Cultures cultivate; a culture is more like an ecosystem than a supermarket. And human persons, as encultured creatures, are generally less like independent rationally choosing shoppers than like organisms whose environment predisposes a certain set of attitudes and actions. Cultures cultivate—not that our activities are absolutely determined by cultural influences. We are rational beings, not just instinctual beings. We can make choices that go against the conventions that are sustained around us. We can lean into the prevailing winds. But only if we know how to stand somewhere solid. Only if we are not being carried by the wind. We need to be able to imagine alternative ways of perceiving reality. Cultures cultivate. So if we want to offset the influence of cultural systems that distort or misrepresent reality, we need more than good arguments that analyze the distortions. We need cultural alternatives that provide opportunities for participating in a different way of telling the story of human experience. For example, counter acting the materialistic reductionism of our time requires practices that convey to our imaginations the coherent unity of matter and spirit. Challenging the assumption that human beings are best understood and best treated by social structures as autonomous choosers whose choices provide meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe requires settings in which submission and obedience to some order of things that precedes our willing is known as a delight and a blessing. Distorted cultural influences and practices cannot be confronted just by arguments. They require well-ordered practices and institutions. Resisting cultural confusion is more than a matter of thinking outside the box. We need to be able to intuit outside the box, and to encourage well ordered intuitions to those under our care, especially our children, because cultures cultivate. I am surprised by how often this simple fact is ignored by people who talk about cultural engagement. There are people who are honestly concerned about one trend or another in our social life, who regard those problems as the effect of bad arguments or bad intentions, and not, as they often are, as the product of some malformation or other in the shape of lived life. So they end up using malformed tools to repair the damage caused by the same malformed tools, thinking that better ideas or more clearly articulated lists of priorities or (worst of all) the right political leader will fix things. To switch metaphors, they are not attending to the eco-systemic causes of those problems. They are applying fertilizer and more water to plants that are suffering from a fatal amount of shade. If you cannot cut down the offending trees, you have to move the plants. If you do not, the plants may survive, but they cannot thrive as they were created to. Disabled eco-systems produce disabled organisms. Cultures cultivate one way or another.
Ken Meyers, Introduction to “Christian Smith on the dark side of emerging adulthood,” on the latest Mars Hill Audio Journal.