Cult and Culture

I am currently spending a few days in the country of Honduras as part of a twinning parish pastoral visit, and my experiences so far have been enlightening, and at the same time what I would call typical of international (or even domestic) travel these days.

Honduras might be labeled a “developing country,” or in language from another era, it is part of “the Third World.”  It is difficult to say what those categories really mean, though, in our modern era of globalization.

It is true that there is poverty in Honduras, and there is widespread deprivation of the most basic needs of water, food, clothing, shelter, and medical care in degrees that would make the poorest of the people in America feel wealthy.

Yes, there are political problems and instability in Honduras as well.  It’s also true, though, that the Hondurans are watching our current American Presidential Election (a.k.a. reality TV electoral circus) with a mix of wry fascination and horror.   There are political difficulties everywhere to be sure.

America is Everywhere

For all of that, Honduras is in many ways a very modern society with very modern people.  Or to put it another way, it is a very American place for good and for ill. Every time I travel abroad, I encounter the same mixed cultural dynamic that I have encountered here.

When traveling outside of the United States, the language is often different.  There are different foods.  There are local expressions that are unique.  The clothing has a localized style about it.  It is not hard to notice that one is in a different country at first glance.

But, none of those differences among countries are as stark or as marked as they used to be.  In other nations, English is spoken in the big cities by most people, and it is spoken fluently by the young.  Along the roadsides one sees any number of American chain stores and restaurants, and American products sold everywhere.  The billboards, while written in the local language (although many are in English as well), communicate their message and use an advertising style and approach that is purely American and commercial.  Much of the clothing is American in brand and label.

One can find everywhere American TV, American radio, American music, American cars and trucks, American decorations in homes, American magazines, American electronics, and American medical supplies. In even the most rural and poor of areas, there are small roadside stores that advertise and sell Coca Cola and Dasani water.

And of course, there are cell phones everywhere, even among the poor.  Smartphones are used in all the same ways that they are used in America, streaming the Americanized culture into everyone’s pocket, hand, and home 24 hours a day.

Yes, much of the above is communicated in local languages offering a sort of veneer of cultural distinctiveness, but the undercurrent of it all is clearly American.

Simply put, the culture of the entire world is becoming homogenized.  Even traveling within the United States has become almost totally devoid of any new discovery or subcultural/regional adventure (like local foods, drinks, customs, etc) because of the ubiquitous presence of commercial chains of every type.

Which Means Secularism is Everywhere

Certainly there are advantages to this cultural homogenization.  There are many American ideas and methods that have been “exported” in ways that have improved life for many people.

But there are dark sides to all of this as well, especially in the realm of the Faith.

The Church in Honduras is facing many of the same challenges that it is facing in America.  It is under fierce attack from a spreading secularist and relativist mindset, and it is in danger of decline if this trend is not checked.

On one level, the situation in Honduras is much different than in America.  Honduras is heavily Catholic, and the numbers of clergy and parishes here are increasing in some areas. The Faith is a very public reality, and popular Catholic devotion still runs high in ways that are truly beautiful to witness.

But, among young people, and in the bigger, more Americanized urban areas, people are abandoning the Faith just as they are in America.  And the Evangelical sects are picking up many followers, just as they are in America, practicing a very individualistic and Americanized type of protestant, “prosperity gospel” Christianity.

One cause of all of this is the worldwide spread of modernism and relativism.  Christianity is seen as just one set of concepts alongside of a host of other competing (or maybe re-shaped) worldviews and filters.  If one buys the understanding that there is no such thing as objective truth, then it is no longer possible to believe that Christianity is THE truth.  Or more plainly, Jesus Christ is now one possible way, truth, and life among all the other ones out there.

In an odd twist of modern thought, the now homogenized and increasingly global “truth” that there is no objective truth is being used to justify a rejection of Christian ideals and norms on the grounds that earlier centuries of Christian missionary activity were simply the exporting  and imposition of Europe’s cultural ideas to the rest of the world.

Christendom, as a theological and geographic reality, is simply dismissed as unwelcome homogenization, even though the secular attitude that drives this conviction is itself an example of homogenization.

The fact is that the real homogenization these days  is occurring not only on the philosophical plane with modernism and relativism (which is dangerous enough to be sure), but more deeply on the cultural one, as I’ve described above.

Which Means The Catholic Culture is Changing Everywhere

Saint John Paul II used to say that at the heart of culture is cult, or religion. The ethnic and cultural heritage of a particular locality have always been the strongest carriers, to the next generation, of religious identity.  Catholicism is heavily culture-bound in its devotions, practices, and daily articulations. To be passed on, it needs to be breathed in the air, so to speak, in the same way that local languages and cultural customs are as well.

When a unique cultural identity changes, the observance of the Faith will change with it. If you want to change the cult, you change the culture; if you want to change the culture, you change the cult.  The two realities radically shape each other.

It is true that for all of its history, as Catholicism encountered existing native cultures, it did reshape them.  We would say for the better because it refined and kept the elements of truth that were encountered, leaving in tact what was in conformity with the Gospel and altering what was not.

Coming into the last couple of centuries, it was these oftentimes heavily Catholic and still diverse ethnic and cultural identities that blanketed many parts of the globe. The Church was the universal constant, yet the cultures were not homogenous, and each unique culture carried Catholicism forward in its own particular way.

Then came the information age, and the invasion of American life, running head long into the old order.

For all of the ways that American cultural life and ideals share commonalities with Catholicism, America has never been a Catholic culture.  For much of its history it has been heavily Protestant and modernist in its warp and weave.  The Protestant realities have gradually given way to secularist and relativist mindsets that have become the new American cultural norm.

All of this has happened in the United States alongside of the gradual erosion of distinct ethnic cultural identities that each earlier group of immigrants brought to its shores, and with the decline in ethnic cultural identity came the end of ethnic Catholicism in America, by and large.

Which now leaves modern American (non Catholic) culture alone on the world stage as the dominant, new culture to be exported in colonial style missionary fashion.

What is happening today is that the dominant cultural American expressions, being spread on the new missionary highways of electronic media at an instantaneous speed, are reshaping what they encounter, pushing aside whatever is not in conformity with the modernist mindset.  This new culture is often in contradiction and opposition to Catholicism in devastating ways.

Which Means A New Apologetics is Needed Everywhere

The answer to all of this will take time to develop and will need, as always, the indispensable inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

I do not think the answer is to de-Americanize the respective cultures of the world, or to try to recover the now lost practices of ethnic Catholicism in America, Europe, or elsewhere.  This is the proverbial “putting the toothpaste back in the tube” that never works.  And that approach would deny the good fruits that have come from the more helpful American ideas that have spread because of the grains of truth that they contain.

Instead, the solution will require, as was true in the earliest days of the Church, a new method and school of Christian apologetics that can lay bare the flaws in the American mindset that is overtaking the world, while at the same time preserving its strengths (all of which it borrowed from Christianity in the first place).

If the daily cultural realities of even the most “remote” parts of the world are becoming homogenized, then the good news is that the same counter message of Christian apologetics can also be applied everywhere as a universal antidote.

Which means that, if we play our cards right, for as bleak as it may look these days for the Faith, we may be on the cusp of a new world-wide Christendom that will look different than it has ever looked before.  The Church has always moved forwards, not backwards.  And she must move forward by re-articulating, in new and compelling language, the same classical truth that brings life and salvation. And we can re-articlate these truths utilizing, as we have always done, the latest means of communication available to us.

One can debate the extent to which the whole world needs America.  But there is no debating the fact that the whole world does need Christ.   Knowing that, we are always prepared to move forward, in every era.





About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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