Restoring Christian culture...a good idea? | Dominican University College

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Restoring Christian culture...a good idea?

Friday, August 01, 2014

By Maxime Allard O.P.

“Restoration” seems to be all the rage. “Conservative” Christian circles sigh and pray for restoration of ethics, of liturgy, of education, of common sense. In some “progressive” circles, we also hears sighs: "Lay people ought to engage like they used to, care like they did in the sixties after Vatican II" . . . bloggers on both sides are crying to bring back "the good ol' days".

But what does this idea of "restore", from the Latin restaurare, mean? Let's take a look at its etymology and different uses throughout the centuries so as to inspire our meditation.

Is Christian culture a reality that can be fixed? It would follow that it can be broken. Does not the idea of restoration imply that it would be a mechanism or a thing that could be understood – as one understands an engine – pulled apart and put back together? 

I doubt it.

Is Christian culture something that could simply be repeated? At best, some elements may be reiterated, that is integrated in a new constellation.

Could a Christian culture be brought back to health? This would imply that cultures may be “sick” and corrupted. It suggests that remedies are at hand, that “doctors” are capable of a proper diagnostic, prognosis and cure.

These sort of questions help us become more prudent in our hopes for restoration…

To get to the crux of the matter we must ask: was there ever a (or many) specifically “Christian” culture(s)?

There have been cultures within which the Churches (catholic, protestant, orthodox), as institutions, had more influence, within which individual Christians made significant contributions and exerted power. But does this make these cultures “Christian”?

We should just pay attention to the numerous reformers, founders of religious congregations and to the reasons they invoked to see that they did not think that the culture was “Christian” – Francis and Dominic are a good example of this at the heart of the 13th century! Not only was the ambiant culture not “Christian” but in many cases they thought that the Church itself was in need of reform, in need of becoming evangelical, living the Word of God! And here, Saint Augustine’s City of God remains an important witness!

These two sets of questions help us pay attention not so much to the problems – logical, historical or sociological – about the expression “restoration of Christian culture” but to something else. Much more important according to me!

In fact, the discourses on “restoration of Christian culture” are nostalgic and programmatic. Nostalgic: they take place because individuals and groups are sad at what they believe is a state of affairs that ought not to be the case. Programmatic: they contain the hope that one can do something about it or at least that it would be a good thing to attempt this “restoration” or, minimally, to pray so that it takes place!

Both the nostalgia and the program stem from options rooted in discourses and practices that became prevalent, in some circles, in the 19th century. This was often linked to a very romantic view of the Middle Ages. In the 20th century, restoration of Christian ethics and culture became a central theme in Pius XIth’s Quadragesimo Adveniens! It was a rhetorical option to bring hope in a time of a major economic crisis (after the crash of 1929), of social unrest linked to capitalist individualism, communist politics and fascist restoration programs. In a way, the appearance of this leitmotiv could be seen as the symptom that part of society and of the Church is suffering and is grappling for hope.

The sadness and the hopes expressed in these discourses need to be heard. The people expressing them consoled! To use an expression in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, one needs to see what of that is a “sadness from God or according to God” and what is not (2 Co 7, 8-11).

In other words, what in this situation is an occasion for repentance and firm engagement in becoming more faithful to Christ and God’s Church? 

And what of it is sadness stemming from a difficulty one feels and experiences in being Christian in the “real” world, which then amounts more to building a protective culture around oneself than about conversion? 

What in these discourses is a source to refresh one’s desire to preach the Gospel and to be living witnesses of it?

What in them is a social and political program dreaming of a “Christian” Republic, never far from Plato’s fantasy? Augustine, Aquinas – attentive to Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s tyrannical and anti-social, dehumanizing programs –, and the Council of Trent, long ago opted for a different evangelization strategy… and Vatican II followed in their footsteps!

In this case, should we not look more towards instaurations than to restorations? In Latin, instauro means to celebrate again, to enter into a process of building less a culture than the “body of Christ”, less a culture but more of vibrant and rejuvenated (also part of the meaning of instauro!) Christian communities.

Let Christians, as individuals supported by brothers and sisters, become “just” and work for the justice of the kingdom… all the while resting less on legal structures and socio-cultural institutions to supply for their inadequacies! Let the Kingdom of God come… not Christian cultures!