Thursday, June 24, 2010

Catholic in a Protestant Nation: how our concept of time- and work- should be counter-cultural

I have been mulling over a video, The Secret Powers of Time that I found yesterday on the how different concepts of time affect culture and outlook on life. One of the premises is that in "Catholic countries" people are more present-oriented (i.e., they do not plan because they enjoy life and live in the present moment) than those in "Protestant countries" (where people plan ahead because they believe that life does not begin really until after they die, so they work hard to prove they are God's chosen people). While these are generalizations, of course, according to the video there is some truth, if you use the Gross National Product of such nations as an index. 

It reminds me of the oft-quoted line from Anglicized Frenchman and Catholic apologist Hillaire Belloc: "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!"

Now, while  some people would point to the nations of non-planners as "lazy" (check out the remarks northern Italians make about those in the south in the video, or think of the prejudicial comments one sometimes hears about people from Mexico) living in the present moment is also an indication of trust in God's providence to provide. This, actually, is one of the quintessential messages of the Gospel. After all, Jesus said "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these". (Matt. 6:28-29)  This sentiment is at the root of the popular notion of "Let Go, Let God" and the country gospel tune that made the airwaves a number of years back, "One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus."

So, what does it mean today to be Catholic in the United States, founded as a Protestant nation, rooted in the "Protestant Work Ethic"? This term first was used by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It has been in the country's ethos since its founding to point to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 "those who do not work shall not eat" rather than to "consider the lilies of the field".  We are a nation of people who, in general, see hard work as a virtue and, at least up until the current recession, that those who are unemployed must be lazy.  We often hear those who judge people on welfare harshly instead of being sympathetic to the life challenges that foster a welfare culture among the under-educated and poor, mostly black inner city population. 

However, in these harder economic times, it is no longer just the inner-city minorities who are affected. I'm a Boomer. I grew up in the 60's - the last time it was possible to think that "upward mobility" was possible for each new generation - that each would be better off economically then their parents were. We all have heard of young adults who cannot find a job, or who are so under-employed they have returned to live with their parents.  What do such realities say about our own ability to succeed by our hard work?
Life on earth should be about more than just the GNP:  Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, wrote in "God's Grandeur":  
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

People of faith, instead of living as though earthly life barely matters, because it's all about "going to heaven", are called to live today, in the moment, not hedonistically and selfishly, but other-focused. We are here to build up the Reign of God (the "Kingdom") here and now - working for justice for the oppressed, the poor and the to make this earth more like what Jesus described in his teachings and actions toward the poor and unfortunate.  He did not indicate that the Kingdom was in the future, but NOW:

Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he said in reply, "The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is,' or, 'There it is.' For behold, the kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17:20-21)

This is our work, partnering with God to make God's Reign visible on earth in every sphere, including the economic -  not just being all about the "getting and spending" that English poet William Wordsworth wrote of in "The World is Too Much With Us."  Economic Justice for All, the statement from the US Catholic Bishops, was written to show that "Our faith calls us to measure this economy, not by what it produces but also by how it touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person."

So, what am I saying here?

First, we should remember not to be judgmental of others whose economic status is lower than our own. While we live in a nation that measures the value of a person by how much they earn, our faith calls us not to see this as who we are. God calls us to see the individual person differently -
 “ For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” -1 Samuel 16: 7.  It's not about the house, the bank account, the car or the job a person has. It is about who that person IS.

Second, our work in this world should not be about "getting and spending" but about making the world a better place - not just for ourselves and our famlies, but for everyone, including the poor, the elderly, the unborn - those who are powerless.  We should be counter-cultural within a consumer culture - not running out to buy the latest, newest, thing just because the media and those around us encourage it.

Finally, we are to be all about trusting God, not about trying to do it all ourselves. This is perhaps, the most counter-cultural call of all. In a nation that cut its teeth on Horatio Alger stories about people "lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps" we need to learn that is not always possible, and admit it - for ourselves and for others.

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