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How Culture is Done

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 29, 2009

One of the most important questions with which CatholicCulture.org is supposed to grapple is the question of how to form a Catholic culture. If the answer involves setting forth a specific program, a sure-fire series of steps that will take our current overall culture and make it Catholic, then the “right” answer simply isn’t possible. But if we understand that culture is operative at every conceivable level and in every conceivable circumstance, then we begin to see a fundamental truth about human culture in general, and Catholic culture in particular.

Wherever human persons repeatedly think and act in a consistent manner, a particular culture is created in their sphere of influence. Within the realm of action I include appropriate speech. Let us suppose, for example, that a particular set of parents has a deep belief in the goodness of God and the dignity of all persons as sons and daughters of God. The first thing we notice is that no culture will be created in the family circle as long as this belief is confined within the mind. But insofar as the parents—who necessarily form their children—join together to act repeatedly and predictably in a manner consistent with their beliefs, an identifiable and almost tangible atmosphere is created, an atmosphere in which all family members can find rest, and an atmosphere which tends to nourish and shape the speech and actions of each family member.

This “identifiable and almost tangible atmosphere”—this ambience of life—is what we’re talking about when we use the word “culture”. It can and is expressed in ways too numerous to count. In the example presented here, it is a constructive ambience which communicates things like support and dignity, security and love. By contrast, in a family formed by parents preoccupied with careers, productivity and financial power, an entirely different atmosphere will be created which communicates things like materialism, insecurity and stress.

Though we are not always consistent, ultimately most of our actions stem from the deep inner beliefs and judgments which we hold to be most important. If we are self-aware, we’ll eventually notice and change what is inconsistent in our behavior. In any case, a certain kind of culture is formed wherever people speak and act consistently. We usually think of culture in terms of the larger society of which we are a part, though the family is most often the first cultural unit. But culture is not restricted to families on the one hand and dominant social trends on the other. Rather, culture is formed within the sphere of influence of each group of persons who are brought together by any conceivable set of circumstances.

Thus the combination of thought and action can create a specific atmosphere or ambience—a particular culture—in a recreational group, a team, a classroom, an office, a store, a church—in any human association. Of course, those in charge of each association or group have the greatest influence in creating the corresponding culture. What parents do for their families, teachers can often do in their classrooms, and coaches for their teams. But building a positive culture among group members who are not the leaders is also possible if a small nucleus of people can be formed who wish to think and act according to the same principles. Gradually, as all of our smaller associations take on certain cultural characteristics, the larger culture which they form will be transformed. It is also true that as certain large components of culture are transformed and redirected (major media, for example), the culture of small associations and families will often change.

The key point is that culture is always formed within a specific sphere of influence based on repeatable actions which are consistent with specific ideas, beliefs or values. This is why culture can be formed deliberately as well as more or less accidentally. In fact, to preserve the values in any existing culture within any sphere, or to extend those values to other spheres, a good deal of self-awareness, analysis and planning is often essential. The one constant is that culture is always born of consistent action properly connected to leading ideas. Therefore, insofar as we act based on the prevailing ideas already operative within a certain sphere, we do nothing to change or improve the culture. But insofar as we act consistently on a different set of ideas, then in each sphere of our own influence—or in each sphere where we can create influence through the building of an effective nucleus—the culture will begin to change.

Because we are not perfectly consistent creatures, there is generally plenty of room to make a small cultural experiment. Much as we are always trying to examine ourselves spiritually to make our moral behavior more consistent with our Faith, we should try the same thing in regard to the formation of culture. Among our family and friends, it can be very useful to make a deliberate effort to tailor our speech, actions, plans and programs more closely to our real values and goals—and then watch what happens! What we will find is that all of us have the capacity to engender culture. While we’re at it, we’ll also get feedback on when we’re succeeding in doing this gracefully and when we’re just being a pain! Hopefully, a small taste of how this works will lead us to make a larger difference in our world.

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