Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cultural Transformation: Time and Place for Each Model

In response to Christopher's Post on Culture Transformation, several of the points he makes are excellent, but I disagree with the implication that the only acceptable model for Christian culture is the "Christ transforming culture" model. While I have not read H. Richard Neibuhr's Christ and Culture and am merely writing off of Chrisopher's post, I want to make the case that there is a proper time and place for the "Christ against culture" and "Christ of culture" model of Christian society.

I'm willing to concede to Christopher that for the average Catholic layman in contemporary America, to adopt the "Christ transforming culture" model makes the most sense. Our society and culture is based largely on Christian values, and for the most part, things shown in movies and in the media are a mixed bag of virtue and vice in which a properly trained Christian can distinguish between the two and choose to take what is good.

Yet, the very phrase "Christ transforming culture" is a transitional one. Christ has to be transforming culture from something (what it is) to something else (what it is meant to be). So in this model, what is Christ transforming culture to? Probably a culture more Christ-like, a culture that embraces and fosters the good, the true, and the beautiful. The French peasant philosopher Peter Maurin, who inspired Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, said that the definition of a good a society is one that makes it easy to be good. Think about that for a moment. A good society is one that if one were to get caught up and swept up in the culture, one would become a better, more virtuous person. That's awesome.

So if those adopting the "Christ transforming culture" model were really successful in creating a Christ-like culture that reflects the good, the true, and the beautiful, then the next generation would be fortunate enough to grow up in this society. In their case, adopting the "Christ of culture" model would make a lot more sense than it does now, for that culture would be a reflection of Christ. Places like the University of Notre Dame and Franciscan University of Steubenville, to a certain extent have this "Christ of culture" model of society. In those places, to get swept up in the culture is to become a more virtuous human being. That's what makes those places distinct and special.

On the opposite extreme, there's a proper time and place to withdraw from the world as St. Benedict did, though for the average Catholic layman, that time and place is probably not contemporary America. Yet, if things got much worse, if Catholic schools were outlawed and the only choices were public schools that taught all sorts of lies to our children about our humanity and our history, if Catholic professionals were being forced to violate their conscience as a litmus test for professional certification or speaking in the public square, if people were thrown in jail and sentenced to death for being and living out the Catholic lifestyle, then yes, it's very important, in that society for faithful Catholics to go underground. In fact, in the darkest periods of human history, that's what the martyrs of the early Church did, that's what the Desert Fathers and that's what St. Benedict did. The ironic thing is that from those persecutions, which led to the passionately intense small Christian communities, time and time again, our Church and our faith have been renewed and came out stronger than ever. My point in my original post was that if it got to the point where we had to go underground again, 1) could we and 2)would we have what it takes to be as successful in renewing our Church and our society. Is our contemporary Catholic sub-culture strong enough?