That Brague again

I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I would rather read this exquisite essay by Rémi Brague (here, over at First Things), than anything I could write today. Indeed, I would surrender my bus seat to Brague almost any day. I think I flagged him before in an Idlepost, for his essay on the question, “Are non-theocratic regimes possible?” (The answer is of course, no.) That was back in the days when I was bantering with a Commentariat, and let me toss this link in (here), for good measure. (My policy is never to provide links. Another policy is to ignore my policies.)

Near the start, Brague lets fly something profoundly true. The Catholic Church created Europe. But that is not the aphorism. Instead: the Catholic Church does not need Europe. She particularly does not need the European culture. That is because she does not need anyone’s culture. She creates cultures without thinking or intending. She can inhabit cultures she did not create. As I say, read Brague, he’s good at explaining.

A similar thought has been afflicting me recently, on my mysterious walks; a suspicion that I have been wrongly attributing an effect to a cause. It touched on those “Middle Ages” — a term that is quite meaningless, so that everyone thinks he knows what it means, and no two people have the same understanding. For a thousand years is not a thing. It is instead only a stretch of time, with things in it, that come and go. Chartres, by contrast, is a thing. A thing that could be gone tomorrow.

The Catholic Church, for instance, was not formed in the Middle Ages, as everyone must know. She came before. But neither did she “develop” in the Middle Ages. She isn’t temporal like that. She merely converses with temporal things. As Joan of Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

This is true, and lies behind what Rémi Brague is saying; and what Joseph Ratzinger was saying, too, at the Paris talk Brague recalls. The “creativity” of the historical West — or more largely of “Christendom,” if you will — is not the product of a culture. It is the product of a Christian attitude to culture, which happens to be unique among the religions of the world.

Now, Western Man, even in his current rather degenerate form, is the creation of the Church in the Middle Ages. In that sense, we might say they’re not over yet. The thing may be scratched to hell, but we’re still working from the same cultural template; still babbling with the same (much obscured) vocabulary; still following habits of mind and feeling that were settled many centuries ago. Hence the desire of some of us to fix and restore it — to make it clean and beautiful again. But of course, it can’t be restored. It is beyond fixing.

The creation was unconscious. The relation of Christians to ancient Greece, or to Jerusalem for that matter, was different in kind from the Roman or Islamic formative relations. Ditto our relation to our own distinctive past. There was and is, as it were, a continuous non-continuity.

The “cultural materials” of our past were chastely appropriated. I say “chastely” because no ownership was claimed. Chastely, these materials were transformed. But Christians did not invest, even in the culture they were creating.

To misparaphrase Saint Joan: “About Culture and Religion, I simply know they’re not the same thing, and we shouldn’t confuse them.”

For we might all be Cultural Christians today. But only a tiny minority are Christians.

Or have it Brague’s way: To hell with Christian culture, let’s sing.