DECEMBER 11, 2020 BY DR. JOSEPH R. HOLLCRAFT
Over Thanksgiving break, a friend of mine asked me, “What is meant by the phrase cancel culture?” I thought the best way to get at the answer was to ask him a question of my own, “What does it mean to talk about culture?” That simple question led us down a fascinating path and one that was a little unexpected. Below is a snapshot of that conversation (as best as I can remember).
Friend: You asked the question about culture, but I am anticipating you know the answer.
Me: (with a smile) Yes. Most online dictionaries define culture, something like the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing religion, language, and social habits manifested in the arts and sciences. This broad definition hints at something deeper. Culture is derived from the Latin cultura, which best translates “a cultivation of the ground” — a tilling of the ground for growth. Figuratively, it can also mean the cultivation or development of the mind. Inside this word, one discovers that culture is the potential of what is yet unseen — man’s hidden possibility. Which is to say, man is not a consequence of culture, but culture a consequence of man. Like the bloom to the flower, culture is the outgrowth of man.
Friend: What would you say is the most important aspect to culture?
Me: Religion is the beating heart of every culture. Study any country’s history and the gods they believed in are probably the largest and most prominent structures. Every nation’s creed shapes and forms its characteristics, language, and social habits that manifest in the arts and sciences. Man observes, creates, sacrifices, and, as he does, builds a civilization that reflects what he believes. Put into the context of Christian culture, when man observes, creates, and sacrifices for Christ, he builds a civilization of, and for, the transcendence of God in truth, beauty, and goodness. Satan wants to cancel out anything that points to the transcendence of God.
Friend: You just used the word cancel; can you elaborate?
Me: Sure, the word cancel comes from the Latin cancellare meaning “to make like a lattice,” which, to my understanding, took on a later meaning of “crossing out something written” by marking it with crossed lines. Interestingly, I get on my six-year-old daughter for not using her eraser — she likes to cross out every wrong. I would suggest to you that Satan tempts us as a nation to cross-out God, cancel God — get us to believe that God does not exist. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 64% of Americans are convinced that God exists, down from 79% in 2005. We are a culture that is believing the lie that God does not exist. Although 64% is still the majority, Satan has made advancements in this battle. In the increasing absence of conviction that an all-loving God exists, there is a growing number of people who are succumbing to their weaknesses and re-coursing to the enchanting enticements of Satan — that he can satisfy a longing in our hearts that only God can fulfill.
Friend: Would you say this has led to a kind of inverse thinking to what you already explained — that culture is not the outgrowth of man, but man the outgrowth of culture?
Me: Exactly — embracing the creed that power, prestige, and pleasure can satisfy our ache for God has dire consequences. As we invert the sequence of man and culture, eventually, we will prioritize what the mass mob thinks, over and above what God thinks.
Friend: What is the fallout from that?
Me: Great question.
Friend: Why great?
Me: Because we are all being made to deal with the answer. Let me explain. Over recent months, I have heard over and over that good people are losing friends they once considered “close.” One of the great dangers at this moment in history is the canceling out of relationships. We no longer see the other as a friend who reflects God, but an adversary whose face is synonymous with the idea or politician we oppose. Once the face becomes equivalent to the opinion we vehemently disagree with, relationships disappear into the growing mob that is the culture of lies and distrust. Then, tragically, the possibility of once was — a life-giving relationship born of faith, reason, and sacrifice — is lost to the mass crowd whose opinion I oppose.
Friend: That makes a lot of sense. Can you expand on why you said reason and sacrifice?
Me. Sure. Our culture is desperate to rediscover the art of dialogue in its classic context. The art of dialogue occurs between two people — for dialogue always involves words (logos) between (dia) two people. Monologues do not advance civilization, but dialogues rooted in objective reason. For a dialogue to mature, we must be willing to listen — not buying time to say what we think needs to be said but responding to what is indicated. This calls for the virtue of silence. Silence is virtuous when it remains in an inner reserve, always discerning the best reply, if any.
Friend: So silence is virtuous in the sacrifice of dying to what we prematurely think?
Me: Yes. I could not have said that better.
Friend: Can you expand on the reason aspect to your point?
Me: Of course. After carefully listening, it is always prudent to speak to what is objectively true — what is external, revealed, and seen, versus what we subjectively think – what is internal, unknown, and unseen. Consider the Greek word for reproof can also translate as “reason; examine,” or “reasoned argument.” In reproof, we seek a reasoned conversation in which we listen to each other in true dialogue. In the end, if our dialogues can rediscover truth in reason and sacrifice, we can win back our friendships in this age of post-reason. Remember, crisis, by definition, means “a turning point.” This “turn” can take place in moral reasoning — reasoning based on revelation. If God has His mark on our friendships, they can never be “crossed out.” Then again, if what is reasonably true is rejected, then we must remember we are “blessed.” Recall Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10).
Friend: That all makes sense. If I understand you correctly, Satan is not only trying to cancel out the transcendence of God, but in doing so, cancel out friendships?
Me: Yes! Again, the more our friend’s face becomes another face in the crowd of faces I disagree with, the more that face will all too easily disappear.
Friend: I understand. Joe, are there any other points to this wider discussion on the cancel culture?
Me: Yes, the importance of “conversing with the past.”
Friend: What do you mean?
Me: In more general terms, the phrase cancel culture refers to the growing widespread practice of withdrawing support for personalities, businesses, and the like, because they have done or said something considered intolerant — a kind of social ex-communication. This is seen most ostensibly on social media in the form of accusing and shaming. What started on social media has been taken to the streets as statues, both religious and secular, are removed, and worse, desecrated. In this, among other things, we are witnessing an attempt to cancel out our memory of history. Statues, often accompanied by a telling quote or line, teach us about history. In the case of saints’ statues, they teach us about God working in history (some secular statues do as well). So, this attempt to cross out reminds us of history and how God works in history.
Friend: What is needed?
Me: I would suggest a renewal of our traditions and Sacred Tradition. Twentieth-century Dominican priest and theologian Yves Congar, in the opening pages of The Meaning of Tradition, reminds us that we have traditions because they link us to our ancestors. Thus, we carry on a kind of conversation with them. In other words, tradition is a conversation with the past, which makes yesterday’s events — alive today, and remembered tomorrow. Moreover, conversation with the past strengthens memory, and memory enriches the experience of who we are in relation to others — in both the present and the past. In this, the faculty of our memory tells us who we are and where we are going. For example, on a national level, Independence Day is an opportunity for our nation to remember figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and to converse about the importance of freedom and its relevance to a robust future for America. This truth about tradition as “conversation with the past” also unfolds inside every family. My wife and I have four children. We have what we call the “red plate” tradition for each birthday – where the child who is celebrating their birthday gets to eat their cake and ice cream on a large red plate. After our children eat their cake and ice cream, they mark the plate’s back with their signature and date. Often, this leads to fond memories of past celebrations. Certainly, whether it be as a nation, or a domestic church, conversing with the past is at the heart of who we are in the present and imperative to where we are going in the future.
We could say, in removing secular and religious statues without apology, the cancel culture seeks to “cross out” a critical conversation – one with the past!
Friend: So, what are we to do?
Me: Look squarely into the eye of the cancel culture and say, I remember! As Catholics, we do that most profoundly in the Mass — the un-cancelable conversation with the past!
Friend: I’m anticipating a reference to Christ’s words: “Do this in remembrance of me?”
Me: (with a smile) Your intuition serves you well! Before I reference that, we ought to first recall the Church remembers most profoundly in the Liturgy, because the Liturgy is the Church’s memory. The Liturgy is the Church’s daily conversation with the ancients – the space where we converse with our spiritual family.In the great solemnities and feast days of the liturgical year, we remember the saints who have gone before us — the Apostles and saints like Paul, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Teresa of Avila, and countless others. We remember these figures and reflect on what made them so great, because they inspire us to live heroic lives. If memory is about identity, then it must always include God — for in God we discover the most profound aspect of who we are in our identity, children who cry “Abba, Father!” (Rom 8:15).
Friend: Herein lie those all-important words from Christ in the upper room, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Me: Correct! We best understand this as a re-actualizing or re-presenting of what Christian Tradition calls the Real Presence. In the Sacrifice of the Mass, as Christ’s saving death is re-presented on the altar, He intercedes on behalf of men in the presence of the Father (see CCC 1341, 1362–64). Christ has come as the new Passover, extending himself into our temporal reality. The God of history is made present on the altar time and time again — every second of every day. Incidentally, take the number of priests in the world and divide that figure by the number of seconds in a day. If each priest says Mass every day, and if the latest estimated total of priests is accurate (346,000), then approximately four hosts are consecrated every second of every day. The eternal banquet, where God is made present on the altar, is perpetual in every sense!
Me: Wow is right — God is great. Furthermore, as we abide in Tradition’s privileged center – the Mass, we are to be transformed by it in the Body of Christ. Consider this analogy. The flamingo has a very selective diet, which consists of organisms that are high in pigments called carotenoids. The flamingo eats such a high concentration of these pigments that their exterior turns a beautiful pink shade. This transformation is a wonder of creation. Just as the flamingo’s selective dietary intake causes its color and leaves us marveling at its beauty, so should our particular spiritual diet — the reception of the life-giving organism of the Eucharist — transform us and give others pause. We, like the flamingo (and even more so), should possess a new light that attracts others around us into a more personal encounter with the incarnation of Beauty, Jesus Christ. When we consume Christ in the Eucharist, it is Christ in the Eucharist who consumes us. Christ’s very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity is streaming through our veins (and it does not get any more personal than that). By receiving the Eucharist as frequently as possible, we carry on a regular conversation with Christ — a conversation that started in the upper room two thousand years ago.
Friend: So before our society changes, man must first change?
Me: Yes, in fact, you just quoted Saint Francis of Assisi.
Me: Renewal comes not from without, but from within. If we are going to renew our city streets, we must first renew the chambers of our heart. Here, we ought to be mindful that history is not just a series of chronological events, but an event of man, an event of freedom — an event of the heart. In other words, broken hearts and healed hearts alike shape history.
I would suggest all the chaos around us that seeks to cancel out history stems from broken hearts. God desires to heal the heart and give birth to a new springtime of history across the world.
Friend: Interesting, initially in this conversation, you talked about Satan’s desire to remove God. If we do not believe in God, then how can we possibly be healed?
Friend: We went from Satan’s plan to remove God, friendships, and our sense of history to reclaiming our sense of history by way of reclaiming our friendship with God.
Dr. Joseph Hollcraft has taught at the Middle School, High School, and University level. During that period, Dr. Hollcraft also hosted the radio broadcast, Seeds of Truth, which reached thousands of listeners in over 40 countries. Seeds of Truth radio can still be found as an iTunes podcast. Currently, Joseph Hollcraft is a Professor and Director of the High Calling Program with the Avila Institute.
Dr. Hollcraft is also the author of A Heart for Evangelizing (Emmaus Road, 2016) and Unleashing the Power of Intercessory Prayer (Sophia Institute, 2020). Among others, Joseph has been published with aleteia.org and the Catechetical Review, and is a regular contributor to the blog at spiritualdirection.com.
Joseph earned his B.A. and M.A. from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and received his PhD from Graduate Theological Foundation with studies completed at Oxford University.