The famous German philosopher, Josef Pieper, said that leisure was the basis of culture, but he wasn’t speaking of leisure the way we normally understand it: as a lifestyle choice of the rich and famous or simply as freedom from work. He was asserting something more fundamental. He was saying that leisure makes possible the pursuit of values that form the foundation of culture.
These values are Beauty, Truth and Goodness.
Both pagan and Christian traditions call them the transcendental values because they transcend this world. They exist beyond time and space, yet, they are also portals through which the light of heaven enters the world. From our end, we can also peer into them to “see” (metaphorically) a higher and purer world of grace. They are like heaven’s stained glass windows.
Their true meaning
Beauty appeals to and affects human emotions. It is the foundation for the supernatural gift of Hope. Of all God’s creatures, only humans have the capacity to feel deeply the beauty of the created world and hope for something even loftier beyond the problems of daily life.
Truth nurtures our intellects and is the foundation of the supernatural gift of Faith. Truth helps us perceive right and wrong. It saves us from error and ennobles us to live in community with others and in harmony with God’s creation. The mind must be fed constantly with truth in order to thrive and grow.
Goodness strengthens the will and is the foundation of the supernatural gift of Charity, the very essence of God’s life. Authentic love always takes the form of concrete acts of goodness: kindness, generosity, heroism, self-sacrifice. Our souls are enriched even by the simplest acts of goodness we find all around us.
We see here the real meaning of the transcendental values. They are both spiritual, in that they come from God, and immanent, in that they touch us in the circumstances of the real world. They are indispensable for our spiritual lives, but they also give us the possibility of building authentic culture, of finding common values and causes with those who may not hold the same creeds as we do.
In essence, the transcendental values are unifying factors against all the divisions of the world. Anyone can perceive them. They unite us to each other and to God.
We have a problem
But modern western culture has a big problem. It is excessively materialistic and hedonistic. These anti-values, along with the loss of faith, increasing violence and serious institutional corruption, have drained western societies of the ability to perceive authentic Beauty, Truth and Goodness. Most people have lost any sense of transcendence in their lives. This may be why we have virtually no mystics in the modern age.
An incident at the National Gallery in Washington DC last year gave me some insight into this dilemma. I had gone to the museum to see an exhibit on Renaissance painting, and as I walked through one large room of the gallery, I came upon a magnificent Botticelli painting on a wall displayed by itself, radiant in all its sublime beauty. I was transfixed by its splendor.
A number of people were looking at it too and then moved on to another painting. When they did, I turned and noticed a young man (late teens or early twenties) on a bench opposite the painting. He was intently staring at…his iPhone, while sitting in front of the priceless Botticelli.
I understand how symbiotic most people’s lives have become with their phones nowadays so I am normally quite tolerant of phone gazing, but the contrast between the magnificent work of art on the wall and the phone-addicted kid sitting right in front of the masterpiece – ignoring it – was just appalling. I spent another twenty minutes browsing the precious artifacts in that room, but during that whole time the young man never once raised his head from the four-inch screen in his lap.
It also occurred to me that this materialistic addiction probably wasn’t completely the young man’s fault. He was just one of many entertainment-saturated drones whose souls have been shriveled for lack of any contact with transcendent values. The secular culture feeds him excessive doses of instant gratification on a daily basis, and he will probably grow up to be just another passionate advocate of socialist causes.
Enemies of transcendence
Teaching transcendence is not the work of governments, although government can create favorable conditions for the transmission of culture. It is, first and foremost, the work of religion but also of social institutions (like family, schools, the arts, etc.) that are tasked with handing on human values.
The forces that destroy our perception of transcendent values are, essentially, all their opposite values.
A society that exalts ugliness in art and fashion, coarse humor, violence and human degradation is a society where people find it hard to perceive true Beauty. Pop culture and advertising use Beauty to sell their wares, but they prove the saying, time and again, that beauty is skin deep when it is treated as a means to self-glorification or a quick buck.
Corrupt schools and educational systems don’t hand on Truth to the young anymore; they indoctrinate. That has become apparent by the recent insanity coming from the so-called educated classes. It hardly needs mentioning that the media have collectively surrendered their mission of Truth-seeking and have become the ministry of propaganda for leftist causes.
The social viciousness and violence we have witnessed in the past year alone has shocked most Americans to their core. These are only the most recent outbreaks of violence. The fifty-year endurance of abortion as a legal (and protected) institution shows how far we have fallen as a society from any concept of basic human goodness and decency. Those who claim that the killing of innocents is a positive “good” for society have a value system that is twisted beyond belief.
In short, a society that makes war on all that is beautiful, true and good can only decline as a civilization. Without the balancing influence of a vigorous church (which we clearly do not have), there is very little that holds it together. The degradation of transcendent values undermines the very foundations of human culture, not to mention the inherently religious culture that built our own civilization.
The same dynamics occur on a personal level and in families and communities of any type. When the common commitment to Beauty, Truth and Goodness is weak, society is weak. And when these values are absent, society simply descends into chaos. Anyone who has a basic grasp of history knows this.
It doesn’t look like the conditions for building a more humane culture in America are going to get more favorable any time in the near future. Honestly, our social problems will probably get a lot worse before they get better. I’m not a pessimist, but my realistic sense of what’s going on in religion, politics and culture right now tells me that America is in a precipitous state of cultural decline.
One antidote among many
We must all do something to offer hope to our culture in a time of degradation, and I’m trying to do my part. This week I launched a new website dedicated to Beauty, Truth and Goodness. It is called Sacred Windows, for all the reasons I laid out at the beginning of this article.
A website is not a substitute for the gospel, but it can be a conduit of gospel values and God’s life. At the very least, it is one antidote among many for the problems of our age and something positive to assist us in our own spiritual renewal. We all have enough negativity on our plates right now.
Give Sacred Windows a look when you have a minute and peer through heaven’s stained glass windows for a while – at your leisure. Hopefully you will find refreshment of soul and an answer to a declining culture.