St. Augustine's Seminary Convocation Address 2005 by Fr. Guy Trudel, C.S.B., Professor, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies
St. Augustine’s Seminary Convocation:
Christianity as the Basis of Culture
21 November 2005
Your Eminence, Msgr. Nusca, Fr. Lynch, faculty members of St. Augustine’s Seminary, graduates, family and friends of the graduates, it is a singular honour for me to be with you today on this occasion of great joy for you. When Fr. Lynch asked me to say a few words (and they will be few, your Eminence – honest!), I thought that I would offer something close to the heart of our late pope, John Paul II, or John Paul the Great, as some have styled him. I would like to simply sketch out some broad outlines about Christianity as the Basis of Culture, and I hope to leave you with some sense of how important it is to build a Christian culture in our lives and in our ministry.
“And God said [to the man and woman whom he had created]: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the whole earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’” Gen. 1:28, 29.
God’s first commandment gives the newly created Adam and Eve an exalted place within creation: mankind, through the gracious fiat of God, receives dominion over the earth, not as its master, but as its steward. Although the language here speaks of “subduing” the whole earth, and of “dominion,” these terms suggest, not a twisted distortion of God’s creation, but rather a participation in His work. Ordering creation through his intellect, his will, and his hands, mankind offers praise to the creator, participating in God’s own work. This notion of tilling the soil, of ordering creation so that we might return our praise in works to a gracious God, appears in most of the earliest forms of worship, which generally begin with reference to annual agricultural feasts. That very word, “agriculture,” springs from a Latin word used both for the tilling of the soil, and the worship of a deity: cultus. From that word we get not only “agriculture” in English, but also “culture” itself, and “cultivation.” It suggests the strong link between the sweat of one’s brow, and man’s natural vocation given by God. It suggests also the intrinsic link between faith, and the objects of our manufacture, the way we order our society and the natural world around us – in short, the unity of faith and culture. As graduates in theology, as those working in contexts where your work helps others to till the soil of their lives and order their praise, the importance of culture cannot be far from your thoughts.
Yet what popular society calls “culture” often sounds very different from the conscious, intentional shaping of the created order given in God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve. “Culture,” in popular usage, usually means the sum of someone’s background, or the societal environment in which someone grew up, the sum of all the unconscious determinative factors behind someone’s maturation. Thought of in this sense, “culture” becomes an anonymous force that shapes our lives without, in turn, being shaped by us; it excuses our faults and failings, since culture (in this sense) conditions us. Those guilty of some misconduct often excuse their action, either with reference to animal instinct or with reference to culture: “That’s just how I grew up,” they might say, “my culture has made me this way.” In a world of rational human persons, who can exercise their choice, even though this choice might be limited by the society they live in, blaming one’s culture becomes an easy way of rendering responsible choices as merely instinctive reactions consequent on cultural conditioning. In this vision of affairs, we become victims of our culture: we do not act responsibly because “our culture” has predisposed us to a certain way of acting. Culture, understood as prevalent popular culture, then becomes inescapable, and the pressure to act according to its dictates, or suffer persecution from the majority who follow its lead blindly, makes it an oppressive force, not an instrument of life or joy.
Our faith reminds us, however, that although we lost much in the fall of Adam, and although we, like him, must now earn our bread by the sweat of our brow, we do not become slaves of our cultural background. We still act from a free will, despite our weakness after the fall. After the redemption achieved in our Lord’s sacrifice, we find ourselves renewed, enabled once again to fulfil that command to shape creation, to till the soil in the Lord’s vineyard. Pope John Paul II frequently reminded us that “the truth about man . . . is revealed to us in its fullness and depth in Christ” (Dives in Misericordia, 1.2). In the life of Christ, we see how human life takes on its meaning and its greatest glory when it is poured out, given selflessly: here we see the task given to Adam with a greater fullness and depth even than when God spoke that first command. In Christ, we see that we have a will, aided by grace, which can still decide, and shape, not only events, but also our environment as an expression of our faith. Artistic expressions from a culture influenced by Christianity reveal this sense that, while culture does shape us – we can hardly ignore our past, the teaching of our elders – it does not determine us; culture remains a work in progress, in which we participate.
We see examples of this “cultural activism,” this sense of cultural development, in any culture influenced by Christian belief. When we look on a Gothic cathedral, we see a monument in stone, not only to the artisans who shaped it, but also to the work of those who financed it and supported it, oftentimes amounting to generations of medieval citizens and families, from the lowliest peasant farmer to the wealthiest burgher. The massive interior required a complex human administration, and the echoing acoustic testifies still today to the work of composers and choristers, who carry on the cultural work of the cathedral into the modern day. The very work, in the course of its completion, shaped the intelligence and intention of so many around it, as they witnessed, practically or spiritually, to the construction of such a monument. Great literary works like Dante’s Divine Comedy lay claim to the great treasures of classical Rome and Greece, by baptizing pagan thought and bringing it to the service of Christ, just as the patron of this seminary, St. Augustine, taught in his work, Concerning Christian Doctrine, and St. Basil of Caesarea taught in his Letter On the Value of Greek Literature. If we wish to know Christ the Truth as expressed in Revelation, we must learn to recognize the truth wherever we find it, even in works of pagan philosophy and literature, and use it in our struggle to understand Revelation – and in the work of ordering Creation to the praise of the Creator. These testimonies to Christian shaping of culture illustrate two things: first, they show that Christianity believes in our redeemed and graced ability to influence and shape culture; secondly, following on this, they illuminate the Christian responsibility to participate in and even change culture.
Precisely this notion of culture, as a tradition that shapes us while we continue to shape it responsibly, motivated Pope John Paul to call for a critique of modern secular culture, particularly in his encyclical Evangelium vitae. In a now often-repeated phrase, he warns there that we live in, and we are in danger of cooperating with, a “culture of death”: popular society’s fascination with a godless universe, and its fascination with technology drive it to re-imagine humanity outside any bounds, without any end goal, directionless without God. Current developments in artificial contraception, abortion, and the law of marriage in this land – which, your Eminence, you have so eloquently and recently critiqued in your pastoral letters – testify to an attempt to work against human nature, to wrest its control from God, and to become the shapers of a world dedicated to human selfishness, not to Godlike selflessness. It is as though we stopped listening to God’s first commandment, only to pay attention once more to the serpent in the Garden of Eden telling us, “when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], you will be like God.” If we allow such developments to shape us, then we fail in our own responsibility, and we allow a culture, a way of life to grow up that will influence generations after us. Our task, as John Paul, consistent with the Catholic tradition before him, proclaims it, demands nothing less than the re-vivification, the renewal of a robust Catholic and Christian culture, unafraid to critique the culture of death. Christians cannot afford simply to nay-say the perceived absolutes of a secular culture: we must, through our action, through our support of Christian art, literature, and thought, make a positive proposal that will re-shape our culture, giving it a tongue to praise its only true God.
As you graduates go from here, I invite you to see the question of culture not as something on the periphery of your continued engagement with theology and the world, in your pastoral work, but to see it as something central to your work. In a world surrounded by images and sound-bites, where music videos and television programmes sway public opinion more surely than lengthy discourses or public debate, we need to attend to the Christian creation of new arguments, not only in the academy, but above all in the art and music studio, on the television screen and on the stage, on the architectural drawing board. In choosing his papal name, Pope Benedict not only pointed to Benedict XV, the pope who tried to bring peace to Europe, but to that first Benedict, the founder of monastic life who also laid the foundations for Christian society in the Middle Ages, suggesting that he sees one of his main tasks as the restoration of a Christian culture in Europe. As you go forth today, I plead with you to go forth with eyes opened to see ways in which you can encourage and promote a Christian, a Catholic culture of life.