Episode 5 - Faith & Freedom: Foundations of a Culture of Beauty

In this and the next few podcasts we will be exploring ideas about culture. Four fundamental questions will, I hope, be addressed through these presentations:

What is culture?   Why is it important?  What are influences it?    How can we promote a culture of beauty?

This week we will focus predominantly on answering the first two, and in the following weeks on the second two, although the discussion isn't rigidly compartmentalized, and we will cover all questions at least partially each week...and we’re never sure exactly where the conversation will go in advance anwyay….

I repeat below a blogpost from a couple of weeks ago that discusses and illustrates with pictures, some of the topics we discuss.....

People care about culture and many feel that there is something wrong with contemporary culture. In my assessment, the cultural Marxists want to eliminate all aspects of traditional Western culture, which is Judeo/Christian, and many Christians dislike Marxist culture...and both seem to hate much else of what they see and label anything they dislike as capitalist culture.

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What is culture?

A culture is the emergent pattern of activity associated with a society of people that manifests and in turn sustains and nurtures the core beliefs, values and priorities of that society.

We can apply it to a society or nation; or to sub groups within in a society: cafe culture, drug culture, youth culture, Christian culture, Western culture, secular culture.

Here are two cafes with very different cultures, the one you would rather have a cup of coffee at says something about you and the culture it represents.


Why do people care about culture?

I suggest that people care about the culture because they see instinctively that it reflects and influences a worldview. We naturally desire a culture that reflects our own views. When we see a culture that does so, we see it as something pleasing and it reassures us for ‘we feel at home in the world’; when on the other hand we see a culture that speaks of a worldview that is different to ours, we feel alienated. For the believer, when a culture reflects a pattern of activity that is consistent, generally, with a faith in God we see it as beautiful.

Culture both reflects and influences a worldview

Culture not only reflects attitudes, it tends to influence people at a deep level too. The more we see it, the more we like it. So when the culture reflects my values, I am reassured not only because it affirms my own beliefs by telling me that others believe it too, it also reassures me that it will be like this in the future, for it reinforces those values in society as a whole.

This is why culture is a battleground - or it ought to be. I say that because although the cultural Marxists are fighting for it, and seem to have successfully occupied the powerful institutions of our country - education, the news media and entertainment especially - those interested in Faith and Freedom seem to abstaining and have handed the field over to them.

Culture comes before the law

Political and legal battles are won long before issues get to elections or the courts. Beauty is our secret weapon. It has the potential to sidestep prejudice that would exist if we used reason alone, its tendency, which can be resisted, is to draw people to the Good, those values that we associate with a free and fair society, and ultimately to God. If we want to win the battle against the culture of death, we must fight as well the battle for the culture of beauty.

More about culture - Emergence

Emergence is the principle by which we see a pattern only by looking at the whole, at the wider horizon, which is not apparent when we look at its details or parts. It a paradox that the pattern of the behaviour of individual elements is not a microcosm of the pattern of the whole. So if we look at the Mona Lisa, regarding the whole we discern an image of a lady.

However, each microscopic element of pigment in the paint that makes it what it is it is not a mini-Mona Lisa. In fact, Leonardo could not begin to tell you anything about the mathematical function that describes the relationships between one particle of pigment and another. Rather he looks at the whole and manipulates his impression of the whole and as long as the whole has the desired result, he doesn’t care what’s going on at the level of the particular. In fact, we would probably find that nobody could describe the structure of the Mona Lisa that way.

And when we look at the behaviour of the particles we simply cannot say what sort of picture it is part of. The relationship between the two is not apparent.

Look at this arrangement of lego bricks, can you tell what it is? Notice how every piece is distinct and if you consider the relationships each one has with the surrounding pieces, each one is unique.

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Yes when we step back and look at the whole we see the following:


Hey presto! It is a lego Mona Lisa. The real Mona Lisa painting is many times more complex yet every pigment has a unique place in the array. The place of each lego brick, or particle of pigment is defined primarily by it relation to the whole and can only be understood when we see the big picture.

Analogously, in society, the behaviour of every person is unique. If he is behaving according to free will, then the pattern that describes his behaviour is mathematically random. There is no mathematical order. That is not to say that it isn’t rational, it is simply that mathematics cannot describe his reasoning. Yet there is a discernible order that does describe society as a whole that contains people behaving individually.

Some aspects of this order can be described mathematically - that is the basis of trends of behaviour and of economics as a science. The Austrian economist Frederick Hayak noticed this apparent paradox between individual behaviour which is unpredictable (by an observer - it is very likely rational and understandable to the person himself) and predictable trends in the whole, which he called ‘spontaneous order’. We all naturally discern that order intuitively when we perceive culture. We are noticing a pattern that applies to the whole.

This was thought of as paradoxical, because the assumption of all natural science had been for a long time that the behaviour of the parts follows the same pattern as the whole. Therefore, it was assumed, we can understand better how a planet behaves, if we understand better how a sub-atomic particle within it behaves. This is the drive for analysis. This assumption is true to a point, but modern science shows us that once you get really deep into the parts, down to the level of sub-atomic particles even the material world behaves in this paradoxical way. Sub-atomic particles don’t behave in the same predictable way that the whole which comprises of those particles does. This is the mystery of quantum mechanics.

Beauty and Culture

When we see that pattern of the culture around us and we like it, we feel at home in the world - and we call it beautiful. That is no surprise, the word cosmos in Greek means both order and beauty and it also means the universe ie the cosmos, all of what Christians call 'Creation'. The Greeks thought that the cosmos was beautiful because it was ordered and we were seeing that order in it when we apprehend its beauty.

What is the point? The point I want to make with this is as follows, that there is no contradiction between personal freedom and a culture of beauty.

In fact I would go further, that a culture of beauty is a culture that speaks to us of love and there is no love without freedom and love is greatest with faith. In other words, we cannot create a culture of beauty by trying to manipulate and control people’s behaviour. All we can do is strive to create the conditions that promote loving interaction. That is we give them the freedom to choose and inspire them to choose well by showing them the beauty of the Faith through the example of our own participation in a culture of Faith.

It is impossible therefore to to centrally control this because we cannot either proscribe or control individual behaviour well enough to do it. And to do so would necessarily restrict personal freedom and undermine its power. You force someone to be free!

The more that society is regulated beyond the minimum that is necessary to preserve personal freedom, the more it restricts the flourishing of beauty and more ugliness we see. This is why post-war Western society is so ugly, I would maintain, whether it is socialism or croney capitalism or simply a decline in faith (which might otherwise inspire us to choose well) then ugliness abounds.

We in the US are currently in a mixed culture in which different forces are striving for dominance. The future of the country depends on which one dominates. I am seeking a society of faith, freedom and beauty. I came to the US because I think that it is the hope for Western civilization in this regard. For all that it is not perfect, it is the place where these value are most likely to flourish in the future and influence powerfully the rest of the world by people being attracted to what it has.

What societies are natural to man?

Man is by nature in relation with others. A person is defined, not only by what he is and what he does, but also by the relationships he has. This is because we are made to love and we cannot love in isolation. There are many natural groupings that can form, which is fine, but the fundamental associations which must flourish for society to flourish are the family and the nation state, I suggest. I am not saying that those who do not have a family for any reason that might be beyond their control, are not part of society, rather that any society which does not encourage and seek to preserve the institution of the family will decline. And in order for families to flourish and people to flourish we need a wider community that has just laws, and offers security so that the state and the family can flourish. 

The detail of society at any level cannot be regulated by the state because it is impossible for any human or human institution to know in sufficient detail how to do it well, even if it has sufficient power of control. There is One who has the wisdom and brilliance to be able picture what a society looks like in every detail and that One is God.

These are also the conditions for human flourishing, happiness, economic abundance

The pattern of individual human behaviour can only be understood a rational only by its relationship to the whole, just as with a particle of pigment in the Mona Lisa and to the ultimate end of the whole of humanity.

It is the Church as the mystical body of Jesus Christ fully redeemed that sets out the road map for each of us to participate in taking us towards our end. That end is bodily resurrection in perfect union with God, entering into the mystery of the Trinity. 

Another way of saying this that the only society beyond the nation state that can order man in perfect peace is not natural but supernatural. It is the City of God, the New Jerusalem. No modern temporal authority can govern man by law to be at peace and harmony, for it is only in love that he can be in harmony, and we can’t legislate for love sufficiently to make it happen in this world. There can be no Christian version of ‘sharia law’ even if it were possible because people must be free to choose badly, if they are going to be free also to choose well, because freedom is the necessary condition for love.

The United Nations is a secular attempt to replace the New Jerusalem and the impossibility of the task it is faced with means that is doomed to fracture and failure - or to resort to totalitarian force to hold it together. It can never be the mystical body of Christ who is the single and ultimate ordering principle we should be looking to both individually and collectively.

 The Transfiguration of Christ, by Titian

The Transfiguration of Christ, by Titian

As individuals we can conform to the supernatural end, through grace and participation in the sacramental economy. 

We encounter Christ in the Eucharist and we conform to the patterns of heaven, which the cosmos reflects, when we worship the Mass, the Divine Office obediently and beautifully. We are transformed, transfigured in Christ and our actions are graceful, reflecting the love of Christ and our work is beautiful. This is how we fulfil our calling to be creators of a beautiful culture through anything that we do.