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.
Malcolm interviews Dr. Terrence Wright, who is an associate professor of philosophy at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Dr. Wright is also the author of “Dorothy Day, An Introduction to her Life and Thought,” published by Ignatius Press.
Dorothy Day spent her life working for the promotion and implementation of Catholic Social Teaching. She is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and the author of numerous books and articles. Her cause for canonization has been opened by the Catholic Church.
Dorothy Day is a controversial figure; many on the right and left see her as a dissident Catholic. Conservatives reject her due to this perceived dissent, while liberals applaud her for it.
Professor Wright explains that both perspectives are mistaken. Rather than a dissident Catholic, she is better seen as a loyal, if challenging, daughter of the Church; a prophetic figure who calls us to fully live out the message of the Gospel. She was ardently pro-life, but she championed a consistent ethic of life, refusing to pit the defense of the unborn against the defense of the born.
We discussed how dissent from Church teaching and criticism of Church leaders who fail to live up to those teachings are very different. To illustrate this we discussed the familiar story of St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Paul enthusiastically supported St. Peter’s teaching on the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Church but called Peter out for hypocrisy when he failed to live up to that teaching.
The Social Teachings
Dorothy Day’s work was bound up with the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. Professor Wright talked briefly about the four major points of this teaching, which are: the dignity of the human person; the importance of the common good; subsidiarity, which entails the rejection of undue interference by higher levels of society with lower levels; and solidarity, the principle of universal human fraternity.
Saintly Role Models
Many Saints influenced Dorothy Day’s outlook and mission, and we mentioned three of them. Day was a Benedictine Oblate, and St. Benedict inspired her vision of hospitality. Her emphasis on the connection between work and prayer is also rooted in Benedictine Spirituality. Another influence was St. Francis of Assisi. Day’s pacifism and voluntary poverty are very Franciscan, and she stressed that St. Francis was a radical, not just a lover of animals. Yet another Saint Day admired was St. Therese of Lisieux. Initially, she thought Therese was overly pious and disliked her style. But over time, she came to realize the importance of the Little Way, of doing everyday actions with great love. For example, Dorothy Day was frustrated by those who talked a lot about high ideals but refused to chop vegetables for the soup line.
The Catholic Worker and the Works of Mercy
The Catholic Worker’s mission was centered on the works of mercy. In this mission, Dorothy Day realized that one can’t separate the spiritual and corporal aspects. On the one hand, the poor could be fed or clothed in a cold, mechanical way that would demean them. (Famously, Dorothy Day said that “our love will make the poor forgive us for the bread we give them.”) On the other hand, we might say we love the poor, but not actually aid them. As St. James tells us, this is not the Christian way. Consequently, the Catholic Worker strives to create a warm, personal environment when sheltering or feeding the poor.
The Challenge of Peace
In one area, Dorothy Day does seem to challenge Church teaching. Just War Theory is the Church’s response to the problem of conflict. It lays out principles that constrain the use and the violence of war, but still allows for the waging of war to protect the innocent. Dorothy Day was a committed pacifist, opposed to all wars and violence, even in self-defense.
Although the Church does not require this level of pacifism of us, we can still find inspiration in it. Just as monastic celibacy provides a profound witness of Christian totality even to those who are married, the pacifism of figures such as Dorothy Day can help us to remember that we are all called to be “peacemakers.”
All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability.
Header image: Book cover: https://www.ignatius.com/