"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Being God's works of art

Among the many works written by my first philosophy professor, Arthur C. Danto, is one called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. It's an instance of the philosophy of art, one of his specialties. Such interest as I developed in that branch of philosophy, as distinct from the arts themselves, was aroused by that book. That was mainly because, in one of God's many little ironies, the title could just well apply to the spiritual life itself—even though art was about the closest thing to a religion that Danto had. Since today's Gospel was about the Transfiguration, I thought I'd say a bit more about how the title applies.

Unlike what is implied by many priests and theologians, I do not believe that every good thing is also holy or sacred. "The sacred" is a realm of being distinct from "the profane." From the standpoint of man's search for God, the sacred is that which man "sets apart" from the profane for representation of and/or service to the divine. Thus, people and things become sacred in virtue of being lifted out of the profane. The rituals in which such people and things serve a sacred function are themselves sacred because they are not ordinary, profane activities but rather ones in which some form of contact with the divine is sought. In natural religion, all the "profane" activities of life are valorized by being somehow related and oriented to the sacred activities. Now in the true, "supernatural" religion, revealed by God and thus signifying God's search for man, we also have sacred people, things, and activities. Human culture and convention play a part in all that. But they are ultimately established and given their meaning by God, and thus valorized, through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Our purpose in participating in them is to extend the Incarnation through the profane world by making Christ "be all in all," starting of course with ourselves. We are to become sacred ourselves so as to "transfigure the commonplace." If you like, we are to turn the world into God's work of art by first being his works of art.

Most lay people seem to have a very hard time grasping that. The most important human relationships, which occur in the "commonplace" spheres of family and work, are not often seen as that which we are destined to transfigure and thus make sacred. They seem to take their primary meaning from our secular and thus profane reality, and the best we can do with them spiritually is to try to follow "the rules" of Christian morality as we navigate through them, so that we aren't derailed by them. They remain profane in our consciousness and in reality; the "sacred" is reserved for liturgy, prayer, and maybe some volunteer activities. Among the truly "devout," this is rationalized by assuming that all the world is God's and everybody is a child of God, so that everything good is taken in theory to be sacred even if we don't often feel that in the realm of the commonplace. Such an attitude of course ignores the very real need for transformation: first, that of metanoia or conversion, a turning of the mind and heart to God; then, that of transfiguring the commomplace to serve the same purpose. If everybody and everything good is somehow sacred to begin with, then creation needs no transfiguring. God has done it already, to the extent it needs to be done at all; all we need to do is be nice and prosper.

That is illusion. To transfigure the profane as we are called, we must each undertake the journey of faith as Abraham did. We much each persevere, despite the deserts, the setbacks, and the unfairness of life, in the belief that God will make of us and our world something incomparably greater than we can see if we but conform ourselves to Christ. It's not easy to be God's work of art, or even to see how one is such a work in progress. Yet such is the meaning of the sacred, as opposed to the profane. We are set apart and thus sacred by baptism; but that is only the start of transfiguring the commonplace.
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