Metafísica: Cultura al servicio de la fe // METAPHYSICS: CULTURE AT THE SERVICE OF THE FAITH
EXTRACTO // SUMMARY:
• Culture can be understood in many ways, but the author proposes the definition of culture as “that through which the human person, as human person, becomes more human; better yet, comes closer to being’, that is, something is associated with culture to the extent that it contributes towards man’s leading up to the fullness of his being. This returns us to culture as ‘everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities’ (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, no. 53).
• Thus, modern-day crises are understood as the darkening and the putting in parentheses of being, of the properties of the human being as truly human. The true-in-itself has come to be replaced by what I think or opine, by the truth-for-me, for each one; the good in itself has come to be replaced by “I like”, “this pleases me”, “I’m interested in”, by what I find agreeable or pleasurable for me; that genuine beauty has given way to superficial and subjective aesthetic appreciations, and even to giving cult to what is known to be as simply “cute”, or worse, adoring what is ugly, grotesque, macabre or monstrous. Such break results in a profound lack of unity, a break between man’s behavior and his guiding principles, which usually is accompanied by a deep sense of frustration and occasionally by dangerous ruptures in personality.
• Nothing of the proposed “inculturation” is doable without the influence of the faith and of grace. Situating oneself before the God-Man constitutes the indispensable means for attaining an increase in realness (in unitary truth, good and beauty) which will lead the human person towards his perfection and his happiness.
Metaphysics: Criterion for Culture at the Service of the Faith
by: Prof. Tomás Melendo Granados
(Professor of Metaphysics, University of Málaga)
Everyone knows the insistence with which the recent Popes, particularly Paul VI and John Paul II, have expressed concern for “the rupture between the Gospel and culture” being “the drama of our times” (1). We, then, understand easily the constant push that the current Pontiff has been giving to the “carrying out of a work of inculturation of the faith, an inculturation which would reach and transform, through the strength of the Gospel, the very criteria for judgments, for ultimate values, for lines of thinking and for lifestyle models, so that Christianity will continue offering, especially to men of advanced industrial societies, a meaning and orientation to their existence” (2).
We are talking about a mission that is perfectly fitted to Christianity, in the words of Giuseppe Savagnone, since, “paraphrasing a fundamental principle of Catholic tradition, according to which grace does not eliminate nature but rather heals it, empowers it and elevates it above itself, we could say that grace does not replace culture. On the contrary, it purifies it of the dirt that impedes it from adequately reflecting the identity of man and the world, it frees its most profound resources and gives value to whatever that culture contains which is true, good and beautiful, opening it up to unlimited horizons, which not only do not belittle culture’s impulse but exalts it and intensifies it” (3).
We, therefore, stand before a most beneficial influence of the supernatural over human nature, of which culture is an integral and indispensable part. But in these pages, I would like to focus on the conditions which have to be met by a culture which purports to place itself effectively at the service of the faith and of religion. For, it is sufficiently obvious that not all cultural manifestations enjoy the same vigor in order to fulfill this task, in much the same way that neither do the various philosophies possess it. Within this context, and setting aside those matters which seem of greater worth, I shall expose within the body of my treatise, with relative breadth, the sense in which Metaphysics establishes itself as the criterion for measuring the appropriateness of a culture and as the motivation for raising it to a level that is properly human. And only later, at the end of the work, will I attempt to briefly assess whether in the current state of fallen nature, such a task of exalting purification can be achieved outside of grace.
1. Culture and “counterculture”
As I have just insinuated, among the many ways in which culture can be understood (4), I intend to retain only its most solid and nuclear aspect: the aspiration towards excellence (5). We have already referred to those aspects internal to the subject, as well as to those external elements which make it possible and to its manifestations in man and his surroundings. I now consider, along with John Paul II, that definition which says that something is associated with culture to the extent that it contributes towards man’s leading up to the fullness of his being. Otherwise, that thing’s qualification as cultural –no matter how much it leaves a mark in man or how much it comes into contact with him– will be the result of an impoverished or a deceitful or a fraudulent use of the word culture. Thus, the ability to distinguish what ought to be accepted as “culture”
depends on an adequate conception of the human person. Among the many possible conceptions, following those suggestions that hark back to Heraclitus, I deem it most appropriate for our purposes that which describes him as “metaphysical animal”, as “logos” or a place of being: that is to say, that reality to which what is real is patently real, insofar as it is real. And therefore, as someone who is in intimate relation with the attributes that reality possesses, precisely for being real, viz.: unity, truth, good and beauty; or better yet, as a being oriented by vocation towards making present and incarnating in himself such properties, in such a way that he grows and perfects himself to the extent that he gets involved with and lives in the one, the true, the good and the beautiful, appreciated in their intrinsic value and elevated to their highest expressions (6).
Here perhaps is the profound key to some of the distortions and weaknesses that seem to be in opposition to “what is cultural” in our times. Setting aside rhetoric and totalitarian pretensions, the denunciation of the forgetting of being makes up, to my mind, one of the more valid indicators in order to understand the situation of man in the 21st Century.
For what motives?
If we were to take a greater interest in the expression and conception in question rather than in the concrete configuration which it has in Heidegger, I propose: (1) that the core of the inattention to and deprecation of what is real is the rejection of the demands made by persons, things and institutions given their very nature (by being what they are), and instead, attending exclusively to what each one “feels”, “thinks”, “desires” or “aspires for” with respect to them; (2) that such an attitude is tremendously rooted in the current state of affairs; and (3) the very same deprecation not only endangers the unity of the universe and that of the human subject himself –declared by some as nonexistent–, but that the true-in-itself has come to be replaced by what I think or opine, by the truth-for-me, for each one; the good in itself has come to be replaced by “I like”, “this pleases me”, “I’m interested in”, by what I find agreeable or pleasurable for me; that genuine beauty, unmistakably recognizable centuries ago by people of a certain cultural level, has given way to superficial and subjective aesthetic appreciations, and even to giving cult to what is ugly, grotesque, macabre or monstrous.
Definitely, the hegemonic role of reality as such –which in the final analysis traces back to God as inescapable Foundation– has come to be replaced by the tyranny of the human conscience, by subjectivity; by a capricious and arbitrary “I”: an “I” which is “ametaphysical” or “beingless”, we could say: what is important has come to be, not so much what I am or do or have but that each one of those things has become “I” or
turns out to be “mine”.
All this has resulted naturally, if not in a substantial modification, in a profound change in the intimate core and in the perfective display of those who conform their world, at times producing manifestations that we can call “countercultural”. For if, using anew a classic term, man is defined as “onto-logical” reality –“shepherd of being”, Heidegger calls him and Karol Wojtyla reminds us in one of his first documents as Pope–, the darkening and the putting in parentheses of being, with the concomitant disdain of metaphysics, characteristic of the recent centuries, must have adversely affected him in his most intimate core. In a way, such break crystallizes in a profound lack of unity, a break between human behavior and his guiding principles, which usually is accompanied by a deep sense of frustration and occasionally by dangerous ruptures in personality. Consequently, I believe that the building up and consolidation of the unity of the human subject in those areas which urgently forge his condition as person –theoretical, ethical, aesthetic, not taken in isolation but in their enriching reciprocal integration—make up the most direct objective par excellence of those who aspire to elevate the “cultural” tone – human tone!– of the world of today. And in order to reach such objective, it is imperative that the integrative task to which I have just referred be flanked by the concomitant task of revitalizing those properties with whose contact man becomes more human: truth, good, beauty, as presented to us by those traditional metaphysical sciences. In this consists, in substance, “doing culture”.
2. Truth maltreated
Let us first take a look at the theoretical sphere. In effect, the relativist crisis of the truth constitutes one of the most devastating scourges of our times. Or even perhaps the most pernicious of all, for we see ourselves to some extent at the root of the rest of them. As Fides et Ratio explains, at present we find a widespread conviction that our intellect is incapable of reaching, by itself, the certainty of those fundamental truths about human existence. We do not at all refer to a random affirmation, with disregard for daily life. In my conversations with students, colleagues and friends, it is easy to find such statements as: “Reason? OK, agreed. But, which reason? Yours, or mine? Is there only one reason? or two, or three… or as many as there are individuals? How can I tell if what I know is also what the others know? Doesn’t each one have his own particular view of reality, valid for himself, but different in any case from that of everyone else?”
I repeat: perhaps we stand before the problem, or at least before one of the foremost problems, of contemporary man. In any case, this is one of the most serious difficulties that arise when the moment comes to make our compatriots understand courageously, for example, that there do exist ways of living that are in accord with our constitutive condition (and therefore engender perfection and happiness) and others that are not so (and therefore lead necessarily to dissatisfaction and personal ruin). Only with difficulty, just to put paradigmatic examples, will they admit sincerely and without debating –or, rather, will they effectively understand, with deep intelligent persuasion, capable of translating to long-lasting works—that indissoluble marriage, a friendship which is selfless and unrelenting, and a well-done and silent work are just a few of those conditions that exalt the human being; while extra-marital or contra-marital relations, homosexuality, the use of contraceptives, the unlimited search for pleasure, utility, success or money, ultra-competitiveness, the closing in on oneself, and other realities of this type, are associated by nature with the second group and contribute to unmaking man and woman…even though these are voluntarily chosen (because things decided on freely aspire to imposing themselves today as an “argument” capable of legitimizing everything).
Along with more profound causes which the Roman Pontiff himself and other scholars have pointed out, such breakdown has also been fostered by a growing proliferation of practices which, day after day, erode the sense of truth in those who may have possessed it previously… or which have made it impossible to exist in the rest of men. I cite some situations (the list is not in any order or not meant to be exhaustive): (i) the absence of distinction between reality and fiction, such as are offered above all in the various media and notably aggravated by the progressive and indiscriminate multiplication of virtual realities; (ii) excessive essayism, in which the truth, when it plays a certain role, is unfortunately treated lightly with tremendous subjectivity; (iii) a lack of differentiation between what can be subjected to true knowledge and that which, by its
nature, will remain always within the realm of what is opinionable; (iv) abundance of debates in which differing opinions present themselves to be the same level and like indiscernible; (v) presenting unverified data as certain or as facts, which many times turn out to be falsehoods…without proportionate effort on the part of their creators or propagators to correct misinformation or to restore the truth; (vi) the impossibility of distinguishing those who are competent in a specific subject matter from those who are not; (vii) the proliferation of surveys which deify the supremacy of “data” and in which surveyed persons —as Kierkegaard would denounce—impose themselves upon the public, whether or not they know of the subject matter.
It is not difficult to make out, on the other hand, the extent to which many of these tendencies have taken shape in the centers of formation in the West. As I have explained on other occasions (7), the official structuring and practice of our educational tasks, at the most basic levels as well as at the university level, have not always helped the young people to discover and incorporate into their basic convictions the idea that the role of education is to make shine forth in him what is human, and that what usually
happens is they are limited to being enabled to carry out certain functions in the economic and labor aspects of society which unfortunately have lost the awareness that their constituents are, before anything else and at all moments, persons. It then becomes difficult for culture —conceived as personal exertion en route to perfection—to grow and develop.
3. Good impoverished
The attitude of our contemporaries with regard to the good, freedom, happiness and ways of conceiving their self-fulfillment can likewise be studied from the <countercultural> and ametaphysical lenses of relativism, focusing on a number of aspects that are intimately interconnected: the indiscriminate exaltation of the “me”, and the limitless reign of one’s own pleasures.
a) Egoism. In accord with the Augustinian doctrine of the “two cities”, we can say that throughout his existence, every human being finds himself impelled to undertake a basic choice between a pair of extremes: i) reality or being, on the one hand; and ii) me, at the opposite end. As I have been insinuating, our civilization seems to have opted for the second, for the “I”. We see this all over: from the “egoism” that reigns in most of the relations between North and South or, if you like, between multinationals or developed countries on the one hand, and the third or fourth world, on the other; to the numberless advertisements or television spots which invite us to give in to some whim or caprice, to think of our own well-being, to make us realize that we “deserve” this or that pleasure, etc.
The consequences of this polarization that we see all around us threaten to reach universal dimensions. For instance, there are now many people who are unable to conceive of something as good if it weren’t to give them —each one of them in particular—some benefit. We are not talking about persons who, in practice, put their very own benefits before the common good or before that of the others, but about people who do not even know or understand the sense in which something can be called good and can effectively be so, if it didn’t come accompanied by some satisfaction for them (many times, something material). It so happens that, out of the three
types of good which the classics distinguished —the honest or worthy good, the pleasurable good, and the useful good–, the first, which is the most valuable, seems to have disappeared from the scene: one no longer understands how a thing could be good in itself…, as for example the death of Thomas More, which actually didn’t give the saint any advantage, or the dome of St. Peter’s of the Vatican, which many of modern tendencies would be inclined to substitute with a simple roof. As regards things which are intrinsically and autonomously good, these and other realities of the type turn out nowadays opaque to our knowledge; a majority of our contemporaries are only able to perceive the good for me, what each one finds useful or agreeable. In this respect, we understand the reason for today’s widespread inability to conceive a person as being capable of selfless actions, seeking only the good of the others. I have observed it many times, on attempting to explain that happiness derives from true forgetfulness of self in order to attend exclusively to the good of the other. It is symptomatic that a high proportion of those who listen to such doctrine simply consider impossible that someone could work without thinking of his personal benefit: “at bottom —they would assert obstinately, turning the issues around—they act that way because they feel OK that way”. Such statements obviously eliminate completely whatever objective criterion to discern good and bad, enclosing the subject in the relativeness of his “I”.
b) The tyranny of desires. Such relativism reaches a very dangerous height when it opens up to the repudiation of human nature: in the attempt to think that there does not exist any stable manner of being proper to man. But this is exactly what happens today in many places. At present, not only do people deny a similarity in nature for the representatives of humanity in the various periods of history or in the various places and civilizations, but even for the members of a given community or ethnic group. Some people say that, definitely, each individual possesses a particular and proper configuration… and this is not even fixed, but can change little by little and be defined anew according to the circumstances and the interests of each moment. The consequence is devastating. For centuries, ethics has sustained itself within the context of the natural inclinations of the human subject, among which the giving of self to others has been gaining preponderance, since it lies at the very root of the person’s essence. These tendencies would determine his duties and limitations, indicating to him the path towards his perfection. Today, with nature having disappeared, there have also been eliminated those universal and permanent indicators, leaving desire to be the only point of reference. Even self-fulfillment, which is so in vogue, has come to be conceived substantially as giving way to such desires, outside of the sign that they possess… knowing that they cannot have any such sign since they cannot find any canon for establishing their category or their legitimacy. Hence, the extraordinary primacy given to collecting experiences of all types (preferably <aesthetic-sentimental>): all enjoy the same value, since there is no discrimination between what is in accord with man’s essence and that which is not. From the same point of view, neither man nor woman possesses a guiding star, a goal towards which they must head: to live is to live, to feel! …and that’s enough.
In the case of young people, this disorientation is accentuated for two reasons: (1) The lack of clear models throughout practically the entire educational process, since those who ought to propose or be such models —in the heart of the family or the educational institution—no longer dare to be such, deceived by a false idea of freedom or by an ingenuous or comfortable fear of meddling in the lives of those girls and boys, of
traumatizing them, or of making mistakes. (2) The absence of self-knowledge. A large part of today’s youth, and a not-so-small part of adults as well, lack the tools necessary for knowing themselves interiorly, since they have not learnt to identify which are their emotions, which their impulses or appetites, etc. Why? Traditionally, this self-mastery was carried out, above all, through literature. Thanks to it, the reader anticipated his own life: <he would have been in love> 50 times before he fell in love in real life; on other occasions, he would experience the fear of being revealed or the anxiety in the face of imminent danger, doubt at the moment of deciding, the desire of <flying higher>, shame and anguish or remorse because of an evil committed… Today’s points of reference in order to understand the human being are those presented on television and the other means of mass communication: based on the profile of personalities
that these offer, a broad multiculturalism has had a vigorous influence, as well as the opportunity that the programs have to adapt themselves to all levels of understanding, reasons that derive in turn from the need to capture audiences and, with them, prestige, publicity and economic benefits. The result is a most rudimentary product: the feelings of those new heroes and protagonists are reduced practically to sexual attraction, ambition for power and domination, desire for revenge, uncontrolled interest in success… and little more, with all that exposed in their turn to a primitive, syncopated, and brusque form, lacking in important details… even coming from those very same animated drawings.
Consequently, without the minimum of inescapable instruments for exploring their soul and for being cultivated, the young person —and even the adult of today— appears before his very self as a great unknown. Disoriented, without a guiding star to mark out the path towards his fullness, he has become incapable of discerning that which, in the sense that Machado gives to it, will make out of him or her a good man or woman. He finds himself condemned to accumulating unconnected experiences, which he doesn’t know whether they build him or destroy him… since many times he does not even have a clear awareness that the freedom given him has been given for his own building up and self-directing towards his perfection as a person: perhaps because —with the being of his vital horizons having disappeared—he has also lost all awareness that that possible perfection exists.
All this, despite whatever they sometimes want us to believe, seems sufficiently unable to engender authentic and positive culture.
4. Beauty “subjectivized”
The statement <there is nothing written about likes>, which may be valid in certain spheres, has acquired a practically universal —and even rather aggressive—value, and has come to be applied to the entire field of beauty, understood in its turn in a very impoverished sense, in a sense that is almost exclusively sensible and even only artificial or man-made… which is exactly where the beautiful, because of its ‘lesser’ category or “ontological density” turns out more difficult to distinguish from that which is not. This is a phenomenon to which hardly any importance has been given, since it has been treated as a question of likes, of times/epochs, of trends…, but influences a great deal the formation or, at times, the absence of formation in younger persons… and in everybody.
In what sense? (i) following the appreciations of Mouroux, I think that [beauty and] art, under whichever form, is an essential need of man: it influences him enormously and it introduces serious problems to modern society (8); (ii) I likewise opine that, just like for discovering truth and for loving and procuring the good, in order to appreciate beauty, a
continual effort is necessary, tending towards the acquisition of the conglomeration of habits, which are connatural with what is beautiful; thanks to them, the person who cultivates them finds himself growing in what we know to be good taste, measure, refinement in dealings with persons and things, modesty, reserve, elegance, composure in the most diverse situations, etc. (iii) since that kind of interior formation is imparted on
rather rare occasions, a good part of what is being offered today to our equals as <art> and <culture> makes them unable to appreciate the genuine and deeper value of reality or, if you like, unready for the contemplative joy in beauties of a rank higher than what they are often exposed to, and capable of enriching in a sovereign way, their humanity, which is many times maltreated or deteriorating.
The deep-seated idea here has been graphically expressed by Inger Enkvist: “people who don’t fill their gray matter —the Swedish specialist affirms– are <empty>. They do not possess the necessary cultural heritage which they ought to have in order to be able to use it; …neither are they able to seek pleasant experiences, for example through art, since art also demands learning and training… The only thing they can enjoy is the set of experiences that create ecstasy, for example drugs, since it is the only kind of distraction not requiring any form of prior discipline or mastery (9).
The foregoing, given the results it evokes and to which it points, admits of a gamut of commentaries. It would be sufficient to point out the following: (1) On the one hand, the unfocused getting accustomed, on the part of many of our fellowmen, to a bombardment of impressions, frequently heart-rending, in all the areas of our sensibility: from the monotonous chewing of gum or distracting one’s tongue with more or less exotic foods or drinks, all the way to the alternating of deafening sounds, images and changing of lights during those moments of recreation… or even in those attempted moments of work, all the way to the exposure to strong sensations —the liking for what is terrifying, violent or macabre–, which temporarily awaken and activate their emotionalism; and (2) on the other hand, the extent to which that coming together of incitements, which come to be indispensable, contributes to making their intellects lethargic and, as a consequence, to an almost endemic boredom of so many people within and outside of the school and work environment: a tedium which, as philosophers like Kierkegaard or Camus and psychiatrists like Frankl would comment, constitutes one of the most devastating plagues of our present world and one of the key elements for understanding those apparently intelligible actions of some of our contemporaries and for explaining the absence of authentic growth —of cultural development—in a good number of them.
5. Metaphysics and faith: in favor of authentic culture
a) Immersion in reality. Now that we’ve come to this point, and after seeing what we’ve seen, I don’t believe I exaggerate when I affirm that in order to counteract these counter-cultural elements to which I have just referred, it is necessary to exert effort in nurturing in our fellowmen, from their most tender years, their strict condition as persons. And neither should it be surprising that I define this task as a deep and progressive recovery of being; as a salutary immersion in reality, united in
its turn to three poles already mentioned and which in the last analysis are equivalent: the truth, good, and beauty, uncovered and welcomed with all the vigor that is proper to them. <Satiate with reality>: there we find summarized the entire work of formation of every person. And that is, in addition, what we ought to make clear now: this is the most effective way to put the human being in fruitful and unified contact with the true, the good and the beautiful, in all the areas and at all levels in which these are made manifest.
In other places, I have developed rather extensively such manner of proceeding, as a response to the deficiencies I have pointed out a little while earlier. Please hold me excused, because here and now, given the lack of time to explain them, I will have to limit myself to sketching the matter lightly, in line with two warnings I consider fundamental. The first one is that, if we truly want to sustain a committed immersion in what is real as I have been insisting, each one of us ought to struggle and exert every
effort, with personal doggedness and seriousness, above all to discover unity deeply and to discover the ineffable real marvels of the universe: to acquire a vivid awareness of the fact that everything that is —more or less intense and unitary reflection of God One and Triune—precisely delights by virtue of its truth, captivates by virtue of its goodness, embellishes by virtue of its beauty. And it is necessary to appreciate it with convinced depth and learn how to contaminate others with the same conviction utilizing our most vibrant vital fibers, losing none of such wonders: none. All this implies, as I suggested at the start, a notable effort at going deep into reality and a similar effort at integrating the goals thus achieved. Both efforts definitely have to leave their mark in our very manner of working and of relating with our peers, towards a greater and more solid unity of life.
–It is necessary, for example, for the recovery of that <passion for the truth> to which John Paul II exhorts us, for each one of us to go deep in the experience of knowing, as a privileged means of discovering the meaning of one’s existence and the function of the universe, and a means of getting introduced to reality and being nourished by reality. We find the implied or express assertion that the world cannot be known is practically the same as behaving as if the world did not exist, or as if it existed only to the extent that I could relate with it and only from this does it have meaning and consistency; this in turn leads us to be alone and isolated and out-of-context, and thus impoverishes the universe and deprives it of value, reducing it to its relation with me, to a <show-window for my ego>… with all the sterile and frustrating effects that such isolation gives rise to.
To avoid this risk and to personally live through the experience of the truth, and also to help others carry out the truth to its last consequences, it becomes indispensable, in the first place, to adopt an adequate outlook, that is to say, to understand and live our intellectual formation —task which we never consider finished—as a unified knowledge of reality, and not simply as an unconnected study of materials: as a learning of a series
of <subjects>, which would constitute an isolated and fragmented preserve in our lives, hidden in a kind of parallel existence —the center of formation–, which only with difficulty can attract a modern-day person, accustomed as he is to living in the street and living in the media.
I refer specifically to those of us who in one way or another dedicate or will dedicate part of our efforts to forming others: I am fully convinced that only when we get to transmit what we know as news about the magnificence of the world and of ourselves —and not mere “disciplines”, I repeat— can we awaken in girls and boys the meaning of and inclination toward what is real, indispensable in order for their lives to have any weight and to not remain at the absolute mercy of the movable comings and goings of desires and of the shallow but nevertheless persistent invitations of our environment.
–With regard to the good: the indispensable objective for the youngsters and the less young to reach perfection and to reach their fullness consists in putting them in conditions of appreciating and loving the good in itself and, consequently, the good for another as such, overcoming the well-rooted tendency nowadays to pursue, in an almost exclusive manner, one’s own benefit and pleasure (good for me)… which imprisons the human subject in the very narrow molds of his subjectivity.
As Cardona says: “educating, forming integral men, good persons […] is this: teaching and helping the child and the adolescent to forget themselves and their appetitive tendencies, so that they give of themselves generously to the others. It is helping them to come out of their animal state of pure <needs> (real or unreal), and move on to their spiritual state of <freedom>, of elective love, responding in that way to the primordial precept of all natural ethical law: love God above all things with all thy heart and love thy neighbor as thyself” (10).
Moving towards that goal, the molding of noble persons —and not of mere elements in the workforce and elements of social life who act for their own benefit— will have to consciously be geared towards an entire development in the various centers of formation. And in order to achieve this, in order for the youth of today to discover the wonders of his condition as person and to discover that the only acceptable behavior leading towards that goal is to open himself up lovingly towards others —including in the exercise of his professional work, when he is making his acquired knowledge bear
fruit–: it would be good to make them reflect on what follows, which comes from one of the most notable Masters in humanity in Western history: Thomas Aquinas. As this author says: there exist two fundamental types of operation: one, that through which one seeks one’s own completion or preservation; and the second, more noble, that which expressly attends to another’s good. The first kind, continues the Angelic Doctor, is proper to imperfect agents; the second, proper to those which already possess a certain fullness. In colloquial terms —although charged with biblical resonances–, this can be summed up in the third and well-known expression: it is more perfect to give than to receive. Therefore, the more elevated a reality finds itself in the hierarchy of beings, the closer its operations get to pure gift, that is to say, to love: the most sublime of all activities.
Obviously, those tendencies that predominate in the modern-day civilized world do not go along this line. What has come to be known as consumerism —the tendency to limit to purely commercial aspects even the highest manifestations of the spirit, including education and culture– conceives of and obtains happiness by means of acquisitive operations and repetitive use-destruction operations which are found infinitely beneath man’s and woman’s dignity and, as a consequence, make them unable to progress and experience the true joy that such development brings with it. It would be good, therefore, to go deep in these foregoing ideas and transmit them with strength and attractiveness to those whom we want to help, avoiding to the extent possible their being carried away by the dynamism of consumerism…which always brings about a profound personal frustration. As Ballesteros affirms: “hedonism, since it is opposed to the control of one’s instincts, denies the qualitative difference between man and beast” (11), impeding thus that perfection which is properly human and which arises from the search for sublime ideals.
In order to carry out this exalting task, that famous affirmation of Gaudium et Spes can serve as a guide: “The human being, the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, cannot find his fullness except in the sincere gift of self to the others” (12). In this, John Paul II would say, “is summed up all of Christian anthropology: the theory and praxis founded on the Gospels” (13). And it is this, therefore, that ought to characterize and orient the entire educational task in all and in each one of its details.
Thus, when time comes to explain to every human being his own greatness and the sure path which will lead him to perfection, it would be good to clarify —in accordance with the demands of an ethics anchored on Metaphysics—that we are speaking here of loving the others disinterestedly and selflessly. We would like to insist, nevertheless, that such altruism does not in the least imply the rejection of one’s own improvement and satisfaction. We can and, in fact, we should procure our happiness: for this is, after all, a natural inclination which, at this level of our nature, we cannot reject. But precisely in order to achieve that happiness, what we should never do, in the reflexive and free ambit of elective love, is to transform it into an explicit and obsessive object of our every action and thought. We neither pursue it at whatever cost nor repudiate it: rather, we ought to direct all our free capacity for loving towards the good of the others, in such a way that no space remains for ourselves. By virtue of human excellence, this is the only thing, I think, capable of perfecting us as persons and of procuring for us a stable and lasting happiness. As Tolstoy would say: “in the sentiment called love is to be found the
single thing capable of resolving all the contradictions of our existence and of giving man that total joy whose achievement is the end of our lives”. And the key anthropological contradiction is that a person, who is called by his very greatness to give himself to the others, becomes impoverished and destroyed by thinking only about himself. Hence, love —on opening us to the others—introduces joy into our lives.
–Lastly, it is necessary to personally possess, and transmit to those we desire to form, the conviction that, when the beautiful is understood as it ought to be, then the education for capturing it is summed up in and elevates all our human potencies and leads them to the summit, leading the soul towards God. It cannot, therefore, be despised; rather, there has to be the contact with what is beautiful, for as long as it is conceived correctly, along with the conglomeration of harmonious effects it encompasses.
All this means that beauty accompanies the totality of everything that exists, from the most insignificant of realities all the way to God Himself (14). Likewise, that which is beautiful is not some kind of “decoration” added on and external to beings, by virtue of which they are resplendent, but rather the culmination of all and each one of their most characteristic perfections: of their transcendental properties, as they are called in
metaphysics. Concretely, “beauty, properly understood, ought to be contemplated along with the truth and the good […]. For a given form to be beautiful, as opposed to being merely pretty, it needs to be associated with such other values as truth or integrity. These two values of beauty and truth are distinct, although fundamentally inseparable. Both form a unity like water and earth forming clay […]. All forms of art make reference to the truth: the truth of the sight, of our hearing, of the spirit. True beauty is inseparable from the search for truth. When there’s an attempt to create something beautiful separated from the truth, the result is sentimentalism” (15).
The same thing has to be affirmed, as the citation above also says, with respect to good (and to unity, although this is not cited explicitly). Unfortunately, however, among the greatest yet least mentioned lacks that there are in today’s world is the lack of ability to preserve the fullness of beauty —which should be, at one and the same time, one, true and good—, replaced frequently by superficial manifestations of what has come to be known as simply “cute”, or reduced drastically to a cult of what is ugly or grotesque, which imperceptibly may bring us to the “father of lies”. We find ourselves before a not-so-insignificant aspect of the dangerous fragmentation of the contemporary person in his contact with the universe and with the rest of the constituents of the human species: something which, as we have been saying and which has been clearly developed by Carlos Cardona, makes up one of the most extensive and alarming shortages of present-day education and formation, with impressive and deleterious repercussions for the lives of our fellowmen. A similar personal decomposition —probably the most profound defect which contemporary education is guilty of— makes us feel its consequences in the field of beauty.
Harries explains it thus: “One of the most unfortunate characteristics ofthe modern world is the break among thought, feeling, and morality. Oftentimes, people think of beauty only in terms of emotional response. People are used to thinking that conscience is a feeling of culpability, while the thought in its pure state is reserved for science. In contrast to this separated interpretation of sentiment, thought and morality, our Christian ancestors kept a unitary vision in which the mental processes always had a role to play and beauty was an aspect of objective reality” (16) and, consequently, something on which to lean at the moment of increasing, along with the esteem of the world which surrounds it, the growth which every human being ought to experience upon contact with the universe.
b) Empowered by grace. “Our Christian forebears…”, Harries would say, and I underline it intentionally. Perhaps that is where the secret lies for overcoming certain merely formal, fragmentary and at times rather bureaucratic propositions about contemporary inculturation; the secret for putting ourselves and putting those around us in conditions of growing personally, realizing, appreciating, and enjoying in full the splendor of existent beings, upon having learnt all the treasures that they encompass within.
I would dare affirm that nothing of the above is doable without the influence of the faith and of grace. I wouldn’t be on strong foundations making such an assertion without mentioning three “interlinked” signs in defense of my statement: 1) The first, of universal character, takes note of the fracture introduced into human nature by original sin and personal errors. 2) The second, by contrast, applies particularly to our present situation, as has already been sketched in the earlier part of this exposition, taking cover in Heidegger; referring to it, Heinz Schmitz says that “modern reason has established itself so deeply and for the longest time in an opposition to being, incapable of getting back to finding its straightness without the lights that come from up above” 3) Both of these matters seem to be confirmed by one of the most drastic affirmations of Fides et Ratio: “Christian Revelation is the true lodestar of men and women as they strive to make their way amid the pressures of an immanentist habit of mind and the constrictions of a technocratic logic. It is the ultimate possibility offered by God for the human being to know in all its fullness the seminal plan of love which began with creation” (17).
“The ultimate possibility”… without which we are unable to discover the definitive and most radical meaning of the universe, but which the Christian, on the contrary, can and ought to limitlessly take advantage of. No one better than the Christian, because of possessing that extraordinary and inescapable help, can discover the very depths of wonder —a reflection of the infinitely dazzling God— which even the tiniest of creatures
possesses within. No one more skilled than the Christian in order to make out and bask in the glory of creation, employing it at the same time as a trampoline from which to ascend to and repose in his Maker. As Savagnone affirms: “far from constituting a renunciation of desire, the Gospel is an invitation to allow —despite the deceptive proliferation of tiny appetites which deafen and obsess us without making us transcend the surface— the impetuous growth of that profound and radical desire that arises from the heart of every man and makes him endlessly seek in things, in other human
beings, Someone whose name he does not know” (18).
We need to pursue that Someone in a non-stop ascent, I hasten to add, even though it requires tirelessness. This is because, as I have suggested earlier, the joy engendered by realities which are each time more sublime implies a formation and an ordering of the faculties not ordinarily demanded by attractions offered by a consumer society (attractions which, in reality, end up stamping out the capacity for true happiness and do not at all perfect those who give in to them).
6. Union between the divine and the human as fullness of Culture
Summing up and entering into my final considerations of what I proposed at the start of my presentation, allow me to offer three new ideas: i) on healing human nature, faith consolidates and unifies, with unexpected vigor, the universe of the person living in it; ii) on elevating it, faith broadens that world limitlessly; and iii) continuing nature’s work, faith brings us closer to the ultimate objective of Christian inculturation, that is to say, it achieves a growing and deeper interpenetration between the natural sphere and the supernatural, and it makes possible knowing, loving, and appreciating with maximum intensity absolutely everything that exists: what is human and what is superhuman. And all that real richness is what, in a passionate manner, ought to be uncovered by us who truly desire to contribute to forming those around us: without taking comfortable and timid refuge plainly in those supernatural values, despising or turning a deaf ear to the value of what is human, but at the same time without giving in to the apparent attractiveness of this consumeristic civilization…which can never fill the desires of a heart destined for the infinite.
All the real richness we ought to discover: both the seemingly insignificant and the sublime… Plato had already excellently explained this and left it written in Phedron : the human person does not reach God in an indirect or intuitive manner, but through the things of this world. And Christianity has pointed it out with even greater depth to the extent that it has gone deeper into and made more explicit the meaning of the Incarnation of the Word (19). Particularly after the Second Vatican Council, it has become each time clearer that, although Man finds his ultimate goal in God, the first step to take in order to ascend towards Him is the complete and decisive acceptance of the truth and the good and the beauty that are in the universe. Thus, our desire for the infinite is nourished and inflamed by the dealings with created beings. We ought to know deeply all and each one of them and love them temperately and enthusiastically and thus adore with unspeakable and loving zeal our God who keeps us in existence. In its turn, the loving dealing with that God shall permit us to go deep, day after day, through reflection and prayer, into the most real value of the entire cosmos. Thus, once and again, going up and coming down and going back up, in a crescendo that introduces fully the universe and the persons contemplating it into the heart of their common Origin and End, into God Himself, at the same time bathing with the ineffable Light of God the intelligence of him who knows and the being of him who is known.
St. John of the Cross has affirmed with consummate poetic intuition: “in the living contemplation and knowledge of creatures, the soul is seen with great clarity, seeing in them an abundance of graces and virtues and beauty with which God gifted them, and which has vested them with admirable natural beauty, derived and communicated from that infinite supernatural beauty of the figure of God, whose gaze clothes with joy and beauty all there is on earth and in the heavens…” (21). Would it be excessive if I were to assert that, albeit in informal and non-technical terms, this passage of the Spiritual Canticle points to the ultimate objective of all formation —that of Inculturation!—of every person and civilization? Do you not see summed up in it the meaning of that thesis of John Paul II, of deep metaphysical roots, which says that, through culture, “man, insofar as he is man, becomes more human; better yet, comes closer to being (22)? Haven’t we just re-affirmed that conviction, on considering also those equally celebrated words of the Supreme Pontiff which assure us that “every culture is an effort at reflecting on the mystery of the world, and in particular on the mystery that is man; a way of expressing the transcendent dimension of human life”, concluding then that “the heart of every culture finds itself constituted by its drawing closer to the greatest of all mysteries, the
mystery of God” (23)?
Given all the foregoing, and along the lines of thinking of the First Grand Chancellor of the University in which I was educated, there would still be some space here for some kind of resolution: let’s point out that, going beyond the sectoral re-tooling which is also necessary, the core of the task of inculturation consists in putting oneself in conditions of discovering that “holy something, that divine something, hidden in the most ordinary situations” (24). On doing this, I dare add emphatically —not as something juxtaposed or <added> but as divinely consubstantial with their daily activities–: that we need to “return —to matter and to situations which appear most vulgar— their noble and original meaning, putting them at the service of the Kingdom of God, spiritualizing them, making of them a means and an occasion for our encounter with Jesus Christ” (25) (Conversations with Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, no. 114).
With the insightfulness which characterized him, C.S. Lewis had already said: “We cannot —at least I am unable to— listen to the singing of a bird exclusively as a sound. Its meaning or message (“that is a bird”) inevitably accompanies it. In like manner, neither can we see a familiar printed word as just a mere visual drawing: reading it is as involuntary as seeing it. When the wind blows, we do not exactly hear its blowing: <we
hear the wind>. In the same manner, just as we can <experience> a pleasure, so we are enabled to <read it>. In fact, it’s not even correct to say <in like manner>. The distinction comes to be almost impossible and, at times, it is impossible. Receiving it and recognizing its divine source are a unique experience. This heavenly fruit is immediately perfumed by the garden in which it grew. That sweet breeze whispers sounds of the countries whenceforth it comes. It is a message. We know that we are being touched by the finger of a right hand in which there are infinite pleasures. It is not therefore a matter of thanksgiving or praise as separate events, as things which are made afterwards. Experiencing everyday theophany is, in itself, adoration.”
And he concludes, with savory exemplification: “If I were always that to which I aspire, no pleasure would turn out too ordinary or too habitual for that kind of a reception, from the very first breath of fresh air as I look out the window —our cheeks turn into some kind of palate— all the way to the softness of one’s slippers on going to bed” (26).
I think that the issues have been sufficiently explicitated. I, therefore, wish to conclude that, having dealt with the topic from a much higher perspective, the foregoing thoughts could give way not only to a totally new conference, but perhaps to an entire treatise. The first idea is something John Paul II has never ceased repeating, until such point that it has come to be transformed into one of the most famous points of reference in his entire preaching: those well-known words of Gaudium et Spes, according to which “the truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown” (27) (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22).
It is not surprising, I add on my own account, that in Him is found the definitive Key for understanding all that has to do with culture, including the discerning dimension of Metaphysics. Thus it is suggested by Lluís Clavell: “Christ, and in a special way the Crucified Christ, is presented as the superabundant and surprising answer to all questions posed by any anthropological-metaphysical experience. Christ shows Himself to be the Truth and the Wisdom who unveils the true meaning of existence, as the Good and culminating Love in His giving of Himself unto death on the Cross for our sins, as He whose Glory and Beauty are hidden <kenotically> but who attracts all, as the Only Begotten Son and consubstantial with the Father, who manifests the fullness of His Being Divine in the omnipotence of His miracles” (28).
Effectively, and as Kierkegaard suggested, situating oneself before the God-Man constitutes the indispensable means for attaining an increase in realness (in unitary truth, good and beauty) which will lead the human person towards his perfection and his happiness: it is Christ who shows us the continuity between the temporal and the eternal, between the finite and the infinite, between creation and the Maker…; and it is He who likewise points out the need to appreciate them in their depth, weighing them vitally and nourishing oneself with both, in their mutual interpenetration, as an unsubstitutable means of growing in one’s own humanity and leading it towards its definitive fulfillment —a state which (following the foregoing reasonings) constitutes the authentic summit of human culture.
A Talk Outline (simplified) version of this is available here:
🙂 🙂 🙂