AND THE SURVIVAL
((This essay was delivered as a lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The numbers that follow some parts of the text are references that are not currently available. They will be posted here later. And please bear with me, I have not fully proofed this text. Corrections and comments are welcome. King Collins, email@example.com))
I confess that I have not invariably been comfortable in front
of a pulpit; I have never been comfortable behind one. To be
behind a pulpit is always a forcible reminder to me that I am
an essayist and, in many ways, a dissenter. An essayist is, literally,
a writer who attempts to tell the truth. Preachers must resign
themselves to being either right or wrong; an essayist, when
proved wrong, may claim to have been "just practicing."
An essayist is privileged to speak without institutional authorization.
A dissenter, of course, must speak without privilege.
I want to begin with a problem: namely, that the culpability
of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and the
uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction
are now established clichés of the conservation movement.
This is a problem for two reasons.
First, the indictment of Christianity by the anti-Christian
conservationists is, in many respects, just. For instance, the
complicity of Christian priests, preachers, and missionaries
in the cultural destruction and the economic exploitation of
the primary peoples of the Western I hemisphere, as of traditional
cultures around the world, is notorious. Throughout the five
hundred years since Columbus's first landfall in the Bahamas,
the evangelist has walked beside the conqueror and the merchant,
too often blandly assuming that their causes were the same. Christian
organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the
rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures.
It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations
are as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious
implications of industrial economics as are most industrial organizations.
The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the
military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation.
The conservationist indictment of Christianity is a problem,
second, because, however just it may be, it does not come from
an adequate understanding of the Bible and the cultural traditions
that descend from the Bible. The anti-Christian conservationists
characteristically deal with the Bible by waving it off. And
this dismissal conceals, as such dismissals are apt to do, an
ignorance that invalidates it. The Bible is an inspired book
written by human hands; as such, it is certainly subject to criticism.
But the anti-Christian environmentalists have not mastered the
first rule of the criticism of books: you have to read them before
you criticize them.
Our predicament now, I believe, requires us to learn to read
and understand the Bible in the light of the present fact of
Creation. This would seem to be a requirement both for Christians
and for everyone concerned, but it entails a long work of true
criticism---that is, of careful and judicious study, not dismissal.
It entails, furthermore, the making of very precise distinctions
between biblical instruction and the behavior of those peoples
supposed to have been biblically instructed.
I cannot pretend, obviously, to have made so meticulous a
study; even if I were capable of it, I would not live long enough
to do it. But I have attempted to read the Bible with these issues
in mind, and I see some virtually catastrophic discrepancies
between biblical instruction and Christian behavior. I don't
mean disreputable Christian behavior, either. The discrepancies
I see are between biblical instruction and allegedly respectable
If because of these discrepancies Christianity were dismissible,
there would, of course, be no problem. We could simply dismiss
it, along with the twenty centuries of unsatisfactory history
attached to it, and start setting things to rights. The problem
emerges only when we ask, Where then would we turn for instruction?
We might, let us suppose, turn to another religion---a recourse
that is sometimes suggested by the anti-Christian conservationists.
Buddhism, for example, is certainly a religion that could guide
us toward a right respect for the natural world, our fellow humans,
and our fellow creatures. I owe a considerable debt myself to
Buddhism and Buddhists. But there are an enormous number of people---and
I am one of them---whose native religion, for better or worse,
is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about
it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it,
an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness,
our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against
it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of
it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should
survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and
truly instructive as we need it to be. On such a survival and
renewal of the Christian religion may depend the survival of
the Creation that is its subject.
If we read the Bible, keeping in mind the desirability of those
two survivals---of Christianity and the Creation---we are apt
to discover several things about which modern Christian organizations
have kept remarkably quiet.
We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part
of it: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof:
the world and they that dwell therein."' There is in our
human law, undeniably, the concept and right of "land ownership."
But this, I think, is merely an expedient to safeguard the mutual
belonging of people and places without which there can be no
lasting and conserving human communities. This right of human
ownership is limited by mortality and by natural constraints
on human attention and responsibility; it quickly becomes abusive
when used to justify large accumulations of "real estate,"
and perhaps for that reason such large accumulations are forbidden
in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. In biblical terms,
the "landowner" is the guest and steward of God: "The
land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me."
We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation
that we humans understand and approve but all of it: "All
things were made by him; and without him was not anything made
that was made." #3 And so we must credit God with the making
of biting and stinging insects, poisonous serpents, weeds, poisonous
weeds, dangerous beasts, and disease-causing microorganisms.
That we may disapprove of these things does not mean that God
is in error or that He ceded some of the work of Creation to
Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony,
and understanding- that is, we are "fallen."
We will discover that God found the world, as He made it,
to be good, that He made it for His pleasure, and that He continues
to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption
by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting
to Heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the
statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's
love for the world-not God's love for Heaven or for the world
as it might be but for the world as it was and is. Belief in
Christ is thus dependent on prior belief in the inherent goodness-the
lovability-of the world.
We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent
of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over
and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation
of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that
if God "gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; all
flesh shall perish together." #4 And Psalm 104 says, "Thou
sendest forth thy spirit, they are created." Creation is
thus God's presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian
Philip Sherrard has written that "Creation is nothing less
than the manifestation of God's hidden Being. "This means
that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly
intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion
of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet George Herbert put
Thou art in small things great, not small in any . . . For thou
art infinite in one and all." #6
We will discover that for these reasons our destruction of
nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a
betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy.
It is flinging God's gifts into His face, as if they were of
no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.
To Dante, "despising Nature and her goodness" was a
violence against God.? We have no entitlement from the Bible
to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything
on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath
it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin
or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more,
which is why the Bible forbids usury and great accumulations
of property. The usurer, Dante said, "condemns Nature .
. . for he puts his hope elsewhere." #8
William Blake was biblically correct, then, when he said that
"everything that lives is holy." #9 And Blake's great
commentator Kathleen Raine was correct both biblically and historically
when she said that "the sense of the holiness of life is
the human norm." #10
The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the
act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely
or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among
other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know
this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows it all the time.
But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why
is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of
the Bible? I-low can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded
its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?
Obviously, "the sense of the holiness of life" is not
compatible with an exploitative economy. You cannot know that
life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices
that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility. And many
if not most Christian organizations now appear to be perfectly
at peace with the military-industrial economy and its "scientific"
destruction of life. Surely, if we are to remain free and if
we are to remain true to our religious inheritance, we must maintain
a separation between church and state. But if we are to maintain
any sense or coherence or meaning in our lives, we cannot tolerate
the present utter disconnection between religion and economy.
By "economy" I do not mean "economics," which
is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping,
the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained
within the household of nature. To be uninterested in economy
is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be
uninterested in culture and in character.
Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who
would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would
be responsible to the holiness of life? What, for Christians,
would be the economy, the practices and the restraints, of "right
livelihood"? I do not believe that organized Christianity
now has any idea. I think its idea of a Christian economy is
no more or less than the industrial economy-which is an economy
firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all
ten of the Ten Commandments. Obviously, if Christianity is going
to survive as more than a respecter and comforter of profitable
iniquities, then Christians, regardless of their organizations,
are going to have to interest themselves in economy-which is
to say, in nature and in work. They are going to have to give
workable answers to those who say we cannot live without this
economy that is destroying us and our world, who see the murder
of Creation as the only way of life.
The holiness of life is obscured to modern Christians also
by the idea that the only holy place is the built church. This
idea may be more taken for granted than taught; nevertheless,
Christians are encouraged from childhood to think of the church
building as "God's house," and most of them could think
of their houses or farms or shops or factories as holy places
only with great effort and embarrassment. It is understandably
difficult for modern Americans to think of their dwellings and
workplaces as holy, because most of these are, in fact, places
of desecration, deeply involved in the ruin of Creation.
The idea of the exclusive holiness of church buildings is,
of course, wildly incompatible with the idea, which the churches
also teach, that God is present in all places to hear prayers.
It is incompatible with Scripture. The idea that a human artifact
could contain or confine God was explicitly repudiated by Solomon
in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple: "Behold,
the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee: how
much less this house that I have builded"? #11 And these
words of Solomon were remembered a thousand years later by Saint
Paul, preaching at Athens:
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he
is lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with
hands . . .
For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain
also of your own poets have said. #12
Idolatry always reduces to the worship of something "made
with hands," something confined within the terms of human
work and human comprehension. Thus, Solomon and Saint Paul both
insisted on the largeness and the at-largeness of God, setting
Him free, so to speak, from ideas about Him. He is not to be
fenced in, under human control, like some domestic creature;
He is the wildest being in existence. The presence of His spirit
in us is our wildness, our oneness with the wilderness of Creation.
That is why subduing the things of nature to human purposes is
so dangerous and why it so often results in evil, in separation
and desecration. It is why the poets of our tradition so often
have given nature the role not only of mother or grandmother
but of the highest earthly teacher and judge, a figure of mystery
and great power. Jesus' own specifications for his church have
nothing at all to do with masonry and carpentry but only with
people; his church is "where two or three are gathered together
in my name." #13
The Bible gives exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) attention
to the organization of religion: the building and rebuilding
of the Temple; its furnishings; the orders, duties, and paraphernalia
of the priesthood; the orders of rituals and ceremonies. But
that does not disguise the fact that the most significant religious
events recounted in the Bible do not occur in "temples made
with hands." The most important religion in that book is
unorganized and is sometimes profoundly disruptive of organization.
From Abraham to Jesus, the most important people are not priests
but shepherds, soldiers, property owners, workers, housewives,
queens and kings, manservants and maidservants, fishermen, prisoners,
whores, even bureaucrats. The great visionary encounters did
not take place in temples but in sheep pastures, in the desert,
in the wilderness, on mountains, on the shores of rivers and
the sea, in the middle of the sea, in prisons. And however strenuously
the divine voice prescribed rites and observances, it just as
strenuously repudiated them when they were taken to be religion:
Your new moons and your appointed frosts my soul hateth: they
are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from
you: yea, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands
are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil
of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge
the fatherless, plead for the widow." #I4
Religion, according to this view, is less to be celebrated
in rituals than practiced in the world.
I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor
book the Bible is. It is a "hypaethral book," such
as Thoreau talked about-a book open to the sky. It is best read
and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.
Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls
seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural.
This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders;
we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common
mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has
considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and
pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world
within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk
at the turning of water into wine-which was, after all, a very
small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle
by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
It is clearly impossible to assign holiness exclusively to
the built church without denying holiness to the rest of Creation,
which is then said to be "secular." The world, which
God looked at and found entirely good, we find none too good
to pollute entirely and destroy piecemeal. The church, then,
becomes a kind of preserve of "holiness," from which
certified lovers of God assault and plunder the "secular"
Not only does this repudiate God's approval of His work; it
refuses also to honor the Bible's explicit instruction to regard
the works of the Creation as God's revelation of Himself. The
assignation of holiness exclusively to the built church is therefore
logically accompanied by the assignation of revelation exclusively
to the Bible. But Psalm 19 begins, "The heavens declare
the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork."
The word of God has been revealed in facts from the moment of
the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis: "Let there
be light: and there was light." And Saint Paul states the
rule: "The invisible things of him from the creation of
the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that
are made. #15 Yet from this free, generous, and sensible view
of things, we come to the idolatry of the book: the idea that
nothing is true that cannot be (and has not been already) written.
The misuse of the Bible thus logically accompanies the abuse
of nature: if you are going to destroy creatures without respect,
you will want to reduce them to "materiality"; you
will want to deny that there is spirit or truth in them, just
as you will want to believe that the only holy creatures, the
only creatures with souls, are humans-or even only Christian
By denying spirit and truth to the nonhuman Creation, modern
proponents of religion have legitimized a form of blasphemy without
which the nature- and culture-destroying machinery of the industrial
economy could not have been built-that is, they have legitimized
bad work. Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no
thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for
its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not
respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great
mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable
judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life
and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness
and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a
product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor
God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made
for. This is blasphemy: To make shoddy work of the work of God.
But such blasphemy is not possible when the entire Creation is
understood as holy and when the works of God are understood as
embodying and thus revealing His spirit. In the Bible we find
none of the industrialist's contempt or hatred for nature. We
find, instead, a poetry of awe and reverence and profound cherishing,
as in these verses from Moses' valedictory blessing of the twelve
And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the
precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that
And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and
for the precious things put forth by the moon,
And for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the
precious things of the' lasting hills,
And for the precious things of the earth and fullness thereof,
and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush. #16
I have been talking, of course, about a dualism that manifests
itself in several ways: as a cleavage, a radical discontinuity,
between Creator and creature, spirit and matter, religion and
nature, religion and economy, worship and work, and so on. This
dualism, I think, is the most destructive disease that afflicts
us. In its best-known, its most dangerous, and perhaps its fundamental
version, it is the dualism of body and soul. This is an issue
as difficult as it is important, and so to deal with it we should
start at the beginning.
The crucial test is probably Genesis 2:7, which gives the process
by which Adam was created: "The Lord God formed man of the
dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath
of life: and man became a living soul." My mind, like most
people's, has been deeply influenced by dualism, and I can see
how dualistic minds deal with this verse. They conclude that
the formula for man-making is man = body + soul. But that conclusion
cannot be derived, except by violence, from Genesis 2:7, which
is not dualistic. The formula given in Genesis 2:7 is not man
= body + soul; the formula there is soul = dust + breath. According
to this verse, God did not make a body and put a soul into it,
like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; then,
by breathing His breath into it, He made the dust live. The dust,
formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became
a soul. "Soul" here refers to the whole creature. Humanity
is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discrete
parts temporarily glued together but as a single mystery
We can see how easy it is to fall into the dualism of body
and soul when talking about the inescapable worldly dualities
of good and evil or time and eternity. And we can see how easy
it is, when Jesus asks, "For what is a man profited, if
he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" #17
to assume that he is condemning the world and appreciating the
disembodied soul. But if we give to "soul" here the
sense that it has in Genesis 2:7, we see that he is doing no
such thing. He is warning that in pursuit of so-called material
possessions, we can lose our understanding of ourselves as "living
souls"---that is, as creatures of God, members of the holy
community of Creation. We can lose the possibility of the atonement
of that membership. For we are free, if we choose, to make a
duality of our one living soul by disowning the breath of God
that is our fundamental bond with one another and with other
But we can make the same duality by disowning the dust. The
breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living
souls; the other is the (lust. Most of our modern troubles come
from our misunderstanding and misvaluation of this dust. Forgetting
that the dust, too, is a creature of the Creator, made by the
sending forth of His spirit, we have presumed to decide that
the dust is "low." We have presumed to say that we
are made of two parts: a body and a soul, the body being "low"
because made of dust, and the soul "high." By thus
valuing these two supposed-to-be parts, we inevitably throw them
into competition with each other, like two corporations. The
"spiritual" view, of course, has been that the body,
in Yeats's phrase, must be "bruised to pleasure soul."
And the "secular" version of the same dualism has been
that the body, along with the rest of the "material"
world, must give way before the advance of the human mind. The
dominant religious view, for a long time, has been that the body
is a kind of scrip issued by the Great Company Store in the Sky,
which can be cashed in to redeem the soul but is otherwise worthless.
And the predictable result has been a human creature able to
appreciate or tolerate only the "spiritual" (or mental)
part of Creation and full of semiconscious hatred of the "physical"
or "natural" part, which it is ready and willing to
destroy for "salvation," for profit, for "victory,"
or for fun. This madness constitutes the norm of modern humanity
and of modern Christianity.
But to despise the body or mistreat it for the sake of the
"soul" is not just to burn one's house for the insurance,
nor is it just self-hatred of the most deep and dangerous sort.
It is yet another blasphemy. It is to make nothing-and worse
than nothing-of the great Something in which we live and move
and have our being. When we hate and abuse the body and its earthly
life and joy for Heaven's sake, what do we expect? That out of
this life that we have presumed to despise and this world that
we have presumed to destroy, we would somehow salvage a soul
capable of eternal bliss? And what do we expect when with equal
and opposite ingratitude, we try to make of the finite body an
infinite reservoir of dispirited and meaningless pleasures?
Times may come, of course, when the life of the body must be
denied or sacrificed, times when the whole world must literally
be lost for the sake of one's life as a "living soul."
But such sacrifice, by people who truly respect and revere the
life of the earth and its Creator, does not denounce or degrade
the body but rather exalts it and acknowledges its holiness.
Such sacrifice is a refusal to allow the body to serve what is
unworthy of it.
If we credit the Bible's description of the relationship between
Creator and Creation, then we cannot deny the spiritual importance
of our economic life. Then we must see how religious issues lead
to issues of economy and how issues of economy lead to issues
of art. By "art" I mean all the ways by which humans
make the things they need. If we understand that no artist-no
maker-can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then
we see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works
of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what
work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we
do with them after we have used them-all these are questions
of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering
them, we practice, or do not practice, our religion.
The significance-and ultimately the quality-of the work we
do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we
are taking part.
If we think of ourselves as merely biological creatures, whose
story is determined by genetics or environment or history or
economics or technology, then, however pleasant or painful the
part we play, it cannot matter much. Its significance is that
of mere self-concern. "It is a tale / Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing," as Macbeth
says when he has "supp'd full with horrors" and is
"aweary of the sun." #18
If we think of ourselves as lofty souls trapped temporarily
in lowly bodies in a dispirited, desperate, unlovable world that
we must despise for Heaven's sake, then what have we done for
this question of significance? If we divide reality into two
parts, spiritual and material, and hold (as the Bible does not
hold) that only the spiritual is good or desirable, then our
relation to the material Creation becomes arbitrary, having only
the quantitative or mercenary value that we have, in fact and
for this reason, assigned to it. Thus, we become the judges and
inevitably the destroyers of a world we did not make and that
we are bidden to understand as a divine gift. It is impossible
to see how good work might be accomplished by people who think
that our life in this world either signifies nothing or has only
a negative significance.
If, on the other hand, we believe that we are living souls,
God's dust and God's breath, acting our parts among other creatures
all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we
understand that we are free, within the obvious limits of mortal
human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to the other
creatures---then all our acts have a supreme significance. If
it is true that we are living souls and morally free, then all
of us are artists. All of us are makers, within mortal terms
and limits, of our lives, of one another's lives, of things we
need and use.
This, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote, is "the normal view,"
which "assumes . . . not that the artist is a special kind
of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler or parasite
is necessarily some special kind of artist." #19 But since
even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably,
by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody
is an artist- either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible.
Any life, by working or not working, by working well or poorly,
inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world. This
is why our division of the "fine arts" from "craftsmanship,"
and "craftsmanship" from "labor," is so arbitrary,
meaningless, and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said,
both "the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function."
#20 And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.
If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures,
living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious,
and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have
an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for
the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood
work as a form of prayer. We see why the old poets invoked the
muse. And we know why George Herbert prayed, in his poem "Mattens":
Teach me thy love to know; That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show . #21
Work connects us both to Creation and to eternity. This is
the reason also for Mother Ann Lee's famous instruction: "Do
all your work as though you had a thousand years to live on earth,
and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow." #22
Explaining "the perfection, order, and illumination"
of the artistry of Shaker furniture makers, Coomaraswamy wrote,
"All tradition has seen in the Master Craftsman of the Universe
the exemplar of the human artist or 'maker by art,' and we are
told to be 'perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.'
" Searching out the lesson, for us, of the Shakers' humble,
impersonal, perfect artistry, which refused the modern divorce
of utility and beauty, he wrote, "Unfortunately, we do not
desire to be such as the Shaker was; we do not propose to work
as though we had a thousand years to live, and as though we were
to die tomorrow.' Just as we desire peace but not the things
that make for peace, so we desire art but not the things that
make for art. . . . we have the art that we deserve. If the sight
of it puts us to shame, it is with ourselves that the reformation
must begin." #23
Any genuine effort to "reform" our arts, our ways of
making, must take thought of "the things that make for art."
We must see that no art begins in itself; it begins in other
arts, in attitudes and ideas antecedent to any art, in nature,
and in inspiration. If we look at the great artistic traditions,
as it is necessary to do, we will see that they have never been
divorced either from religion or from economy. The possibility
of an entirely secular art and of works of art that are spiritless
or ugly or useless is not a possibility that has been among us
for very long. Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making
that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects,
on the uses and the users of the things made by art, and on the
artists themselves. They have, that is, been ways of giving honor
to the works of God. The great artistic traditions have had nothing
to do with what we call "self-expression." They have
not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life.
Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius,
they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and
genius. Coomaraswamy, a good guide as always, makes an indispensable
distinction between genius in the modern sense and craftsmanship:
"Genius inhabits a world of its own. The master craftsman
lives in a world inhabited by other men; he has neighbors."
$24 The arts, traditionally, belong to the neighborhood. They
are the means by which the neighborhood lives, works, remembers,
worships, and enjoys itself.
But most important of all, now, is to see that the artistic
traditions understood every art primarily as a skill or craft
and ultimately as a service to fellow creatures and to God. An
artist's first duty, according to this view, is technical. It
is assumed that one will have talents, materials, subjects-perhaps
even genius or inspiration or vision. But these are traditionally
understood not as personal properties with which one may do as
one chooses but as gifts of God or nature that must be honored
in use. One does not dare to use these things without the skill
to use them well. As Dante said of his own art, "far worse
than in vain does he leave the shore . . . who fishes for the
truth and has not the art." #25
To use gifts less than well is to dishonor them and their
Giver. There is no material or subject in Creation that in using,
we are excused from using well; there is no work in which we
are excused from being able and responsible artists.
In denying the holiness of the body and of the so-called physical
reality of the world-and in denying support to the good economy,
the good work, by which alone the Creation can receive due honor-modern
Christianity generally has cut itself off from both nature and
culture. It has no serious or competent interest in biology or
ecology. And it is equally uninterested in the arts by which
humankind connects itself to nature. It manifests no awareness
of the specifically Christian cultural lineages that connect
us to our past. There is, for example, a splendid heritage of
Christian poetry in English that most church members live and
die without reading or hearing or hearing about. Most sermons
are preached without any awareness at all that the making of
sermons is an art that has at times been magnificent. Most modern
churches look like they were built by robots without reference
to the heritage of church architecture or respect for the place;
they embody no awareness that work can be worship. Most religious
music now attests to the general assumption that religion is
no more than a vaguely pious (and vaguely romantic) emotion .
Modern Christianity, then, has become as specialized in its
organizations as other modern organizations, wholly concentrated
on the industrial shibboleths of "growth," counting
its success in numbers, and on the very strange enterprise of
"saving" the individual, isolated, and disembodied
soul. Having witnessed and abetted the dismemberment of the households,
both human and natural, by which we have our being as creatures
of God, as living souls, and having made light of the great feast
and festival of Creation to which we were bidden as living souls,
the modern church presumes to be able to save the soul as an
eternal piece of private property. It presumes moreover to save
the souls of people in other countries and religious traditions,
who are often saner and more religious than we are. And always
the emphasis is on the individual soul. Some Christian spokespeople
give the impression that the highest Christian bliss would be
to get to Heaven and find that you are the only one there-that
you were right and all the others wrong. Whatever its twentieth-century
dress, modern Christianity as I know it is still at bottom the
religion of Miss Watson, intent on a dull and superstitious rigmarole
by which supposedly we can avoid going to "the bad place"
and instead go to "the good place." One can hardly
help sympathizing with Huck Finn when he says, "I made up
my mind I wouldn't try for it.
Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity
has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic
status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting
anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly
villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by while
a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural
beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities
and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans
of empire. It has assumed with the economists that "economic
forces" automatically work for good and has assumed with
the industrialists and militarists that technology determines
history. It has assumed with almost everybody that "progress"
is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times.
It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and
defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity
connives directly in the murder of Creation. For in these days,
Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations.
He is a contradicter of the fundamental miracle of life. A part
of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy
the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly
pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared
at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that,
or more mad
The religion of the Bible, on the contrary, is a religion
of the state and the status quo only in brief moments. In practice,
it is a religion for the correction equally of people and of
kings. And Christ's life, from the manger to the cross, was an
affront to the established powers of his time, just as it is
to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches
of the "good news" of the Gospels. Less is said of
the Gospels' bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified
by just about every "Christian" government the world
has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its
works, and it would be horrified by him. Surely no sane and thoughtful
person can imagine any government of our time sitting comfortably
at the feet of Jesus while he is saying, "Love your enemies,
bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and
pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you."
In fact, we know that one of the businesses of governments,
"Christian" or not, has been to reenact the crucifixion.
It has happened again and again and again. In A Time for Trumpets,
his history of the Battle of the Bulge, Charles B. MacDonald
tells how the SS Colonel Joachim Peiper was forced to withdraw
from a bombarded chateau near the town of La Gleize, leaving
behind a number of severely wounded soldiers of both armies.
Also left behind," MacDonald wrote, "on a whitewashed
wall of one of the rooms in the basement was a charcoal drawing
of Christ, thorns on his head, tears on his cheeks---whether
drawn by a German or an American nobody would ever know."
#28 This is not an image that belongs to history but rather one
that judges it.
* * *