Now Includes a Survey of the Popes' Statements on Building a "Civilization of Love"
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, surveys the history-changing ideas of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and brings a message of inclusion and hope in the midst of a battle between the culture of death and the culture of life, providing a road map to help Christians understand their role in the world.
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About the Author
As Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson is the leader of the world's largest fraternal organization of Catholic laymen. Named by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II to several Vatican commissions, Anderson is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and the Pontifical Academy for Life, and is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Read an Excerpt
A Civilization of Love
What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World
The Power of Christ to Transform Culture
Pope John Paul II often spoke of the Christian's responsibility living in what he called the new "Areopagus of culture."1 The phrase recalls the apostle Paul's preaching to the citizens of Athens in the first century—one of the first great encounters of Christianity with pagan civilization. Today it is commonplace to speak of a "clash of civilizations." Several years ago, it was just as common to speak of "culture wars," and some people continue to do so. But such encounters between civilizations or cultural values are nothing new. They have happened over and over again in the course of history, in episodes that are sometimes cataclysmic, sometimes subtle, and almost unnoticed. One such moment is Paul's preaching in Athens as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.2 By recalling the Areopagus so often in the context of culture, I think John Paul II was suggesting to us that what St. Paul did in Athens remains an important model for every Christian in understanding the promise of Christ to transform culture.
Paul's visit took place probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 58.3 The setting was Athens, "the school of Greece."4 The Romans, who had ruled the city for over a hundred years, called it doctae Athenae, "learned Athens." For the Romans, Athens held a central place in the evolution of their culture. Here, wrote Cicero, "civilization, learning, religion . . . laws and institutions aresupposed to have arisen, and to have been disseminated over the whole earth."5 If Athens was the symbolic center of civilization, the center of activity in Athens was the Areopagus, the "hill of Ares."
Today the Areopagus, a rocky outcropping in the center of Athens, is chiefly a tourist site, from which one can photograph the much more famous and imposing Acropolis or the sprawling modern city below. In the first century, however, the Areopagus was the seat of the city's council, the core of its administrative and judicial system. Just as important, it was one of the places in which the Athenians gathered to indulge the restless curiosity for which they were so renowned. "All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new."6
In his discourse, St. Paul would not disappoint the Athenians in their expectation to hear something new. But he begins disarmingly by mentioning an altar he has seen in Athens to "an unknown god." Building such an artifact was a strange act of reverence, and Paul hints at the highly ambiguous nature of classical religion by saying that the Athenians must be "very religious"7—a word in the Greek original that could also be translated as "very superstitious." For the Greeks, the world was teeming with gods that inhabited the sky, the earth, and, it seemed, each tree and rock and stream. As charming as this may look to us, it had a sinister aspect. Any of these countless gods could be offended, bringing ruin to a city, and it was not always easy to tell which god might have been the culprit. So the Athenians hedged their bets with an altar to an "unknown god"—some deity that might have been overlooked in the crowd.
But the God of whom Paul speaks is not some minor spirit. He is the one, transcendent God in whom "we live, and move, and have our being,"8 and he does not dwell in temples or in statues made of silver and gold. Then Paul departs still more radically from the classical pagan mentality. He says that God has resurrected a man whom the world has killed, and it is this man who will judge the world in righteousness at the end of history, when, indeed, all the dead will be raised.
Paul's listeners hardly know what to make of his speech. Although their myths tell of a distant past in which the gods came down to earth and lived and even mated with humans, the Athenians have never heard such a claim made about a man who has lived in recent times. And while they were familiar with a full gamut of beliefs about the afterlife (including heaven, hell, and reincarnation), no one has ever proposed to them that the dead might rise again, or that God might intervene in human history and even bring it to an end. Some laugh at Paul; others put him off, saying, "We will hear you again about this."9 Only a few believe. Scholars and theologians have debated whether St. Paul's style of preaching at the Areopagus was effective—was it a success or a failure? But what I think is more important is what Paul is saying to us about Christian-ity's mission in regard to culture.
Although the Areopagus hill had extraordinary influence historically in regard to pagan culture, perhaps its greatest influence was its role in myth as the place signifying the dependence of human law upon divine law. This role was recorded in Aeschylus's great Greek tragic play The Eumenides (first produced in 458 B.C.). In his drama, Aeschylus portrays the founding of the council of the Areopagus as the result of a moral contest for the establishment of an entirely new order of community justice. Orestes, who has killed his own mother in retribution for her murdering Agamemnon, her husband and his father, is haunted by the Furies, who cry out for vengeance. The goddess Athena intervenes to supplant the rule of vengeance with the rule of law, thereby transforming the institutions of classical society. At the end of the play, the dark forces of the Furies are transmuted into the Eumenides—the "kindly ones of light." Those listening to Paul proclaim a new Gospel on the site of the Areopagus would no doubt have understood the parallel he was making. They would have seen him as proclaiming a new era in which the darkness of a society that worships before "the altar of the unknown god" gives way to a new order. The Christ whom God has raised from the dead is the one who will transform their culture and their history.A Civilization of Love
What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World. Copyright © by Carl Anderson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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“Few elements of Catholic social teaching have been more forcefully stated, or more regularly ignored, than our calling to bring Christian teachings to bear on social, political, and economic issues. Anderson seeks to bring that message home.”
“Anderson artfully weaves theory and practice, giving us a rare specimen indeed: a practical guide for idealists.”
“Anderson has written a book brimming with insights into the transforming power of Christian faith. A Civilization of Love is both a call to personal holiness and a handbook for Catholics who are prepared to take seriously Christ’s command to his disciples to be ‘salt and light’ in the world.”
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