Culture: Where do We Go From Here?

Culture is a catch-all word that encompasses a great many categories and ideas about how human beings live. On one level, culture is about what we do every day. For example, if we leave our homes to go to work our culture is about why we go to work, how we go to work, what we wear to work and what we do at work. Our behavior and attitudes towards work are part of our culture.

Another meaning of culture is the art and ideas that a group of people produce. To be cultured, means one is familiar with and understands what is considered the best of one’s culture. 

On a more abstract level, culture explains who we are as well as our individual roles in society. A stable culture offers explanations of itself to us that are consistent and understandable. To do this effectively it must answer three fundamental questions about human life:

Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?

An example of a cultural response to these questions is the Baltimore Catechism. It was the text used to teach young Catholics about their faith. As you can see, the first few questions from the very first chapter answers these questions in a clear and straightforward manner:

The Purpose of Man’s Existence
Lesson 1 from the Baltimore Cathechism

1. Who made us?
God made us.
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. (Genesis 1:1)

2. Who is God?
God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.
In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

3. Why did God make us?
God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him. (I Corinthians 2:9)

4. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?
To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.
Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth; where the rust and moth consume and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven; where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. (Matthew 6:19-20)

5. From whom do we learn to know, love, and serve God?
We learn to know, love, and serve God from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who teaches us through the Catholic Church.
I have come a light into the world that whoever believes in Me may not remain in darkness. (John 12:46)

We are children of God because He made us. We go to God after death to be happy forever with Him. And we know how to get there by following the laws of His Church.

But in this moment in time, our society no longer has common cultural foundations which accept answers such as these. It is true that there are many people of faith, but not all Christians agree on the path to heaven. And for people who do not have faith in God or any kind of transcendent afterlife, many do not agree that culture functions as I have described above.

Ernst Becker, author of The Denial of Death, postulated that the development of culture was a response to our early ancestors’ anxiety towards and fear of death. Humans have two ways of viewing the world – our physical existence and our symbolic existence. He saw religion as an “immortality project” that we created to comfort ourselves so that we could avoid thinking about death. Using a religious narrative, such as Christianity, we reinvented ourselves as heroes in our own story telling so that if we followed a set of rules we would be rewarded with a place in Heaven.  Any threat to our “story” by other religious narratives is what caused conflict between people that often broke out into wars.

I have also been reading a bit on Zygmunt Bauman, an eminent sociologist and philosopher, who died recently. He had an interesting take on Becker’s ideas. He agreed that we hide our fear of our mortality in a symbolic way in culture. However, he saw culture itself as our “immortality project” because the culture we were born into existed before us and would exist after us. We could transcend our mortality by attaching ourselves to an immortal culture.  (See Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s The Individualized Society (preface))

Both men agreed that the old forms of culture were failing in this age of reason and science, leaving us to face the reality of death as individuals. Neither felt this was a good thing because they believed that the individual is not strong enough to come up with his/her own immortality project and that is why so many people are anxious, depressed, and suicidal. We do not have a common culture to alleviate our fears about death.

While I agree that our culture is failing, I think it is largely from narrowing our view of reality to only those things that we can observe and express with language. There is a common assumption that the universe as we experience it is all there is to reality. This is based on the idea that if we cannot observe something, then we should reject it as a part of reality. It means that nothing exists outside the physical universe.

What does that mean for living creatures? It means our consciousness is nothing more than physical impulses resulting from complex biological processes. We are biological machines.

There are many ideas that human beings are directed only by physical forces.  We have the “Will to Live” (Schopenhauer), “Survival of the Fittest” (Spenser), the “Will to Power” (Nietzsche), the “Pleasure Principle” (Freud), the “Denial of Death” (Becker) and more I am sure. This is not to say that these ideas do not give us some insight into human behavior, but is that all there is to being alive?

These physical patterns are maps of behavior and can never describe the full reality of human beings. They give us partial insight. We are beings with bodies and our bodies react to the physical world. So, it is reasonable to think that much of our behavior follows from physical causes. We may believe that we are closer to reality by reducing the universe to a strictly material one, but that is a belief, not a fact. 

There is another fashionable idea in science that those things, such as a transcendent plane or God, which we cannot prove by the scientific method, are subjects we should dismiss from our thinking. They are either illusions or simply not important to our lives. Well, proof is a very tricky business, even in scientific circles. Science is dependent on language to share information. If I believe I have had an experience of God or other event of a transcendent nature and lack words to express it, does that mean it did not happen? Science is limited by language and language is limited by our shared experiences in the physical world. We tend to use abstract and poetic language to describe everything else we experience uniquely.

Science is not as complete and as certain as we often want to believe it is – even on the plane of the physical world. We are limited human beings in a vast universe. To make sense of our surroundings, we learn to categorize and identify things almost as soon as we learn to recognize language. We learn to do this in the first year of life. Our parents teach us the name of things, but how did the first man invent language? The Pentateuch, an ancient text (Part of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) explains how man came to name things. 

   Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.  So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

Genesis 2:19-20

Whether you believe God actually told the first man to do this or if you believe there is no God, it is still clear that categorization is recognized as an important tool of language human beings use to map his world and communicate to another many millennia before “science” came along to explain it to us. 

And even the universe that we can observe is smaller than we once thought. To date, it is postulated by scientists that we can understand about 5% of the observable universe. We know nothing about the other 95%. I would not be surprised that in the future we discover that we know even less than we think.

What Is Dark Energy?

More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the universe’s expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called “normal” matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the universe.

NASA website

It should humble us to realize that we know so little about inanimate material in the universe. And how much less do we know about living things? We believe we developed from inanimate material, but we have no idea what the mechanism is that made the leap from a non-living thing to a living thing. We have no idea what the “spark of life” is at all. We do not know how our minds work. Where does consciousness come from? Why are we aware of our own existence?

I am not rejecting science or defending religion. I believe it is true that old forms of culture are failing us, but I believe we can recover. Human beings have a remarkable way of adapting to new situations. They have a way of coming back from physical adversity and from the many prisons we create in our minds.

I believe that the first step to finding our way out of this collective depression is by recognizing how narrow our view of human beings and reality has become. If we could see the richness of the human person and the world around us, we might be able to lift ourselves out of our limited, and limiting, understanding of existence.

We should think about God, even if we do not believe in the ones presented to us in religious writings because thinking about God can help us reach beyond day to day mental frameworks. It opens us up to new thoughts about reality. It gets us to think about how there is something rather than nothing.  What does it mean to be? What does it mean that I exist? Did the universe create itself? How is there anything rather than nothing?

And what of the question that we need culture because we are too weak to stand on our own and we need an “immortality project”?   

We may need an order and want there to be an order, but it is perfectly possible that there is an order, a real one, independently of our wishful thinking.

Our need to live in an ordered world, a world whose origin, destiny and rules we can understand, is not a temporary, historically relative whim; it is an enduring part of our constitution as human beings, and the entire history of religion – an eternal aspect of our culture – is there to demonstrate this. In claiming that this need arises from a feeling of weakness, Nietzsche was in perfect agreement with Christian tradition, and probably with religious tradition as a whole. The crucial conviction we find in religious experience, a conviction that recurs repeatedly in various sacred books, may be summed up in one word: alibi – ‘elsewhere.”

Throughout its history, religion has told us that we are ‘elsewhere.’ This implies that we are in exile, and that we have a home where we belong. To be elsewhere is our permanent condition on earth.”

(Leszek Kolakowski, Metaphysical Horror, pp. 29-30)

We need to look up and outside of ourselves to consider how we came to be, who we are, and where we are going.  These are common, human questions and we should reconsider how to answer them to ourselves and to others, especially our children.