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.
In a recent blog post (Cult Politics), I discussed the spiritual dangers of the American political scene, and explained why this website isn’t “right” or “left.” This post is a follow-up addressing “ecclesiastical politics.”
When Jesus was on earth, he was opposed by two groups: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These groups were very different from one another. The Pharisees were moral and legal rigorists, concerned with maintaining the purity of the Jewish traditions. The Sadducees were compromisers interested in worldly power, and they rejected many aspects of the Jewish traditions. Despite all their disagreements, however, they were ultimately united in their opposition to Christ.
These two groups could be taken as exemplifying two basic temptations that can distort Christ’s message. Today, these tendencies are embodied in two groups that threaten the unity of the Church: the reactionaries and the progressives. The progressives water down the message of the Gospel to enable cooperation with the world. In contrast, the reactionaries emphasize externals instead of the spirit of the Gospel.
Despite their surface contrasts, both fail to properly understand the Christian message, the Incarnation of the Word. Our message is not a bunch of words, but rather is a person, The Word of God. Being founded on the Eternal Word, our message can’t change with the changing times. Reactionaries justify their rigidity and inflexibility by pointing to this changelessness of the Gospel message. They fail, however, to take into account the issue of “translation.” Much as a concept or subject can be represented by many different words and phrases in different languages and contexts, so too the Word of God needs to be “translated” into different expressions to effectively evangelize and Christianize different cultures, times, and social contexts. Further, the eternal, unchanging Word has been entrusted to the fallible and changeable human beings who make up the Mystical Body, and so there are two further issues that reactionaries ignore: development and corruption. Limited human minds can’t fully take in the one Word of God, and so the message develops over time as we come to understand it more fully; that is the point of the Church’s tradition. Due to original sin, the humans who make up the Mystical Body can also introduce distortions into the message, which then needs to be reformed and renewed by going back to the sources. Since reactionaries fail to grasp this, they mistake a certain way of thought and a certain set of customs for The Word Itself. In doing so they become idolators rather than Christians.
Progressives, on the other hand, realize that the presentation of the message has to change and develop over time, but they draw the false conclusion that the message itself changes along with the external form. Instead of seeing the message as an eternal standard against which to measure our attempts, they set about changing the standard, often in the name of mercy. Mercy, however, is the virtue that should inform our attitude toward weak human beings struggling to archive perfection. It has nothing to do with changing the standard we are struggling towards. By attempting to change the message, they too set up an idol: they adore their own understanding of who God is, instead of submitting themselves in humility to the Gospel message.
Both factions are ultimately seeking power over the message and therefore over others. For the progressive, the ability to reshape the message at will gives this power; the progressive becomes not a messenger of God, but an oracle. The progressive leader gets to determine in what ways the message should be reshaped for the current times. The reactionary claims to be absolutely bound to his traditions and unable to deviate from them. This too, however, is a way to gain power, since it insulates the reactionary leader from having to deal with legitimate renewal, reform, development, and diversity. Much as Christ challenged the power of the Pharisees over the common people, the reactionary feels threatened by any suggestion of change or growth. The reactionary figure typically rejects any criticism and refuses to dialog with those who are different. Further, the reactionary can end up acting in “colonial” ways, imposing his preferred liturgical, theological, and artistic styles on other social or ethnic groups, without reflecting that diversity in non-essentials can actually show forth the glory of God.
In a more “political” sense, progressives and reactionaries are also linked with one another. They feed off of one another, each using the excesses of the other to justify their own dissent. Each points out the errors of the other, ignoring the reality that there are many ways to be in error. Anything that leads us away from Christ is to be rejected, no matter what ideological label it bears.
Both groups also end up wasting a lot of energy fixating on inessentials, though for opposite reasons. The best example of this is the ongoing “liturgy wars” which have been dividing our parishes and wasting resources on endless church remodels, as the influence of each side ebbs and flows. The Sacrifice of the Mass and the other Sacraments are, of course, the summit of Catholic spirituality. But the Gospel says nothing about liturgical details, and a focus on these things ironically distracts from the very realities the liturgy is supposed to represent. (For instance, an ongoing debate over the “right” way to receive Holy Communion makes the Sacrament of Unity itself a cause of division.)
Another example is the way the two camps debate about the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Unlike liturgical details, sexual morality is mentioned by the Gospel and is a serious matter. Still, without a loving, personal relationship with Christ, Christians will find it very difficult to follow the moral law in any area, let alone sexual morality. And seen in isolation from the love of Christ, the rules may seem repellent or simply incomprehensible to outsiders. If both sides spent more time spreading the message of Christ’s transforming, personal love for every human person, they might find that the moral issues wouldn’t be as contentious or troublesome. The progressives would find that they didn’t need to relax the moral code to keep the membership up, and the reactionaries would be able to ground their moral strictures on a much more attractive foundation. As it is, while the progressives claim that reactionaries are too fixated on sexual morality, the fact of the matter is that they are both too fixated on it, though in different ways.
This points to the solution to the division and confusion created by these factions: stay close to Christ. To do so, we’ll have to give up our desire for control. It isn’t just reactionary or progressive leaders who cling to power; we all want a tame, predictable, controllable God who fits our expectations. That was the temptation of the Israelites at Mount Sinai; they built the golden calf because they wanted a god they could comprehend and “box in.” We all reach a certain level in the spiritual life and then want to stick there.
If we stay close to Christ, however, we’ll always be moved out of our comfort zones. Thinking with the mind of Christ will put us at odds with the world around us, just as he was at odds with the Sadducees. It will also shake the internal certainties, habits, and routines of our own groups, just as he disturbed the traditions of the Pharisees. He is a God of surprises.
How can we be sure, though, that we are thinking with the mind of Christ? As Catholics, we believe that Scripture and Tradition are sure guides . . . but only as interpreted by the living Magisterium of the Church. To accept this we have to have the humility to reconcile ourselves to authority. Submitting to authority does not mean turning off our minds, but it does mean that we can’t set ourselves up as interpreters of the Magisterium. We can’t confine ourselves to the past teaching of the Church while rejecting the present teaching; this will close us off to the possibility of being surprised or challenged. Neither can we reject the present teaching in the name of some imagined future development that is not sanctioned by the living Church. Only the present moment is truly real for us, and our Lord is not a God of the dead past or the vague future, but a God of the living present.
In our next blog post, we will discuss thinking with the mind of the Church and how loyalty to the Holy Father can help to keep us close to Christ.
“As members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, Christians are bound to one another and must bear one another’s burdens.”—Pope Francis
Bearing the burdens of another in a community is a difficult thing, particularly if those burdens come in the form of grief, shame, or exclusion; yet as St. Paul tells is in Galatians 6:2, sharing burdens fulfills the law of Christ—or in other words, it enables us to become Christ-like. Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” and instead came to share the burden of human existence in humble solidarity with us, not even shrinking from death and from “being made sin” for the salvation of sinners. He was “reckoned among the ungodly” and took our curse upon himself; “cursed is every one that hangs upon a tree.” Jesus presented himself to be baptized in the Jordan, even though John’s baptism signified repentance of sin; Jesus was sinless, but “got in line” with the sinners nonetheless. This association with sinners continued throughout his life, even though it drew down upon him the ire of the Pharisees. He healed the man with the withered hand, even though the result was a plot against his life. He restored Lazarus to life, though this action precipitated his own execution. Even the subtle details of the Gospels show Christ’s solidarity; in Mark chapter 1, he heals a leper, a man whose disease caused exclusion from the community. Now the leper was able to reenter the town . . . and the result was that Christ was unable to enter the town himself! In a certain symbolic way, Jesus had exchanged roles with the leper.
The Christian calling to bear burdens can help us during these troubled times in the Church. Today individual Christians are often shamed before the world by the sins of prominent Christians. In the autumn of 2017, I left a traditionalist community in order to gain a greater unity with the Catholic Church. The group I belonged to wasn’t formally schismatic, but fostered an extremely separatist, schismatic mentality. I rejoiced to suddenly find fellowship with so many fellow Catholics from whom I would have previously held aloof; I rejoiced to find myself truly united with a local church under a local bishop, unhampered by a sense of superiority or grievance. Then the scandals broke in the summer of 2018, and I saw the other side of the coin; I was grieved and mortified to the depth of my soul, not only by the crimes and cover-ups and the resulting divisions in the Church, but by the fact that I was in some way associated with all this rot. I felt deceived; I’d given up my insular world of traditionalism for the wider Church, and this was what I got! Then it dawned on me that if I’d remained a traditionalist, I wouldn’t have been feeling this hurt; I would have merely shrugged, or even worse felt a certain satisfaction, shaking my head knowingly over the corruption of the Church. The fact that a wound inflicted on the Church hurt me was a sign that I was “connected”, that I was alive in Christ by being alive to my fellow Christians; the traditionalist numbness of heart had thawed, and I could feel again; and as anybody knows, the thawing of chilled fingers is an unpleasant sensation!
There is a great temptation to freeze and harden our hearts against all the betrayal and malice in the world, but that is not the way of Christ, who loved those who hated him and died for us “while we were yet enemies”. A solidarity with others in and through Christ will lead to a sharing in his suffering. Hardness of heart was not the way of the saints. St. Paul tells us that in addition to all his physical hardships, he feels “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He goes on to say “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In fact, this sharing of burdens may, in a certain sense, be the purpose having an institutional Church; if we were each alone before God, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing just fine, and didn’t have to “account for” all these other people, might be able to imagine that we weren’t our brother’s keeper.
Even harder than bearing one another’s burdens, but just as essential, is letting others carry our burdens. Our culture tells us to be self-reliant; even if we’re in the depths of despair, we respond to the question “How are you?” with a casual “OK”. We’re embarrassed if others find out that we are suffering financial difficulties, and don’t want to “be a bother”. Compassion, after all, means “suffering with,” so if we receive compassion, we’ve caused someone pain. There is a lot of pressure on us to just “get over” things so that we don’t “drag everybody down.” We honor the “self-made man” who isn’t reliant on others, is always “OK.” In the Christian life, however, being able to receive is even more important than being able to give; it is more connected to humility. We’re all weak and helpless before God, and receive everything from him as a free gift. That’s why the message of Christ is to the poor and the weak, not the rich and strong; the rich can become contented in their wealth and feel self-sufficient. Wealth doesn’t mean just a large bank account; anything we have, such as skills, knowledge, even virtues, can become an obstacle to humble dependence on God. In one sense, the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him is the archetypal Christian; a man who knew his own total failure, but was willing to ask for mercy. As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, none of us will get our “rights;” we’ll get something much better than that!
In this, as in sharing the burden of others, Christ is again our exemplar. As God, he was all-powerful, yet he accepted service from others; from the beginning of life when he received care and teaching and nurture from Mary and Joseph, to the end of his life when he was strengthened by an angel, required assistance to carry the cross to Calvary, and was buried in another man’s tomb.
These virtues, so necessary in living the Christian life, are even more necessary in building Christian community. In our last podcast, Aaron Pott spoke movingly about how humbling it is to have the burden of his family borne by other community members, and about how in the close proximity of community life, he is unable to wear a “good Christian mask” in order to hide his weaknesses. The sharing and bearing of burdens that community necessitates is certainly difficult and painful at times, and I’ve often failed to properly carry the shared burdens of others. Perhaps that is one of the key values of community life; it helps to show us our weaknesses, but it also helps us to encounter the unconditional love of God through the love of community members who are willing to receive us as we are, burdens and all.