Which came first, the Christian Culture or the Converted Christian? Or, more precisely, which comes first; a way of life inspired by the Gospel or a personal encounter and relationship with Christ?
At first, this seems like an easy question. Of course, an encounter with Christ has to come before an individual starts following Christ! And if an individual doesn’t love Christ, what motivation would there be to follow Christ’s commands?
Encountering Christ through Culture
It becomes more complicated, however, when we consider how most individuals encounter Christ. Jesus is no longer with us in the way he was 2000 years ago, but he left us a Church that is supposed to present him to the world. Part of our duty as members of the Mystical Body is to show Christ’s love to others, and one of the ways we do this is by building a Christian culture. That’s what the Early Christians did; they built a social way of life that was informed by the Gospel. By doing so, they made the love of Christ palpable and appealing to outsiders. They also produced a subculture where, as Peter Maurin would say, “it is easier to be good”.
This website promotes the building of Christian communities as a means of evangelization; to effectively evangelize, such communities must have a culture that is deeply informed by Christianity. Evangelization means giving good news—and our good news is a Person. Through our community way of life, as Tim Keller explained in a recent podcast episode, outsiders are able to meet Christ. So in a certain way, the Christian culture does come first. This also holds true for children being raised in the Faith; their first encounter with Christ will be through the witness of their family and community.
Culture can be Dangerous
Despite all this, there can be a certain danger in putting the cultural aspect first. For one thing, those raised in such a setting won’t necessarily have a personal encounter with Christ that results in conversion. A Christian culture (whether in a subculture or in the wider society) can actually end up acting as a sort of substitute for true discipleship. The result can be a society where everyone “goes through the motions” but where charity has gone cold. A merely cultural Christianity can be more dangerous than a secular hedonistic culture because those in a Christian culture think they already understand the Gospel message.
Don’t Blame the Culture for the Failure of the Church
While the cultural aspect is usually first in time, it shouldn’t be first in our imagination. Instead, we should focus on our personal relationship with Christ. That relationship should motivate us to build that “world in which it is easier to be good”—for others! Of course, it might be easier for us as well, but that shouldn’t be our primary motivation. If it is, we can end up blaming “the culture” or “the world” or “the church” for our problems. We might imagine that if only conditions were better, we’d be better. In reality, we bring ourselves and all of our weaknesses and failings into any new circumstances. (In a recent podcast episode with members of the Bruderhof, we discussed following Christ as the primary motivation for building community.)
Live in the Moment!
We can end up wasting a lot of time trying to provide ideal cultural conditions for ourselves and our families. If we’re always looking forward to an imagined future, we’ll miss the many comings of Christ in our daily lives. Even from a more temporal viewpoint, a focus on an imagined ideal future is a mistake. I was once lamenting the lack of community in the modern world, and a friend said to me, “Everyone lives in a community! Of course, it might be rather dysfunctional!” It is usually better to work with what we have rather than attempting to find the ideal life.
A focus on cultural influences can also make us fearful; it can erode our trust in God. Christians can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness when they find themselves in less than ideal circumstances. In a hostile cultural setting, they can feel that God has betrayed or abandoned them. We shouldn’t focus so much on the chaos in our society and Church that we forget Christ’s promises. He promised that the gates of hell will not prevail over the Church and that he will be with us till the end of time. God is a loving father and gives each of us everything that we need to achieve salvation.
“The Good Life”
Seeking ideal conditions can easily degenerate into a selfish pursuit of “The Good Life”. Christians sometimes try to justify a comfortable, aesthetic existence as being helpful for spiritual and cultural development. This mentality can blur the Christian call to aid the poor. Feeding the poor has to take primacy over art and other cultural experiences. If we find that we can’t pray in less than harmonious settings, then we should question the true strength of our relationship with Christ.
In the end, an overemphasis on the cultural aspect is Pelagian. We can end up trusting in good works or institutions or rituals to save us. The world is a broken place, and we can’t redeem it or ourselves by our own efforts. We need a Savior. While many come to Christ through an experience of Christian culture, Christ is all-powerful and can meet us anywhere. (It is just like any relationship; loving relationships can start under the strangest conditions!)
Encounter and Discipleship
The Christian life is all about discipleship, and the first disciples were some of those exceptions to the rule of cultural primacy. When Jesus called his first disciples, they weren’t part of a Christian culture, but they had an encounter with Christ and responded to it generously. The first Christian culture grew from their encounter with Christ. The early disciples were on fire with love and enthusiasm, and gave their lives to provide a witness to others so that they could meet Jesus. Similarly, we should live as witnesses, letting our love of Christ become incarnate in our lives.
Cult dynamics may be more common than you think.
It might seem that most normal people don’t have to worry about cults. The reality, however, is that cults are merely dysfunctional communities, and their obvious flaws are merely an exaggerated version of common social problems.
There is a strongly felt lack of community in the modern world. This lack produces both a desire for community and a level of inexperience which can make negative dynamics more likely.
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter DeGoede discuss a few of these negative dynamics. They try to show the ways that these dynamics can crop up in everyday life, and examine some of the underlying problems.
Some Problematic attitudes
They discuss how cults are marked by dishonesty, both to members and to the wider world, and by a lack of openness to the truth. This type of mentality can afflict any group with divides the world into insiders and outsiders. Group members can become OK with not knowing the truth.
Cults are usually based on fear, but many seemingly harmless communities are also based on fear of the outside world. In particular, parents are afraid that the world will corrupt their children. That’s not a groundless fear but if it is the basis for community formation, everyone will suffer.
An obsessive focus on the nuclear family can actually become selfish and unchristian. Families may do well to avoid the more problematic aspects of our culture. On the other hand, if a focus remains on the negative, it can lead to greater evil. Christ illustrates this point with the Gospel parable of the man who swept his house of a demon, only for seven demons to return.
Focus on the Negative
A focus on the negative can also blind individuals and groups to the evil that is found inside, in individual souls or in a group. We’re all sinners, and we should ground our spirituality in humility. Christ comes to be with us in our weakness and failures. We shouldn’t try to find perfection, which can lead us to gloss over problems.
Any attempt to follow Christ will create a certain amount of division. We have to make choices that will possibly alienate us from those around us. At the same time, such division can lead to cult mentalities by dividing the world between insiders and outsiders. Catholics should not make choices which turn fellow Catholics into outsiders. We have to remain united to the body of Christ, even if this can be a source of pain or frustration at times. In doing so we will be imitating the Saints, who preached a radical message which could be divisive at times, but who nevertheless remained faithful to the unity of the Church.
Along the way, a number of other topics are discussed, including the opposition between choice and culture, “family envy”, the difference between natural virtue and Christianity, liturgy as chosen, and the felt lack of control in the modern world despite our technological abilities.
Header image: a plan drawing of Port Royal convent, the center of the Jansenist movement in France.
Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter Land discuss why community is important. Topics include: the relationship of Christian community and evangelizing outreach to the world; the relation of the Trinity to the Christian life; the failure of individualism; the Incarnational aspect of community life; the “myth of the Frontier”; Grace and Nature; Choice and Culture; Eating as Dependance; Eating as Transcendence; the importance of physicality; Pope Francis’ “Throw away Culture”; cults, gangs, and the failure of community; fear and love; the danger of idealism; choice as the opposite of culture; being in a place; friendship; and the witness of monasticism.
(All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability)