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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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6 replies to this post
  1. A pretty good piece, but perhaps a bit pessimistic. I think most people remain religious, it’s only the saturation of the secular media that makes it look otherwise. They make an aggressive secularism look mainstream when it really isn’t, and especially so if you stop reading The NY Times and turn off CNN.

    • Excellent observation. The perspective of the world brought to us through the very subjective and biased lenses of the media/TV and Hollywood, do anything but provide a true picture of what is out there.
      There still are many holding to tradition and want the kind of education that Hillsdale and Wyoming Catholic College have to offer.
      Unfortunately, all we see is what is going on at UC Bezerkeley and other off kilter schools.
      We do need to step back and realize that normal only means normal to those that understand that what they see in newspapers, TV, Hollywood, or hear on the radio is anything but normal.
      The bizarre may have become common place, but it is not normal by any stretch of the imagination.

    • Perhaps, we should see that our world today is much like that of the Medieval world, where what was going on in the Monasteries was what was normal; the preservation of knowledge, history, literature, languages, and how to live a civil life while trying to understand God, was normal.
      The chaos going on in daily life outside the Monasteries was what wasn’t normal.

  2. My own advice is to take a sort of “Diet” from TV especially, but even newspapers too. It’s like taking a break from junk food eating healthy food instead. Do that for a while and pretty soon the junk food that once tasted delicious now tastes like the junk it is. Today’s “News” media is pretty much the same way, the more you avoid it, the more you don’t miss it.

  3. “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.”

    History makes its way so slowly through time, that an existential impatience can’t help but arise, in which meaning itself often seems a regular casualty. (I’m reminded of something Peter Sloterdijk said, that the process of evolution itself is such a long drag, it’s little wonder that many seek out instant enlightenment to somehow overcome the stasis…)

    People have sometimes used the metaphor of a pendulum swinging one way, and then the other. I think it’s not a bad one, since it implies that things have a momentum which gathers over time and produces results relating to the strength of the momentum.

    Accordingly, it seems that certain events, like the French and Russian revolutions, took place within a momentum already in movement by then. As I see it, an increasingly leftward momentum was generally one of desperate reactivity, overcoming and eclipsing through means of power, and its contingent energies came to ultimate fruition with the unholy glut of two succeeding world wars, with an ultimate reckoning occurring under the sign of the atomic weapons used upon Japan.

    That mostly smaller localized wars have taken place after that, in diminishing numbers, signals that the trend has returned in the other direction — since we’ve realized that we can go no further on the destructive road of overcoming. With all the corruption that has come out of the liberal impulse becoming increasingly exposed at last, the writing on the wall is more clearly seen now, with the conservative mandate coming more strongly into view.

    However, even though the pendulum of history has gratefully turned, patience will need to be a part of the great work of coming generations.

  4. A culture has been bequeathed to us, it is ours to live and grow within, you might say to tutor us. It is richer than we can imagine, I for one will try and make the most of it.

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