On Tuesday, after my monthly coffee hour with the students, one of the graduating seniors caught up with me to ask what exactly it meant to say, as we do in our mission statement, that our mission involves “remaking the culture.” Practically speaking, what does that look like?
Since I took office in 2016, I have conceived of remaking the culture as a multi-generational endeavor, a gradual cultural transformation. It took centuries to turn from a God-centered world to a culture that is now implicitly atheistic in its assumptions, and it could take just as long to turn back. Champions of the turn from God, such as Steven Pinker in his recent book praising the Enlightenment, think of it as a liberation that began in the seventeenth or eighteenth century: “Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority,” writes Dr. Pinker, “with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.”
Those are indeed the replacements—but what is the “universal human flourishing” that Dr. Pinker imagines? He points to material improvements as though they were sufficient in themselves. Those who bring about these improvements surely satisfy the need for their lives to be profoundly for something. Who could denigrate the work of those who alleviate hunger and disease, who help raise people from miserable poverty to decent conditions with the hope of betterment? And yet this “progress” achieves little if it opens its beneficiaries to a world in which greater comfort comes at the expense of ultimate meaning.
Partial meaning, despite a good standard of living, does not suffice. People can labor for their spouses and children and grandchildren, they can “be there,” as we say, for their friends, for their community and their nation, even for their churches, they can garner great wealth and use it to help others, and yet still not find the meaning that truly gives life its purpose, the living water that Jesus promises to the woman at the well. This living water of meaning is the end of our education. When I think of what it means to remake the culture, the meaning of Christ is certainly the beginning. This meaning is never an abstraction. It is always embodied in a particular person whose education by its very nature distinguishes him or her from the surrounding culture.
The American poet Wallace Stevens conducts an apposite thought experiment in his poem called “Anecdote of the Jar.” He imagines putting a jar on a hill in the wilderness of Tennessee and then watching its effect: “It made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill”—in other words, simply imagining the jar in the wilderness gives chaotic natural disorder a new focus. “The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild.” If a jar in Tennessee can become such a center, how much more a young man or woman shaped by this education, articulate in seeking the truth, formed in virtue, and centered in Christ? In any situation he or she enters, whatever lacks form and meaning will naturally surround that person. That local culture will begin to be remade.
In the transformation for which we hope, we should start locally, as many good people are saying these days. We should never imagine that a Christian culture like Christendom in the Middle Ages can come about through merely human effort. It will come when God wills it. But the meantime is up to us, and simply to care deeply about the question, “What does it mean to remake the culture?” is to begin already to answer it.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (March 2018).
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