The Church’s task of evangelization includes restoring human life and culture. Jesus promises in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new.” Even though this will happen fully in the new creation to come, the restoration begins now as God’s grace heals and elevates human life, both individually and socially. I explore how the Church’s mission of evangelization touches human culture through issues of nature, beauty, family life, education, and society in my new book Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence, 2020). The book makes a case for how culture can provide a means for living our faith and building Christian community in a secular world. This vision of restoration can also be seen in some important books that unpack the nature of how the Church confronts and heals the ills facing modern culture.
Remi Brague, a noted French philosopher, has addressed the dead-end that we’ve reached in modern culture in his Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (Notre Dame, 2019). The modern world began with borrowed goods, he contends, taking premodern, Christian principles such as reason and human dignity as its starting point, although they have now lost their foundation and have gone mad. “What becomes of the virtues or ideas — or rather truths — that it has driven to madness? My thesis is that they are to be salvaged from the straitjacket … and given back their sanity and dignity — a dignity which is premodern in nature, that is, rooted in the ancient-cum-medieval worldview” (4). He argues that the modern project has failed as it does not provide a compelling vision of life’s purpose and its extreme autonomy has proven self-destructive. Releasing truth from its straitjacket will entail reentering into dialogue with God, breaking out of the failed task of creating meaning for one’s own life. It also requires entering into creation as something given, as well as into the conversation of history. The future of our culture is an open question and for those who would live to preserve it, they will need to “know that whatever bears the stamp of humanity, such as historical achievements, depends on the will of people to uphold them. If this will should fail, those achievements would crumble down and disappear forever” (114).
Why would anyone want to allow the great achievements of the past to crumble? R.J. Snell’s work on the vice of sloth (or acedia) examines the internal disposition that leads to a hatred of life and an unwillingness to give oneself to others in joy and love. In Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Angelico, 2015), he describes the deep spiritual malaise that has overtaken our culture. “Moderns struggle to find the world beautiful, or good, or of worth, and once the world and things of the world are thought worthless in themselves, they bore us. Further, we struggle to find worth in other persons or ourselves. However horrifying, we find this boredom impossible to give up — we like boredom — because the meaningless of the world allows us to treat it and others and ourselves exactly as we wish” (60). This “revolt against limits” creates a “freedom without definition” and an “internal instability” that results in “tedium, restlessness, wanderlust, hatred for place, prideful and frenetic activity, floating from task to task” (62-63). We have fallen into a nihilism that creates a deep spiritual sloth that refuses to accept communion with God and others as the true path to freedom, because it is seen as burdensome and restricting. In contrast, Snell speaks of the weightiness of ordinary things through which we yoke ourselves to reality and to one another in love. “God’s instruction is needed, and yet God often teaches through ordinary things, through things available if we would attend” (96). Life is good and it calls us out of ourselves to find meaning in things which, though ordinary, call us to greatness of soul.
A key solution for restoring humanity, therefore, comes from living differently each day in simple but profound ways. Another book teaches us how to attend to important social graces: Mitchell Kalpakgian’s The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization (TAN, 2014). Daily habits of hospitality, letter writing, dignified dress, conversation, and friendship will help to rebuild culture, because “these traditional arts cultivate in persons a desire to give and be generous, to appreciate and be grateful, to please and to be thoughtful, to think of the happiness of others and of ways to bring joy to their lives, and to cherish the gift of a person as a blessing from God” (viii). Rather than boredom or sloth, rediscovering lost arts cultivates joy in everyday life and infuses it with purpose by relating meaningfully to others.
Speaking of one example, Kalpakgian explains: “Occasions of hospitality cultivate certain virtues in the host: the art of cooking as an act of love; the art of pleasing guests; the art of creating an attractive, cheerful inviting atmosphere; and a spirit of generosity and the joy of giving. These festive banquets also develop particular virtues in the guest: the ability to be convivial, pleasant, and gregarious; the willingness to be at home in the company of all ages; the practice of self-forgetfulness in taking an interest in the lives and experiences of others; the skills of courtesy and civil conversation” (4-5). These arts do not simply recover trifles from the past but are ordered toward restoring relationship and even sanity. “Thus, good conversation at its best restores common sense and cures folly, dispelling exaggerations, clichés, and silly ideas by its sobriety” (33). We can see how these simple realities provide needed healing for mad truths and spiritual sloth, because “once the pleasure of things replaces the enjoyment of people, the entire quality of civilization suffers” (50). “Wisdom and love,” on the other hand, “are rewards that honor effort, dedication, and fidelity” (66). These virtues call us out of ourselves to others, and ultimately to God, and provide the missing purpose and happiness we need to restore the dignity of human life to modern culture.