The goodness of human culture

“Faith of the Church Triumphant”, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1665.

Life in community is constitutive of the temporal existence, a necessity that demands the education of the human person and the direction of the impulses of the human soul to the edification of the common good. The human creature is a social animal, a communal being that finds within society the realization of the purpose of destiny; it is in the life of society that the Divine Being realizes the salvation of the human person, and the corporate economy of Salvation. Humanity lives in culture, an adaptation to the constraints of its natural environment, it is evidently an artistic response to the pressures of its milieu, as human populations adapt to the geographic landscape they are placed in.

Human culture can be conceived as an organism, that evolves over a period of time, over the ages of man. It takes its root from the soil of the Earth, from nature with which it exists in harmony with its natural rhythm and incarnates the soul of the human genius into the raw material of life, shaping it according to the particular reason of man. In its essence, culture is transmitted through blood, through genetic inheritance and formulated in the possession of art and the application of technology to the environment. German historian and philosopher of history, Oswald Spengler lived during the beginning of the 20th century and posited a theory of civilization and culture. His position was that each civilization had a number, a specific quality that granted it its character and permitted for its intrinsic activity and influence throughout history, that took its origin from the specificity of the blood. It is quite difficult to dismiss such theorizing, especially since the consideration of blood places an emphasis on race and would lay a claim on cultural superiority based on ancestry and genetic inheritance, a tendency repeated over History that has been evidenced in the great collectivist errors of the 20th century encapsulated in the Aryan historical fever of National Socialism or Nazism.

20th century British Catholic historian of culture, Christopher Dawson wrote extensively on the subject of culture and civilization, in his book Dynamics of World History, the Oxford Professor delineated the four characteristics of the formation of a culture in the comparison of the formation of an animal species:

“It is true that three of the main influences which form and modify human culture are the same as in the case of the formation of an animal species. They are (I) race, i.e. the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e. the geographical factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e. the economic factor. But in addition to this there is a fourth element – thought or the psychological factor – which is peculiar to the human species and the existence of which frees man from the blind dependence on material environment which characterizes the lower forms of life.” – Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson, Section I, page 5

Christopher Dawson wrote during the tumultuous period of the Second World War and argued for the unity of the European continent in the recovery of its Christian heritage, he decried the ills of modernity in its separation of religious faith from life, the mechanization of human life by the subjection of the human person to the economic process, and the extension of the totalitarian powers of the state as it reaches further in its omni-competence into all areas of human living. Mr. Dawson’s erudition convey a breadth of vision that betray his eloquence and his penetrating love of the Catholic faith, he stands as one of the eminent British historians of the 20th century and an exponent through his eloquence of the Catholic religion. The central thesis of Christopher Dawson was that religion is the formative element of a culture, in the fact that Christianity is the soul of Western culture, and that “a society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture”.

Human culture is inherently a good for man, the source of beauty and the consolation of man. The organism that culture forms, necessitates a soul, a principle that gives it life and that is its form; in religion, culture finds the form that actuates its inherent potential and gives it clarity of vision. Foremost, religion is a vision of life, a manner of comprehension of reality, an attitude towards history that, in truth, consecrates temporal existence and assumes the social bond in the adoration of the Divinity. The contemporary culture is in the condition of social decay that is unable to hold back the self-destructive impulses of the human soul – in the experience of sensuality, consumerism, the thirst for blood, and the rampant rise of the fever of nationalism that puts culture at odds with culture, nation in opposition to nation. The central question to be asked is whether the world-organizing feat of Western civilization is itself an absolute achievement or rather, a relative effort that has borne the benefits of the erection of an international order aware of the universality of humanity, the recognition of the human condition as the common experience of every man, demanding thus, a response of charity that sees in the neighbor a fellow in need, the suffering Visage of Jesus Christ.

The goodness of human culture resides in its provision of a common conception of reality, a common activity, in the labor of a common place. It testifies to the reality of the human genius that transcends the condition of the material environment that in the activity of human reason reveals the pole of transcendence that forms the substance of the human condition, the certainty of which the human soul aspires towards the mystical heights of Heaven in its period of purgation during its temporal existence on the Earth. At present, Western civilization exists in the amorphous atmosphere of a soft totalitarianism where society is torn asunder by the centrifugal forces of the individual ego, as the common good is being dispersed by private interest, it appears that society is experiencing the pressures of the divergent sections of class, race, and ethnic origin that tend to separate human populations in discriminating fashion. As the individual is left to the destructive impulses of the ego, the State attempts to provide a unifying influence and occupy gradually a greater vital space to the point that there is no area of life that is not socialized. The weakness of Western civilization resides in its separation of religious faith from life, more particularly, its divorce between religious wisdom and human science resulting in a society that does not participate of the same conception of reality where evidently the knowledge of science exists at odds with the epistemology of religion. In his address at the University of Regensburg in 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI argued for a “rapprochement” between religious wisdom and positivistic science:

“The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry. In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares “I am”, already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy. Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: “I am”. This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. […] A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.” (University of Regensburg, Germany, September 12 2006)

The divorce of religious wisdom from human science is evident in the way of life of Western societies, an artificial order of life paced by the logical law of machines that is disconnected from the creative rhythm of nature, a reality apparent in the general malaise that is the character of post-modern industry and business – indeed, stress!

In the last analysis, culture is a natural adaptation. For that reason, it necessitates to be incarnate in a circadian rhythm that values life united to religious belief. The goodness of culture, depends in the end, in its capacity to allow for the expression of religion within society by placing the human individual in vital relation with the faith of the religious act; only then, is it possible for civilization to recover its transcendent purpose and overcome the materialist reductionism and the numerical collectivism of totalitarianism, which appears to be the true enemy of the human person in the current climate. Human culture is inherently good, and a culture that is open to the belief in the Divine, can certainly, recover its spiritual health and evolve throughout Time. Finally, the diversity of human culture evidences the fact that though humanity appears divided, it is possible for its different sections to foster mutual understanding and labor towards the co-operation of their common aims.

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