Plowmen and Poets: Bonaventure and Ecclesiasticus on the Word Made Art

Today being the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, I thought it highly appropriate to share this insightful essay by Dr. James Patrick about how the gospel can restore culture. Just as St. John, as forerunner, was a reflection of the Word made flesh, so too may art, architecture, beauty and literature reflect Truth Himself.

In Benedict XVI’s book On the Road to Jesus Christ, the Holy Father wrote:
Culture is the system of life into which the Word of the Gospel enters.  It must make itself understood within it, and it should have some effect within it, so to speak, that permeates the whole thing.  The Gospel to a certain extent presupposes culture; it never replaces it, but it does leave its mark upon it.  The nearest equivalent to our concept of culture in the Greek World is paideia—education in the highest sense, which guides a human being to genuine humanity.   In Latin the same idea is expressed in the word erudition, a man is freed from roughness [ex rudis] and is trained in true manliness.  In this sense the Gospel is by its very essence paideia—culture, but in this education of man it joins forces with all the other factors that form humanity as a communal enterprise.
In this way Benedict speaks of what culture does with some implicit reference to Newman’s description of liberal learning, that is, as an education that makes us slow to inflict pain, but he also seems to give culture an importance as a way of educating man that joins force with the Gospel.  The word ‘culture’ tells its own story for cultus and cultura both mean tilling or cultivation and are descriptive of the work of the farmer.  Cultus implies reverence or respectful treatment.  With regard to the human estate it means education.  Cicero uses the expression benevolis officium et diligens tribuitur cultus; culture is achieved by diligent and loving care.
Complicating this attempt to define culture is the fact that, apart from what culture does, whether it rubs our edges smooth or provides a context for the Gospel, culture implies activities and assumes the existence of objects and ideas.  In free beings ideas become incarnate through actions; in making of poems and symphonies and furniture ideas become incarnate in the thing made. Culture is the sea we swim in, the texture of laws, manners, philosophic assumptions (examined and unexamined), the artifacts we make and the artifacts that make us, the language and its poetry, indeed the entire range of human activities with their various consequences, real or ideal, that make up the world we experience, as well as the schools that form the link between generations.

Read it all here.


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