How do cultures change? Bottom up? Top down? Neither. In fact, St. Patrick’s Day reminds us how this entire debate is rather left-brained. Not good.
There’s an ongoing debate regarding how cultures change. Some say it’s top-down, driven by elites and organizations. Others say bottom-up, more “organic.” But both of these views are imagining vertical lines, top to bottom or bottom up. But no straight lines are to be found in the natural world. This line of thinking is fabricated—left-brained.
“The left hemisphere loves straight lines,” writes Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. “Straight lines are prevalent wherever the left hemisphere predominates.” This epitomizes the last 500 years of Western history. In previous ages, the right hemisphere ran the show. “The shape that is suggested by the processing of the right hemisphere is that of the circle.” In fact, this is the image that emerges when we examine how the ancient church changed cultures.
Research tells us Roman culture at the time of Christ was polytheistic, made up of innumerable small cells operating as separate spheres. Over the course of 300 years, the Roman church drew together these disparate groups into a unified culture holding to “a constellation of commitments.”1 The church had the greatest gravitas, like our sun. It was known as “the church of the nobility.”2 Led by the aristocracy, the church pulled together cultures, changing them from the center out. Patrick recognized this.
We celebrate Patrick tomorrow. He grew up in Britain, the son of Roman nobility who were Roman Christians. His parents were in charge of the colonies. Sometime in his teens, Patrick was abducted by Irish slave traders. In exile, he turned to the faith of his parents. Patrick later escaped Ireland and returned home to Britain. It was a short stay.
Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, arriving in 433. He passed away on March 17, 461, but for close to three decades pursued a center-out model of ministry, establishing hundreds of churches and monasteries. By the mid-500s, the Irish church was recognized as the faith of powerful royal clans. Columba followed in Patrick’s footsteps, founding the monastery of Iona, which became, a century later, a great center of learning and influence. A generation later, Columbanus left Ireland for Europe, starting monasteries in France and Italy. These monasteries would go on to establish the modern university while serving as the first modern commercial centers.3
Long before there was any idea of the roundness of the earth, the Western church used the image of a circle to capture how cultures operate. In medieval churches this is seen in the curved roundness of the ceiling of the apse, or of the dome of the church.4 It is found in circular stained glass windows featuring Christ at the center. The assumption was societies operate from the center out. It’s how they change as well.
Today we recognize this is how our solar system operates, in a circular motion, shaped by the combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces. Centripetal (from the Latin “petitus”) means inclining towards. Centrifugal (from “fugo”) means to drive away. The effect of the Sun, with the greatest gravity, is centripetal, drawing planets toward it. But orbiting objects have a centrifugal effect, because their motion tends to carry them away from the center. When these two effects are equal, an object maintains a constant distance from the center. The universe hangs together, so to say.
Cultures are how disparate groups hang together. If you look closely at how Patrick and his protégés changed culture, you see the image of a circle, a solar system. His work gave the church gravitas. The church operated at the center of society. It created a constellation of commitments. Innovation can start on the periphery, but it must move to the center of society to change cultures. The center has the most gravitas.
At the end of the day, no one is strictly left or right-brained. There is today a cultural preference, however. Western cultures lean toward left-brained thinking. This is why we have the top-down, bottom-up debate. It’s the wrong frame. Cultures change from the center out and today’s church is mostly on the periphery. That’s the real problem. The solution is the church finding ways to move to the center. Might take a few decades, but St. Patrick’s Day ought to remind us why right-brain culture change is most effective.
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1 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Malden: Blackwell, 1996), p. 82.
2 Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), pp. 154, 155, 160, 161, 166, 455.
3 Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1978), p. 328, 330-1.
4 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).