together as one. Kierkegaard commented that a saint (a radiantly beautiful person) is someone whose life is about one thing.  In Joyce’s the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Daedalus (the author’s alter ego) endeavors to explain the Thomistic doctrine of beauty to a colleague.  He draws his friend’s attention to a simple basket and comments that the condition for the possibility of seeing the thing’s beauty is the apprehension of it as one, as distinct from the rest of the universe of physical objects. 

Next, the beautiful object or person is marked by harmony, by the consonance of its parts, by a certain logic that obtains in the arrangement of its various elements.  One notices consonantia in beautiful golf swings, say, those of Ernie Els or Rory McIlroy.  All of the twists, angles, turns, and leveraging that go into that notoriously difficult athletic move come together, in the swings of those gentlemen, in a remarkably elegant manner, so that nothing is wasted and nothing is extraneous to the fundamental purpose of the effort. 

And finally, the beautiful possesses claritas or radiance.  A relatively naïve reading of this term renders “bright and shining colors,” and this can indeed be found in some texts of Aquinas, but Jacques Maritain and many others have observed that a more profound interpretation points to the claritas of what the scholastics called “form.”  The beautiful is that which discloses, in a paradigmatic manner, what the thing or event or person ought to be.  Upon watching the swing of a McIlroy, one is moved to exclaim, “now that’s a golf swing!”  After touring Chartres Cathedral, one might be forgiven for thinking “that is what a Gothic Cathedral should look like.”  In both cases, the observer is struck by the splendor or radiance of the form. 

In light of these clarifications, we can begin to see why Jesus’ entire way of being in the world should be characterized as beautiful.  Jesus was one.  What is true of Kierkegaard’s saint is a fortiori the case in regard to Jesus:  his life was utterly focused on one thing, namely, doing the will of his Father.  We could express this truth in more abstract metaphysical language by speaking of the irreducible unity of Jesus’ person, the divine Word which is nothing but a reflection of the being of the Father.  But Jesus’ integritas was accompanied by a uniquely powerful consonantia, for grounded in the unity of his person were two natures — divine and human — which came together in a harmony of mind, will, and purpose.  The two natures maintained their integrity, coming together, as the council of Chalcedon put it, “without mixing, mingling, or confusion,” yet they found utter harmony in the measure that they both were instantiated in the one divine person.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds might be construed as the narrative presentation of precisely this consonantia between the two natures. Indeed, the drama of Jesus’ life — from his childhood, through his public life and preaching, all the way to the cross — is identical to the artful interplay of divine will and human will, divine mind and human mind.  And finally, the splendor of both divinity and humanity shone forth in him, for Jesus was the archetypal human (witnessed to ironically by Pilate’s “ecce homo”) and the manifestation of divinity within history (as indicated by the Apostle Thomas’s ecstatic “My Lord and My God”).  In him, therefore, both the form of man and the form of God became luminous.  And once more, the essential quality of this beautiful display was love, for the characteristic mark of the consonantia between divinity and humanity in Jesus was a mutual surrendering, a giving away for the other.  In Christ, the divine love for us (“God so loved the world that he sent his only Son”) met in a splendid harmony the human love for God (“I have come to do the will of my Father in heaven”) and thus unconditioned beauty appeared.  This is why any cultural institution dedicated to the production of the beautiful is ordered, finally, to Christ. 


Engaging the Culture

With these analyses in mind, let us turn now to a consideration of some concrete ways in which Christ can be proposed as the proper fulfillment of the culture according to its three transcendental trajectories.  Let us look, however briefly, at Jesus’ relationship to the sciences, to politics, and to the arts. 



Especially in the North American context, the quest for truth is typically associated with the endeavor of scientists.  We have come, with good reason, to reverence the sciences for their practical effectiveness as well as for their clarity and exactitude.  And we have benefitted enormously from their attendant technologies, which have gone a long way toward realizing Descartes’s dream, at the very dawn of modernity, that humans might come to “master nature.”  Sadly, part of the mythology associated with the emergence of modernity is that science and religion are implacable enemies and that the physical sciences emerged only after a long twilight struggle against superstition and the claims of faith.  Robert Sokolowski has suggested that the constant reiteration of this myth up to the present day has something of the quality of a ritual re-telling or rehearsal, as though moderns have continually to remind themselves of the painful process by which they were born intellectually.  Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, and especially Galileo have become the patron saints of critical reason persecuted by intolerant religion.  The great battle between “science” and Biblical fundamentalism in America in the early years of the twentieth century, culminating in the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” are read as a continuation of the primal struggle between obscurantism and enlightenment.  Watch Bill Maher’s terrible film “Religulous” in order to see a crude contemporary retelling of the myth.

But all of this is tragic.  Though there have undoubtedly been dreadful missteps on both sides, science and authentic faith ought never to have been construed as enemies, just the contrary.  Despite the persistence of the modern myth of origins, the physical sciences were born precisely out of an intellectual matrix conditioned by the faith.  One might wonder why the sciences in their modern form emerged when and where they did, that is to say, in the European civilization of the 17th century, and not in the cultural contexts of, say, India, China, or the Middle East.  Peter Hodgson and many others have argued that the condition for the possibility of the rise of the experimental sciences was a pair of fundamental assumptions, both theological in nature.  In order for the sciences to flourish, intellectuals had to see the world as, first, non-divine, and second, as intelligible.  As long as the universe itself is construed as sacred (as is the case in most forms of animism, pantheism, and nature mysticism) it is the object, not of experimentation and rational analysis, but of worship.  And before any scientific work can get underway, scientists must presume the intelligibility of what they seek to investigate.  Psychology rests upon the assumption that the psyche has an intelligible form, biology on the assumption that life is understandable, physics on the assumption that there is a law-like quality to the microcosmic and macrocosmic structures of the universe, etc.  This universal intelligibility is not so much discovered by scientists but rather intuited by them.  Now both of these requisite presumptions should be seen as corollaries of the doctrine of creation, and this is why I said they are theological in nature.  If God has made the world, then the world is not God; and if the Creator is intelligent, then his work is stamped, necessarily and universally, by intelligibility.  The contention of Hodgson and others is that an intellectual culture shaped by the doctrine of creation provided a particularly healthy breeding ground for the sciences. 

More to it, many of the first great practitioners of modern science — Descartes, Pascal, Copernicus, Tycho Brache, Kepler, Newton, etc. — were devoutly religious men and were keen to show correspondences between their empirical discoveries and their faith.  And they all learned their mathematics, astronomy, and physics in church-sponsored universities.  After the founding period, many prominent scientists saw no contradiction between their empirical research and their faith.  One thinks of Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics and an Augustinian friar, of Georges LeMaitre, formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins and a Catholic priest, and today, of John Polkinghorne, Cambridge particle physicist and Anglican priest and of George Coyne, Jesuit priest and astrophysicist.  The myth of the “war” between science and religion was largely an invention of anti-Catholic polemicists of the 19th century, but it was sadly confirmed in our country by the emergence of Biblical fundamentalism in the early 20th century.  The best of the Catholic tradition, relying on nuanced, non-literalistic Patristic and medieval strategies for reading the Scripture, managed, for the most part, to avoid this phony conflict.  This is why the Galileo case, in all of its ambiguity, should be read as a tragic anomaly rather than as paradigmatic of the church’s relation to science.  Those who honor the Logos made flesh have absolutely no interest in blocking, hindering, or questioning the legitimate exercise of reason in any of its forms, just the contrary.

As I take the next step, I realize I am moving into highly speculative territory.  But I believe there are intriguing hints in a good deal of contemporary science that the Logos which informs all of reality is, as Christians would expect, marked by a kind of being-with or being-for.  Classical physics and astronomy were predicated on the assumption that reality is made up of separately existing objects, relating to one another extrinsically within the great theatre of space.  But post-Einsteinian physics, and now quantum theory even more radically, tends to see, not so much “things” as patterns of interaction, overlapping fields of energy.  What Charles Williams called “co-inherence,” the interpenetration of all dimensions of reality, seems to be valid at the most fundamental levels of being.  The EPR experiment and Bell’s theorem both indicate that certain sub-atomic particles, having been at one time in contact, continue to be marked by one another, even after they have been separated by enormous amounts of space.  Does this action at a distance or non-local causality in fact suggest that a kind of co-inherence or Mit-sein obtains across the fields of reality?  And might this line of thought be a fruitful entrée for those who hold that the intelligibility that informs all of created being is precisely an intelligibility of love?



Now let us turn to a consideration of the cultural trajectory in the direction of justice.  As we argued above, all of our legal, juridical, and political institutions, at least ideally, are ordered toward the achievement of justice.  They operate under the aegis of justice in its unconditioned form, which is another way of saying that they are under God.  There is a myth concerning the origins of the modern political state, which curiously mirrors the myth of the emergence of the modern sciences.  Many in the west would blithely assume that democratic political reforms emerged after a terrible struggle with the traditional monarch favored by the church.  Again, it is instructive to consult the ruminations of both popular and academic authors in the 19th century to witness the launching of this myth.  But like its scientific counterpart, it is woefully inadequate to the facts. 

I would argue that many of the indispensable features of the modern democracies are derived from Biblical religion.  In order to see this, I would invite you to journey in imagination to a stuffy room in a Philadelphia boarding house in the summer of 1776, where a young Virginia lawyer is composing a rather important document.  In the prologue to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:  “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  We’ve heard or read those words so often that we rarely acknowledge their peculiarity.  Are all people equal?  If so, how?  Common sense tells us that human beings are radically unequal in beauty, intelligence, courage, virtue, kindness, physical strength, etc.  And if we consult the history of political philosophy, we find that most of the great political theorists of pre-modern times took it as self-evident that men were not equal.  Indeed, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero considered the recognition of this inequality as requisite to the establishment of a right social order.  Think of Plato’s account of the three types of people — gold, silver, and bronze — or of Aristotle’s sharp distinction between the relatively few aristocrats capable of public life and the vast unwashed destined by nature to remain in the private realm. 

So what led Jefferson to say that the equality of all people is not obviously false but self-evidently true?  I believe that the clue is found in a single word of Jefferson’s formula that our eyes and minds barely take in, namely, the word “created.”   Despite our numerous and massive inequalities, we are all equally children of God, created out of love and destined for eternal life.  Take the fact of creation out of consideration, and it becomes extremely difficult to defend the proposition that we are all equal.  And let us follow the momentum of Jefferson’s theologic:  “they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Once more, even a casual consultation of the history of political theory discloses that this claim is anything but universally admitted.  Neither Plato nor Aristotle would have thought it correct to ascribe to all people within the city unalienable rights.  Rather both would hold that the privileged aristocracy, the moral and intellectual elite, alone enjoys certain prerogatives.  Again, what prompted Jefferson’s confident assertion?  It was his keen sense — however attenuated by Enlightenment Deism — that a Creator God had granted to each of his rational creatures a dignity, which no person or state institution could legitimately undermine.  In point of fact, the structures of government exist for no other reason than to protect this God-granted dignity.  And here we see something of central importance, namely, that the justice which properly preoccupies the representatives of a Jeffersonian democracy is a type of love, a willing the good of the other as other.  All of the juridical and political institutions that rest upon the suppositions of the Declaration of Independence are conditioned, finally, by this focused desire that each member of the polity flourish. 

If one is tempted to question the validity of this analysis, I might invite him to consider the example of the great totalitarianisms of the last century:  Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to name only the most brutal.  What the world witnessed in each of those political arrangements was a systematic negation of God and hence a setting-aside of both equality and rights—followed by morally disastrous but utterly predictable results.

Another important religious feature of modern political arrangements is the rule of law, which is to say, the conscious placing of all members of the society, including the governors, under the authority of a law that transcends their individual wills.  Grounded in the prophetic tradition of the Bible, Thomas Aquinas teaches that legitimate positive law rests in the moral law, which in turn is conditioned by the eternal law, which is identical to the divine mind itself.  When that nesting relationship is forgotten, law in short order becomes an instrument of manipulation, a tool in the hands of the powerful.  In his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus reminds the Roman governor that he (Pilate) would have no authority unless it were granted to him “from above.”  In other words, he suggests none too subtly that Pilate’s power is not a function of the governor’s will, but is rather granted to him by a transcendent authority.  The justice of God, which is unconditioned love, is the aegis under which any and all governmental authority is appropriately exercised.  And this is precisely why the rule of law provides, indirectly, an opening to the one who seeks to proclaim Christ to the political culture. 


The Arts

Let us look, finally, at the cultural trajectory in the direction of the beautiful.  There was, for centuries, a tight correlation between the Catholic Church and the arts.  One has only to think of Gregorian chant, the great French cathedrals, Dante, Palestrina, Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Matthias Grunewald, Mozart, etc., to see the immensely fruitful quality of this relationship.  The church readily used the arts for evangelical purposes, and the artists allowed religion to carry them to the heights of creative expressiveness. Would Grunewald’s artistry have been fully realized apart from the unsurpassably sublime subject matter of the crucifixion of the Son of God?  The rapport between art and the church was considered natural, because God was construed as the supreme artist and artists as participants in the divine creativity. 

Thomas Aquinas utilizes the trope of God the artist frequently and in a number of different contexts.  In his discussion of the Trinitarian persons, he says that species (beauty) should be attributed to the Son, since the Son is the archetype by which God the Father fashioned the universe:  “the Word, in a certain sense, is the art of the Almighty God, that through which all things exist.”  The Father makes the world by consulting, as it were, the beautiful forms implicitly ingredient in the Word, much as an artist makes an artifact by consulting a beautiful ideal that he holds in his mind.  And since God’s creation is ex nihilo, there is literally no limit to the extent of the Son’s influence over creation, and this means that whatever exists, precisely in the measure that it exists, is beautiful.  What the artist seeks to do, on Thomas’s reading, is to imitate the beautiful forms that she finds in God’s creation and thereby bring more beauty into being.  And this is why artistry is inescapably intellectual in nature; it is recta ratio factibilium (right reason in regard to things to be made), a kind of contemplative seeing that gives rise to making.  James Joyce, who was profoundly shaped by scholasticism as a young man, expresses the artist’s task in a rather Thomistic vein, commenting that the artist is a “reporter of epiphanies,” privileged moments of manifestation.  He is not so much an inventor as an imitator of the beautiful, as becomes clear in Joyce’s recounting, in A Portrait of the Artist, of his experience of seeing the girl silhouetted against the sea, a scene that consciously echoes Dante’s meeting with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova

But much of this began to unravel in the modern period.  An even relatively adequate exploration of the causes for this dissolution would take us well beyond the bounds of this article, but suffice it to say that the participation metaphysics that undergirded the approach outlined above commenced to evanesce, to gradually vanish, as God was seen more and more as a distant first cause and not as the very ground of the being of the universe.  In time, this abstracted and distantiated God came to be seen by many intellectuals as effectively unnecessary (“I have no need of that hypothesis,” in La Place’s famous formula) and eventually an outright atheism came to seem plausible.  This shift in ontology carried enormous implications for aesthetics: for, as the world appeared less and less the work of a transcendent artist, art became more and more a matter of self-expression rather than imitation.  Once the objective referent disappeared, subjective purpose and need became paramount in the mind of the artist.  In many ways, the history of modern art can be read as the steady march toward abstract expressionism, that is to say, toward the complete setting-aside of objective form and the embrace of a pure, subjectively conditioned creativity.   The result of this transition was (and is) an explosion of art that is wildly inventive — often subversively so — but frankly not very beautiful, and concomitantly, a tendency on the part of many artists to perceive the Church, the guardian of form, as the enemy of art, censorious and unappreciative.

The evangelization of the arts can happen only when we recover a more classical notion of nature as the repository of formal beauty, the work of a transcendent Artist, and of art itself as recta ratio factibilium, a rightly-ordered reason that contemplates the objective form and makes beautiful things in accord with that contemplation.  Once those moves are made, the evangelist can propose Jesus, the harmonious coming-together of divinity and humanity, as the most sublimely beautiful form, and he can endeavor to show that any and all forms within nature are finally a participation in that primordial beauty.  And he can encourage artists to return with energy and enthusiasm to the community, which has, up and down the ages, most faithfully preserved the idea of the supernatural Artist. 



Allow me to conclude with a few remarks of Biblical inspiration.  The great story of Noah’s ark in the book of Genesis was interpreted by the church fathers as a sort of icon of the church.  During a time of crisis, Noah and his family, along with a microcosm of God’s good creation, hunkered down; but the moment the flood waters receded, Noah opened the windows and doors of the ship in order to flood the world with the life he had preserved.  So the church, down through the ages, is a place of refuge, where something of God’s good order is preserved while flood waters of sin surge all around.  But the ultimate purpose of church people is not to hunker down behind walls, but rather to flood the world with the ideas and practices that they have cultivated.  This is, I suggest, a provocative image for the evangelization of the culture.  Christians must vigorously resist the modern prejudice in favor of a privatized religion.  The faith that speaks of the Logos by which all things were created cannot, even in principle, be privatized.  The Church must come out from behind its walls — non-violently to be sure — but with confidence and panache, in order to share its life everywhere and with everyone. 

One of the last images in the Bible, at the close of the book of Revelation, is of the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem.  The visionary sees the great city illumined by the light of the Lamb, adorned with jewels and filled with streets of gold; and he notices that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, certainly a curious state of affairs, given the prominence of the temple in the earthly Jerusalem.  But we are meant to see that there is no need for a temple, precisely because the city in its entirety has become a temple, which is to say, a place where God is properly praised.  This is an image of the evangelized culture, in which the arts, the sciences, politics, sports, finance, and law are all ordered to Jesus Christ, the icon of the invisible God, the human face of the unconditioned good, true, and beautiful.

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