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Toward an Incarnational Culture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 30, 2008

In a recent article on Catholic health care and Catholic culture, I referred to Catholic culture as the “incarnation of Catholic ideas in the concrete circumstances of the social order.” I used the word “incarnation” advisedly, for Catholicism possesses a supremely incarnational vision of reality. Another way of saying this is to recognize in Catholicism an intensely sacramental view of reality. This has profound significance for the formation of culture. It is worth exploring in greater depth.

The Word Became Flesh

It is perhaps not surprising that the same God who created us seeks to communicate with us primarily by using natural things as conduits of grace. God knows—none better—that the human person is a composite being, a unity of spiritual soul with material body, and that the body serves as our ordinary means of perception. Thus it is typically through the soul’s interpretation of bodily experience that we seek to apprehend the universe in its entirety, both material and spiritual. Moreover, to be out of the body—as, for example, after our bodily death and before the Resurrection of the body—is to be incompletely human, yearning for the glorified body that will make us at last whole through a perfect union of body and soul with God himself.

The most striking example of God’s determination to communicate with us through engraced matter is, of course, the Incarnation of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Christ Our Lord. In Christ we see the perfect fusion of the material and spiritual: the body, blood, soul and divinity of Him who alone has seen and can reveal the Father. Thus does graced matter become the pattern for the entirety of human life, and the model for the entirety of human culture. A proper understanding of Catholic culture, which leads directly to the creation of that culture, is a simple extension of the principle so perfectly represented by the Incarnation.

This Incarnational principle was intended to be extended in history through the sacraments. In the Eucharist, Christ nourishes us for eternal life by feeding us His body and blood so that we are assimilated into Himself. So also with all of the sacraments, which extend the Incarnation by appropriating natural things to become both signs and conduits of Divine life. The water of baptism; the speaking of our sins to a man who is more than a man; the oils of confirmation, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick; above all the committed bodies of the faithful as seen most clearly in a bride and groom: All these natural things are transformed into instruments of grace as the Church repeatedly touches us in very particular ways with the Incarnation itself.

Protestants lost much of this notion of sacramentality when they rejected the institutional Church and most of the sacraments in the sixteenth century; this had immediate and profound effects on the secularization of the West. Since that time, most Catholics have also lost the habit of sacramental perception, at least beyond the defined mysteries of their Faith. We live in a world dominated by the secular, the material and the mechanistic; our vision is truncated; we typically fail to explore the deeper meaning which exists in all of Creation. The loss of a sacramental sense—an Incarnational sense—vastly diminishes the primary impetus of Catholic culture, that is, the drive to shape all aspects of culture into human extensions of the life of the Risen Lord. We now live in a cultural desolation, a culture of death, and so I suspect that most serious Christians yearn to recover that impetus, that sacramental vision.

Church, State and Culture

And what of the Church herself? Is she not also an extension of the Incarnation? Both through her specific formal sacraments and her very being as the body of Christ in history, the Church too is a sacramental reality. She is a monumental impenetration of matter by grace, Divine within the very lines and features of a human institutional form, called to body forth the Incarnate God to the world. When religion is reduced to mere congregationalism or, worse, a social organization controlled by the State, we lose that keen sense of Christian institutional presence which ought to characterize all Christian thought. The Church—an independent and subsistent reality extending the presence of Christ through time—is herself the most complete visible representation of that fundamental Incarnational reality which must be the reference point for every aspect of a Christian culture.

This Incarnational reality of the Church does not mean that there can be no separation of Church and State, for the State has its proper sphere in temporal affairs, while the Church seeks only the freedom to sacramentalize the temporal through her own spiritual work, so that temporal things offer nourishment to the soul and tend to lead all men and women to God. The Church and the State are separate institutions with separate ends. But if there can be (and ought to be) a legitimate separation of Church and state, there cannot be (or ought not to be) a separation of religion and culture. When culture fails to be infused by grace, when it fails to be a fresh extension of the Incarnational principle, then it loses its ability to engender life. It is no accident that the root meaning of “culture” comes from “cultivating”, from the tilling of the soil so that good things may grow.

For the Catholic, human culture cannot be defined apart from its profound need to be impenetrated by grace. And this impenetration by grace is, as I noted from the first, accomplished only by the incarnation of Catholic ideas in the concrete circumstances of the social order. A culture becomes truly Christian only insofar as a Christian people embody their Faith in countless habits, customs and institutions, touching every area of life for the common good. Nothing—no procedure or rule, no art or craft, no school or business, no custom or law—should be left untouched by the Incarnation, abandoned by grace, left impotent as a material vehicle for man’s true good, which is always both a material and a spiritual good.

Ultimately, then, while the Church does not arise essentially out of culture, the State does. Each culture must inevitably give rise to its own kind of State (as we have seen all too clearly throughout the last hundred years), and a culture impenetrated by Catholic principles is no exception. When Christianity informs a culture and that culture develops a political form, the resulting State will be representative of the culture, and even politics will be transformed. But when the State seeks to secularize culture in order to make itself the source of all life and good, then culture erodes and the human person, whose engraced activity can alone engender culture, is marginalized. Only the Church and, connected to her, all men and women of faith, can supply the sacramental vision so essential to the shaping of a culture which is both material and spiritual, natural and supernatural; for the naturally human is also natural to Catholicism, but it is only one half of what it means to be a Catholic.

A Sacramental Culture

It is a profound Catholic truth (another truth blurred or rejected by original Protestantism and now forgotten by nearly everybody) that grace perfects nature; it does not supplant it. Nature is not depraved that it requires supplanting, nor is grace characteristically divorced from nature in God’s eternal plan. It is precisely the naturally human in any culture that is to be infused with grace, and it is precisely the role of the human person, who is a unity of body and soul, to devise the myriad cultural patterns through which this infusion can be both facilitated and reaffirmed. In this connection I should make a specifically political point that is much misunderstood today. For if grace must replace nature, then the fears of the culture of death would be partially justified, for the only proper government would be theocracy. It would be necessary to institute a Godly order from above, imposing it upon the beaten bodies of its unworthy citizens. But because grace perfects nature, good government is engendered by good culture. Theocracy is a temptation, always rejected by the Church, which arises in the hearts of those who do not understand the importance of the Incarnation. It is utterly alien to a sacramental vision.

Hence, faced with rampant secularization, authentic Christians yearn not for theocracy but for the impenetration of the culture by an Incarnational—an embodied—Faith. All Christians (Catholics not least among them) must develop a far keener appreciation of this need, and it is no abstract proposition. We must begin to think and plan sacramentally, to develop the habit of figuring out how to create or shape customs and institutions to reflect this improvement of natural things by grace. The purpose is not at all to supplant a temporal end with a spiritual end; no, the point is that even our temporal methods and goals must be enriched by an unfailing spiritual sense, and so serve the good of the whole person.

To take but one obvious example, it would be both false and useless to abandon the temporal end of feeding the hungry so that we might preach to them the glories of heaven instead. But to feed them in a personal way, interacting with the hungry in the full dimensions of their personhood, feeding them not only with material food but with meaning and hope: This is how true charity is distinguished from mere “social programs”. Authentic culture begins with the recognition that men and women are persons, not things and certainly not mere numbers; as persons they have both material and spiritual needs and are destined for great ends. Engraced institutions of culture, if directed principally at material needs (whether feeding the hungry, licensing drivers or investing funds), must take into account both the whole person, including his essential spiritual identity, and the common good of all.

The Cultural Process

Never, above all, should a natural goal obscure a supernatural reality. A scientist is a better scientist if he recognizes the continual impenetration of nature by grace, part and parcel of God’s creative act, than if he sets up false dichotomies between nature and grace, seeking to supplant the latter with the former in the public mind. A teacher is a better teacher if she notices the despondency of a student and tries to serve that student spiritually as well as marking down test scores. A medical practice ought to resist the mistaken thirst for “treatments” which facilitate an irresponsible life, and ought to console the minds, hearts and spirits—as well as the bodies—of their suffering patients. An auto mechanic is surely a better mechanic if he keeps the safety of the car’s owner in mind. A government employee is a better representative of the government if he sees himself as working to help those who visit his office, rather than desiring only to enforce regulations or enhance his sinecure.

From running a lunch counter to passing laws, the same cultural goals ought to find creative implementation. How can I do this job better by recognizing more deeply the nature and ends of those I serve? If I am establishing a new enterprise of any kind, what will be its personal hallmarks, its spiritual priorities? How will the organizations and institutions I help to shape be different? How will they (presumably) serve a material need while remaining always open to the discovery of grace, the experience of love? If I am an employer, what company policies will address the full human and spiritual well-being of my employees? How will my company afford opportunities for both employees and clients to develop a richer, deeper and more purpose-driven life? If I am an artist, will I ignore or seek to portray the redemptive quality of human life? If I play a role in advertising, what message do I seek to convey? All of these questions are really one question: How can the Incarnation be extended into today’s habits, rules, and institutions? How should a truly sacramental vision of life shape how I live and all that I influence or create in the larger social order?

It is neither necessary nor advisable to sweep away everything below in order to impose a Catholic culture from the top, though politics and law ought certainly to help to shape a sound culture even as they are shaped by it. Nor is it necessary to sweep away everything above in order to start fresh from the ground up, though when major institutions collapse and lose their grip, opportunities for rapid improvement may arise. Instead, Catholic culture can and must be forged simultaneously at every level as each person and group exercises opportunities to extend it in particular spheres. All of us are accountable for this process. Catholic culture begins with an interior conversion, a conversion profound enough to make us realize (at long last!) that it is not acceptable to leave any part of life untouched by grace. This realization impacts how we raise our families, how we treat others, how we do our jobs, how we engage in the arts, how we take our entertainment, how we form or influence various organizations, how we serve, how we buy, how we sell, how we vote, how we rule.

I admit that it is exciting to see examples of authentic Catholic culture springing up, more or less whole and entire, in specific institutions or communities that are self-contained enough to be easily identified. As I said in my earlier column (Health Care, Catholic Care, and Catholic Culture), some schools, medical facilities and other initiatives have given us this striking vision. It is both inspiring and consoling when we can see this whole. But the inability to create something self-evidently new and complete does not absolve us from the obligation to shape culture, in our own spheres of influence, as an extension of our deeply converted selves. Once again, Catholic culture is the “incarnation of Catholic ideas in the concrete circumstances of the social order.” This is a profoundly sacramental process, a process by which natural things are perfected and elevated through participation in the life of the Incarnate Christ, Who is the origin, pattern and goal of all existence. To envision culture sacramentally is to see Christ as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of every life, of every action, of every institution—truly, to reclaim an old expression, of every blessed thing.

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