Culture, revisiting a place to start

What is the relationship between culture (as I am using it) and psychology?  To what extent is culture within the person, and to what extent is it without?  This seems to be where the culture/schema distinction ultimately leads us.  As I mentioned in the comment section, if possible I want to avoid using the word “schema” both because it is jargon, and because it imports Kantian baggage that I find misleading and (for a Christian) un-Incarnational.

We could say that schema is psychological – that is to say, it is a certain sense of what could be understood when I spoke of “a way of seeing the world”.   Schema however, is not in the world, but in us, and the world can become more or less the servant of “our way of seeing it” depending on our previous philosophical and personal tastes.  This leads me to a major objection to using the word: the locus of power can become completely the individual human being.  This  leads us to the typical nature/ nurture whirlpool, and epistemological skepticism.  Sure we could talk about it, but the more that discussion happens, the less removed it is from reality.  Also, I simply don’t care much for it.  Largely it is unhelpful.

What is more important is to keep Truth on the table.  This means, allowing for the common understanding of the world being at least part of reality.  We, schemas included, are subject to the “tribunal of experience”.  Moreover – and this is complex philosophical position worthy of rigorous attention – I believe that experience is conceptually laden.  It is the case that ideas enter into us experientially, even in a certain sense physically.  Epistemologically speaking, man is opened up to the world when he experiences the world.  Experience is not streams of data, but of actual things in an actual world.  (This, as I have noted before, gives an interesting perspective on physical sin, which allows concepts to harm the νούς as well as the body.) Thus I prefer to talk of concepts and experience instead of schema, because I believe it maintains the proper authoritative relationship between the person and the world.

Where is culture in all of this?  I mentioned in the comment box my heritage from Aristotle who continually speaks of the man who is μουσικός , which is either “musical” or “cultured” in most translations.  It comports well with our idea of culture here, though mostly because it signals an initiation into a particular practice of the polis, like music or reading/writing.  There are, of course, other words that also refer to culture in Greek: Plato talks of “education” or “training” (παιδεια), and of course Aristotle’s ethics (from ἐθός ) are all about forming man into true man, the good man.

The multiplicity of words doesn’t detract from my understanding of culture, but further points to what it is I claim we are missing: formation towards an end.  When sociologists talk of “schema” there is not much of an inherent  developmental sense, only a pragmatic one.  Being cultured in this sense would mean learning how to cope with the world, not about how to become most truly and beautifully who you are.

This sense of culture opens the human being up into the world and lifts his face to God, for it is Christ who is the Truth and the example of the Good man.  It is in Him that we can live with each other and the world in Beauty.  Christian culture is that which develops us into persons who can see the world rightly, who can affirm that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the image of God in our neighbor.

Development means change, and change means the death and passing away of somethings.  Being a Christian means being cultured and leaving behind the dead old man we once were.  Does it mean leaving behind our heritage?  Well yes and no.  The Irish were still Irish after St. Patty, but they were no longer Druids. (Apparently that task now falls upon one of my high school students.)  A friend of mine was reaffirming for me the completeness of change in Christ, but even this is not clear.  Is it I who persist through the change, or is it I that am the subject of change; and if the latter, how is it still me?  This question can quickly become mostly fruitless like epistemological skepticism, but it highlights one of the main fears when we talk about culture and “the Good”: namely, how do we judge what stays and goes?  Who are we to be the judge?  I cannot answer that question, but I can tell you part of how we should approach the issue: humbly.

Culture, A Place to Start

A while ago I started writing on the misuse of the word “culture”; aiming at understanding how we miss what a true culture is.  I accussed us of falling for the manikin of Vapid Culture, then  I wanted to dial in closer to the real thing by looking at “high” culture and subcultures.  Today I hope to hit on what the real thing is, offer a place to start thinking about culture building, and offer a start of Christian culture.  Off course, this is a blog – not a book – so even if these thoughts are pretty good, they are bound to be over-reaching and insufficient.  Given that, it is only appropriate to place my thoughts in context.

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without letting the mission become derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect aculture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.

Kelly’s Boss on AFR

The headmaster of my wife’s school, Bryan Smith, is interviewed by Kevin Allen on The Illumined Heart.  If you are at all interested in education, or simply how to raise a child, it will be half-hour well spent.  I’ve spent a lot of my life in Christian education circles, and listening to Bryan is a breath of fresh air.  He is not interested in selling a product, indoctrinating children, or in reliving some bye-gone era.  He is interested in the “things that endure”, which are consequently the things that are most relevant.  (Sorry Bryan, but it’s the truth).

It seems that at least half of “classical schools” out there are strange places run by people who received anything but a classical education.  Consequently, “classical” appears as a mystical panacea that parents hope will initiate children into what they consider a traditional conservative life, and shield them from Myspace and dancing.  Often it seems that parents (and the board) are more excited about uniforms that the reading list, and the school takes an eerily preeminent place in the families life.  In other words, the “life” of the classical school is confused for the Christian life.  These schools tend to have bizzare theological statements that are simultaneously vauge and exactingly specific, and which none of the Christian writers they have on the reading list would respect, let alone agree with.  These parents, though misguided, are sincere and devoted to their children’s well being.  What these parents need, is a Bryan. 

My personal experience with Bryan is that he is intelligent, kind, and looks like a young Colonel Sanders.  He’s very gifted with children of all ages, and consequently, you should listen to what he has to say.

Evangelical/ Orthodox Dialogue Open Thread

I just finished listening to this hour and a half long “dialogue” between the Evangelical theologian Dr. George Kalantzis and Orthodox scholar Dr. Bradley Nassif.  The discussion – which they continually emphasized was not a debate – recently took place at Wheaton College.    There’s a great deal to be said about the discussion; not only the merits of the arguments, but also about the style of the discussion and the way Evangelical and Orthodox dialogue should be undertaken.  I want to hear from you (if you have time to listen to the discussion) and hear what you think about how the discussion should go, and how this one fits into that criteria.  What should be the primary topics?  What should be conceded, or consigned to scholarly disagreement?

I will make one comment up front however: I think Dr. Kalantzis explanation of the essence/ energies distinction is suspect.  It strikes me that this is another example of the problems that East/West distinction is prone to, and consequently his attempt to explain the difference between conceptions of salvation falls short.  However, this just yields another question: how should the distinction be approached?  To what extent is the distinction Eastern vs. Western?

(You can go here to download to hard drive.)