Transformation of a life or a culture begins with a wound, a sacred weakness—wonder, love, openness to grace…

Being on the road for Wyoming Catholic College leads to a certain benign distortion in my view of contemporary American culture. Meeting donors, parents who want the best education for their children, or prospective students fascinated by the challenge of the outdoor program and the curriculum, I am perhaps unreasonably convinced that a deep, central health prevails in the land. Meanwhile, mass murders and other horrors unfold with gloomy inevitability, writing in blood the terrible evidence of absence.

Absence of what? Of belief in the good, the unifying principle so central and brilliant that Plato identified it with the sun; of trust that truth exists, both a knowable reality and a way of apprehending it rightly; of confidence that beauty draws its beholder, not into gluttonies of gratification, but toward what is good and true. For whole swaths of the culture—and not just the liberal “elite”—it has become convenient to believe that God is an invented imposition on individual freedom. His absence seems to them liberation, and they blame the decomposition of the culture on anything but its true cause.

There is a memorable scene in Moby-Dick when Stubb, the second mate, discovers ambergris in a rotting whale: “suddenly from out the very heart of this plague, there stole a faint stream of perfume, which flowed through the tide of bad smells without being absorbed by it, as one river will flow into and then along with another, without at all blending with it for a time.” That’s a way of describing what my wife and I have experienced this past week. In the odor of balm, we temporarily forgot the rotting Leviathan.

The polarization of our politics and the tone of public discourse makes it difficult to see what it is really at stake. As David Schindler has written in his book Ordering Love, “the greatest cultural divide of our age is between those who live human action from inside the intersection of time and eternity and those who do not; between those who affirm the truth and goodness of the world as first given, thus as gift, and those who do not.” Wonder alone “enables us to see: to see humanity and all of reality in their truth as naturally given rather than as primarily instruments.”

Prof. Schindler’s distinction is profound. To see reality as gift puts us in the position of attentive discovery and grateful relation to a Giver. To see everything as instrumental, subject to human will, makes even life itself, “a mere thing, which man claims as his exclusive property,” as St. John Paul II wrote. “He busies himself with programming, controlling, and dominating birth and death.”

How do those of us in education counter this dominant instrumental paradigm? Since our beginning ten years ago, Wyoming Catholic College has undertaken nothing less than the slow transformation of culture from within. On the one hand, faculty, staff, and students alike are called to the simple integrity of life—to right worship, to honest work, to love of neighbor, and to the daily realization of the Beatitudes taught to us by Christ. On the other hand, we as a College and as individual recipients of particular gifts are called to high achievement in the “labor of gratitude” (a phrase from Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift): a full and subtle realization of human nature created in the image and likeness of God.

Part of that realization is certainly artistic. Just yesterday I read an essay by the British novelist Francis Spufford asking how Christians can write about faith in a secular culture. His answer is complex, but he speaks of an important new kind of writing that exhibits “the orientation to the world that results when somebody holds that, feels that, behaves as if the particular rooms they are in always have another unnumerated door or window, opening onto a different and overwhelming domain.”

“Unnumerated”—try to find an exact synonym, and you discover how precisely Spufford has described the opening that cannot be counted among visible doors and windows, the one that reveals the world as gift and not as instrument. I am reminded of Jacques Maritain’s warning against the idolatry of human making: “A totally perfect finite thing is untrue to the transcendental nature of beauty. And nothing is more precious than a certain sacred weakness, and that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.” The true approach is never domination of the material. Transformation of a life or a culture begins with this wound, this sacred weakness—wonder, love, openness to grace.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (October 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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