I am reading a book by an historian at Yale named Timothy Snyder, and I’m not sure whether to recommend it to you or not. The title is Black Earth, and it is the account of the destruction of civilization in Eastern Europe by the Soviets and the Nazis in the period between the two wars. I can only manage about twenty pages a day, because it is grim, it is horrible, and Snyder’s account is minutely detailed. One is, in fact, overwhelmed by details. But . . . the devil is, quite literally, in the details and listing them all is necessary.
Surprisingly, the Soviets were much better at this than the Nazis. They’d been at a policy of destruction for a much longer time, beginning when Stalin came to full power in 1924, following the death of Lenin. Also, they were motivated by a political ideology, and this made their actions systematic and methodical. The Nazis only got going in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, signed a non-aggression pact and divided up Poland, the Baltic states, and the Ukraine between themselves. The Nazis were motivated by a racial ideology, not a political one, and this made their actions – murderous and horrific to be sure – but also haphazard and sometimes self-defeating. Not that that was any comfort to their victims, who were dead.
The Nazis used Einsatzgruppen, special death commandos. The Soviets used the NKVD and the NKGB, also death commandos, and ancestors, so to speak, of the KGB. What you do is this.
First you execute or exile all members of the government and others with political authority. Then you do the same with those who have large businesses or factories or were, simply, rich, and you close the business, the factories, confiscate them and take the money as well. After that you go after teachers and intellectuals, kill them and shut down the schools, universities, museums, and institutions devoted to culture. You shut down churches and, needless to say, synagogues. Sometimes you destroy them. And you eradicate the police and the military or bribe them or threaten them into collaboration. You forbid the speaking of the conquered country’s language or you make them speak yours instead. You ban all meetings of more than a certain number of people. You create suspicion everywhere and make it difficult for people to have normal relationships with one another.
Normal relationships with one another. That is all important, for normal relationships with one another is the bedrock of what we call civilization – trade, business, work, law, education, friendship, common interests, national identity, political life. Once you have destroyed the things that are basic in people’s lives, you, the conqueror, can do anything you want, for the conquered can and will do anything they want or need just to survive. Without civilizing institutions they are no longer bonded to one another by a common life. Morality goes out the window. People do things which only years before would have horrified or repulsed them. They steal and they cheat openly. They betray family members and friends. They themselves murder others out of envy and greed. They abandon their husbands. They abandon their wives. They abandon their own children. Everything collapses.
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Now there, brothers and sisters, is the sad and horrible part of this sermon. But there is, I promise, a happy part. So let’s get started.
I have always believed, and from Snyder’s account, it would seem clear, that we, human beings, need civilization. We need it in order to be human, and not something less than human. We need civilization to allow us to be with one another. We need it to relate to one another. We need normal relationships: trade, working together, a political life in which we all participate together. We need common association of interest, of art and culture, of religion, of special interest, of law which is recognized and ways civilly to dispute with one another. We need all those things which civilization makes possible in order to be ourselves. And perhaps this means that civilization is not a human construct, but is born of something deep within ourselves, which makes us what we are. Made to be with one another.
You may have heard it said that “civilization is only a thin and fragile veneer over the life of the jungle which shatters easily.” I don’t believe that. It took a great deal of work – if that’s what you can call it – for the Soviets and the Nazis to destroy civilization in Eastern Europe. Perhaps civilization is a lot more durable and tougher than some suspect. And it has come back, hasn’t it ?
But to get even happier, let’s talk about culture, because culture is an aspect and indeed a crucial aspect of civilization. I don’t know how to define culture, and I’m not going to try. Rather, I’d like to steal a line from Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court, considering something very different. In a decision of 1964, he wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Culture ? I know it when I see it.
But it is also doubly difficult for me to try to define culture, because I, like most of you, am an American, and there is no such thing as American culture. I don’t say this to put our country down, but rather to put our unique and – yes – exceptional country up. America has no culture of her own. We have many shared folkways and obsessions, like baseball, football, hot dogs and beer, but no unique definable culture.
Rather, our country is constituted – or it used to be – by a common allegiance to certain norms, ideals and procedures, tests for truth and falsehood. We have documents which make these things clear. And these norms, ideals and procedures allowed numerous cultures often to live happily and usually peacefully side by side. This was true from the beginning, or at least an ideal from the beginning. An ideal which we have again and again tried to realize for everyone. This is a remarkable thing and throughout history something rarely encountered. If there is an American culture, it is, then, multi-culture – which is not something invented in the 1990s, politically correct and chic, but was rather the American ideal and reality from the beginning.
But I’m getting sidetracked. Today I want us to think briefly about culture. Specifically, about Christian culture. For there is a Christian culture, or, I should say, there are various Christian cultures. And if today we celebrate the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s actions, the Spirit’s gifts, in individual lives, and in the common life of the Church, we must not neglect to mention the action and influence of the Holy Spirit in society and in the Church to make and to shape a culture. There are and there have been many manifestations of this. The most obvious, of course, would be the Christian culture of the Western Latin Church and the Christian culture of the Eastern Greek Church. There are quite a few others: most prominent today would be the Christian culture which is even now emerging in Africa – something powerful and altogether new.
God’s Spirit brooded over the primal waters, and there was creation. The Spirit is a creator. God’s Spirit inspired the prophets, and they spoke God’s word. The Spirit inspires and witnesses to the truth. God’s Spirit anointed Jesus and drove Him into the wilderness where His ministry – that hidden battle – began. The Spirit is part of God’s action to do away with all that is opposed to God. God’s Spirit fell upon the disciples, and a group of fearful and disloyal followers became a mission of universal scope. In Scripture we see the Spirit of God creating, empowering, conforming, in-spiriting, and inspiring. In history we see that same Spirit, through the agency of the Church, shaping society into various cultures, which are informed by the Gospel and animated by its values and standards and goals. And even today’s very secular society is influenced by those same values and standards and goals.
It is true that there have been betrayals and colossal failures. “History is judgment,” as Herr Hegel tells us, and culture is ambiguous. Its highest achievements have at times been used for the basest and most loathsome ends. And – yes – the Gospel has been perverted and made to be an instrument of domination instead of the means of salvation. However, acknowledging the ambiguity, as we must, we must also guard against a self-congratulatory pessimism and remember that “cynic” and “cynical” come from the word for dog. (Not lovable old Fido, but a snarling, mangy cur.)
Christian culture has given much to the world. The world is better for it. Even the non-Christian, non-Western world is better for it. And we may give thanks and praise to God the Holy Spirit, “creator and giver of life.”
Culture is like a womb which has been brought into being by the Holy Spirit and is at the same time inseminated by the Holy Spirit. What is born out of that conjunction is again culture and its progress. Among the offspring we find such everyday but crucial things as manners and family life, such complicated things as morality and government, such expressive and essential things as art, music, architecture, poetry. Christian culture is a womb formed by the Holy Spirit, made fecund and fruitful by that same Spirit, and bearing much that has changed and improved and inspired the world.
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This morning we are enjoying a sublime work of art: Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D. Mozart was a Catholic and in his own funny Mozartian way a devout one. Today’s Mass is one of eight which he wrote for ordinary Sunday mornings in Salzburg. There are others for fancier feast days. It is, I think, a joyful expression of the composer’s own faith and of the Faith of the Church. Through Mozart, God the Holy Spirit speaks to us in the sacred texts of the Mass.
And so, Good People, Christians, be inspired yourselves as you listen. Let the One who inspired Mozart inspire you through Mozart’s art. And think also of the centuries of Christian culture that gave birth and culminated in this great work of art. Think of the musical tradition which was born again in the womb which is that culture and which itself in turn gave birth to Mozart and to his wonderful Mass. Be inspired and think and pray and give thanks.
And together let us praise God the Holy Spirit. Let us praise the Spirit for the grace and quickening power which the Spirit brings into our lives, into the Church, and into the world.