Those who talk about “making culture” can sound like the chattering classes. So much yak for so little yield. The problem is fuzzy thinking about what causes cultural change. Aristotle once described what causes a table to come into existence. If he was correct about causes, most of the talk about “culture” is merely making two-legged tables.
The occupational hazard of philosophers is going deep, staying down too long, and coming up all wet. Aristotle didn’t run that risk. He used everyday things, like tables, to suggest that everything—even cultures—have reasons for their existence. In the case of tables, Aristotle cited four—the first being the material cause. It is the wood out of which tables are made. The second is the formal cause—the form of tables. They’re not just blocks of wood. The third is the efficient cause, the carpenter by which tables are made. The fourth is the final cause, the purpose for which tables are used—either as desks, dining, or other things. It’s admittedly a bit complicated; but that’s how reality works.
Cultures are created the same way. The material cause of American culture—that out of which it is created—is the ideas and images. In the U.S., it’s the importance of constantly updating and staying connected, along with images such as cool people wearing black outfits in winter. These ideas and images take shape—the formal cause, or that of which cultures are created—in items like Facebook and black outfits sold in chic stores.
The efficient cause of American cultures—that by which it is created—is institutions like Google and individuals like Sergy Brin. They enjoy a credibility and authority to be listened to and taken seriously in the wider world. These influentials have what Pierre Bourdieu described as the power of “legitimate naming.”1 Naming is as ancient as Genesis, when God caused the cosmos to come into existence by naming it. Adam began to make culture by naming the animals. Select institutions and individuals have the credibility and authority to be listened to and to name things—to define reality.
Albert Einstein said the most important thing anyone can do is to name something. You see his point in the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James. They said no one has the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else. Tolerance has become a valuable commodity in American culture. Today, it’s our common coinage, how Americans describe what’s good and true and beautiful. Language leads to the final cause of cultures—that for which they are created. Final causes determine what’s meaning-full. It’s the culmination of key ideas, items, institutions, and individuals.
Aristotle’s four causes clarify why faith communities talking about “making culture” and “engaging culture” sound so wobbly. They’re building tables with two legs. Kicking around conversations about “building community” overlooks the reality that ideas must translate into images that become items made by culture-shaping institutions. The tables lack two legs, the formal and efficient causes of culture. They won’t stand up.
Neither will the efforts of professional apologists who have winnowed “culture” down to worldviews and winning the war of ideas. Ideas matter, but they need legs—the material and formal causes of cultures. This is elitism without traction. But it’s no worse than the cottage industry of grass-roots activists who saw off the need for ideas and institutions. They see culture as a bottom-up effort. But this too amounts to a two-legged table. It lacks the material cause (ideas) and the efficient cause (institutions). Pierre Bourdieu coined the notion of cultural capital, meaning central institutions and key individuals enjoy disproportionate influence in making culture. James Davison Hunter concurs: “It is sometimes true that political revolutions and economic revolts occur from the bottom up but on their own terms, they are almost always short-lived.”
The reality is that tables require four legs. Cultures are formed by four causes—material, formal, efficient, and final. Efficient causes are the most enigmatic for Americans. They don’t like the idea that bottom-up is less effective than top-down. Bottom-up isn’t bad, as John Seel points out. Not all of us are called to play the game on the national field. The local level is a great place to serve and be apprenticed in becoming a winsome contributor to culture making. But we’d be strategically wrong to assume that Little League is the same thing as Major League. We must not forget that one of the lessons of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 24:45-51 is that wise and faithful servant ought to aspire to greater stewardship and shalom for everyone.
Four-legged tables mean “making culture” is more complicated than we often assume. Some fear complexity leads people “astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” But this confuses simplicity of love that is singularly devoted with wrong-headed, simplistic thinking about culture. Changing cultures requires a definition of reality that is taken seriously. For example, when celebrities have children without being married, the national press is cool with it. [Tom and Gisele are married.] Out-of-wedlock couples having babies is considered cool today—it represents 40 percent of all births. Changing this culture will take more than espousing “devotion to Christ.” It will be complex and messy. It’ll require tables with four legs—material, formal, efficient, and final. That’s reality.
That’s why C.S. Lewis said Christianity is not a simple religion. “It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things aren’t simple. They look simple, but they’re not. The table I’m sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it’s really made of—all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain—and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.”2 We may not get to the end of making culture in this life, but seeing it as similar to making four-legged tables will keep faith communities from sounding like the chattering classes and suggesting wobbly solutions.
1 Nicholas Brown & Imre Szeman, Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 89.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 35.