“Culture:” A Definition

Culture is the practice of full temporality, an institution that connects the present to the past and the future. As the Greeks understood, the mother of culture–of the Nine Muses–was Mnemosyne, whose name means “memory.” Culture educates us about our generational debts and obligations. At its best, it is a tangible inheritance of the past, one that each of us is obligated to regard with the responsibilities of trusteeship. It is itself an education in the full dimension of human temporality, meant to abridge our temptation to live within the present, with the attendant dispositions of ingratitude and irresponsibility that such a narrowing of temporality encourages. Preserved in discrete human inheritances–arts, literature, music, architecture, history, law, religion–culture expands the human experience of time, making both the past and the future present to creatures who otherwise experience only the present moment.

–Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed

Monasticism and Minimalism

I didn’t address my theological concerns about minimalism in the previous post. I might discuss those at some other point.

In the meantime, here’s a quick note on one of the annoying consequences of the minimalism movement: the comparison between a minimalist lifestyle and monasticism. @w0ke_space_jesuit.exe posted this picture on Twitter recently, and I can’t think of a more succinct way of summing up the differences.

Also, there’s this quotation from Heidi Deddens’ recent article in Comment Magazine:

Whereas the desert fathers practiced asceticism in order to achieve closer spiritual union with God, minimalists have varied goals: greater personal creativity, respite from the rush of the rat race, increased focus on relationships, or inner calm and enlightenment. Never prescribing a specific spiritual object, the minimalist movement suggests that reducing your possessions can help you achieve broad spiritual fulfillment or joy, whatever that might look like for you individually. The goal is no longer spiritual fulfillment outside of the self, but self-fulfillment.

Tidiness is (not) Next to Godliness

Marie Kondo finally has her own Netflix show. She puts her tidying strategies into practice with “real life” people who could use a house-size purge of material possessions. My wife has been watching it recently, and any time I walk pass the living room I’m inevitably drawn to the latest depiction of American consumption gone awry. Some of the participants have floor-to-ceiling boxes of baseball cards, shoes, or nutcracker dolls. Clothes spill out of closet doors. Kitchen appliances litter counters, cupboards, and tables.

For each of the show’s participants, Kondo employs a simple technique to help them tidy their home: pick up each possession individually and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “Yes,” then keep it. If “No,” then donate it or throw it away (and don’t forget to tell it “Thank you” for having served its purpose). Easy enough.

Like everything in the ever trendy anti-consumerism movement, Kondo argues that the Image result for marie kondopurpose of tidying up is to help you “establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” But what could this magical self-fulfillment be? It’s hard to say because it’s different for everyone.

Kondo is not the only anti-consumerist lifestyle coach teaching a doctrine of self-fulfillment. She’s in line with most writers of the minimalist movement. Joshua Becker, in The More of Less, argues that by embracing minimalism, “we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions.” In New Minimalism, Cary Fortin and Kyle Quilici encourage their readers to find “your own wonderful, decidedly unique middle path” in the journey toward living a meaningful life with fewer possessions. Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus also define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people add value to their lives” by focusing on “the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

On a practical and visceral level, minimalist practices and Kondo’s tidying up method directly counter-balance general mindless consumption–a phenomenon related to the enormous amount of capital produced within the past century. At best, most people are low-key hoarders. The slow accretion of possessions, however, has contributed to a growing awareness of a psychological burden. People feel they’ve lost control over their lives. They’ve buried themselves in debt and storage units, and find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to keep everything.

I get it. Extreme consumerism erodes most people’s emotional and mental well-being. Who wouldn’t want a tangible solution like getting rid of stuff to ease the inner turmoil?

But “self-fulfillment” as the primary motivator for reducing possessions and tidying up just doesn’t cut it.

First, introspection rarely produces the clarity and long-lasting results it claims. I can only speak for myself here (though I know others who would agree with me): most attempts of turning inward usually result in high levels of anxiety. Nothing will set me on edge faster than when I ask myself questions like, “Are you happy?” “Are you living your dreams?” “Have you achieved, or are you achieving everything you want?” The honest answer to all these types of questions is “I don’t know!” and “Oh no, I’m going to die some day!”

I’m not wholly against introspection. I think it can be good for identifying bad habits and patterns of thought. The trouble arises when we confuse means with ends. Introspection is a means, not a solution. Truth, goodness, and beauty–the ultimate objects of all our desires–lie outside the self, not buried under our insecurities and boxes of scratched CDs stashed away in a closet.

Second, minimalism plays into a cultural obsession with individualism and autonomy. Here’s an underlying assumption in the doctrine of self-fulfillment: if we clear away the non-essentials in our life, we’ll inevitably find a glorious, coherent self underneath it all. And this self is free from all forms of social and cultural limitations.

Nothing in my experience suggests that such a self exists. There is only the me born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture. The particulars necessarily limit the person I am and become. They give me my identity. I cannot transcend these circumstances, nor should I want to–any attempt would be pure hubris. One of the redemptive aspects of stuff is that it reminds me of who I am, of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Kondo always wants you to ask, “Does it spark joy?” But what if an old t-shirt reminds me of a family camping trip in the sierra mountains, which then signals a whole network of other memories that makes me aware of the relationships and experiences that led me to the present moment? Nothing can substitute that kind of tangible interaction with my own history. Not to mention the memories that would have disappeared if not for the physical presence of a particular object.

No man is an island. We all come from somewhere, and all our achievements stem from the help and love we’ve received along the way. As a new father, I’m constantly amazed that the human race has survived. It’s a bloody miracle. My three month old child is completely helpless. Without his mom and me, he’d never make it past infancy. Yet, this is the starting point for every human being. Somebody fed us, clothed us, and ensured our physical well-being so that we could become relatively successful and responsible individuals. To throw away every tangible reminder of our dependency creates a fictional ego-centered reality that only leads to self-deception.

So by all means, let’s reduce our consumption and recycle our stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves.

Places and Spaces

I’ve read and watched two things today that have my mind humming with old ideas re-presented in new contexts.

The first is from Wilfred M. McClay at Comment:

As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are moving toward a nomadic existence as plants without definable roots, perpetually forgetful beings who draw our daily sustenance from what is far rather than what is near. We rely on the ubiquitous satellites that encircle us and the resultant computer clouds that feed and absorb our energies. We do this rather than drawing sustenance from the actual people before our eyes, and the specific ground beneath our feet, and the stories and memories that form our lives in community. We forget the things that make our places distinctive, and concentrate on the things that make them interchangeable.

(Note: I struggled not to copy and paste the whole essay. You should read the whole thing).

The second is from a talk by Andy Crouch:

A couple takeaways:

1. When we abstract our material and tangible experiences, we implicitly alter our conceptions of personhood and leave ourselves vulnerable to powers that would impose their will upon us. Abstraction is as reductive as materialism. Abstraction, however, is not just the sin of the ivory tower. It is located within tech. industry and our cultural obsession with convenience. For Crouch, one of the problems that emerged from the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of human work with machines. Ostensibly, technology allows us to off-load human work so that we can live lives of uninterrupted pleasure. The result is a vision of humanity unfettered from the work that produces tangible goods. In a word, we become “consumers,” and so we are at the mercy of those who provide the consumable goods.

2. One of my favorite parts in McClay’s essay (not included in the above quotation) is his image of human beings as gardeners and pilgrims. These are competing extremes within the human psyche and within philosophy/theology of personhood. McClay points out that the gardener can’t subsume the pilgrim aspect of our nature, and vice versa. The two must always be held in tension. But, McClay emphasizes, our present cultural moment leans too much in the direction of pilgrimage–both in secular (i.e., technological conveniences) and religious contexts: “We cannot flourish without rootedness, and we should not let the pilgrimage element in our faith become a pretext for relegating all our attachments to meaningless shadows, a world in which there is no there there, only a vague spiritual beyond.” Paradox is at the heart of human experience, and our tendency is to try to eliminate one of the competing aspects. After all, paradox is both uncomfortable and inconvenient–two words our “technological progress” is hell bent on eliminating.

I also appreciated McClay’s essay because it helped keep my inner-luddite in check. Technological improvement does not have to progress at the expense of human flourishing. And much of the technology we enjoy today–whether medicinal, recreational, educational, etc.–has enhanced our lives in good ways. The trick, McClay says at the end of his piece, is preserving our memory of what it means to be human.

Kaepernick & the Water We Swim In

Alastair Roberts recently wrote a post about the controversy surrounding the Colin Kaepernick and Nike ad. I’ve been thinking about his post all week because he seems to get to the heart of the issue. He starts with the idea of the “Cult of Patriotism:”

Beyond drawing attention to the specific issue of racial injustice, in kneeling for the American national anthem before the start of games, Colin Kaepernick’s actions served to expose the power of the American cult of patriotism, which has steadily brought professional sports into its orbit. While many justifiably lament the increasing politicization of every area of life, it wasn’t Kaepernick who really initiated the politicization of the NFL. The spread of the cult of the state and the military in American football was considerably advanced before Kaepernick ever took a knee.

Alastair is exactly right. Every time I hear people complain about how every area of life has been politicized, my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder when politics was ever a separate or contained social reality. Every social institution and entertainment industry–including governments and professional sports–is an extension of cultural values and identity. The NFL, MLB, and NHL have always been political entities because they represent a history of American cultural identity.

Consider, for example, the names of two teams in the NFL: the New England Patriots and the San Francisco Forty Niners. The Patriots recall the history of the Revolutionary War, and the 49ers recall the prospectors who journeyed to Northern California during the gold rush in 1849.

The names of both teams, however, are more than reminders of factual historical events. It’s safe to assume that a nation wouldn’t intentionally name a sports team in honor of a collectively recognized national shame. Team names are meant to promote a sense of national identity, and they do this by affirming a specific view of history.

“Patriots” is an unequivocal celebration of the heroic efforts of those who fought for American independence. “49ers” is a celebration of the wealth and prosperity promised to those who work hard and courageously seek a better life for themselves–i.e., the American Dream.

Seen as an endorsement of a particular view of American history, we shouldn’t be surprised when disagreement emerges. History is as much a game of interpretation as it is a record of dates, events, and people–hence, the name controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins. The flurry of denouncements and support of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the anthem underscores Alastair’s point: Kaepernick did not politicize football. He exposed yet another way in which football was, is, and will always be political.

The difficulty, of course, is that the politics of professional sports is usually unstated. Professional sports are built on unquestioned assumptions about national identity, and they participate in the rituals/habits of culture. The result is a large-scale form of peer-pressure, what Alastair describes as the “power of cult.” The most effective way to reveal cultural habits of thought is to behave differently. In this case, “for the power of the cult to be made manifest, all Kaepernick had to do was to kneel.”

Alastair extends his argument further into the realm of civil religion, which I may take up in another post. But for now, I found his description of culture, sports, and politics especially fruitful for reflection and further discussion. It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech. Culture and politics are part of the water we swim in. Unfortunately, we’re not always aware of it.