Men Should Be Saints and Culture Should Be Saintly

Creativity is a mark of the image of God in man, and culture is the mark of God’s creative image in human society.

Luca Giordano, “St. Luke Painting the Blessed Virgin Mary,” 1692
Luca Giordano, “St. Luke Painting the Blessed Virgin Mary,” 1692 (photo: Public Domain)

In my confused, impetuous and misspent youth I believed, with the arrogance of ignorance, that I knew the answers to all the most important questions in life. The world’s problems could be solved politically and economically. All that was needed were the right policies, and the right government to put the policies into practice. It was all so simple. All so easy. The biggest problem was convincing the older people how simple it all was. It was a pity, in fact, that old people were so stupid. Such were the thoughts of my thoughtless youth. 

And as for culture, who cared about culture anyway? At best it was fun, like listening to the latest rock band, or watching one’s favorite football team; at worst it was a needless distraction from the real issues, which were political and economic. And religion? What a waste of time that was. Religion was utterly irrelevant. It had no connection to the real world or the real issues. 

How wrong I was. How wrong and how lost. 

There was one older person in my youth whom I took seriously, largely, I’m sure, because his prejudices reflected mine. He was not, in fact, very old. He was in his thirties. But as a teenager “old” begins at 25! He was something of a mentor and I remember that he would often begin a discussion with an insistence that we “define our terms.” If we were discussing capitalism, or communism, or free trade, or the free market, or private property, he would always begin by asking me to define what I meant by these things. He would also ask probing questions such as whether private enterprise and free enterprise are the same thing. Although I was sometimes irritated by this somewhat stolid approach to debate, I realize now that he was teaching me how to think. He was taking me, slowly but surely, from mere derivatives, such as politics and economics, to an appreciation of the important things, such as philosophy and, eventually, theology. As such, I remain very much in his debt, intellectually speaking.

I would like to take my former mentor’s approach to our discussion of culture. What is culture? What isn’t culture? As a word it is too lightly used and too often abused. As a living thing it is too often taken for granted and all too often not fully appreciated for what it is. It is, therefore, time that we looked at culture with a clarity of vision that is often absent. In short, it is time to define our terms.

First, we can say that culture is human (and ultimately divine). It does not belong to, or come forth from, other animate creatures. There is no canine culture; no civilization of chimpanzees; no planet of the apes. Only people make music, write poetry, build cathedrals or paint pictures. Second, we can say that culture is creative. It is the art of making. For a Christian, the fact that something is peculiarly human marks it as a sign that man, in a way crucially different from other animals, is made in the image of God. Culture is, therefore, a mark of God’s image in us. 

But what sort of mark is it? 

It is a creative mark. It is the image of the Creator’s creativity in his creatures. Our imagination is the image of God’s Imagination in us. There is, therefore, something both human and divine in the creativity that creates culture. It is the gift of the Giver finding creative expression in the personhood of the gifted. On a mystical level one can see an image of both the Trinity and the Incarnation in this primal truth of culture. The Trinity is the eternal expression of Divine Vitality, the source of all Creativity, and the Incarnation is the eternal and temporal giving of this Divine Vitality, this Primal Gift, in the Created humanity of Christ, to mankind. On the deepest level, the Trinity and the Incarnation are the Archetypes of all culture. They are the source from which all culture springs, and they are the end which all properly ordered culture serves.

This is so essentially true that it has been recognized implicitly by the pagans of antiquity and even by the atheists of modernity, by those who believed in many gods and by those who believed in no God at all. Homer and Virgil began their epics by invoking their Muse, the goddess of creativity, to pour forth her gifts into them so that they might tell their tales with truth and beauty. Even Shelley, the avowed atheist, is forced to speak of the creative gift in mystical language. In A Defense of Poetry he writes:

Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

The remarkable thing about these words of Shelley, an atheist musing about his Muse, is the fact that, in the final sentence quoted above, he agrees with the memorable lines of T.S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men,” that “between the potency and the existence falls the shadow.” For Eliot, a Christian, the falling of the shadow is itself the Shadow of the Fall; but even for Shelley, who seems to have disbelieved in the Fall and who sympathized with Milton’s Satan, the shadow still exists. There is, therefore, an amazing, and ironically amusing, convergence between the pagans, the Christians and the atheists over the mystical nature of the creative gift. The gift itself is pure and spiritual, not merely for the pagan and the Christian but for the atheist also. Shelley calls the creative Muse or gift a “spirit of good” of which (or to whom) the poet is a mere minister.

At this point one can see the emergence of obvious objections spawning awkward questions. If creativity is a gift from God why does he permit atheists such as Shelley to abuse the gift? Worse, why does he permit awful manifestations of low culture, such as the gyrating inanities posing as music on MTV, or the obscenities and blasphemies of much modern art, or all the other manifestations of our pornocratic zeitgeist? Furthermore, can this effluent from the spiritual sewage of man’s blackened soul be called “culture”? And, if so, does culture per se have any meaningful value? In response, we should point out that God does not remove a gift the moment it is abused. Take the gift of life, for instance. If he removed the gift of life the moment we sinned none of us would have reached puberty! As with life, so with love. The gift of love is not removed merely because many of us abuse it selfishly or lasciviously. Indeed, if the gift of love were removed the moment it was abused our first loves would have been our last! As with life and love, so with freedom. God gave us our freedom and he doesn’t remove it the moment we abuse it. He even leaves us free to go to Hell, should we wish. And as with life, love and freedom, so with creativity. He gives us our talents, leaving us free to use them, abuse them or bury them as we will. He gives us our creative pearls and he lets us keep them or cast them before swine.

But what of the meaning of culture? Is bad art still culture? If so, what’s so special about culture? These are good questions and they are best answered with other questions. What is the meaning of man? Is a sinner still a man? If so, what’s so special about man? Man is special because he’s made in the image of God. A bad man is still made in the image of God, though the image is broken. Similarly creativity is special because it is a mark of the image of God in man, and culture is special because it is the mark of God’s creative image in human society or, at its highest, in Christian civilization. Bad culture still bears the mark of God’s image, though it is an image distorted and broken by abuse or sin. Good culture, like a good man, must truly reflect the goodness of its Creator. Men are called to be saints and culture is called to be saintly. We need to convert the culture in the same way that we need to convert the man. Culture, like man, must repent. It must be reoriented. It must be turned again toward its source, the Giver of light and life, and the fountainhead of all Beauty.

Bela Lugosi portrays the famous vampire in this screenshot from the trailer for ‘Dracula’ (1931)

The King of Horror Movies and Catholic Faith and Culture (Sept. 18)

Culture is key in forming hearts and minds. And Catholics well formed in both their profession and their faith certainly can impact culture for the good. We can all agree we need more of that today. One writer who is always keen on highlighting the intersection of faith and culture is the National Catholic Register’s UK correspondent, K.V. Turley, and he has just released his first novel. He joins us here on Register Radio. And then, we talk with Joan Desmond about the so-called “woke revolution” taking place even in some Catholics schools, in modern medicine, and again in culture.