From the Editor—Friday Reflections

February 15, 2019

Defenseless Army of One

The Idea of Culture Presupposes Something More

Is the Culture War over yet? First, I think about the word culture. Josef Pieper famously proposed that leisure is the basis of culture, by which he meant the kind of leisure that is based in a studied reflection flowing from religious beliefs (based in cultus, the root of culture), such unhurried reflection that would take place in school, as the words for leisure in Greek (skole) and Latin (scola) suggest.

From the web on Leisure the Basis of Culture: "Leisure is an attitude of the mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world."

But what is culture itself, this thing that arises from the kind of leisure set forth here? It arises--but is not so much consciously constructed. As defined by Catholic historian and Touchstone Senior Editor James Hitchcock in "Christ & Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered,"

The word culture as used by biologists implies a more or less spontaneous growth under controlled circumstances, and anthropologists and others who use the term mean something similar. Culture is the totality of the life of a people, shaped and guided by their institutions but also to some extent a spontaneous development from the people themselves-their moral and religious beliefs, their social customs, their attitudes towards each other and towards the universe, their sports and games, their community mores, and many other things.

He summarized: "Culture ... is the totality of a people's communal life in all its manifestations."

This way of looking at culture--and it seems correct to me--suggests a serious question about American prospects. The problem is seen in an assumption made throughout Hitchcock's description of culture. Notice the words people, community, communal. 

Further, note also the Merriam-Webster definition of culture:

1a. the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group

also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.

Note the words group, shared. Nowhere is it suggested that an individual has a culture or could create one.

So what happens when a group or a people or a nation permits its culture to be ideologically reshaped around the principle of individualism or personal autonomy? Wouldn't that spell the beginning of the end of a culture? Might it seek to entice military recruits with such slogans as "An Army of One"?

While this slogan was dropped by the US Army after 5 years, it does reflect the broader society's embrace of individualism and personal autonomy. A typical argument for abortion-on-demand (not that it is legitimate) rests somewhere in the penumbras surrounding the notion of personal autonomy.

So what happens to a culture of individualism or personal autonomy? Isn't that where everyone "does what is right in his own eyes"? Did Israel even have a culture when such was the case? It certainly had no cult, unless you call widespread infidelity a cult. I'd call it an anti-culture, one in rebellion.

Some who call themselves conservatives think that certain forms of economics, being maintained, will preserve the union. But if you have no conservatism against the culture of autonomy, you will eventually lose your economy as well.

I base this on the meaning of words. Economics is from oikos-nomos, the law of the house. Can you have auto-nomos, law of the self, working in harmony with oikos-nomos, law of the house?

However, if all you mean by economy is a flow of money and goods, then fine, you can have autonomy with economy. Any totalitarian regime will have an economy of sorts. An anarchy will have some aspects of economy. But healthy economics must be based on persons who love and sacrifice for the other. It takes responsibility. It builds a house and makes a household. We are building fewer households today, while the state is unconcerned as long as it can tax millions of individual consumers. It has economy, but what about culture?

The surprise casualty in the culture wars: the culture. The future belongs to those who nurture and maintain a sound culture, and that is not an individual thing. There is not and never has been a Christian army of one. Recruits are needed and training is required for those who wish to win by maintaining a genuine culture. I visit boot camp every Sunday for as long as possible, but I still could pay better attention.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James


James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.