Sunday, May 27, 2012

The "Cultured" Man

It has, for some time, been the hobby of the wealthy to go on lengthy vacations through foreign countries.  Most often these people go somewhere "wild" and "exotic," going to places, typically south of the Equator, and almost always impoverished.  They go to Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.  But what is really the common denominator between all of the most popular tour destinations?  Culture.  Tourists, most often, want to see culture in action.  They are fascinated by the little rituals and daily motions of these "primitive" peoples.

This tourist mentality comes from a very peculiar facet of Western thought, the idea of being "Cultured."  In essence, the notion of being cultured comes from a very good place; a want to understand and relate to people from other countries, ethnicities, and yes, cultures.  The idea of becoming "Cultured" was to make you sensitive to other peoples, open your horizons and ease friction between peoples.

That all sounds rather nice, doesn't it?

But what does the "Cultured" man do?

Well, first of all, he does an awful lot of sitting.  In fact, he spends most of his life sitting.  He sits at work, in his car, when he gets home and watches TV, or goes on the internet.  He sits a lot.  And though he may, and indeed I'd say he probably does, know a great deal about other cultures; as he's probably been to a sizable number of very exotic countries, from the Mediterranean to the Yucatan, he is missing something quite paradoxical.  He, though very "Cultured" is missing a culture.

How can this man, the great, "Cultured," arbiter of his own existence lack a culture?  Did he learn nothing from his travels?  Well, to be short; no.  He didn't learn anything from his travels, because they were just that, travels.  He was completely shut off from the peoples he saw in his travels, entirely outside of their culture.  He may know a great deal about them, but he was a spectator.  He watched a melodramatic play of processions and tribal ritual, of prayers and dancing.  This man certainly got drunk at the festival, but he did not get drunk because of the festival, in celebration of some old myth, he instead got drunk, and there was a festival.  He was outside of it all.  And how could he not be?  As exciting as it was, it was all meaningless to him.  No part of him believed in any of what the people were celebrating.

So, he comes home and he goes back to his sitting.  No matter how much he loves that little Mexican village, or that island in Greece, he still has to come back home and sit.  But the people in these places, these uncultured types, they don't go home and sit, the festivals and ceremonies the "Cultured" man witnessed, are their daily lives.

So, what separates the bored, sitting, "Cultured" man, who does the same thing every day, and watches reruns in his free time, and the festive, uncultured, people of those places he visited?  The first reaction is to say that it is belief.  They believe in their religion and therefore have something to celebrate.  But this isn't quite satisfactory.  Today was the Feast of Pentecost, a major feast, the birthday of the Church, the formation of our Ministry as Christians; and I'm sure that many Catholics, even those who believe what the Church teaches with all their hearts, went to Mass, came home, and went about the day as usual.  So, it is not belief which changes this boredom.  Instead, it is culture.

How does one gain culture then, if not by becoming "Cultured."  After all, isn't that why we have the whole concept, why we pay thousands of dollars for schooling abroad and tourism?  Culture is not something learned however, it is the authentic expression of belief.  So, again, why does the good Catholic come home and do nothing on the Feast of Pentecost?  Because there is no culture.  Indeed, our culture is a non-culture.    This is an age in which we know much, and do little.  So, instead of culture, instead of action and celebration, we have a back of the mind knowledge of the truth.

This is in no way a means by which I presume that there are no good Catholics, however this is where I presume that there is no culture.  You see, the Pagans could convert, because they had a culture, they knew what it meant to truly believe things, to celebrate and solemnize them.  We, on the other hand, don't.  We are the unfortunate bearers of the non-culture created by the acceptance of relativism.  This non-culture comes from our poor attempts at becoming "Cultured."  As we learned more about other cultures, we became apathetic towards our own; devolving into a void of sitting, and watching, and waiting.

How does one get around this?  We die a martyr's death.

Now, I'm not saying that we should just give up, hand ourselves over to be crucified and have hope in Heaven (although, these are not bad things).  I'm saying that we need to die to the non-culture.  We have to be willing to undergo the painful transformation of belief.  This will not be an easy process, for any of us.  But if we truly wish to live the faith, we must have a culture, we must live the things we believe.  We cannot go about as if everything is normal, we must celebrate, mourn, fast, feast, dance, sing, drink, smile, weep.  Indeed, we simply need to be human! And we cannot do that within the non-culture.

So, it is our duty, if we truly wish to again have culture, and thus live our faith, to live as the Church teaches us to.  Not just to follow Her bare-minimum precepts, not just to avoid sin, but live the faith.  We must feast like kings on Her feast days, starve like the poorest of the poor during Her fasts, pray with true devotion and most importantly be authentic about it all.


  1. Phenomenal post......I am still (24 hours later) simply digesting the enormity of this obvious fact, utterly aghast at having missed it for so long.

    I feel at the moment as Turnbull did at the revelation that after "twenty lone years of useless toil, " I have my reward.

  2. Anyone who likes this post should pick up Josef Pieper's "Leisure, The Basis of Culture" immediately.

  3. I agree with Douglas, you CAN go too far with this line of thought, criticizing Leisure.

  4. John,

    On the contrary! Pieper makes clear that leisure is grounded in the religious festival.

  5. I come from one of those cultured, impoverished, Southeast Asian countries :p so yes, I can relate very well to this idea of "living the faith". Indeed, a belief must penetrate into every aspect of a person's life for it to become his culture.

  6. Okay, I agree, and, as mentioned above, am kind of surprised it hadn't occurred to of earlier, but! I have a question. If we fall into this category, how exactly would you suggest stopping living our cultureless lives? I, of course, read what you wrote, but how? Just start going through the motions that other cultures live, and hope that eventually it'll become real? Or how? Mere desire for things to be different doesn't seem to be enough to change them..

    Thanks for the post!

    1. You live the traditions (both big and little "t") of the Church. If you do any real searching, you'll find cultural traditions which aren't so foreign. I'm not telling you that we all have to start acting like we belong to an obscure tribe of Amazonian cave dwellers, all I'm saying is that we have to start celebrating. If all else fails, and you really cannot find any cultural or religious traditions that feel comfortable (which I doubt), there is always the simple feast. Make festive foods for festive occasions. Break out the good wine, and enjoy being alive and with loved ones.

  7. I enjoyed your post immensely. I made these comments on FB a few days ago:

    A phenomenal post indeed! Bear in mind, there is so much that is wonderful and beautiful where we live but there are several themes that can be explored with this post. I do speak in generalities but in some ways, much of our culture in North America is artificial, fabricated, and a product of a consumerist society, which really has no ties to Christianity save in name only. It has not been created in an organic and authentic sense (much like the Traditional Roman Liturgy) from centuries of man's attempting to situate himself within the Church's life and the effects this has on domestic life and the community he finds himself in. Instead it is somehow a culture created by indeed those who came from the Old World but who quickly lost all sense of history and a tie to their ethnic background. It is a rupture with all that is beautiful in human existence.

    How many of us born in North America can honestly speak much about their ethnic background or who can transmit anything from their ancestor's culture? For example, and I make no excuses for this, I never learned the Greek language (there is long history there). Or even if we may have learned the language how many of us will study the language deeply with all its beauty? Also, when my grandfather died he took with him the ability to play the gaida. I must add, he was so proud of his gaida and when he played he knew that he was bringing with him the Old World. When I was young I looked at him amusingly but now I realize what we have missed. No one knows how to play the gaida in our family although someone certainly could learn!

    Now, it seems as if our culture is more a creation of advertising executives who know how to tap into man's basest desires. We are a people who know more about commercials and tv sitcoms than stories and religious customs passed down by our forefathers.

    When my mother and her family came over from Greece decades ago, they left behind them a rich culture full of the feasts and fasts of 2,000 years of Christianity. Of course, the reason why so many people have come over to North America is for a "better life." This may be true but I would ask: Define "better." In terms of material success, yes, no one can compare with North American material prosperity but at what cost has this been achieved? Again, I am not saying that the Old World is paradise and that there aren't problems there (look at Greece today!) but in terms of culture are we not missing something?