What is Culture?

When I teach my class at Thomas More College I use a definition I heard in a talk from Fr Rob Johannson of the Diocese of Kalimazoo in Michigan about the Evangelisation of the Culture. He described it as that activity of man that reflects and in turn nurtures the core beliefs, values and priorities of the society. It is derived from the Latin word for field because traditionally it was always seen as something that has to be nurtured in order to preserve those core values, and hence preserve the society.

When we ponder on this, we can see that all activity of man constitutes the culture. It is not just high art, it is the most mundane activities – how we pick up a knife and fork when eating, how do we design our road signs…even how do we drive. And here’s another critical point: given that free will is involved, how we do these things can potentially be destructive to society, as well as constructive. I have never held the view, for example, that we must return to an agrarian society. Industrialisation, as high-tech as you like, could be a beautiful thing if it is the product of a truly Christian society. The reason that we tend to assume that it is intrinsically desctructive is that the industrialisation of the West has taken place in post Enlightenment society and so reflects that worldview – the result is ugliness and suffering. But it need not be so. The goal, I believe, is to transform what we have for the better, not to wipe the slate clean an try to go back in time. It is interesting to note, that modern agriculture bears the characteristics of factory more than the idyllic agrarian scene that we associate with the ancient and carefully preserved farmland of Europe that was given it’s characteristic look long before the modern age.

Here is a passage that I read in the Office of Readings on May 1st, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. It is from the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world of the Second Vatican Council and has the subtitle ‘The worldwide activity of man’. This describes the idea of all activities of man giving glory to God, just as the cosmos – the rest of His creation – does through its beauty and grace. Furthermore, that the cosmos is made better by this activity. It stresses the need for a connection between the faith and the wider culture. This goes back to liturgical reform, so that our participation in the liturgy, which I feel must include the liturgy of the hours, engages the whole person and then the Divine Beauty is impressed upon our souls and inclines us to order all our activities to it.

Here is the passage:

“Man, created in God’s image, has been commissioned to master the earth and all it contains, and so rule the world in justice and holiness. He is to acknowledge God as the creator of all, and to see himself and the whole universe in relation to God, in order that all things may be subject to man, and God’s name be an object of wonder and praise over all the earth.

  This commission extends to even the most ordinary activities of everyday life. Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realise God’s plan in history.
  So far from thinking that the achievements gained by man’s abilities and strength are in opposition to God’s power, or that man with his intelligence is in some sense a rival to his Creator, Christians are, on the contrary, convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the effect of his wonderful providence.  The more the power of men increases, the wider is the scope of their responsibilities, as individuals and as communities.  It is clear, then, that the Christian message does not deflect men from the building up of the world, or encourage them to neglect the good of their fellowmen, but rather places on them a stricter obligation to work for these objectives.”
Below is an 18th century factory building in England. When this was designed architecture still conformed to the patterns shaped by the pre-Enlightenment worldview. I include it to demonstrate that a factory need not be an ugly building, as it is hardly your dark satanic mill as described by William Blake at the time. Just in case anyone thinks that I am denying the injustices and bad working conditions that existed at the time of Blake, I am not. One presumes that Blake’s poem was not so much an a criticism of the aesthetics of the architecture of the factories anyway, as a comment on the poor working and living conditions of the workers. Industrialisation of this form was a relatively recent development and to the degree that dark picture was true for all industry at the time, was a product of a culture that did not value the human person fully. In this sense, the design of the factory and what was going on inside it were at odds with each other. In time of course, the broader culture steadily moved to reflect this secular, anti-human worldview an we see the ugly factories of today. And although the worst material injustices of that time were dealt with, the West at any rate, the impersonal aspect the culture of work has not (in my opinion).

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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