People care about culture and many feel that there is something wrong with the contemporary culture. In my assessment, the reasons can vary. We live in a culture that is mixed and people who are critical of it can be responding to different aspects of it. The cultural Marxists, who dominate the media, our educational institutions, and Hollywood, seem driven want to eliminate all aspects of what remains of traditional Western culture, which is Judeo/Christian; while many Christians dislike what is replacing the traditional Western culture...and yet both who seem to hate so much of what they see around them will label what they dislike a capitalist culture. I suggest, that what is good in the world come from the influence of a traditionally Catholic culture and is consistent with it. I too see a lot about the evolving culture around us that seems to me to be bad and ugly too...
...but I don't blame capitalism, industrialization or mass production for any of it. I see them as forces that amplify and propagate powerfully the underlying forms of the existing culture, for good or ill. In my view, the ugliness of culture - which shuts out the beauty of the Faith and the beauty of God - and it arises from any force that restricts faith and freedom. First amongst these are our own failures to be faithful and to be examples that encourage others to be faithful too; then any ideologies that stand against these principles, of which cultural Marxism is one of the most strident today.
What is culture?
A culture is the emergent pattern of activity associated with a society of people that manifests and in turn sustains and nurtures the core beliefs, values and priorities of that society.
We can apply it to a society or nation; or to subgroups within in a society: cafe culture, drug culture, youth culture, Christian culture, Western culture, secular culture.
Here are two cafes with very different cultures, the one you would rather have a cup of coffee at says something about you and the culture it represents.
Why do people care about culture?
I suggest that people care about the culture because they see instinctively that it reflects and influences a worldview. We naturally desire a culture that reflects our own views. When we see a culture that does so, we see it as something pleasing and it reassures us for ‘we feel at home in the world’; when on the other hand we see a culture that speaks of a worldview that is different to ours, we feel alienated. For the believer, when a culture reflects a pattern of activity that is consistent, generally, with a faith in God we see it as beautiful.
Culture both reflects and influences a worldview
Culture not only reflects attitudes, it tends to influence people at a deep level too. The more we see it, the more we like it. So when the culture reflects my values, I am reassured not only because it affirms my own beliefs by telling me that others believe it too, it also reassures me that it will be like this in the future, for it reinforces those values in society as a whole.
This is why culture is a battleground - or it ought to be. I say that because although the cultural Marxists are fighting for it, and seem to have successfully occupied the powerful institutions of our country - education, the news media and entertainment especially - those interested in Faith and Freedom seem to abstain from the fight and have handed the open field over to them.
Culture comes before the law
Political and legal battles are won long before issues get to elections or the courts. Beauty is our secret weapon. It has the potential to sidestep prejudice that would exist if we used reason alone, its tendency, which can be resisted, is to draw people to the Good, those values that we associate with a free and fair society, and ultimately to God. If we want to win the battle against the culture of death, we must fight as well as the battle for the culture of beauty.
More about culture - it is a pattern that emerges as we see the whole, and which might not be apparent in the parts.
Emergence is the principle by which we see a pattern only, or at least most clearly, by looking at the whole, at the wider horizon, which is not apparent when we look at its details or parts. It a paradox that the pattern of the behavior of individuals is not a microcosm of the pattern of the whole society.
To illustrate the point, take a look at the Mona Lisa, regarding the whole we discern an image of a lady.
However, each microscopic element of pigment in the paint that makes it what it is it is not a mini-Mona Lisa. In fact, Leonardo could not begin to tell you anything about the mathematical function that describes the relationships between one particle of pigment and another. Rather he looks at the whole and manipulates his impression of the whole and as long as the whole has the desired result, he doesn’t care what’s going on at the level of the particular. In fact, we would probably find that nobody could describe the structure of the Mona Lisa that way.
And when we look at the individual particles and the relationships with the other particles around them we simply cannot say what sort of picture it is part of. The relationship between the two is not apparent.
Look at this arrangement of Lego bricks, can you tell what it is? Notice how every piece is distinct and if you consider the relationships each one has with the surrounding pieces, each one is unique.
Yet when we step back and take a look at the whole, we see the following:
Hey, presto! It is a lego Mona Lisa. The real Mona Lisa painting is many times more complex yet just like the Lego version, every one of the billions of pigment particles has a unique place in the array. The place of each lego brick or particle of pigment is defined primarily by its relationship to the whole and can only be understood when we see the big picture.
Analogously, in society, the behavior of every person is unique. If he is behaving according to free will, then the pattern that describes his behavior is mathematically random. There is no mathematical order. That is not to say that it isn’t rational - if the person is acting in accord with his ultimate end it is supremely rational - rather, it is simply that mathematics cannot describe the pattern of his reasoning. Yet, for all the mathematical randomness of individual behavior, there is a discernible order that does describe society as a whole that contains people behaving individually.
Some aspects of this order can be described mathematically - that is the basis of the study of trends of behavior that comprise the social sciences and of economics as a science. The Austrian Nobel Prize-winning economist Frederick Hayak noticed this apparent paradox between individual behavior which is unpredictable and predictable trends in the whole, and he called the pattern of the wider view a ‘spontaneous order’. We all naturally discern that order intuitively in a different way when we perceive culture. We are noticing a pattern that applies to the whole.
This contrast was thought paradoxical because the assumption of all natural science had been for a long time that the behavior of the parts follows the same pattern as that of the whole. Therefore, it was assumed, we can understand better how a planet behaves if we understand better how a sub-atomic particle within it behaves. This assumption is, in part, the drive for scientific analysis. It is true to a point, but modern science shows us that once you get really deep into the parts, down to the level of sub-atomic particles even the material world behaves paradoxically too. Sub-atomic particles don’t behave in the same predictable way that the whole which comprises of those same particles does. This is the mystery of quantum mechanics.
Beauty and Culture
When we see that pattern of the culture around us and we like it, we feel at home in the world - and we call it beautiful. That is no surprise, the word cosmos in Greek means both order and beauty and it also means the universe ie the cosmos, all of what Christians call 'Creation'. The Greeks thought that the cosmos was beautiful because it was ordered and we were seeing that order in it when we apprehend its beauty.
What is the point? The point I want to make with this is as follows, that once we accept this paradox of the emerging order, there is no contradiction between the existence of personal freedom and a culture of beauty.
In fact, I would go further, that a culture of beauty is a culture that speaks to us of love - an aggregated love of the personal relations of all those people who contribute to it. If it speaks of love, then it also speaks to us of freedom and faith, for there is no love without freedom and love is greatest with faith.
In other words, we cannot create a culture of beauty by trying to manipulate and control people’s behavior for that diminishes freedom. All we can do is strive to create the conditions that promote loving interaction. That is, a good society gives people the freedom to choose and inspires them to choose well by showing them the beauty of the Faith through the example of our own participation in a culture of Faith. This will then create a culture of beauty.
It is impossible to centrally control this through, say, government because we can neither prescribe or control individual behavior well enough. You can't force someone to be free!
The more that society is regulated beyond the minimum that is necessary to preserve personal freedom, the more it restricts the flourishing of beauty and more ugliness we see. This is why post-war Western society is so ugly, I would maintain. Whether the cause is socialism or crony-capitalism or simply a decline in faith (which might otherwise inspire us to choose well) then ugliness abounds.
We in the US are currently in a mixed culture in which different forces are striving for dominance. The future of the country depends on which one persists. I am seeking a society of faith, freedom, and beauty. I came to the US because I think that it is the hope for Western civilization in this regard. For all that it is not perfect, in my opinion, it is the place where these values are most likely to flourish in the future and influence powerfully the rest of the world by people being attracted to what it has.
It is the Church, the mystical body of Jesus Christ, fully redeemed that sets out the roadmap for each of us to use our freedom well. There can be no Christian version of ‘sharia law’ even if it were possible because people must be free to choose, even to choose badly, if they are going to be free at all.
We hope for a society in which the culture's ordering principle, the form one might say, is the transfigured Christ. It will never be realized fully in this life, but we can move closer to that ideal in the here and now. Education and other factors are important, of course (after all, I have devoted much of what I do to education and for just this reason). But once again, the greatest contribution that each of us can make is to play our own part. We can conform more closely to our supernatural end, through grace and participation in the sacramental economy. All other efforts we make arise from this start. When we partake of the divine nature we become pixels of light, individuals photons that contribute to the Light.
And it is the Light that will overcome the darkness.
Note: The Way of Beauty podcast #6, which appears on September 13 on Podcast page of this site discusses this topic in much more detail. Check it out if you enjoyed this article!.