At the risk of opening up the Scripture-is-silent can of worms again, I did have a thought recently about how a biblicist might attempt to employ the Bible to define culture. Definitions of culture abound, and Scripture certainly teaches truths about human beings and their relations that imply basic ingredients of human existence. But for an easy definition from a biblical passage Iâ€™m left scratching my head. Just to add to the point, none of the catechisms I know come remotely close to describing culture. They certainly discuss virtues that would contribute to a wholesome culture, or vices that would work havoc on culture. But the basic contours of human experience as culture are absent from the catechisms and Scripture.
The reason for bringing this up is the recent post by Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in which he gives one of the better definitions of culture that I have seen in some time. According to Deneen, the basic component of culture is the reality of man as a technological being â€“ â€œthe creature that survives through the tools he creates, one that allow him to carve out a space for survival and even flourishing from the natural world that would otherwise be so hostile and unforgiving.â€
Deneen is following Romano Guardiniâ€™s book Letters From Lake Como, who argues that â€œhuman techne developed alongside nature, seeking to conform itself to natureâ€™s offerings, its rhythms, its cadences, and in cognizance of its place of majesty and governance.â€ As such, human cultures vary in relation to the diversity of natural settings in which people live. This means that â€œwhile every culture has tended to share certain basic features â€“ the celebration of birth, the ceremonial acknowledgement of adulthood, the sanctification of marriage, honor paid to the elderly, and the memorialization of the dead â€“ these practices have varied in accordance with the accumulation of experience and interaction with the world.â€
And this understanding of human interaction with and limitation by nature leads to the following definition:
The accumulation of these practices and traditions as a way of life is what we call culture. Culture is among the paramount forms of human technology, perhaps in its purest form the lived collection of memory. Again, Greek myth is instructive: the Muses, who embody the different arts and sciences that we have come to call â€œculture,â€ were the daughters of Mnemnosyne, the goddess of Memory. Culture is thus unique to humans, for it is the way that we make the continuous flow of time present to us in spite of its fleeting nature. Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Sirenâ€™s song.
Whether or not this is an adequate definition — it is one that I would gladly use in class whether at a college or seminary — it is remarkably different from the way neo-Calvinists talk about culture. I came across Deneen after spending more time Henry Van Tilâ€™s book, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. I donâ€™t know, I might be a faux Calvinist. Iâ€™m sure I can think of several Old Life readers who would reach quickly for that explanation. Still, Van Til leaves the impression of a very thin account of culture compared to Deneenâ€™s, one that is high on abstraction and philosophy, but low on the humanness and creatureliness of basic human experience. The reason has much to do with the neo-Calvinist mental tick of viewing everything as if itâ€™s a philosophical system or a set of logical propositions.
Here is one example of Van Tilâ€™s outlook:
. . . the position here presented is that there is no culture without a presupposition, since man is a religious being. There is no such thing as . . . . the postulate that the scientist must have no presuppositions. In this sense neutrality is altogether impossible; it does not exist. Every man, as cultural agent, whether he be a philosopher or artist, agriculturist or architect, lives by faith, which determines his whole being and mode of life. . . . If a man does not choose the Christian faith that Jesus Christ, Godâ€™s Son, cleanseth from all sins, then he must choose an alternative metaphisics, for, â€œThe metaphysical dimension of the mind never remains empty, but must always have a content.â€ . . . So then it is man as religious being that is called to culture. Faith, therefore, is the religious a priori of manâ€™s whole cultural enterprise, and particularly of his scientific quest. (pp. 171-72)
I donâ€™t object to anything that Van Til writes about the priority of faith or belief for understanding the end of human existence, but he is not writing about culture. Instead he is looking at culture as a means to the end of proving a philosophical point. Philosophy has its place. And Deneen himself is a philosopher â€“ a political rendition. But Van Til reads like the philosophical version of the adage that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. For Van Til, culture looks like an abstraction. And my sense is that anyone who started with his account of culture would have trouble analyzing, critiquing, or even transforming it with any significance.
What is particularly striking about the differences between Van Til and Deneen is that on Deneenâ€™s view of culture a Christian could conceivably recognize his own stake in the contemporary setting and how he might attempt to preserve or engage his own culture. After all, he is a human being and he relates to nature in his day-to-day existence much like his neighbors, whether they are Christian or not. On Van Tilâ€™s view, however, the Christian will likely flee all those cultural expressions that do not spring from the proper faith-motive. On this view, the Christian participates in culture not as a human being created in the image of God but as a regenerate saint, set apart from the unregenerate.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the Calvinistic philosophical approach to culture has an amazing irony attached to it. The one group of Reformed Protestants for whom world-and-life view thinking is pronounced are the same ones who are bound not by philosophical abstractions or answers to the Heidelberg Catechism. No, what binds Dutch-American Calvinists together is the shared human experience of being Dutch immigrants to a foreign land and creating sub-cultures that appropriate the Old Worldâ€™s ways for life in the New. To be sure, the church was an important part of that cultural adaptation. But seeing how communions like the CRC have fared, what looks more typical of Dutch-American Calvinism after World War II is the importance of the human as opposed to the spiritual part of being Dutch Reformed. In other words, it is the Dutchness, not the Calvinism, that binds most neo-Calvinists together.
And that is why Dutch bingo lives.