Church and Culture

I would like to draw your attention to an article from a blog for which I have a lot of esteem – Sitz im leben.

It is good to see this blog come out of a long bout of writer’s block. As I read this article with greater attention, I don’t doubt I’ll have something to write.

I so hate February and the seemingly unending winter. One very good blog I have recently discovered does one post a week, but one that is very well thought out and written. I am thinking about moving towards such a routine myself.

That’s all for now…

* * *

A few hours later…

I have been giving some thought to this article (mentioned above) and also to the state of Catholicism in Belgium. Some would whittle the whole thing down to sexual morals and the euthanasia issue. Others blame Muslim immigration. Exceptional situations become blown out of all proportion, admitting only all-or-nothing answers, so I will not go into these issues.

Naturally, I am interested in the liturgy and more from a theological and historical point of view, and less about the fine points of rubrics. The real issue is the reality of a sacramental Church – less the institution and the enforcers of canon law, but more the aspect of the Church continuing the Incarnation of Christ through the Mass and the Sacraments. Liturgy can no more be separated from the Church than particular issues of morals and social teaching. We too easily lose sight of the whole.

Now, the question is that of knowing what is left of the Church. I don’t see much of it where I live. It is only visible in churches on Sunday mornings – and nowhere else in life. We keep getting reminded that this is a secular country. Churches have to consider problems of cultural relevance. When they do, they melt into the secular landscape of political correctness. There is another and higher dimension, but which is generally not found in parishes.

The Church originally evangelised through the ambient culture, the most challenging examples being ancient Greece, China and Japan. Those who went to those countries had to be selective in their approach, so that the Christian message should not simply become dissolved in the culture in question. Many stories of evangelisation and early Christianity are doubtlessly myths, and Christianity only had success with large numbers of people through political means and constraint. I have been under illusions as to the idea of Christendom or a Christian society. Western civilisation is partially influenced by Constantinian Christianity, but mostly by combinations of political circumstances and the old paganism.

How do we compare the French Church under Louis XV and the Church in a world owned by billionaires and vast business corporations? Surely, the feudalism is the same or at least has many points of comparison. In our own day, the Church in Europe has evaporated, and it is going the same way in the USA. It might be prospering in Africa or China, but that is no concern to us unless we go and live in Africa or China.

One thing the blog article has noticed is that modern society, apart from those who are convinced atheists, are open to belief in God and some form of spirituality. The stumbling stone is an organised hierarchical Church, liturgy and institutionalism. On the other hand, plenty of people still attend disciplined and organised churches with both traditional and modern styles of liturgy. The loser here is the liturgy, at least the liturgy for its own sake outside contemplative monasteries.

Our friend targets post-modernism, a very nebulous expression and one that is difficult to prove empirically. I have often used the term without being able to give it a clear meaning. Like existentialist philosophy, it does not lend itself to the use of reason and logic. In my own experience of life as a late Boomer, I see it as a reaction from the hyper-rational industrial age called modernity, something going back essentially to the era of the dark satanic mills of the eighteenth century. By way of analogy, some people nowadays react like the Romantics did from about 1790 until 1830. But, this phenomenon is far from being general as in the earlier period in the wake of the French Revolution.

I don’t know how many people are interested in esoteric sects. I have not heard of the Rosicrucians or the Martinists attaining any significant growth in recent years. They became very popular in the early twentieth century, when many people were lapping up crank philosophies. New Age is hardly ever talked about these days. On the other hand, quite a few spiritually-minded folk like to read books and work on their inner life in some kind of psychoanalytic approach. I see nothing wrong with that, and that has been my own approach to a great extent. That might be called narcissism or navel-gazing by some, but we can only love other people when we love ourselves.

It is interesting to note the growth of non-liturgical churches of Protestant inspiration, even in countries like Papa Bergoglio’s Argentina and Brazil. They are often aligned with authoritarian and conservative political tendencies and provide a moral and spiritual framework to the conservative vision – whatever that means. Those communities can be every bit as authoritarian as Rome. I don’t think people have a problem with something bordering on totalitarianism. To the contrary, like the German people in the 1930’s, they lap it up. I don’t see a preference for individuation, at least at the level of society in general.

Our friend has a highly germane point: The substance of the monastic teaching was never diffused into normal Christian life. Liturgy only has meaning in a context of complete commitment to Christian living through asceticism and contemplation. Many efforts were expended in the nineteenth century to bring monastic influence into mainstream church life, the prime example being Dom Prosper Guéranger, founder of Solesmes and a product of Romanticism like his friends in the Liberal circle of La Chesnay. Most of us are not called to that degree of asceticism and are much more Epicurean and pleasure-loving. We run the danger of an overly erotic attachment to God and beautiful things! On the other hand, a Stoical equal and opposite reaction is fruitless – is Christianity is merely about foregoing pleasures that are not necessarily sinful, or even about obeying authority and foregoing “private judgement”?

Our world is in a dangerous polarising movement, seemingly unable to learn from history. Christians blame “private judgement”, individualism or claiming one’s own personality and consumerism when we all live in the same society and are forced to buy our food in the same supermarket. It took me a long time to emerge from my denial of the fact that conservative Catholicism and Protestantism share the same indifference to the liturgy. Another valuable point:

This fact, that Christianity should actually have to answer for something, that it should be able to justify its adoption, shakes traditional churches to their core. Whereas many branches of Orthodoxy had to justify their existence under centuries of Muslim rule, Western Christianity, until recent times, had unparalleled success. It is now in a position of having to justify itself. This is a role that the Western Church has long since forgotten how to play.

What better justification for Christianity than the liturgy as a vehicle of contemplation and erotic love of God and the world above that of the Creator and all forms of determinism? That is what one would think, but a notion that does not seem to correspond with reality. The western liturgy has been the victim of so many ideologies in both the Roman and Reformed systems. It was no longer a “given” in the Christian community, but something like a French garden or a styled head of hair, controlled and rationalised. I return to my analogy of the “industrial revolution” in the Church together with the philosophy of Kant and Descartes, as dry as the powder they used to put in the wigs!

One problem of Christianity is one of intellectual credibility as science affirms its own autonomy. Where is the west going? It’s a good question, especially in these days of uncertainty and the possibility of war. I fear that if we get a war now, our industrial civilisation would go the way of the Pyramids in Egypt! Or worse…

Christianity cannot relate to modern corporate feudalism or the cultural vacuum that seems to be the lot of most people these days. Can it relate to any kind of culture? Perhaps an answer to that question is that we live according to vastly different cultural references and we are multi-cultural. That is not an euphemism for a society that has assimilated Islam or other foreign cultural references. A certain class of people in this country has the television on for the whole day, even when they are not actually watching it. Many have no books in their houses. My wife and I hardly ever have the television on, and often watch a film on our computers. Our entertainment is classical music and blogs. She plays computers games, and I do not. In this country, we have “culture” departments in our supermarkets. They sell, books, CDs, DVDs, games and “creative arts”. We need to reflect on our culture and what it means, because it is not only our life of leisure outside our duties of working to earn a living and doing jobs around the house. It is our entire way of thinking, reasoning, feeling, imagining and living. I suppose my wife and myself are of a “sub-culture” outside the sterile bounds of modern corporate and compartmentalised life. Where do spirituality, faith and religion fit in? For most of our contemporaries, religion is an optional extra, something nice, but not part of “life”. We return to the monastic theme, a world to which most of us do not belong.

Religion is condemned to be counter-cultural and self-consciously conservative, and this is a self-destructive mechanism. The only way out is not at the level of society or politics, whether authoritarian or liberal, but small groups with something in common binding the members together – choral groups, a bunch of friends going sailing together , artists or anything. Christianity is all about friendship, community, communion and transfiguration in Christ. The modern corporate world has little use for friendship. Little Continuing Anglican Churches work on the same basis as other associations and free groups, except that the thing in common is specifically our Christian commitment and desire to live as a sacramental and Eucharistic community. Friends and disciples – that’s how it all started.

Friendship and humanity are a culture with which the Christian ideal and Sacrament can relate.

* * *

A day later:

I find this haunting passage of Fr Ratzinger from many years ago in The future of the Church. One advantage of being in a small and marginal Church is our almost total lack of bureaucracy or corporate management. I reproduce the quote in its entirety (leaving the American spelling):

“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.

To put this more positively: The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality. Unselfishness, which makes men free, is attained only through the patience of small daily acts of self-denial. By this daily passion, which alone reveals to a man in how many ways he is enslaved by his own ego, by this daily passion and by it alone, a man’s eyes are slowly opened. He sees only to the extent that he has lived and suffered. If today we are scarcely able any longer to become aware of God, that is because we find it so easy to evade ourselves, to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other. Thus our own interior depths remain closed to us. If it is true that a man can see only with his heart, then how blind we are!

How does all this affect the problem we are examining? It means that the big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but but the priest who is no specialist; who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.

Let us go a step farther. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge a Church that has lost much She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she loose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision . As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Along-side this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

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10 Responses to Church and Culture

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, I thought these words of yours encapsulated something very useful and true:

    Christianity is all about friendship, community, communion and transfiguration in Christ. The modern corporate world has little use for friendship. Little Continuing Anglican Churches work on the same basis as other associations and free groups, except that the thing in common is specifically our Christian commitment and desire to live as a sacramental and Eucharistic community. Friends and disciples – that’s how it all started.

    This seems a good place to start, or continue from.

    • One thing I have found so hollow is to be in a church where people don’t know each other, don’t want to know each other, but yet pretend to love each other. I think I’m grasping something. Hypocrisy has killed churches. Only something genuine can give Christianity meaning. Where there are two or three… That is so true. Christianity was manifestly designed for groups of friends – otherwise it is unworkable and it is better to have something like Islam or Soviet Communism.

      The only kind of thing that makes any sense to me is (from the lay person’s point of view) to be in a little intimate community, or in some great cathedral or abbey and allowing it all to “wash over” and have no contact with anyone.

      • What we are talking about here is the formation of real communities. As anyone who has ever attempted the religious life or to have a successful marriage will attest, this is hard work. Some years ago, a prominent American psychiatrist and author, M. Scott Peck, wrote a book about the process and stages of forming authentic communities, and it continues to speak today to those who would attempt to do so.

      • I haven’t read the book, but the reviews in the link you gave convey an idea, that of the human community as distinct from the present day structures that alienate us all from each other. I do think that until something happens at this level, there is no way to “make Christianity relevant” and our churches will continue to be empty and redundant. There are obviously two aspects to consider – how individual Christians relate to non-Christian society and how Christians relate to each other. Another thing to consider is how intensive the community is, from living together to meeting once a week for an hour’s worship. Christianity has always ridden piggyback on existing realities? What can it ride on nowadays?

  2. Indeed. As my bishop is wont to say, “Friends become Church members, and Church members become friends.”

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Religion is condemned to be counter-cultural and self-consciously conservative” – might one not say, instead, something like ‘Religion is called to be culture-critical and self-consciously selective (as well as generously conservative rther than “temporally provincial”)’?

  4. “Christianity has always ridden piggyback on existing realities? What can it ride on nowadays?”

    Christianity is, first, good news of SALVATION. What is salvation? Healing. The healing of bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits. The healing of relationships: marriages, parents and children, siblings, estranged friends. This healing is itself mediated through relationships and within community: “Outside the Church there is no salvation” stated positively; “Within the Church there IS salvation”.

    There never has been, and never shall be a shortage of alienated, hurting, and/or economically deprived people. It is to these that the Church and its members, as Christ present in the world, is called to reach out. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” All the poor. The poor in spirit and in body. The poor in mind and heart. The poor in relationships.

    We are nothing special. But we have been, are being, healed. We are wounded healers whose wounds are themselves being healed. We are beggars telling other beggars where we have found food, drink, and shelter. Let those who will come, Come!

  5. James Morgan, Olympia WA USA says:

    “I fear that if we get a war now, our industrial civilisation would go the way of the Pyramids in Egypt! Or worse…”
    Of course the Pyramids are still there, but the civilization that built them isn’t. And we can make of them what we will, but probably we misinterpret them since all we have left of that civilization is only partial documentation of the culture. I wonder what generations in the future will think of our wonderful cathedrals and skyscrapers. They will probably scratch their heads a lot. (See that wonderful book “Motel of the Mysteries” by David Macaulay, or the article ‘Digging the Weans’

  6. JV says:

    Thank you for your complements to my blog, Fr. Chadwick. Not so much writer’s block, but the obligations of family life. Thankfully we have another blizzard keeping us all in place today.

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