Even if they can’t say what it is precisely, people care about culture. They will fight to protect it if they feel it is good and is threatened, and they battle to change it if they don’t like it. It matters because people perceive, very often instinctively, that a culture is a sign of what society values. When that culture speaks to them of the values they already hold, they see it as beautiful and feel at home in their world. When the converse is true and it is a sign of values that don’t match their own, they are ill at ease.
A Definition of Culture
This is the definition which seems to me to best fit most people’s idea of culture. We all recognize cultures that characterize a society or nation, subgroups within a society or even ideas, ideologies and faiths. Some are good and some are bad. We talk of American or British culture, perhaps, or of a café culture, a drug culture, a youth culture, Christian culture, Western culture, secular culture, Marxist culture and so on. When we do so we are recognizing a pattern of activity that speaks of their common values, and which connects each member of that society to each other, and distinguishes it from other societies.
Culture both Reflects and Influences a Worldview
Culture not only reflects attitudes, it tends to influence people at a deep level too. Put simply, the more we see it, the more we tend to like it, and our personal pattern of activity and attitudes tend to conform with it. So when the culture reflects my values, I like it not only because it affirms my own beliefs by telling me that others believe it too, it also reassures me that it the culture will very likely influence the next generation to also hold the values that are dear to me.
When, on the other hand, a culture speaks to me of values that are contrary to my own, I not only feel uneasy because I have to resist its influence which tends to undermine my own faith. I also become anxious because I worry that it will influence others to believe and act in a way that is contrary to my own beliefs and actions.
This is why culture is necessarily a battleground and why also it is worth battling for. We should be engaging with it and fighting to transform it with the weapons of righteousness, love, and faith.
Culture Works with Politics to Change Society
One way to understand the importance of culture is to think of the current struggle for the abolition of abortion. We see protests and petitions, prayer vigils and novenas all done to try to influence, in some way, politicians and legislators so that the laws can be changed. Since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade the political battles will shift from the national theatre to the states, but the war is still being waged politically.
There is way of influencing behaviour without law. The culture can be powerful in influencing opinion as well. It is a slower process, but more powerful and longer lasting in its effect. This was known by those who wanted to legalize abortion in the first place and they made efforts to influence the culture long before Roe vs. Wade. I believe that if we really wish to reverse things we must be prepared to take that long-term view as well and replace the culture of death with the culture of beauty, freedom and love. This primes people to seek what is good and true and so fewer people will wish to have abortions. This effort should happen alongside the battles in the judiciary and legislative bodies.
A beautiful Christian culture can influence thinking in all aspects of life for the good, not just the single issue of abortion. And it creates a dynamic of positive feedback in service of the good. The more people see it, the more they conform to it and in turn contribute to it.
Culture is a pattern of activity that emerges as we see more and more of the society it characterizes, and which might not be apparent in the parts.
We see a pattern that characterizes the culture most clearly by looking society as a whole rather than by a close analysis of its parts. Consider, for example, the culture of France. I can’t look at one Frenchman and tell what French culture is. I don’t know if the things that I notice about him are unique to him or are characteristic of all French people. When I observe the members of a French family, because I have more French people to observe, I can start to see what each has in common, and how they interact. There is a discernible pattern not only of individual action, but also of personal interaction. Even then, while this is a better indicator than the observation of one Frenchman, I can’t be sure what aspects of the pattern for the family are unique to them or are common to all families in general rather than characterizing the French nation.
In fact, I can never be certain of what characterizes all French people until I have studied the whole pattern of all French people through time. This is an almost impossible standard, but the more time I spend in France observing people and the more I study its history and the art and artefacts the more I am going to get a sense of what that whole might be and start to have some confidence that I understand French culture. My sense of what French culture is emerges as I become steadily more acquainted with all things French. As I build up that picture of what it is to be French, then I will form an opinion on the beauty of French culture, and hence on the goodness of the French as a nation.
Beauty and Culture
It is said that French is the language of love. I would say that all nations can, potentially, speak the language of love through their cultures, and the degree to which they do so is the degree to which they reflect the Christian faith. Each in its own characteristic way can have a culture that is beautiful and which speaks to us of loving action and the most beautiful culture is one that communicates God’s love for mankind. As a detached observer, I can appreciate the beauty of French Christian culture when it speaks of the love that Frenchmen have for each other, but as an Englishman I will appreciate it even more when it speaks of the love the Frenchmen have for me.
The source of all love is God. We can only love each other because God loves us first and we accept His love. This is true even for the person who hates God. God loves him and to the degree that he loves his fellows he is at some level and in some part accepting God’s loving guidance in his life. As all human love is a participation in God’s love there are aspects of our loving action that are common to us all, they are universal and these are apparent in the culture too. Our attitude to God, therefore is the foundational principle that shapes all cultures and to the degree that we love God, it will be beautiful.
John Paul II put it as follows in his encyclical Centesimus annus:
“Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted. For this reason the struggle to defend work was spontaneously linked to the struggle for culture and for national rights.“
As Christianity is the deepest participation in the love of God, to the degree that a culture is authentically Christian it will be the fullest cultural expression of what is good, true, beautiful and loving. As such Christian cultures are higher and more noble than other cultures, which are good to the degree that they participate in these universal ideas. Furthermore, as these principles are universal in their appeal, so is Christian culture, which should be offered to all peoples, just as the Faith should be.
David Clayton is Scala Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence, and Provost of Pontifex University which offers the unique program the Master of Sacred Arts. His books on art and culture are: The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College; Painting the Nude: The Theology of the Body and Representation of Man in Christian Art; His books on prayer and the spirituality of creativity are: The Vision for You – How to Discover the Life You Were Made For is available here; The Little Oratory – A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home.