Jackson Doughart
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The Shadows of Cultural Christianity

Freedom Press Canada Journal, 19 August 2013

Despite its pervasiveness in language, culture remains an elusive concept. As Augustine of Hippo said of time, “If no one asks me, I know what it is.” We know what culture is intuitively but cannot fully explain our tacit understanding.

Nevertheless, there are some available working conceptions. Most sociologists who study the subject consider culture to be the customs that animate group identity. And in his famous lecture “What is Liberal Education?” Leo Strauss defined culture as “the cultivating of the mind, the taking care and improving of the native faculties of the mind in accordance with the nature of the mind.” To complicate matters further, I would offer the following definition: Culture is the set of inculcated social constraints and customs that become so ingrained in a given population that it cannot distinguish them from human nature.

Culture is also essentially involuntary. It is much more like language or morality, two things that are often included in conceptions of culture. These conventions are not chosen, as their permanence is essential to our existence as social beings. They cannot be put “on hold” while the learned sort them out properly; for the most part, they arise organically and are reinforced among the population and its subsequent generations. Consequently, “private moralities” or “private languages” are absurd notions. People may have opinions about morality or language, but their established set is not a matter of anyone’s choice. The above conceptions of culture also fall into this category.

Such a recognition has significant implications for the influence of religion on our public life and customs. Liberalism, in the widest and most acceptable sense, holds that religion involves but an exercise of individual freedom. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms clearly guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. How this freedom is to be interpreted is a matter of reasonable debate, with secularists, multiculturalists, and traditionalists all offering conflicting prescriptions. All such debates, however, speak only to individual choice, ignoring the public role of religion in matters of cultural convention. Given the imprint of religion on our way of life, the question arises of whether all citizens should recognize cultural Christianity.

Before proceeding with this discussion, one should point out that there is another theological tradition that has been instrumental in forming what Tocqueville called “civil religion” — Judaism (hence the expression “Judeo-Christian” to describe Canada’s religious roots). For Jews, the paradox involving culture and devotion is less pronounced than it is for Christians because what chiefly matters in Judaism is that one behaves well; what one believes “in one’s heart” is far less important. In fact, the basic behavioural rules contained in the Noahide laws are purportedly binding on all human beings, include Gentiles; Noah, after all, wasn’t Jewish. This is why so many Jews see no contradiction in calling themselves Jewish even though they don’t attend synagogue. And this is also why Israel can be both a secular and Jewish state. In sum, “Secular Jew” is not a contradiction.

Not so for Christianity, where salvation depends not merely on what one does but on what one believes — namely, the redemption of humanity through faith in Christ. This is all the more true for Protestantism, founded partially as it was on the rejection of good works as a path to salvation. Yet for an atheist who finds Christianity philosophically impossible to believe, it is troubling that non-belief separates one from a defining mark and source of culture. After all, it is undeniable that our foundational social institutions and conventions are derived, if not directly from Christian doctrines and traditions, at least from societies where Christianity was both widely believed and was the dominant animator of social interaction. I’m not referring only to the structure of the family here; perhaps even more important are the legal and educational pillars that were developed through both Christian thought and Christian practice. Even the free-enterprise model that has brought such prosperity to the west was founded and buttressed by the Calvinist belief that acquiring wealth for oneself was spiritually permissible.

To suggest that this analysis calls merely for the protection of these structures and the bracketing of Christian faith is simultaneously necessary and naïve: necessary because we live in a religiously-heterogeneous and secularized society, where appeals to tradition command an increasingly small share of the ideational marketplace; naïve because it fails to appreciate the extent to which the guiding moral direction of Christian culture was imperative to the success of such institutions in the past. It would be impossible to explain the emaciation of education, for example, which has ceased to inculcate the virtues of citizenship in the next generation, without remarking that education was once a chiefly moral exercise as well as an attempt to improve literacy and numeracy. Without a moral foundation, these structures have begun to decay.

We now live in the afterglow of Christian society, where we experience the shadows of Christian culture but not the faith that gives the full luminance. This is a state of affairs that motivates two principal reactions: traditionalists bemoan it, while social revolutionaries say “not far enough!” I have mixed feelings, realizing that while the academy has largely given up on revelation as a source of legitimate reasoning, the “shadows” of Christian culture continue to inform the lives of most ordinary people. People still get married (usually in churches, I might add), observe meaningful moments like the birth and death of family and friends in accordance with tradition, and value fidelity in personal relationships. These kinds of social conventions do not simply arise from nowhere, and certainly not from “rationality,” as some people insist. Rather, they are descended from a societal pedigree that has indeed been influenced by religion.

Of course, the paradox for non-believers remains, but this is an irreconcilable conflict intrinsic to the nature of Christianity. While the “light” of Judaism is the set of moral imperatives and social structures that the religion commands, such fruit borne of Christianity is secondary to personal belief, which non-Christians obviously cannot share. Yet the tangible marks of Christianity’s social influence constitute what I mean by cultural Christianity. And to the extent that everyday life is inflected by cultural norms and customs, it is indubitable that we are all cultural Christians.

We must therefore ask if there are obligations that accompany membership in a culturally Christian community, even for non-believers. It should first be said that to belong to a community of any kind would seem to require that one appreciate the community’s roots, and Christianity is in our case one of those. But there is a grander claim here: to be a cultured person, in the Straussian sense noted above, connotes a familiarity with the most important productions of art and literature. And there is no more important such piece in Christendom than the Bible — not only because of the social customs it has spawned but also because of its role as the central reference point for nearly all subsequent works. It is impossible to read these works effectively without a basic knowledge of the Bible and Christianity; one would simply miss the references, and therefore be without the essential tool for both enjoying and understanding them. To be ignorant of Christianity is tantamount to being illiterate, and unless non-Christians are prepared to sacrifice these contributions, their involuntary attachment to religion will remain.

This realization would suggest that there is something callous about depriving young people of an opportunity to engage the foundational works of their culture. Arguments about religion in education are far more complex than they may initially appear, as there would be considerable value in including rudimentary biblical instruction and Christian history in humanities curricula. It would serve the purpose of acquainting the next generation with what is such an important influence on quotidian life, and would go a step beyond the occasional call to teach only about religions generally. This is not a case for the teaching of creationism in science classes, which deliberately stultifies children with what is clearly pseudo-science, or for the revival of designated class prayer times, the effect of which is to alienate students who are not religious. The confusion of these issues with my proposal would represent a category error, and does not impinge on the reasonable idea of religio-cultural education.

Whether one likes it or not, Christianity is Canada’s cultural religion. This fact can either be denied categorically by secularists for tactical reasons, to some detriment and confusion, or be accepted as an aspect of contemporary life, which would doubtless be of some benefit. The greatest of these benefits would be a more acute cultural self-awareness and an opportunity to engage with one’s society in an enlightened fashion.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com