Nota Bene: Last month’s blog was dedicated to diagnosing ATS (All Things Secondary), and a call to rediscover the joy and stability that comes from focusing on the life’s essentials. This month we’ll examine building a culture that is focused on primary things.
GK Chesterton famously quipped “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The difficulties of Jesus’ message are well known and have—for a greater or lesser extent—been applied or ignored by each generation. His disciples responded with wonder and joy to much of what He taught, but on the finer parts of the Gospel they would ask, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” This question has been echoed often.
Must I really love my enemy? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Must I really be faithful to my husband or wife? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Must I really care for the poor? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Must I really guard and till the earth? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Must I really forgive? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
In fact, it is often the case that the Christian principles most challenged and doubted are those that reflect the particular battle lines within a culture.
Must I really accept the gift of life? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Must I really accept the way God made me as a male or female? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Must I really use my freedom in accord with my nature? This saying is hard, who can accept it?
Several recent books identify these battle lines and attempt to triage the difficulties of presenting and living the Christian life in a post-Christian society. Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post Christian World provides an astute analysis of where the Church should be leaven in society, and where it must be more introspective and nurture itself as a healthy counter-culture. Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture candidly describes the symptoms of a post-Christian society with much of the same wit as one would fine in Chesterton but without the same joy. And lastly, Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation provides a possible model of a Christian sub-culture preparing itself to lead the renewal of culture in an indeterminate future. These books were likely written as a post-mortem to what was expected to be a Clinton presidency, however their insights remain prescient, as the symptoms they treat and the disease they diagnose continues regardless of the political climate. All the books hinge on an analysis of what core beliefs have been questioned, abandoned or systematically dismantled in recent years and their subsequent social effects. Some are so bold to offer treatment. (A good analysis of these texts is provided by Patrick Deneen’s article Moral Minority in First Things.)
These books, as do others, provide a convincing argument for the challenges we face. They convey the urgency with which Christians, all people of faith and even those just committed to the common good, should respond to our generations skepticism and dismissal of previously held Western (i.e. Judeo-Christian) values. However, we must remember that culture is not limited to just the battle lines. To assume that it is only on a battlefield that we learn what a society values is a grievous error. True we must know what we hold most dear and defend it even with our lives, but what we hold most dear is known long before the first shot is fired.
If not on the battlefield, then where do we find Christian culture most clearly lived? Some might say at liturgy or other religious activities; others may point out the myriad charitable programs that serve the poor and defend the weakest in our midst; still others might point to the artifacts typically associated with the high points of Christian—and often more specifically Catholic—culture, the towering cathedrals with their buttresses and spires and innumerable priceless works of art. While all of these answers adequately point towards where Christian culture can be seen, felt and touched; the source of culture, its wellspring, development, preservation and flourishment is something more subtle and ultimately incarnational. Culture flows directly from the faith convictions and presuppositions about the most important questions of life. In short, the questions of origin, identity, purpose, and destiny. It is the natural and organic activity that flows from how we answer these questions that culture is formed.
Renewing the culture, then, is not limited to answering the question of why one should accept the previously held truths of Christian civilization. It is much more than that. Christian culture must be enthusiastically lived and it is this conviction born of believers both in life and yes even in death—“sanguis martyrum semen Ecclesice”—that we build and advance the culture. The presuppositions about the dignity of humanity, the goodness of nature, the tragedy of sin, how God can be known through both His creation and His self-revelation–it is these and many other essential beliefs that guide, direct, and form the substance that we call Christian culture. In Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains that culture is formed from the active response to how the world is, a form of contemplation and listening that invites a response and participation in the work and plan of God for us specifically, and in general for all of creation.
A healthy culture is never static; if it were it would fail to have the compelling power and aesthetic needed to carry it to each succeeding generation. A healthy culture is never erratic; if it were it would fail to have the staying power and reliability needed to be brought to bear on the whole of life. Rather, a healthy culture is constant in its essentials and widely varied in its artifacts and how those essentials are brought to bear on the unique situation of each particular generation. A healthy culture can assume onto itself whatever it finds that is good, beautiful, and true in the world around it. Even a cursory review of the history of western civilization cannot help but to find the Church prominently involved in the development of culture in the west.
For culture to endure it must have the power to integrate (that is to apply to the whole of life) and to carry itself forward (what Newman called the illative sense). Christian culture then forms when our convictions about the truth of our being made in God’s image and likeness guide our understanding of work, when our convictions about the goodness of nature guide our consumption and use of it, when our convictions about God’s love for each of His sons and daughters guides our treatment of the poor and vulnerable, when our convictions about the beauty of human sexuality and the complementarity between the sexes guides our understanding of marriage and impacts how we approach dating and family life, when our conviction about God’s mercy helps us understand sin as the deprivation and diminishment of who we’re are called to be. When the answers to the fundamental questions are brought to bear on the everyday challenges of life and allowed to provide a context and framework for responding to them, it is there that culture is being transmitted.
And not only there, “where the rubber meets the road” so to speak, but elsewhere in more primary things. In fact, there is often a temptation to see the transmission of culture only in the response to the challenges of sin and our finite being. The formation and transmission of culture in its most native form is found in our leisure, our rest and celebration of what is in the world, whether it be in the form of feast, or in form of art. Pieper explains “Wherever the arts live from the festive contemplation of the world and its foundations, something like a liberation is achieved, a setting forth under the open sky-both for the creative artist himself as well as the simplest onlooker.”
The transmission of Christian culture is dependent upon each successive generation’s ability to bring the wholeness of their beliefs to bear on the whole of life. This is a proposition broader than just winning the cultural battles of the day, and in fact our winning them largely depends not on the clarity of our arguments (though truth is indeed compelling), but on the beauty of our lives. How one dates, how one works, how one exercises leisure, forms friendships and consumes the goods of this world, along with how one prays and worships all contribute to the formation and transmission of culture. How much the essential beliefs of our faith can compel people towards a way of seeing the world, how well the answers to the fundamental questions prove worthy when tested by experience, is largely dependent upon our witness. It would be naïve to believe that we are not called to the front lines of the battle field in our current society—Christianity is indeed under attack, as it always has been. However, if we want to win the war, our focus must be on more than just the battle lines. If we are to reclaim our Christian culture we must first reclaim ourselves.