Sense and Nonsense: The Sacred Polis

In Oscar Cullmann’s book, The State in the New Testament, he remarked that in the Book of Revelation, the primary embodiment of the anti-Christ would not merely be an individual but an individual claiming and autonomously exercising political power, with no standards but his own. Stated in such graphic terms, we assume that we ourselves would recognize such a state if it happened in our time. Yet we cannot be so sure. The tyrannic state that sets itself up against God might very well be a most attractive place, run by attractive folks. If our own souls are not in order, we might well approve a wholly disordered polity.

We have heard, no doubt, the expression, “the culture of death.” It is a wide-ranging notion that has come to encapsulate ideas and practices of much of the science, philosophy, and even religion of our time. Here, “healthy” human life is opposed to “unhealthy” human life; adult life is opposed to incipient life; declining life has little worth. Theories have made many human lives expendable. Our minds, it is said, cannot reach reality. Reality thus appears death-like to us. Even nature takes on more significance than human nature. Some spend more time protecting animals and plants than protecting human beings.

What is to replace this “culture of death?” Is there anything on the horizon? Many held that the “evil” empire was the Soviet regime, but that has now largely dropped from view. Others thought that perhaps a return to civility, to Christianity would occur once the disorders of communism were manifest. But it did not happen. Instead, there has arisen something called “postmodernism,” which is not so much “after” modernism as the radical completion of ideas, several centuries old, already implicit within “the modern project.”

In a remarkable book by Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, these ideas and their intellectual origins are called, “The Polity of Death.” They refer to the nihilism that has come to charge our intellectual classes, our academies, our personal life. We have rejected the ideologies, but we have found nothing else. Indeed, we claim that nothing else is to be found.

Here, I do not intend to review Pickstock’s book, but I will remark that this is, no doubt, the one book that might wake up the Catholic hierarchy as to what has gone wrong with its own agenda. The alternative to the “city of death” is in fact “the sacred polis.” We will be astonished to hear this phrase, even more to discover that it refers to the classic Roman rite Mass in all its Latin glory and meaning, expounded by a young Anglican author. Without doubt, this book will win a prize for the most elaborate and esoteric use of words in this generation. I have not used a dictionary so much since reading P. G. Wodehouse. Yet, it is worth it.

After Writing is nothing less than a continuation and completion of Gilson’s Unity of Philosophic Experience, that is, a book that takes pains to explain where philosophic and religious ideas come from and lead to. It is a polemic against a core of ideas that lead from Duns Scotus, to Descartes to Derrida, ideas that ultimately seek to justify the primacy of epistemology over metaphysics. It is a defense of Plato and Aquinas, of transubstantiation, and of what the real alternative to modern nihilism is.

Readers of Josef Pieper’s Enthusiasm and the Divine Madness—itself a commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus, as is the Pickstock book—will be prepared for the long delayed confrontation with the primacy of liturgy precisely as the answer, in this case, the divine answer, to the deepest of philosophic questions. This very proposition that philosophy has a “consummation” and that consummation is found in both Plato and the classic Roman rite will seem, in the beginning, preposterous.

Plato had said that, in the end, we should spend our lives “singing, dancing, and sacrificing.” He was not wrong. Pickstock remarks that the Socratic city was wherever Socrates was. Her analogy to the Roman rite is that the true and proper human contact with God is where this liturgy in its authentic dimensions is being celebrated, a point that Cardinal Ratzinger has also recently made. But she does not think that current liturgical forms or the ideas that justify them have understood or surpassed the structure of the classic Roman rite. The “liturgical” consummation of philosophy is precisely what we do when we know by faith and reason the structure of the world and God’s initiative in it. That is, our contact with the reality that is must burst forth into something fuller, something that recognizes the gift that is our world, ourselves, and our redemption.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...