“Sweetness and Light”
There have been several recent attempts to reignite the culture wars in the United States–I don’t think they will be successful, in large part because people are still focused on economic survival. At the same time, it’s worth noting the limitations of the prophetic rhetoric of condemnation in achieving social reform. I came across this passage from English poet and social critic Matthew Arnold (d. 1888), who was protesting the influence of a too narrow and negative conception of religion as avoiding sin and obeying divine law among the middle class in nineteenth century England.
It’s a salutary reminder not to reduce religion to mere negative moralism. Ultimately, as Arnold notes, it’s “sweetness and light”– goodness, truth, and beauty– that attracts and transforms people. And one of the strengths of the Catholic tradition has always been its ability to situate the moral rules in the context of a broader and rich view of human flourishing. Incidentally, that’s why I like Evangelium Vitae so much–the “culture of life” is fully, and positively, described therein–it’s not reduced simply to opposition to the “culture of death.”
“Another newspaper, representing, like the Nonconformist, one of the religious organisations of this country, was a short time ago giving an account of the crowd at Epsom on the Derby day, and of all the vice and hideousness which was to be seen in that crowd; and then the writer turned suddenly round upon Professor Huxley, and asked him how he proposed to cure all this vice and hideousness without religion. I confess I felt disposed to ask the asker this question: and how do you propose to cure it with such a religion as yours? How is the ideal of a life so unlovely, so unattractive, so incomplete, so narrow, so far removed from a true and satisfying ideal of human perfection, as is the life of your religious organisation as you yourself reflect it, to conquer and transform all this vice and hideousness?“ (Culture and Anarchy, para. 30.)