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Essay

AN OLD Albert Brooks film has been rattling around in my head of late: Defending Your Life. Divorced advertising exec fiddles with the CD player in his brand new BMW and plows into a city bus, only to find himself in Judgment City, where he has to account for himself in a jury trial where the evidence consists of episodes from his life. The worst possible result isn’t exactly hell; it’s being sent back to earth for another attempt, rather than moving forward, to a better planet and a better life.

In the version of the film playing in my head, the judges, prosecutor, and defender all bear a striking resemblance to…me. Now that I am in that mid-way point of which Dante speaks, I find myself looking back, trying to figure out exactly how I got here. I may not be quite as lost as Dante’s pilgrim in the dark wood, but I am beginning to realize one thing—just how wrong I’ve been in thinking I always knew what I was doing. The conscious choices I made now appear to me more like the iceberg’s tip. The greater mass—my deeper self—has been below the surface, moved by currents of which I am only now becoming aware.

Like a surprise witness at that trial I’ve been daydreaming about, a book I read recently has gone a long way toward illuminating the direction and pattern of those currents. Four Cultures of the West (2004) by John W. O’Malley, SJ, is a lively, wide-ranging, historical survey of the core styles of thought and vision that have shaped our civilization. O’Malley is a church historian specializing in the early modern period; he has written about the Council of Trent and the founding of the Jesuit order of which he is a member. As it turns out, Four Cultures is a book he wrote in much the same spirit as I read it. In the introduction he writes: “I was curious to understand better what had happened to me in the process” of being educated as a Jesuit.

Though he is too modest a man to say it in his book, the Jesuit order was founded in the Renaissance during a remarkable period in which all four of these cultures were synthesized by Ignatius of Loyola and his followers. At the outset of his story, O’Malley alludes to the early church father Tertullian’s famous challenge: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In other words, what does the prophetic, religious culture of Judaism and Christianity have to do with the “worldly” cultures of ancient Greece?

The answer given by the West, as it evolved through the medieval and Renaissance eras, is: plenty. That prophetic culture was placed in dynamic tension with the academic/professional culture of the philosophers and scientists, the humanistic culture of poets, rhetoricians, and statesmen, and the artistic culture of visual and performing artists.

Father O’Malley is aware of the dangers of sweeping generalization. He concedes that there are a number of other cultures in our historic experience, business culture, for example. But he makes a compelling case for the Big Four as fundamental to our development as a civilization. In their interplay, sometimes harmonic and oftentimes antagonistic, I’ve come to understand a bit more about my own journey. As the privileged beneficiary of an excellent education, I was steeped in all four cultures, but I’ve elected to spend my life working to promote two of them because I have witnessed the other two run amok.

In his book Father O’Malley refrains from discussing any meta-theory of how the cultures ought to relate to one another. Instead, he sticks to historically grounded description. At first I found this frustrating—I was hoping for some color commentary. But I came to see the wisdom of his method: he hopes that the reader will “make application to your own milieu.”

My own youthful milieu embraced all of the cultures. In school I was introduced to the academic method, which is analytical and “never satisfied…critical of every wisdom…insatiably eager to ask the further question.” I loved the bracing technique of bringing logic to bear on the evidence, though I found the lack of consensus on so many matters disconcerting. I came to see that academic discourse was, as O’Malley puts it, “agonistic and contentious.”

In church I encountered prophetic culture, where the words of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets came from another language altogether, that of revelation—the transcendent slicing through our worldly expectations. Though its method was that of proclamation rather than reasoning, and paradox rather than syllogism, I felt instinctively that the prophetic complemented the academic, that revelation could stand up to reason, and that the foolishness of faith could keep intellectuals from excessive pride.

My introduction to cultures three and four came largely through my parents. As a former advertising executive himself, my father understood business culture, but in reality his heart lay in the tradition of what O’Malley calls “humanist culture,” the province of “rhetoric, poetry, and the common good.” When I was a child he turned away from business to throw himself into the realm of nonprofit causes. His gift as a writer was for the op-ed piece—language preoccupied with the first two cultures but aimed at persuasion, which is the essence of rhetoric. My father was less interested in poetry and fiction, which O’Malley notes are “more circular than linear” and glory “in ambiguity, in rich layers of meaning.” But his love of words and good writing helped awaken my interest in literature.

From my mother I derived a fascination for culture four, the visual and performing arts. She took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Symphony Orchestra before I could determine that these weren’t cool things for a boy to like. And so they imprinted themselves on me. In discussing culture four O’Malley notes the relationship between liturgy and “ritual performance”; certainly Seiji Ozawa had the aura of a high priest as he stood, baton in hand, before the orchestra.

In my innocence, I wanted it all, the whole blessed symphony of the four cultures. And of course there was something beautiful and right in that ardent desire. (I would have loved being educated by Jesuits.) But my fall from innocence was this: I hadn’t yet understood my limitations and gifts, nor had I fully grasped the state of the world around me.

O’Malley rightly stresses that the differences and clashes between the four cultures are not always about content. They are in many ways about style, about forms of thought and discourse. The classic example he uses is the debate between Erasmus and Luther about free will. The two men shared many ideas, including a passion for reforming the church, and yet the clash between them was not merely about ideas. Luther spoke in the language of prophetic absolutes, while Erasmus the humanist preferred caution and nuance—a number of small truths rather than Truth.

While each of the cultures has its virtues and vices, I came to fear the increasingly imperial claims of the prophetic and academic cultures—at least in the postmodern America in which I came to maturity. I have written elsewhere about the “culture wars,” so I will only note here that at root, they were a conflict between extreme versions of the prophetic and academic cultures (often using the culture of the arts as an arena in which to fight their battles). One side claimed Truth through simplistic, context-less readings of the Bible, while the other deconstructed the very idea of truth (thus making their own claim to Truth).

When it came time for me to contemplate getting a PhD, something in me balked. Part of this was undoubtedly impatience, but I think I had an instinctive sense that a doctorate in literature might do something to change the shape of my mind, bending it in a direction I did not want to follow. The academic study of literature had become dominated by theory, the triumph of the academic over the literary. I wanted no part of it.

At a time when faith and reason were being abused, I was instead drawn to the common element in cultures three and four: the imagination, which shuns abstractions for the concrete. O’Malley says of the Renaissance humanists I came to admire that their imaginative genius consisted in the way they understood context, the layers of historical and symbolic meaning in which ideas inhere. By studying languages and the way they change, the humanists developed the disciplines of history and textual criticism.

The humanists also believed that rhetoric was the use of crafted language to speak to specific contexts. Unlike prophecy or analysis, the primary goal of rhetoric is to seek unity, common ground. Far from being ivory tower intellectuals, humanists frequently inhabit the political realm, but they do so as peacemakers, not firebrands. Finding the right word for the right occasion exemplifies this desire for unity, connection.

But consider the low regard we have today for terms like rhetoric and oratory. Their meanings have almost completely reversed, so that they now are synonymous with falsehood and verbal frippery. Such is the politicization of our times that I’m hard pressed to name anyone beyond Wendell Berry as being capable of bearing the title of orator. The two presidential candidates in the US this year have made some effort to link their use of language to more honest political visions, but it remains to be seen if either will be able to sustain this hope.

So this life I’m defending has been spent in the realm of creative writing and the arts, though never in deliberate isolation from the other cultures. In particular, I’ve been drawn to the ways that prophetic culture can be placed in tension with the imaginative cultures, precisely because they need each other so much. What happens when prophecy meets art, heaven meets earth—when divine imperatives meet the tangled human condition? When two cultures meet, they challenge one another, preventing them from the excesses particular to their own natures. Faith asks art to be about something more than formal virtuosity and to consider that meaning itself is already inherently metaphysical, even religious. Art asks faith to become incarnate in the human condition without compromise—or evasion—and remain compelling.

The goal should always be a communion of cultures. Father O’Malley’s Jesuit tradition represents one of the noblest efforts toward achieving that. And if he is too modest to say so, I’m not.


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