Man is not a body of mass in motion with the aim of peaceable consumption as modern anthropology suggests. Man does not live on bread alone; man is, as the ancients knew, a social animal. However, the great revelation of Christian anthropology is that man is also a cultural animal. Culture, rooted in the Latin word cultus, means life. Culture means life because cultus embodies the two great principles of life: care and praise—which are two of the first commandments given by God to humanity after creation and both wrapped up in the first of the Ten Commandments. A culture that abandons care also abandons praise. Conversely, a culture that abandons praise will abandon care. As a result, the slow march toward nihilism and nothingness, which is death, commences.
It should not be a surprise to Christians that we live in precarious times. The culture of death is all around us. What is worse, our culture—if we can even call it a culture—celebrates death over life, it celebrates nihilism over truth, and it celebrates destruction over care and stewardship.
Cult is not a negative word in its proper understanding and original definition. But as Thucydides and George Orwell both noted, language dissipates and dies when ideological conflict brews and sways man to embrace fanatical abstraction in pursuit of the millennium. Cult simply means praise. This, in turn, inculcates the praise of life (when it is right praise)—the praise of the life-creating and life-giving God who is the center of the Christian religion.
When one veers across that vast sea of culture, from the Mesopotamians to the present, one will notice something that strikes modern secular man in the face: all cultures rise and fall with their religious cult and reflect their religious cult. The great ziggurats, tombs, and statues of Mesopotamia were explicitly religious in their nature. The surviving statues and paintings of Egypt likewise reflect the deep religious nature of their culture. The columns, arches, and temples of Greece and Rome, their statues, coins, and epics, are all dedicated to the gods. Even the “barbarians,” praising trees and stars, left Stonehenge and many runestones for posterity. The great works of Western art, music, and literature, are all Christian or Christianized in content and nature, from Botticelli, Petrarch, Michelangelo, and Dante to Rubens, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Milton. The Chinese Odes, temples, and depictions of filial harmony all quintessentially related to the filial pietism and divinized countryside of traditional Chinese culture.
Part of the Catholic understanding of man is that he seeks to praise. Man instinctively seeks to praise; praise something, praise anything. The Catholic encounter with pagan cults and religions has always been a productive one. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism has always seen traces and signs of the good, true, and beautiful in the noble errors of paganism. It is true that the pagans did not properly know and praise God. But their praise of family, of fatherland, and of life through the crude means that they had available to them was a sign of the residue of the good, true, and beautiful in these cultures.
The cultures of pre-Christian Europe found their fulfillment with the coming of Christianity. The cult of the family and fatherland that the Greek and Roman poets and philosophers so poignantly extol could not be consummated without a knowledge of the God of love whom it is necessary to know so as to properly orient the heart to father, mother, brother, sister, and patrie. Homer, after all, shows us the errors of Achilles, Agamemnon and the other Greek heroes of the Trojan War when Odysseus descends into the underworld and all of his former comrades lament to him that they only wish to be reunited with their families and homeland. Virgil, too, presents pious Aeneas as faithfully discharging his duties to his father, the gods, and his countrymen despite the personal sacrifices and pains he suffers along the way. But it was only through Christianity, and its revelation of love, that the desire to serve and praise family and fatherland could be truly consummated.
Modern man uses the term culture frequently. But he does not know culture, least of all its very nature. Modern man praises nothing and seeks after nothing. As such, the decrepit culture of modernity is a culture of death because the only thing modern man seems to praise is death itself: assisted suicide, abortion, and human sterilization are all promoted and defended—with vigor—as the crowning achievement of our “compassionate” and “free” culture. Oh, the irony! The greatest liberty in the West is the liberty to kill. For the negation of the good, true, and beautiful is the taking of life. And our culture is adamant about calling this privation of the good a good in itself. Woe to us who call evil good and good evil.
In the City of God, St. Augustine articulated the harsh truth that no culture will flourish without true religion—that is, true and rightful praise. The elimination of religion by modernity’s obsessive pursuit of the gods of capital, technology, science, and “progress,” have left man metaphysically and ontologically impoverished. Man has not only been cut off from the God in whose image he is made, he is also cut off from his own inheritance—the inheritance of his ancestors including all that was good, true, and beautiful in those ancient ways; and now cut off from those stories, traditions, and insights that bind people together in love and praise.
Modern culture is one long and painful rush to the abyss. It is a culture that encourages Dido and Lucretia to thrust the blade of suicide into their breast and praises them for having done so. It is unsurprising that liberals—in particular—are okay with “pulling the plug” on children because they, after all, are completely fine with killing children in the name of liberty. But what is made all the more ironic is that these are the same people who would have a problem with Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure safe voyage to Troy.
The fact was, nevertheless, that without God the pagan cultures were simply shells of their ultimate desires, unable to consummate themselves without right praise. But we should not fail to recognize that Christianity preserved all of the Greek, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon epics, and praised, while properly reorienting, the desire of these cultures. And so the fact still remains that without God our culture, which was once nurtured in the wellspring of love, will continue its fall into the pits of hell and will not stop until it arrives at nothingness. For without anything to praise, without anything to care and tend, and without life and love in our sights (though many of the prophets of death will use those words to mask their cruel and empty intentions), our culture will praise nothing and wither away and die.
Christianity reaches down and touches the root and vine of culture because Christianity is the true religion of care and praise. It plants the seed of life into the soil, nurtures it and cares for it, until it sprouts and blossoms into a life-giving tree that brings man to it in awe and wonder. Our heart is restless until it finds rest in God, the God of love and truth, the God who is the wellspring of praise and life, the only summit from which true culture flows and gives life to all.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (May 2018).
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(Photo credit: The Parthenon in Athens / Steve Swayne)