“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ).
Is culture something necessary for the life of faith? Or, is it rather a distraction? Does it pull us further away from a focus on the next life, by rooting us in the things of the earth? Is it a temptation to try to build a lasting city, when Hebrews says “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (13:14).
The relation of faith and culture actually goes back to the very beginning of the Bible: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Gen 1:28). This primordial command to man and woman at their creation is followed by the account of the creation of Adam, when “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). This primordial mission is reaffirmed in the psalms: “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the sons of men” (Ps 115:16). And further: “Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet” (Ps 8:6). God clearly intends for humanity to have a mission on the earth, to shape it and to govern it, for God’s glory and man’s perfection.
We could ask whether Jesus intends this same mission to continue in the New Testament. Jesus does not contradict this primordial cultural mission, in fact his parables largely use the language of shaping the earth, but nonetheless he clarifies for us what Christian culture should be: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt 6:10). A Christian culture is one that seeks to embody the Kingdom of God on earth, by fulfilling the will of God in our lives. The Book of Revelation states this in drastic language through the song of the Elders in Heaven:
Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth. (Rev 5:9-10)
Christ’s work of redemption initiates us into the Kingdom, literally makes us a Kingdom, of priests to reign on earth. We know that this is not to be understood in military or political terms, but rather in that Christ’s holiness should shape the earth through our lives.
Paul recognizes that as priests reigning on earth we need to live differently from the Gentiles with their “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). Rather, he exhorts us: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15-16; I opted for the KJV use of “redeeming” over the RSV’s “making the most of”). A Christian culture entails a distinctive way of life on earth, which sanctifies or redeems the time of our age. Paul further explains to Timothy what it means to live distinctly, which he describes as a pattern: “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13). The pattern of life that we must live is putting into practice the words that we hear from the Church, formed by our belief in faith and action in love.
Drawing together this vision of Scripture we see that God intends us to have dominion over the earth and the rest of creation – which means we must care for it and shape it. This is the foundation of culture, rooted in the land, which we cultivate and use to produce the material elements of culture. In the New Testament we see that culture from a higher perspective is way of life, which embodies the teaching of Christ and the will of the Father in our lives. This is a new dominion of holiness, which sanctifies the world. Both visions are united by seeking to enact on earth what God has made known to us and commanded. A striking image of this comes from Exodus: “According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (25:9). Christian culture makes according to the pattern revealed to us by God.
Does the Church also teach this vision imparted to us by Scripture? Vatican II in Apostolicam Actuositatem makes it very clear that the work of salvation necessarily relates to a transformation of the world:
Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders” (§5).
In fact, when one embraces the salvation offered by the Church, it “stimulates and advances human and civic culture” (Gaudium et Spes, §58).
Pope John Paul II knew personally the power of culture as he sought to preserve his nation’s identity in the midst of Nazism and Communism. Through his trials, he became convinced that “the strength of the Gospel is capable of transforming the cultures of our times by its leaven of justice and of charity in truth and solidarity. Faith which becomes culture is the source of hope” (“The World’s Changing Cultural Horizons,” §7). He may also have given us the strongest statement on the necessary interconnection of faith and culture: “The synthesis between culture and faith is not only a demand of culture, but also of faith … A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived” (“Address to the Italian National Congress of the Ecclesial Movement for Cultural Commitment,” Jan. 16, 1982). So, yes, faith does need culture so that it may be lived out in the world in a coherent and complete way.
To conclude, Pope Benedict XVI has given us a powerful expression of how the natural and supernatural mission of building culture are intertwined. He gives us the example of the medeival monastery:
In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil,” it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish. Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown? (Spe Salvi, §15).
Catholic culture should root out the weeds of the world and our souls. Let us get to work on the project of rebuilding, taking up the call to exercise dominion over the earth, but one that is priestly and ordered toward the Kingdom that will never end!