Thursday, April 14, 2011

Evangelization and the Culture of Life

In the society we live in today, there would probably be broad agreement on the need to build a culture that is worthy of the dignity of the human person, a “Culture of Life.” But this agreement tends to break down and even turn to opposition to the degree that it moves from a vague and abstract aspiration to concrete proposals. We often strive to mask this collapse behind idealistic schemes, but what is really at stake is whether or not we can endure the full truth of what it means to be a human being.

That truth, inescapably, involves transcendence: the “going beyond one’s self” that is entailed in a relationship with reality, with other persons, with work, with the passage of time and the frailty of things, and in the affirming of ultimate meaning in the face of death. Transcendence involves self-giving–indeed self-abandonment. It is achieved in the ecstacy of giving one’s self away, for which the appropriate language is that of sacrifice.

Yet our human nature suffers from a frailty in its origin, a grasping, a selfishness. We all know the experience of it. Christian revelation identifies it with the mystery of original sin. We are fallen. It is because of this that sacrifice involves suffering, and it is in front of suffering that the aspiration for the dignity of the human person runs up against objections, distortions, and even denial. It runs into fear. Fear fragments the human aspiration into divergent and even contradictory tendencies. Appeals to logical argument or a law of human nature drawn from reflection upon its principles and purposes find in this fear a stubborn opponent.

What is to be done? 

I think that only through Christ can we really embrace the human dignity that not only endures, but that reaches its fulfillment through suffering. For this reason, the suffering we must bear in order to respect the dignity of human persons and human life–individually and socially–will not, in fact, be undertaken in response to an appeal to natural law alone, but only in response to the grace of Christ. Evangelization and the Culture of Life go together.

Am I saying, then, that Christians should all abandon politics, and other forms of cultural and social intercourse, and restrict themselves to proclaiming the Gospel? No. This is not what is indicated here.

For men and women can reason to some truths about the human person and human dignity by natural law, and can thereby see in some measure the value of suffering. And our fallen human nature does not make us totally evil, so every person can do some good things–in principle at least–even "without His grace." Moreover, in discussion with people, one must appeal to what one knows people already acknowledge to be true in order to build understanding and to exhort. I do not think, however, that we human beings can succeed–individually or as a people–in affirming in a consistent manner (much less a heroic manner) the dignity of the human person, or persist in that affirmation in the face of great difficulties, without Christ being at work concretely in our lives. This does not mean that no one has ever suffered heroically except professing Christians; one may be responding to the grace of Christ without being explicitly aware of it.

What we must recognize is that building a Culture of Life is a heroic task, and I do not think there can be a substantial measure of success in this task except in response to the grace of Christ. There is certainly room here for the proposals of "natural law"–which are after all rooted in the truth of our humanity. But I expect that those who accept these proposals and adhere to them will do so in the measure in which the grace of Christ is already (perhaps only secretly) at work within them. Evangelization seeks to proclaim what this secret is. I say that the building of the Culture of Life and the work of evangelization go together, not that they are "the same thing." One does not have to be a professing Christian to affirm the dignity and transcendence of the human person, but in the measure in which one lives out this affirmation, one must--I am convinced--be in some way "moving toward" Christ (and therefore being drawn by Him) because He, really, concretely, is the God-given Source and Fulfillment of that dignity and that transcendence.


Sarah J. said...

There is a lot to take in here. I'm especially struck by the way you define our _weakness_ as that which holds us back from giving ourselves away. The conventional wisdom is just the opposite, of course-- strength is thought to be that "empowerment" in which we hold onto control over our lives. I'm also struck by your defining transcendence as "going beyond ourselves." Our frailty holds us back from that ecstasy of sacrifice. This is something I need to write down and meditate on.

About the problem of how to build a culture of life, I think it is very true that rationality is not enough to overcome this frailty. It is so deeply entrenched in us, only grace can overcome it. And what you point out about the real suffering and sacrifice that is required in order to recognize the dignity of every human life is so true, and maybe not acknowledged enough in pro-life statements. Very often when people make the pro-life case, they either resort to cut-and-dry logic alone, or they turn to sentimentality (the sweetness of babies, for instance). Both of these approaches suffer from an incomplete view of reality, I guess.

It may sound odd, but I think an important element in building a culture of life is to get people educated in good literature from an early age. For one thing, everything that's good about humanity-- all the best in human tradition and culture-- needs to be built up and cultivated because (among other reasons) it makes it easier for people to accept the truth of Christ-- they will recognize in him the fullfillment of all virtue. but also in a specific way, the literary imagination can be a bridge between rational acceptance of natural law, and the acceptance of that ecstasy of sacrifice that transcends our nature. Literature gives us images of the heroic which we intuitively grasp as good, without needing to reason through it. Children especially need to be fed with these images of heroes. But good literature never does this in a sentimental, manipulative way-- but always in a way that is "accurate about feeling" (can't remember who this is quoted from). It never pretties up reality-- it always lifts the veil from the everyday to show the truth that's really there. For some reason I'm thinking of Homer's Achilles right now as an example of the heroic-- specifically his consenting to give back to Priam the body of his dead son. In this act of deep solidarity with his enemy, he endures a painful stepping-beyond-himself, and lets go of his grasp on honor as a compensation for death.

All right, I really don't want to hijack your argument with a hobby horse of my own (how's that for a mixed metaphor?). I guess I'm just thinking about the meaning of this idea of a culture of life-- it needs to be fully a culture, and bring to bear all the human faculties.

John Janaro said...

I very much appreciate your insights here. Literature, and all artistic expression, are essential to building the Culture of Life and especially important for the education of young people. Reality is True and Good, and also Beautiful. And so is Christ.