Restoring Humanity: Combatting social and spiritual ills

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. 

COMING UP: Christendom: old and new

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We have come to think of the Church, the gathering of God’s faithful, in primarily spiritual terms. Throughout Christian history, however, faith implied social and even political obligations, which supplied a concrete expression for the Christian life. In the history of Christendom, one political organization prominently stands out: The Holy Roman Empire. We think of the Roman Empire as ending in 476, the date of the abdication of the last emperor in the West, although it continued with unbroken succession in the Byzantine East until 1453. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned a new emperor in the West, Charlemagne, to serve as the preeminent political ruler of Europe and the protector of the Church. Emperors were longstanding partners of the Pope, the one serving as political and the other as spiritual head of Christendom, though they often turned into rivals.

Peter Wilson provides a thorough account of the Empire, and a defense of its effectiveness as a political body, in his Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Belknap, 2020, paperback ed.). The extensive book (of just under 1,000 pages) does not provide a standard chronological account of figures and events, as it examines the overlooked heart of European culture through three sections focused on the ideal of the Empire, its unique sense of belonging that held it together, and finally its governance. The book’s organization provides an interesting and fresh approach, but it could have used a stronger narrative through coherent stories and summary of the key contributions of important figures (somewhat supplied by the timeline at the back of the book).The Empire’s key characteristics included its transnationality (centered in Germany and embracing at least parts of twelve other modern states); its decentralized authority, with governance dispersed among the Emperor, kings, electors (tasked with voting for new emperors), princes, prince-bishops, counts, knights, and free cities; and its cooperation with clergy, with bishops integrated into its civil rule.

As the nature of Christendom implies, the Church is not solely spiritual; it is a lived social and even cultural reality in the world, and the laity have a role in regulating Christian life in the world. The emperor was the chief representative of the laity and even held veto power within the papal conclave. As such, the emperor was the main defender of Christendom against external enemies and promoter of internal peace. The Holy Roman Empire experienced remarkable stability and purpose, uniting such a large expanse of territory and peoples through an understanding of the Empire’s role in the defense of local rights and of Christendom itself. It provided a sense of corporate identity and freedom by seeking consensus and peace, rooted in faith: “Freedom was expressed and celebrated collectively through communal gatherings and festivals, and by verbal and visual reminders of the community’s traditions and identity” (579).

Christendom is currently taking on new forms in the southern hemisphere. Despite having its original heartland in the Middle East, even 100 years ago it would have made sense to speak of Christianity as a religion centered in Europe and North America. No longer. There is a drastic shift in the proportion of Christian population to the southern hemisphere, ensuring Christian growth for the next 100 years and leading to new spiritual and social expressions of the faith. Philip Jenkins thoroughly explains this shift in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2011, 3rd ed.). Although the Catholic Church should experience significant growth in Latin America, Africa (which will become the largest Christian continent), and Southeast Asia, much of the global growth comes from Pentecostal and independent groups. “The Christian world will have turned upside down,” Jenkins notes, as a solid majority of Christians will come from the south, while “Christianity worldwide is becoming steadily more charismatic” (113, 85).

With growth in numbers, new social expressions of Christianity will follow. And like the Dark Ages of Europe, the Church is stepping into the social void to provide stability: “All too often the Catholic Church occupies such a prominent role because it is literally the only institution that can hope to speak for ordinary people” (179). As Christians work to rebuild society, “we might even imagine a new wave of Christian states, in which political life is inextricably bound up with religious belief” (172). It is hard to predict the future, even as a very different trajectory seems inevitable, as the Christian faith, once again, proves itself adaptable by finding fertile soil for spiritual and social renewal. Reflecting on Christendom helps us to realize not only what we’ve lost, with the breakdown of the social reality of the Church in the West, but what could be, building upon the growth of Christian culture in the global south.