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What “Multi”? What “Culture”?



I’m proud to say that I belong to the most multi-cultural institution in the history of the world, by far. I am a Roman Catholic. And I am ashamed to say that I belong to an institution strangely determined to destroy what remains in modern life that may properly be called cultural: I am a college professor. The combination provides for me an endless supply of questions that nobody bothers to ask.

We can start with the term multicultural. The Church has been so from her inception. We read in Acts that the followers of Jesus who came from the Jewish diaspora – the Hellenic, Greek-speaking Jews – were not always welcomed by those who had lived their lives in Palestine and who, presumably, spoke Aramaic. That conflict had to be resolved, only to be played out in a far more dramatic form when Saint Paul went to Jerusalem to plead not for Hellenic Jews but for Hellenic Hellenes: for Greeks who came to Christ but who had not been Jews, and so had not followed the civic and liturgical prescriptions of the Mosaic Law.

The long history of the Church’s missionary activity has followed the lead of Saint Paul, who knew that man without Christ was lost, but who also was careful not to transmute the faith into a set of cultural habits. Some revelation of God, though insufficient for salvation, is granted to every people; so Paul could be a Greek among Greeks, as Matteo Ricci could become a mandarin to preach to the mandarins in China.

I don’t mean to imply here that everyone ought to be multicultural. The principal cultural message of God to the Hebrews in the Old Testament is that they are not to be like their neighbors. They must not make their children pass through the fire to Moloch. They must not frequent the booths of Asherah and engage in ritual prostitution with women and boys. They must not weep for the yearly death of the fertility god Thammuz.

[1]

The Jews must be Jews, not pagans who sing a psalm once in a while. The Feast of Lights, Hanukkah, celebrates the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple, as against the Greek overlords who placed a statue of Zeus – the abomination of desolation – in the Holy of Holies, and against the Jewish trimmers who found a way to get along with those sophisticated cosmopolitans.

Judah the Hammer was well within the long tradition of uncompromising prophets. He and Ezekiel would have understood one another. Only by being true to God could the Jewish people, the chosen people, serve their role as the bringer of the word of God to the nations.

[2]
Ghent Altarpiece [detail] by Jan Van Eyck, 1432 [St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent]

It is possible for a single person to be multicultural, though it is not easy, and is less common now than it was during the Middle Ages, when a lad named Thomas, whose native tongue was Neapolitan Italian, could travel to Cologne and take lessons in Latin from his master Albert, whose native tongue was German, and then go on to Paris to teach in a city where people spoke French, among students and masters who came from all over Europe and who possessed the Christian faith as embodied in specific local cultures, from Trondheim to Messina.

If you are going to be multicultural, you have to be fully at home in more than one culture, and that usually implies that, at the very least, you will be fluent in more than one language. Beyond that, you will be the possessor of at least two treasure-troves of immemorial story and song; you will sing about Davy Crockett and Simon Bolivar; you will number among your friends the beleaguered lovers in Manzoni and the knights of the Round Table in the French romances; you will listen to Bach and the traditional pentatonic melodies of the Chinese. These will not be things you dip your feet in, as a tourist bathing in the Mediterranean Sea. They will be your own. 
    

When you put it in those terms, you see that not one student in a hundred, perhaps not one in a thousand, can be said to possess even some of the riches of more than one culture. That’s not because of personal failings. It is because culture itself, the thing we are supposed to be talking about, is vanishing from the earth, and is being replaced by a something new in the history of mankind: what Gabriel Marcel called “Mass Society,” a society manufactured by mass education, inflamed by mass politics, and amused to death by mass entertainment.

So the typical American student comes to college and does not even recognize the name Alfred Tennyson (think of that for a while); and the typical Hispanic-American student comes to college and does not recognize Tennyson’s name or the name of Lope de Vega, either. You cannot be multicultural when you do not belong to a culture at all.

At this pass, with the barbarians of Wall Street, Hollywood, Washington, and Brussels battering the ram against the gates of every redoubt of local, linguistic, and national culture remaining, what does the Academy do? Why, the Academy does what it has done all my life long: It surrenders.

Oh, it dolls up its treachery in the patois of intellectual respectability. But people who are not really interested in Chretien de Troyes aren’t going to be interested in Lady Murosaki either. People who aren’t scandalized when a college-educated speaker of English knows nothing of Milton – because they themselves, the professors, know nothing of Milton – are not going to be scandalized when a college-educated speaker of French knows nothing of Racine.

The one institution remaining that can stand for the beauty and the goodness of culture is the Church; in her, the cultures of the world have half a chance. That may help explain why the Academy is so hostile to the Church. Professionals don’t like to be bested by the “amateur.”