With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On the Beauty of Human Relationships, Cultures, and States

Humans are, by their nature, social creatures. We are created to be in relation with other people; from our birth, we are dependent upon our family in order to actualize our potential; as we grow and develop relationships with other people, we truly find out who we are in ourselves. A person is a relational entity who can only fully express themselves, can only be themselves, when they are in communion with an other; they get to know themselves in that act of communion, when they find themselves in a participated unity with an other. They find themselves to be neither entirely different from that other, because they do not exist in total isolation from that other, and yet not identical to the other; the two are differentiated from each other not only according to how they relate to each other, but also in how they relate to the world at large (an experience they then share with one another).

We find Holy Scripture indicating this truth in many ways; for example, in its rich creation myths. “It is not good that man should be alone,” (Genesis 2:18). After making Adam, God saw that he needed a companion, someone Adam could relate to on the same ontological level. “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man,” (Genesis 2:21-22). Eve, the first woman, comes out of Adam; she is one with Adam, and yet different, a help-mate sharing in Adam’s stewardship over the earth.

Why does our true personal nature reveal itself only in a proper communal relationship with others? Scripture again indicates the answer. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” (Genesis 1:26). Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, but what exactly do we see God to be like? God is Trinity, a oneness in expressed in three persons, three relational entities which are united in perfect communion and yet express themselves in three distinct manners. Because we are in the image and likeness of God, there is a fittingness for the incarnation, because humanity unites with its prototype. But there is more to this. “The ‘image and likeness’ of God in man implies, not only an openness of man toward God, but also a function and task of man in the whole of creation,” John Meyendorff. Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983), 140. We are called to be like God, to be in relational unity with the rest of humanity, to create the social bonds necessary for this unity to exist. Communion, and not isolation, is necessary in order to express the fullness of our human potential, even as in the Trinity it is through the communion and unity of the divine persons their reality is realized.

Family ties express the foundation of this human community. We come from two parents, sharing qualities from each, making them our own. We show ourselves as being distinct offshoots from our parents, and yet, look behind the obvious differences, we can find that we are not entirely different, entirely separated from them. Genetically speaking, save for mutation, we share one half of our own material makeup with our mother, and the other half with our father. Try as we might, we will never be completely different from them, even though our relative distinction is clear.

We find the Holy Family to have central importance in the life and work of messiah, starting with the call Joseph and Mary received to raise him, and ending with Jesus’ giving over of Mary, his mother, to John and through John, to all of us. “In revealing the Father’s love and humanity’s sublime calling, he made use of the most ordinary things of social life and illustrated his words with expressions and imagery from everyday life. He sanctified those human ties, above all family ties, which are the basis of social structures,” Gaudium et Spes in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1996), paragraph 32.

It is in this light we can understand how and why ancient Christians took the family to be in the likeness of the Trinity. They understood that the Father, in loving unity with the work of the Holy Spirit, brought Christ to the world, just as a father and mother come together in love and through their love, beget children. Love is not static; it is creative, within and without the Trinity. From this, we can understand why the family is the foundation of all society: human society is the realization of the family by the fact that it is in reality one large, extended family. The same qualities that are inherent in the family should be inherent with society: it should make itself into a loving unity working for the common good, each person having a unique role, each person having qualities which makes the family possible. If society can only be understood in relation to the family, then this means that a breakdown in the family will result in a breakdown with society. One of the grave defects of socialism lay in its breakdown of the family; there was nothing left it could create to justify why some lone individual, theoretically at war with everyone else, would want to give up this war and work for some common good. Raised in such a condition, raised without a proper appreciation of their immediate family, one will not form a proper appreciation of the human family. If the communion between a child with its family is no longer possible, a child raised in such a condition will have a difficult if not impossible time appreciating communion with others. But this truth goes both ways, one who does not realize the common good and the extended human family that one has in society will slowly lose sight of the meaning of family, even at its most basic unit. Why express any concern with one’s most immediate relations if we see the relations between two people to be primarily a relation of discordant opposition and not unity?

However, society is not one megalithic entity, even if humanity is, in its core, experienced through the interdependent but free encounter of relational persons. The communal unity of humanity must be understood as the basis for society, but freedom of expression must be seen as the basis for the variety of rich, distinct cultures. “The essence of society is not the external interaction of isolated individuals, not the collision of social atoms, but a primordially collective multi-unity. Outwardly, in the empirical layer of society, this multi-unity collectivity has two correlative expressions: the free interaction of the elements of multiplicity and the organizational unity of the whole,” S.L. Frank. The Spiritual Foundation of Society. Trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1987), 169. Only through this freedom can human potential be actualized. It is in the free movements of the human spirit that beauty can be realized here on earth, while beauty is itself what makes life full and rich, a life worth living. We are called to generate beauty in all we do; we are all called to be artists, making the world a more beautiful place because of our very existence. In the matrix of world cultures, we find common methods of generating such beauty, a common language which allows the deep recesses of our heart to be expressed in such a way as to be understood and appreciated by all. “In its essence, culture is the search for the one thing necessary which leads us beyond the immanent boundaries in which we find ourselves,” Paul Evdokimov. “Culture and Faith,” in In The World, Of the Church. Ed. and Trans. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 214.

Freedom, however, must not be confused with irrational anarchy. While we have the potential to act in many different ways, some actions enliven the spirit, others enslave it; a society understanding this tries to create those laws in which it believes the human spirit can be most free. “A freedom without law is anarchy and therefore the destruction of freedom,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Values In A Time Of Upheaval. Trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 33.

In an ideal world, laws would not be needed; but it is only in an ideal world that we would know what actions would cause us harm, limiting our freedom, and what actions would keep it intact. Because, in actuality, we do not know the consequences of our actions, it is quite clear we live in fallen ignorance; but if this is the case, then what guarantees do we have that the laws, once enacted, will fulfill their duty, and produce that freedom which we seek? Sadly, we do not have any; we must use our reason to the best of our ability to predetermine those consequences, but reason is an imperfect tool, and the laws we create will thus show evidence of our imperfection, and even our fallen nature. The rule of law, which is good, could be turned into a tyrannical rule, where a law does not serves its purpose and must be removed. We must keep the rule of law for the sake of humanity, but we must know humanity is not made for the sake of law! “The social order requires constant improvement: it must be founded in truth, built in justice, and enlivened by love: it should grow in freedom towards a more humane equilibrium,” Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 26.

A culture which creates and generates its own rule of law with its own rule of government to protect that rule of law can be seen as the foundation of the state. As such a culture is a good, the state must be seen as a good. But they must only be seen as relative goods, because the final good will always be God. Hence any culture and the state or states it produces must be seen only to exist for a purpose, making the state relative in its value. But in that act, it is to become the outward expression of the social bonds inherent in human nature, allowing for human freedom to express itself in a just and beautiful society. The relative goodness of a state can only be declared in according to how well the state generates and perpetuates this profound human expression. Its failures to do so are failures in its goodness; in extreme circumstances, where it squashes the human spirit, the state no longer performs its function and must be understood as a relative evil, and must be resisted.

Thus we can begin to understand the relationship between a Christian with the state. A Christian exists in the world, and must act in the world, and must not seek to destroy the world, but to transform it to its proper end in Christ. Thus the Christian must not seek to destroy an evil state, but to transform it, to purify it. “The Christian service to the state consists in preserving its greatness while considering it inferior to God,” Hugo Rahner, Church and State In Early Christianity Trans. Leo Donald Davis, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 20.We realize our final end is in God, and that all states are relative, temporal goods; they are not our final end; we must not turn it into an idol. But this does not mean we cannot and should not love the state we live in; the state, in what good it does, in what freedom it provides, in what cultural matrix it allows human freedom to express itself, is a good and all good deserves to be respected and loved. But that love must be proper to the kind of good it is. We must not love the state so much that its purpose is lost, and love the state more than its purpose.

Our love for our state can cause us to consider our state as being better than some other state, for those qualities in it which we appreciate. This is not necessarily wrong; indeed, if it is done in a good natured way, rivalry between states can be a good. However, this rivalry must exist only with one express aim: for the improvement of all. Nicholas of Cusa, for example, tells us that this is true not only on a secular level. How we worship God and experience God cannot be limited in one way; such attempts will stifle the creative interaction with God, and the ever-increasing cooperation with grace which we seek in the Christian life. Therefore rivalry between states can help develop better relations with God. ”Perhaps as a result of a certain diversity devotion will even be increased, since each nation will endeavor with zeal and diligence to make its own rite more splendid, in order that in this respect it may excel some other nation and thereby obtain greater merit with God and greater praise in the world,” Nicholas of Cusa. De Pace Fidei, XIX. Trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1994), 70.

Yet, to appreciate this role, to appreciate the greatness of the state, to realize why a Christian cannot abandon it, we must realize that because the state’s foundation is from the humanity which generated it. Because humans are open in their very nature to the free graces of God, the state is also opened to them, allowing it to be a participant in God’s will and therefore directed, in part, by God. “The state (like all other social unions and relations) is the human incarnation (and therefore always only a partial and inevitably distorted incarnation) of the divine principle of truth which is grounded in Truth itself as it is revealed in the essentially moral spiritual life of mankind, the life of grace,” S.L. Frank, The Spiritual Foundations of Society, 102. When Sts. Peter and Paul declare state authority to be instituted by God, it can only be understood in this context. “Neither Paul nor Peter expresses an uncritical glorification of the Roman state. While they do insist strongly on the divine origin of the legal ordering of the state, they are far from divinizing the state itself. It is precisely because they see the limits on the state, which is not God and may not behave as if it were God, that they acknowledge its ordering function and its ethical character,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger . Values In A Time Of Upheaval, 19.

A Christian is therefore called to take part in the development of the state, realizing that there are as many different ways as there are people for how this should be done. Politics, which deal with the government of the state, is important, but we must understand, like the state, it too has a limit, and unless we are called to political service, we must not let our lives be ruled by the temporal conditions of the politics of our state. We must work for their improvement, but we must understand that politics is itself only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. “Politics is the realm of reason – not of a merely technological, calculating reason, but of moral reason, since the goal of the state, and hence the ultimate goal of all politics, has a moral nature, namely, peace and justice,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ibid., 24. Moreover, we cannot be under the illusion that through politics we can transform the world into a utopia; while we seek for the betterment of the world, its pristine reconditioning is only to be had in the eschaton. But we must recognize a key danger that many fall into when dealing with politics: people often become party loyalists over and above the principles in which government should be run. We might believe in one ideal and put it forward above all others, but in doing so it is no longer holistically working for the betterment of humanity. What Sergius Bulgakov points out about how socialism works is true about any principle when it is taken to an extreme: it becomes so important that no other issues seem to matter. “The warmth of human relations is edged out by socially utilitarian rationalism, immediacy of feeling replace by the infamous adherence to ‘principle,’ so that the success of socialism and the growth of social solidarity are by no means accompanied by an increase in love or even sympathy and a decrease in enmity among people.,” Sergei Bulgakov. Philosophy of Economy Trans. Catherine Evtuhov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 240. The problem becomes more apparent when the Christian puts a secular principle over and above the dictates of their religious faith. Christians can and should engage in politics, but they should not become its slave:

The Christian as such may be utterly deprivatized, commissioned to act publicly as an assessor on the world state (1 Co 4:9; Heb 10:30) – and in this sense he may be political: all the same, his existence cannot be classified in secular terms, and he himself cannot grasp in its totality, and so the Christian cannot be simply put into the “political” pigeonhole. Politics concerns him: as a ‘member’ under Christ, the Head, he is in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers and must realize that he has an inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live.
-- Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Theo-Drama. Volume I: Prolegomena. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco:Ignatius Press, 1988), 39.
Moreover, as an actor in the world scene, the Christian must realize the temporal nature of the state, even of the culture they live in; there can come a time when a given state or culture has outlasted its purpose and must be respectfully put aside for something better, something greater. “Sooner or later, thought, art, and social life reach their own limits and then a choice is imposed: to be located in the infinity of their own immanence, to be intoxicated by their own emptiness, or to surpass their strangulating limitations and, in the transparency of clear waters to reflect the transcendent,” Paul Evdokimov. “Culture and Faith,” 201.The Christian must not be attached to the state; they must not find themselves attaching to the things of the world; they are to enjoy and appreciate them, yes, but in the end, they must go through an ascetical renunciation of all attachments in order to experience everything in their proper place, to see how all things point to God and participate in existence through God. Their beauty, which we must acknowledge, is but a reflection of the greater beauty that exists in God, a beauty that draws us to experience the intense love shared by the three persons of the Holy Trinity. In this way it can be said, “Intense love, purified by authentic asceticism, is our true destiny,” Paul Evdokimov, ibid., 205.

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  • At 2/12/2007 11:30 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    It's an interesting and courageous thing to write about the beauty of the state in today's day and age; especially if there is an emphasis on the Christian duty to the state.

    But just so we don't silence the important voice of those who resist the state power flow,
    I would add only one caveat, of which I am sure you are aware.

    The Modern state, born from a fundamentally different and opposing anthropology than the anthropology found in a (Patristic) Christian theology of participation, is a beast - a Leviathon - that requires some distinctions to draw forth.

    The primary distinction is that between the state, on the one hand, which I think is best defined as "that peculiar institution that has arisen in the last four centuries in which a centralized and abstract power holds a monopoly over physical coercion within a geographically defined territory" (Cavanaugh, Theopolotical Imagination, 10). The idea here is that the state now claims to be the sole political authority, which reduces, silences and domesticates the Church's political voice. It requires that religion be privatized, with no political influence. But, as is becoming clearer and clearer, the state creates a new, false, religion.

    I think in large part, much of what you refer to as the state in your piece, is actually reference to what many social theorists and political theologians call "public space", or commonly known as civil society.

    The state - at least for most of those who want to defend its legitimacy - is merely one aspect of civil society, endowed with the duty of policing citizens, mediating between them, and mediating between various social groups. Such a state already assumes the Hobbesian anthropological principle of "bellum omnis contra omnem". This principle is opposed to the Christian principle that human nature is fundamentally a unity, which was sundered by original sin.

    So while I agree whole heartedly with the fact that there is a beauty to the society - the 'free space' - that all people are trying to build, I would be cautious about any allegiance to the state. The state is an abstract power structure that in today's day and age, promotes its own peculiar kind of soteriology. It claims a legitimate right to our bodies, to our loyalty, to our money, to everything we are. It sends us to war, no longer only to defend what is good, true, and beautuful, but to kill in the name of a so-called 'way of life', which is little more than the extension of a free market economics run amok. But, as you mention, only God, acting through the Body of Christ, has a legitimate claim to our bodies, our loyalties etc.

    So I think it's important to draw out the distinction between the state, civil society, and 'public space'. One of the great confusions that plague Christians today involves the confusion between the Church and the state. Many faithful Christians believe that the state, the US, unquestioningly acts on behalf of the same values that the Church holds dear. This is, quite obvously, untrue.

    If Christians were to become fully committed members of the Body of Christ, they would be citizens par excellence; there is nothing that the state can offer by way of principles, that the Church doesn't already offer.

    I think your primary point - which is that Christians have a duty to be Christians in a public way is dead on. But the state, as it stands now in our Modern age, is very, very far from the manifest form of a 'public Christianity'.

    (Some of what we spoke of last time we met up...and we can of course speak more of this next time as well...)

    I'm sure Pat, who has studied with Alisdair MacIntyre, can offer some insights here as well.

  • At 2/12/2007 2:09 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I think we are in general agreement here, but I am trying to bring out some aspects on the state which --as you said -- is interesting, but yet I think it also needs to be said in order to balance our understanding of what the state is, and why we find it mentioned in Catholic writings with an affirmation that the idea of the state has a legitimate role to play in the affairs of the world.

    Probably I would say it is because there is a beauty behind the state (and I agree, the state should be limited in its role, and should be seen as the structure holding up the public space, and of only secondary importance)that it can easily seduce men and women to follow it with their complete mind, body and soul -- that it can turn what is a relative good with its beauty to something dark and sinister, to an idol demanding constant sacrifice.

    Thus, the role of the state has always been given a constant "yes but..." by the Christian. Christians were loyal to Rome --- but for all its cruelty, but for all the demands for Christians to sacrifice to idols of the emperor. St. Thomas More said yes to Henry VIII --- but with a but that said the Church was his superior, and that as the king's good servant, he could only serve the king in relation to that higher authority and he would always remain God's first.

    Thus, there is room for the state, and I do not think we can go into a complete no to the state (as for example, we find in some Anabaptist groups), but we cannot follow the other extreme and make it the center of our lives and existence. That is the danger in the world today: we have done so, it has replaced god for most of humanity, and the affairs of state are followed with religious worship, and the debates between politicians are now the equivalent of theological debates of the first millenium.

    You analysis of the Church/State relations is very true! More often than not, I am frustrated when I read people quoting the Catechism about the state's authority to declare war -- assuming that the authority to declare war means the state is just in such declaration and no one, not even the Church, has the right to say no.

  • At 2/16/2007 10:53 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 2/16/2007 10:55 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Good stuff, gentlemen. I believe we are in agreement on this. I think even with the seemingly positive endorsements of the state found in the theological tradition and, for instance, Papal Encyclicals, etc. there is a substantial amount of equivocation being employed. For instance, MacIntyre has argued that the "rights" language employed in some Papl Documents is entirely different from that which is employed commonly in the U.S. Their presuppositions are radically different. So one wonders to what extent the Church is positively addressing a nation like the U.S. The state endorsed by the Church often collides in meaning with the Modern Nation State that is instantiated. This, sadly, many (especially American Catholics and the talking heads) pay little attention to, sweeping the discrepancy under the carpet. Americanism is seemingly rampant.

    I think MacIntyre would be in general agreement with Cavanaugh's analysis (one I've become increasingly convinced of).

    Nowadays, the structures of social engagement that the state endorses and supports do little more than give political voice to emotivism. I think MacIntyre would argue that the Leviathan was born along with the sundering of our moral language and the the cultural death of practical rationality. There are also, as Cavanaugh points out, some rather unorthodox views of human nature in the background.

    Particularly relevant are MacIntyre's analyses of natural law and the common good. I believe he has argued that because the Modern State is not a form of communion built up around natural law, its authority is evacuated insofar as it strays from that law. That is St. Thomas speaking: positive law only has legitimacy insofar as it builds on natural law, and is thereby in line with Divine Law.

    The modern state also fails as an institutional caretaker of the common good. In his more recent work, MacIntyre has turned to other forms of local community, something like "civil society." I think this is based on his analyses of tradition, practice, and virtue originally set down in After Virtue. Here are a few tidbits from his Dependent Rational Animals (Open Court Press, 1999)p.129-133:

    "Modern nation-states are governed through a series of compromises between a range of more or less conflicting economic and social interests. What weight is given to different interests varies with the political and economic bargaining power of each. What determines bargaining power is in key part money, money used to provide the resources used to sustain political power: electoral resources, media resources, relationships to corporations. The outcome is that the distribution of goods by the government in no way reflects a common mind arrived at through widespread shared deliberation governed by norms of rational enquiry."

    "The modern state cannot provide a political framework informed by the just generosity necessary to achieve the common goods of networks of giving and receiving. . . . It must instead be some form of local community within which the activities of families, workplaces, schools, clinics, clubs dedicated to debate and clubs dedicated to games and sports, and religious congregations all may find a place. . . ."

    "The importance of the good of public security, without which none of our local communities could achieve our common goods, must not be allowed to obscure the fact that our shared public goods of the modern nation-state, are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both. In a modern, large scale nation-state no such collectivity is possible and the pretense that it is, is always an ideological disguise for sinister realities."

    I agree that only God has a claim on our bodies and our loyalties, and He exercises this claim perhaps first and fundamentally through the natural law. If the State is a form of community that functions according to an entire philosophy of law at odds with the natural, it to that degree fails God.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 2/17/2007 4:04 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Agreed -- what the Church expects of the state is transcended by the United States and her activity; however, there is still a core "state" behind the abuse, which is why there is a difficulty --- it is like St Paul and Nero -- he recognized people had to respect the empire and the emperor, but this did not mean he had to obey all Nero commanded!


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