With the movement into the Easter cycle on the liturgical calendar, the churches enter into an extended period of reflection on their mission in the world. The movement from Easter to Pentecost, the celebration of the ecumenical councils among the Orthodox churches, and the culmination of Reformation Day along with All Saints Day and All Souls Day in November underscore the mission to renew the world and the churches in the world. Scattered throughout the months one will also find celebrations of the apostles and thus those first apostolic excursions outside Judea-Palestine. This extended reflection on mission concludes with the celebration of Jesus as King of the Universe before turning back to Advent on the final Sunday of November.
The very existence of the calendar reminds Christians that, as Robert Louis Wilken put it, “Christianity is a culture-forming religion.” Mission unfolds as nothing less than the re-making of human patterns of life and existence around a new story with cosmic implications. Wilken goes on to suggest that Christianity facilitated the making of more than one new civilization in part because it has no sacred tongue, no particular language or cultural system that it seeks to advance. Christianity advances culture through the ongoing formation of cultures, which occurs in the dance between retrieving the past, celebrating the local, and moving toward the global.
Indeed, the movement toward the global in Christian terms is simply a movement toward the End. However else one construes catholicity, its complete emergence, like the perfection of the saints, resides in that final ascent when the local fully expresses the global as all tribes and tongues gather around the throne of God. With its culmination in the celebration of Christ as King, the Christian calendar most crucially reminds believers that catholicity and culture formation go together as eschatological achievements.
John Howard Yoder’s attacks on Constantinianism serve as a reminder that culture formation in Christian terms is not ultimately in the service of any particular national identity. Dignitatis Humanae gets at the same idea by underscoring that the proper role of government flows from the dignity and social nature of the human person. Christians stand with governments that protect the dignity of the human person, but stand against them when that dignity is under threat, which is why Christians cannot be wedded too closely to any national agenda.
More than this, however, culture formation best flows from the ground up. In his study of congregational life, Mark Chaves notes that cultural practices of congregationsworship, education, and artsare core activities that serve as the primary way in which they intersect with the world around them. These activities tend to be more prominent than direct political engagement or social services. Part of the reason is because each area flows into the others so that worship impacts art forms such as music and art becomes educational. This does not mean that social services such as providing child care or food for the hungry are lacking, but they become embedded in a broader cultural-making program. Mission becomes culture formation in the life of most congregations according to Chaves’ study.
In his efforts to revive a conservative philosophy, Russell Kirk noted that while conservatism must be concerned first and foremost with the regeneration of spirit and character, this cannot be accomplished with a program of social reform. Instead, for Kirk the conservative works within the local through “territorial democracy,” a phrase he borrows from Orestes Brownson. The focus on the local within Kirk’s philosophy of conservatism is no doubt informed by T.S. Eliot’s understanding of regionalism as vital to culture. Conservatism takes seriously the need for local expressions of cultural life, which is another way of talking about subsidiarity.
One might ask, then, whither Christian mission in the twenty-first century? It resides where it has always resided: culture formation. The existence of the Christian calendar perennially reminds us that this is so. But mission as culture formation does not primarily occur at the level of political establishment and the alliances contained therein. It occurs at the level of the people and the many folk cultures they inhabit. There is no sacred language for Christianity. The Orthodox churches preserve the beauty of Slavic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Greek, Armenian, and other cultures while Catholicism and Protestantism inhabit simultaneously the global north and south. It is here that a conservative philosophy about social life finds its counter in a Christian vision of life. Christianity is as it ever has been, a culture-forming religion, and no form of secularism will ever destroy that.