The Victorian social critic and poet Matthew Arnold attempted to discover a commonality in the disparate threads of English society around which all parts could coalesce. He observed that his countrymen—the aristocracy, the middle class, and the working class—would perpetually be at war with one another because they did not share the same values. We risked losing “the best that is known and thought in the world” as each class battled to assert their social and political interests above the good of the other classes.
The same problem afflicts the American republic. We are a people torn apart both by idea and ideology and by feeling and passion. How is it that the death of Paul Walker, a substandard actor at best, can simultaneously produce a melodramatic weeping and gnashing of teeth or intense emotional apathy? Or Cory Monteith’s death, or Michael Jackson’s for that matter? We forget (or we are all too well aware) that most of the great ideas have been thought before us, and many of our best ideas are rather shallow. We don’t really know what it means to feel healthily and constructively. And so we argue over which is better. Science or faith? Reason or emotion? Fox News or MSNBC? These are actually false dichotomies to those in search of Truth. Truth is rarely found often at either extreme, and contrary to conventional wisdom, neither does it lie in the middle of extremes. Truth is frequently lurking somewhere on the margins where most people are not looking, and it is only he who truly seeks finds.
Arnold briefly toys with the idea of nationalism and making the State the center of shared values. For Arnold, liberty of action is less important than unity of thought. It may be that Arnold, an Englishman in every sense of the word, attempts a project too grand an ambition for fallen man, or at least too grand for a republic, a system which depends on debate for survival. But the great strength of his discourse lies in his discussion of two powerful forces: Hebraism and Hellenism.
Hebraism, as the name suggests, is the religious impulse in man. It is the revelation of the divine which creates an awareness of sin and the impossibility of perfection. It has the force and rigor of Judeo-Christian virtues which encourage man to become something greater than he is naturally. It is at once an ethical system and yet dives much deeper than ethics, for it embodies that truth which seeks to mirror the attitude and behavior of God. Hellenism, by contrast, is the Greco-Roman counterpart to Hebraism. Historically, Hellenism has sought out knowledge of the world. It holds out to man the possibility of perfection through moral goodness. It discovers beauty in creation and seeks to understand how and why it is beautiful. These classical values, while lacking divine revelation, expound an ethic that is still virtuous, containing the air of religious experience without its doctrine. Together, Hebraism and Hellenism assert all that is admirable and imitable of Western civilization. In a digital and superficial age, however, both are under attack.
Some of the most virulent animosity against these two powers comes not from Western society at large but from the opposing camp. The secularist assumes he has no need of Judeo-Christian values, while the sacerdotal seeker believes he has already discovered truth. But neither is complete without the other. For instance, Hellenism is, by itself, grossly insufficient. We have seen the results of completely secular societies—many of which are responsible for horrific atrocities in their attempt to practice a supposedly better ethic than Christianity can afford. That early twentieth-century movement, Modernism, asserted neither soul nor spirit existed. All that is—or at least all that matters—is the material. Science was the dominant mode, and it tried to reclaim its place as a guide toward truth. Not long after, Postmodernism rebelled against this notion, even the reality of metaphysical truth, yet today we see many people yearning for spiritual expression. But spiritual expression without religious authority is ineffective for growing the spirit. It may stir the heart, but it cannot transform the soul. It leads man to look into the reality of things, but it lacks a revelation to teach him how to interpret what he finds. He acquires knowledge without meaning.
But neither should the Christian abandon Hellenism simply because it is insufficient. Hebraism without Hellenism leads man to assume, in the words of Arnold, that all he needs is obedience and not intelligence. The blinders of morality keep moving man in one direction, though he cannot see behind or above him. Even that which is the best known and thought—nay, especially that which is the best known and thought—may contain immense wisdom. A critical point in Augustine’s gradual conversion in the Confessions is when he read the Platonists in comparison to the writings of St. John (VII.9). Yet at the same time, he recognized that, close as it was to the truth, it lacked spiritual substance. They rightly understood the concept of the logos, but not that the logos became flesh. Earthly knowledge should point us toward eternity; but we cannot reach it without the wisdom of the ineffable.
I know a young man who shows some promise as a chef, and he has expressed interest in attending culinary school. I remarked that it is a noble profession—and my mind imagined the sumptuous dishes and refined palatal experiences awaiting him. But I was disappointed to learn that one of his reasons for choosing chef school is so that he wouldn’t have to go to college. The one thing needful, he believes, is Bible. My heart ached to hear this, for while Bible is as valuable a pursuit as crockery, how much knowledge and experience might this young man forsake in the vain assumption that there is only one thing needful. I can only hope that in selecting the culinary arts he will accidentally stumble upon a cultural education that will whet his appetite for more.
Arnold states wisely, “No man, who knows nothing else [but his Bible], knows even his Bible.” For the God who provided the moral law of Scripture provided first the creation which needed redemption through the Scripture. If we apply ourselves to understand the moral law alone, we have completely neglected the reason for the moral law’s existence and have become, in effect, the worst form of Pharisee. What is needed, then, to avoid this heresy is a devotion to both Hebraism and Hellenism.
What we mean by this merger is, namely, culture—what Arnold defines as sweetness and light. Artistic perfection married to divine illumination. The Hellenist’s best efforts are dark without the Hebrew law; and the Hebrew law is tyrannical without the freedom of the Greeks. The secularist should not try to ignore the soul, that essence which is most human, for when he does all his philosophy will crumble beneath him. Similarly, the Christian life is most attractive when it is a life lived beautifully. The Hebraiser should adopt Hellenism for all of its wonder, its possibilities, its language for understanding the world. St. Augustine had no language without Virgil; it is from The Aenead that he finds the materials to translate Christ to the pagans. St. Patrick uses the words and experiences of the Irish to do the same. As does St. Francis. As does the current Pope Francis. He who sees Christ as a bringer of light will find greater joy than he who regards Jesus as another lawgiver. He who regards Jesus as a stoic takes the best and worst parts of classical culture but none of his own Christian. He who lives as a constant explorer will find more acolytes than he who thinks he has already arrived in his homeland.
Yet I fear the greater danger than the attacks of both Hebraism and Hellenism upon each other, destructive in themselves, is the subtle undermining of both powers by the more immediate force of Hedonism. The refining aesthetics of culture upon the soul, both the secular and sacred varieties, are made impotent against the masses clamoring not for substance but for entertainment. Even many of our young people who go to college do not attend to discover God or the world but to find validation—either in “social studies” or in the diploma at the end of their prison term. More green and more bling is the order of the day, and a regard for science is only as interesting as the paycheck science can bring us. A friend recently told me that knowledge for knowledge’s sake was a waste of knowledge. Truth be told, these problems were alive in Arnold’s day, and Augustine’s for that matter. The middle classes, in their effort to get ahead, will find knowledge useful only as it is considered practical, while the lower classes, in their effort to stay afloat, will find all such knowledge meaningless. So too will the upper classes, though more out of boredom than survival.
The good news is that culture is not at all impotent against hedonism; it only seems so against the overwhelming numbers of people content with superficial living. Seekers of knowledge and people of faith hold an enormous advantage over the masses in that we possess a far broader vision—the irony is that we are often blind to our own sight. Like so many things, we don’t realize that the key is already in our hands.
And so we can ask the questions many simply fail to ask. What does Star Trek, for all of its emphasis on dialectical materialism, have to say about Jerusalem, and how can Jerusalem be experienced on the USS Enterprise? What does Christopher Nolan’s Batman reveal about God’s justice—and compassion? How do both Shakespeare and Suzanne Collins reveal illumination? These are questions not only asked by the intellectuals but by all people eager to learn and experience within culture, to discover what is best known and thought. One does not have to read broadly to search—though the searching may be all that much the richer. It requires only a hunger, an eager longing to discover sweetness and light.