Mankind, by its very nature and manifested across time immemorial, has always lived in the context of ‘the group.’ New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a book boldly entitled The Social Animal – rephrasing Aristotle’s age-old definition of humans as ‘rational animals’ – in which he establishes the central characteristic of humans as their communal nature. Moreover, Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston School of Social Work and lights-out TED speaker has claimed that a summation of her decades of research shows two fundamental traits of human beings: “connection and belonging is why we are here” (pg. 68, Brené Brown, Daring Greatly). That really is a quirky, awe-inspiring reality. We are all individually and completely ourselves, but (avoiding all Jerry McGuire references) as individuals, we aren’t complete in and of ourselves. We need others. Hence, community is in our blood.
Now, arising out of these communities in which humans unavoidably find themselves is something called ‘culture.’ Equally as obvious and confounding as this communal nature of man is this term ‘culture.’ Everyone knows culture exists and that it is important, but we come up short when trying to define it. What is culture, anyway?
It isn’t just something reserved for stuffy museums and archipelagos of highly lauded ‘great works.’ It is not something people participate in only every once in a while when they see an opera, look at a Titian gallery or otherwise seek out some activity when they feel like ‘getting some culture.’ No, culture is far more expansive than that, formed from every corner of a building and every act of a citizen. It is “the way we do things around here” (pg. 174, Brené Brown, ibid.). It is the way of life of a people. It is not just what we do sometimes. Culture is the waters in which we are unavoidably swimming and the juices in which we are stewing. It is the spirit and soul of a communal body of people that exhibits its personality, life and health.
But, notice the root word of ‘culture’ – cultus, which is Latin for worship. Where is the natural spring, the birth canal, the inescapable origin, the ‘root’ for this ‘way of life’ of any people? Ultimately, it germinates from what that people worships. That is to say, culture springs forth from what that people loves and gives its collective heart to.
This is such a crucial point. This is why culture always comes back to how a community of people answers certain questions: What is ultimately significant and meaningful in life? What is true about the world and the cosmos? Who is man? What is his place and role in the world? What is the purpose in living? And, perhaps most poignantly, culture stems from and points to three questions achingly explored in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?
All of these questions show culture to be more foundational than just what kinds of foods we eat and how we dress. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of a people, finding its footing in how they answer Jesus’ perennial question:
“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)
In such a context, it doesn’t take an especially exacting gaze to see that our culture is not such a healthy one. It is one thing for a people to take their best stab at answering the questions above and let the cultural chips fall where they may. But, it something different entirely to do what our society in the West now does: not answer the questions at all.
Look at the above list of questions again… does our society give any whiff of an answer to them at all? How can that be? How is that approach to life an honest response to what are certainly the deepest, most rudimentary questions leaping up from the flames within our chests? How healthy can a culture be (and, more importantly, the people who give birth to such a culture) if it stands blind, deaf, dumb and mute, cutting out its own heart? This is why some have argued that we have no culture left.
What is the remedy? What can give life to what is dead? What can turn darkness into light? One (and only one) thing:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)
Each and every human being (and, by extension, each and every society) needs the ‘newness of life’ that only Jesus can give. It is to Him that we must come with empty hands and to Him that we must give everything. He is the only one who has the power to change societies and their attendant cultures. Life comes from no other source than God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the definition of foolishness (and Einstein concept of insanity) to dig into any other well. Therefore, if we wish to play a part in healing the wounds or solving the problems around us, we must, as St. Therese once said, “hide [ourselves] in the wounds of Christ,” so that, through us He may redeem, transform and give life.
And this is the climatic point of the Christian life: if we are truly pierced and converted by the Gospel, then we will spray out over the battle-contested garden of the world as warrior-poets of the Gospel – firmly girded with trust and hope in our Father and ever ready to die for Him in our combat against evil.
We follow Him on His mission to save people from destruction and death (as we ourselves have been saved.) In this way it is absolutely our mission (albeit, indirectly) to build a healthy culture, because it is our mission to let the light of Christ change the way people see and live in the world – to unleash Christ to transfigure hearts.
This is what it means to be a disciple. Consequently, it is only this kind of sold-out abandonment to the Christ-centered Gospel that suffices for restoring a putrefied and entombed culture like ours. When disciples truly live together in a community of Gospel-oriented mission, then societies flourish and fluoresce with truth, unity, justice, beauty, goodness and peace.
Brothers and sisters, this is what we are called to by Him who stands at the ready to pour out His grace and power into the hearts of all men. How can we not respond?