Winter 2003: Sacramentality and Culture
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Doctrine has to do with culture. But not, or not just, because it is always fashioned from and for determinate “cultural contexts.” The cultural relevance of doctrine does not consist, at least not primarily, in what conventional sociology or history might identify as the “ulterior motives” of its framers. Doctrine is culturally significant already in its primary purpose as doctrine: to glorify God in his self-revelation and, indeed, to make that self-revelation, with its binding character, present. Doctrine is not at all abstract, as those who occupy themselves mainly with the “ulterior motives” of its framers might be tempted to think. On the contrary, it is a divinely-appointed way of bringing human beings into almost uncomfortable closeness, again and again, with the definitive, never-to-be-surpassed presence of the triune God in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This quasi-sacramental function of doctrine is culture-forming by its very nature, because the concretissimum it conveys lays hold of the concreteness of the whole human being, not only as an individual, but also as a social creature, in that dense web of embodied meaning known as “culture.” Without minds shaped in this culture-forming encounter with God’s incarnate truth, we remain unable even to frame intelligently any of the “practical” questions we face today, no matter how seemingly remote they may be from doctrinal concerns. Practical issues themselves are always first and all the way through issues of theological meaning, and that meaning is something almost too concrete for us to bear.
This conviction about the culture-shaping character of doctrine animates, in one way or another, all of the contributions in the Winter, 2003 issue of Communio. Its presence is apparent in the principal theme of the issue, Sacramentality and Culture. In the eponymous lead article, Giorgio Buccellati shows how “[t]hrough the sacraments, Jesus claims our culture through time”—because, in his Incarnation, and the sacraments that continue it, he is the ontological jointure of the eternal and the temporal, of God and the creature, which thus secures the coherence and concrete meaningfulness of the universe as a whole. Buccellatti’s conclusion: extra Ecclesiam nullum ens.
Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt’s “The Lamb of God in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” discusses Jan Van Eyck’s Lamb of God altarpiece in critical dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Highlighting the post-medieval shift in the West “from ritual art to autonomous art,” Bauerschmidt argues that the Eucharistic ritual—both the context and the content of Van Eyck’s work—creates a space in which to dwell, a space in which a “Eucharistic politics” of the everyday becomes possible.
Sergei S. Averintsev, writing in “Marriage and Family: An Untimely Essay,” focuses our attention on the all-embracing concreteness of the sacrament of marriage, in which the cultural and the natural, the spiritual and the material, the personal and the cosmic are joined without separation or confusion in one sacramental sign of the nuptials of Christ and his Church.
Finally, in “The Orations of the Vatican II Missal: Policies for Revision,” Lauren Pristas trains the spotlight of historical inquiry on one important aspect of the post-conciliar liturgical reform: the revision of the orations. Commenting on an informative essay by Antoine Dumas, O. S. B. (which she includes in translation within her own article), Pristas documents certain aspects of the revision process that raise questions about the nature of liturgical tradition. In doing so, Pristas suggests how the Eucharistic liturgy is not only a fashioner of culture, but is itself a repository of the culture that it fashions—a culture that is an indispensable formator of authentic liturgical ethos.
The second theme of the Winter, 2003 issue of Communio, Trinity and Creation, brings to light one of the reasons why doctrine can be culture-forming: the meaning of created being—a meaning that takes shape at the human level as culture—receives its deepest illumination from God’s trinitarian being (of which the body of doctrine is a quasi-sacramental presentation).
In “Creation Without Creationism: Toward a Theological Critique of Darwinism,” Michael Hanby shows the extent to which Darwinism is an ideological transposition of liberal economic thinking to biology (Darwin’s Darwinism is itself already social Darwinism, Hanby argues)—to which the alternative is not “scientific creationism,” but a recovery of a truly Christian theology of creation, which alone keeps alive the awareness of mystery that we need in order to perceive, and to privilege in our explanations of origins, the presence of irreducible, surprising novelty in the world as a reflection of triune beauty.
Stratford Caldecott, writing in “Trinity and Creation: An Eckhartian Perspective,” presents the medieval Dominican theologian-mystic as a reference-point for an inter-religious dialogue that is at once truly universal and specifically Christian. Along the way, Caldecott proposes a personal, yet textually-founded creative retrieval of Eckhart, which shows what some of Eckhart’s more puzzling statements about the unity of God and the soul might mean—must mean—in the full-bodied trinitarian context that Eckhart presupposes, but does not always make explicit.
Retrieving the Tradition concludes the Winter issue’s reflection on the culture-forming power of doctrine with William F. Lynch, S. J.’s “The Defense of Man,” which is reprinted from his 1959 The Image Industries. Concerned with the degrading effect of then-current pop culture on the human imagination, Lynch calls for a creative alliance of theologians and artists, in which the theologian does not force art into the narrow confines of moralistic didacticism, but rather helps the artist stay true to his vocation precisely as an artist, which, rightly understood, is profoundly moral, albeit in a much more radical and comprehensive sense than moralism is capable of perceiving. For true art, Lynch argues, is concerned with the whole good of the whole human being, a wholeness of which the imagination is a special guardian.
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