Restoring Humanity: Overcoming Liberal Individualism through a Vision for Rebuilding Culture
Published by Jared Staudt
In a recent post, “I Believe in Me: Naming the New Ideology,” I focused on the ideology that surrounds us in modern media, education, and much of the culture. It works in iconoclastic fashion, breaking down traditional structures of family, religion, and government, leaving the individual supreme. We see it unleashing a revolution in our society right before our eyes. I asked for suggestions in naming this pervasive, though elusive, ideology and the best candidate was modern liberal individualism.
It’s a start at least, and has unusual support from a recent interview with the formerly non-believing historian, Tom Holland.
So, essentially, what has happened is that I have lost my faith, and my faith was liberalism. I just don’t think it has any secure foundations at all. As Western power retreats, we’ve come to realise that these values that [we] had assumed were universal – human rights, the inherent dignity of Man, the obligation of the rich to the poor – are actually very culturally contingent. Our assumption that there are universal values is itself very culturally contingent – and specifically Christian, I think. I can find no basis for believing in any of this stuff at all that does not involve a conscious leap of faith.
I also feel that the legacy of Christian writings, of Christian experience, of Christian activism, of all the things about Christianity that stir and move me, [is] richer than anything that my secular liberal assumptions have to offer.
This post will focus on the antidote, which will not be able to sweep this radical autonomy away in a clean swoop by any means, but will begin the slow and steady work of building Christian culture. First and foremost, this means living the Christian faith everyday and in all that we do, making our faith into a way of life. That is not sufficient, of course, or we’d still be left with individualism. We have to form a shared way of life to rebuild culture, living the faith as a family, a school, a parish, and in broader communities. St. John Paul II described the necessity of this cultural renewal: “A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived” (Address to the Italian National Congress of the Ecclesial Movement for Cultural Commitment, Jan. 16, 1982).
We can change culture and a feeling of paralysis in the face of modern liberal individualism is one of our most serious problems. Forming culture is a key, stated goal of the Church’s mission of evangelization, articulated both by Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi and repeatedly by John Paul, who descried it as a priority of the New Evangelization. If we don’t live the faith as our daily way of life, we will simply be pulled away from it by our secular society. Christian culture shapes time (the day, week, and year), relationships, work, and leisure, drawing them into relation with Christ and allow him to guide all we do.
My recent book, Restoring Humanity, offers a vision for evangelizing and renewing culture. It not only lays out a Catholic vision of culture but engages in details of building culture through beauty, the land, family life, education, and renewing society. During an interview about the book, the host of Catholic Answers Live, Cy Kellet, said: “It is the book of the moment. Some great coming together of providence has happened and [Staudt] has the book that we need. . . . What you will get in this book is not just a reaction, . . . this is a book on Christianity, culture, and what makes us human and what robs us of our humanity.” I want to emphasize Cy’s comment that the book is not reactionary, but presents a plan for how to build culture through the habits of my own life and through shared practices with others (you can find a review at Catholic World Report).
If modern liberalism focuses on self above all else, the first thing we have to do to build Christian culture is to live in relation to God. He grounds our life in something greater than ourselves and give us a supernatural vision. Christian culture is not a natural reality but the life of God breaking into the world and reordering it from within, one life at a time. Christian culture, therefore, is built foremost on prayer, allowing God to shape time, each day, week, and throughout the year. Catholics live through prayer, through the sustenance of the Eucharist, and through festive celebrations that vivify daily life, showing that the supernatural suffuses all things.
Secondly, if modern liberalism divorces us from tradition and an inherited identity, it is necessary to begin thinking like a Catholic, attuning to the truth of the natural world (as endowed by the Logos) and to God’s revelation of Himself. There is a Christian way of viewing the world that recognizes everything as a sacrament of the Creator, as a word that speaks Him. It’s one thing to assent to that and another to recognize the beauty and wonder that God wants us to see on a daily basis. This requires returning to a healthy contact with nature and living a beautiful life. We must refuse to give into the ugliness that pervades our media and entertainment. Our imaginations are in desperate need of rejuvenation through contact with reality and with rightly ordered and ennobling art, music, and literature.
Third, if modern liberalism makes us passive consumers who are guided by a saturation of media and technology, we have to become creators of culture. We have to change the focus to what we can actually control, our own daily choices, and how we can work with other like minded people. We have to create centers and communities founded on genuine culture, beginning simply in our own families. Working with other families, we can begin to create communities through the parish and can renew or create schools that can become centers of culture (such as I did with a new high school). To counter act the ideology that constantly surrounds them, we have to initiate our children into a Catholic way of life, shaping their day with prayer, forming their minds and imaginations, and learning to live the faith in daily life.
It can seem like our efforts are futile when we look at the enormous decline of Western culture that is truly out of our control. John Paul II, however, placed culture at the center of the New Evangelization, because he understood the power of the Gospel to transform society. He saw how Christian culture helped his own nation to survive partition and occupation, and its power of inner renewal that ultimately overcome Communist oppression. If we want to do something to change society, we can. We can live differently and refuse to go along with the lies of modern liberalism. We can work with others to create shared practices and communities that will strengthen the Church and over time accumulate into a wave that can renew society itself. That will take a long time, however, but it is possible. The Church rebuilt the West once before and she can do it again, if we take up our own humble task of picking up the rubble and putting it back in place, one stone at a tim