Proponents of liberalized Christianity are likely to argue that by minimizing or denying the discontinuity between this life and the next, their approach allows uniquely for an account of how Christian life transforms culture and history. However, the view proposed here also (and I think more adequately) allows for a Christian transformation of culture and the promotion of historical progress, while maintaining that redemption ultimately requires divine re-creation.
During his earthly life, Jesus drew people to himself and in doing so drew them together into the communion of his disciples. The followers of Jesus found the reason for their mutual relationship in their more basic interest in him. Similarly today, people who accept the faith have a common bond, but they truly become a working community when they celebrate the Eucharist. Its celebration requires common effort and a common place and property. People in a new neighborhood who do not know one another gather, build a church, and become one people. In former times, people scattered over a wide area created a town by building a church.
In meeting together, those baptized into Jesus and bonded to him and one another by Communion recognize one another as brothers and sisters. From this recognition grows love of neighbor and its works, the bearing of one another’s burdens (see Gal 6.2; 1 Jn 2.8–11; 4.19–21).
The actual performance of the Eucharist requires the use of many things: the materials of the gifts, of the church building and furnishings, of vestments; the works of liturgical language, music, and art; the whole secondary system of things involved in preparing the liturgy, the sacramentals, and so forth. All of these uses transform what is used toward holiness. In this way, the Eucharist creates its own culture and begins to consecrate the whole world to the service of God (see LG 34).
One need not idealize the Middle Ages to notice that Christendom was far more humanistic in practice than it should have been according to theological theories. The best in Western civilization was generated during the centuries when faith flourished. Even today, the cathedrals which express the humanism of an earlier time dominate most of the great cities of Europe.
In forming culture, the Eucharist, which is profoundly social, is also shaping not only the lives of individuals but even the entire course of the world’s history, directing the immense complex of human words and deeds, accomplishments and sufferings to the end appointed by God. Insofar as the Eucharist is a memorial which keeps present and effective—that is, available for our communal participation—the redemptive act of our Lord Jesus, the eucharistic act more than any other determines humankind to be what it is in response to the divine vocation. At the same time the reality of the eucharistic act in the world makes every moral evil, every refusal to accept communion with Jesus, into a more monstrous sin and a greater perversion of the power of humankind for fulfillment.
Hence, although history does not have an over-all pattern which we can interpret, it is not without sense. Still this sense is not single and unambiguous. The whole of history presents us with the vision of the field of the Lord, in which fine wheat is seen growing toward its maturity while, at the same time, weeds flourish with incredible vitality, seeming almost to overwhelm the wheat.
History has several stages. At first, with the dawn of creation, it had an unambiguous direction toward God. With the fall, this direction was changed to an unambiguous thrust away from God. Left to itself, humankind would have wandered endlessly in empty space. With the revelatory work which prepared for the coming of the Word and the repeated covenants between God and humankind, history was redirected into an orbit about the Incarnate Word. But with him, the course of history does not become a simple path of descent to our everlasting home. Those who share in the adventure of humankind’s history struggle for the controls; the course of history is erratic, although it cannot be forced out of its orbit around our risen Lord. Eventually, he will return, come aboard the world, and take control of it.
Progress in the course of human history is not from the material to the immaterial, from the biological to the intellectual. The Word was made flesh, and now his flesh is wholly transfused with the glory of his divinity. Progress in history is not from the human to the divine; our Lord Jesus from the start is perfect man and true God, and the fulfillment of history is to be he himself, nothing else.
Progress in history is from the carnal to the spiritual, from creation alienated from God to creation fulfilled in him. This progress occurs within history, but it is not a progress of history. The integrity of the historical order is passing away. But behind the eucharistic species, hidden with God in the Lord Jesus, the new Jerusalem which will flourish from age to age already is being built up (see LG 6; GS 38–39).25