A Cultureless Faith
I recently had a discussion with a group of my students about relativism. I brought something to their attention that I see as an inconsistency in the thought of many modern Christians. The way I see it, modern Christians are set against two of three forms of relativism but blindly accept a third form of relativism that they are unaware of.
To help the class discussion I first attempted to make clear to them the two forms of relativism they are most familiar with. Most popular in our day is the concept of “moral relativism.” For the most part, Christians have heard of moral relativism and are set against it. Moral relativism essentially claims that there is no set standard of morality and/or ethics that humans are to abide by. A relativist in the moral sphere sees no issue with Western cultures opposing cannibalism while primitive cultures practice cannibalism. It’s all relative.
The second thing I brought up was the concept of relativism in the realm of truth. I ask the class if they’ve ever heard the phrase “What’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me.” As you might have guessed, they had all heard of that phrase and, as good Christians, they rejected that form of relativism along with moral relativism.
At this point I asked whether or not it matters what type of music people like. They answer negatively, it does not matter. I then asked the class whether or not it matters what type of art people like. Again, they answered in the negative.
At this point a few of the students were beginning to catch on to what I was doing. When it came to truth the students were against relativism. When came to morality they were also against relativism. But when it came to aesthetics (or beauty) they students were entirely relativistic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder right?!? Who is to say what is beautiful and what is not, it’s all relative.
Teaching in a classical school I showed the students that they were (once again) confronted with the Transcendentals (Truth, Goodness, and Beauty). Truth, goodness, and beauty all work together and support one another. The students were against relativism in the realms of truth and goodness but they were completely captive to the cultural understandings of beauty.
The students pushed back against this concept, which isn’t too surprising. As they pushed back I introduced some concepts that I’ve picked up from Ken Myers over the past couple years. One of the more central concepts that Myers brings up (heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ work The Abolition of Man) is the concept of a fittingness to the created order. This concept of fittingness posits that God ordered a creation in which certain aesthetic objects fit with one another while others do not.
Myers has put forth this idea in many different places but one which came to my memory after having this conversation was in a lecture he gave at Dallas Theological Seminary (of all places!) that I had watched on YouTube. My curiosity was stimulated by the discussion so I decided to go back and rewatch the lecture.
While I was watching, Myers quoted Catholic theologian David Schindler at length. In the quotation, Schindler argues that one of the main reasons behind the aesthetic demise in American culture is the church’s abandonment of the aesthetic and even physical realm entirely. Schindler makes the argument that the church has become a specialist in matters of piety while surrendering completely the physical world.
It is in this physical realm where aesthetics and beauty actually so it should come to no surprise to us that our culture’s general understanding of aesthetics and beauty is entirely secular and often anti-Christian. Here’s Schindler:
Christians have been careful watchdogs of morality and inner-churchly piety even as they have largely given away the orders of space, time, matter, and motion and indeed the entire realm of the body and bodiliness, and of the artifacts and institutions in and through which space, time, matter, and motion become human culture. We have given away the realm of embodied experience. American churches have been masters of spiritual and moral matters, of invisible things, but we’ve largely given away the life of the body, including most of cultural life, to the secular and often anti-Christian forces. American Christians are shocked that they live in such a faithless culture, and yet, American Christians have for decades, if not centuries, practiced a cultureless faith. Modern Christians have often affirmed a worldless faith, that is, a faith that has not much to say that would reflect on our life in the world, even as they’ve allowed a faithless world to take shape. Modern Christians gave permission to the world to be faithless by accepting the notion that the gospel is essentially a private and personal and not a public and a cosmic message.
According to Schindler, the Christian church quietly obeyed the voices of the Enlightenment which told the church which compartment of the modern life it could have a say in; namely the realm of spirituality and personal religion. In accepting this role, the church has given over the realms of the arts and the culture to entirely secular forces. The tragedy in all of this is that it was men like Rousseau and Montesquieu who were commanding the church to do such things and not the Christian scriptures.
As Schindler states, should it come to much surprise to us that we live in a faithless culture if the church has practiced a cultureless faith?
Food for thought.