Modesty – highlights from the online debate (2)

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How ought Christians to relate to societal norms?

I’m surprised at all the relativism being invoked in this comment section.
Aren’t there any norms of behavior and decorum that we should endorse in a civil society? Such norms are content-less without concrete applications. Some forms of behavior and dress must be ruled out if we are going to have any kind of a developed culture.
That involves making judgments – not of persons and their worth – but judgments about the acceptability of action. That is what cultures do. They rule things in, and they rule things out.
Cultures can be worse or better, depending on what they rule in and what they rule out. So how do we figure out the good from the bad? Here is a good strategy. Find a culture inspired by a coherent, positive view of the human person. Where do you find that? The saints, the doctors of the Church, JP II, Saint Theresa, etc. What would they say about our MTV, New York fashion-world-inspired clothes?
So many people commenting here are naive enough to think that the prevailing styles – like tights in place of pants – have nothing to with our culture’s view of the human person. Why would you think that? That’s totally naive.
The people that are setting our trends have reasons for promoting the styles that they do. They are promoting a specific culture. And their culture is certainly not inspired by the great Western tradition we study here at UD. Rather, it is inspired by a rejection of Christianity and the Christian life. Again, let’s not be naive. Have you heard people in the New York fashion world or in Hollywood talk about Christianity? Don’t you realize that Christianity is hated in these circles that are setting the very trends of dress that you are so blithely following?
The fashions that so many are willing to adopt passively, without question, would never have come about in a culture formed by Christianity. We get the tight, matter of fact, unceremoniously bare-all clothes from a group of people that take Sarte, Freud, and Hugh Hefner as their inspiration. You may not realize it, but these are the people you are invoking in your nothing-to-hide, don’t-make-any-definite-judgments-about-real-cultural-norms, diatribe against the article.
– William

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While I agree with you that relativism is a social scourge, your argument goes too far. To the maximum extent permissible by the moral law, Christians ought to conform to the prevailing cultural norms of society. Doing so fulfills a direct imperative of the Church when she calls the faithful to be “leaven” in society. Christians should not be the cherry on the sundae, but the yeast in the dough. In other words, Christians are not an external garnish, but an integral ingredient of society. You can take the cherry off the sundae, but you can’t take the yeast out of the dough; it is completely incorporated and indistinguishable from its surroundings. And because it is so incorporated, it transforms the dough and allows it to rise.
With regards to “concrete applications” of cultural norms, this is a matter of prudential judgment. One should not ascribe rigorous dictums to areas where the Church makes room for legitimate discussion and prudential decision-making. For example, the Smith family decides that their daughters cannot wear lip gloss until they reach the 8th grade. The Jones family, on the other hand, decides that their daughters can wear lip gloss starting in the 7th grade. This is not a case of relativism, but of prudential judgment by parents enacting concrete applications of modesty.
To go back to “leaven in society,” turning the New York fashion scene into a bogeyman is not a Christian approach. One can shop at Armani, Gucci, Versace, GAP, H&M, Forever 21, Coach, Old Navy, and Target … and still be a naturally canonizable saint. Obviously one cannot violate the moral law; one cannot be immodest. But unless we have fashion designers who are Christian, the “dough” of New York will never be leavened (e.g. “going out into the deep” per JPII). I know of several virtuous UD alumni, all ladies, who are working in the New York fashion scene (one started a fashion/variety magazine for women). Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, these brave UD ladies want to work with their colleagues to preserve the genuine human good of tasteful, beautiful clothing (i.e. apparel that is modest, attractive, and not “frumpy”) while subtly influencing that culture and effecting positive change via their professional reputations (i.e. their colleagues must take them seriously). The same goes for every profession that desperately needs the “leaven” of Christianity. There is historic precedent for this:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” (Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 2nd century A.D.)
I’ll close by asking readers to re-read the last line of the above passage. So it was then. So it should be now.
– “Maximus”

1 COMMENT

  1. What has struck me most about these responses and the article itself is the vast misunderstanding or lack of appreciation for the human figure. This lack is, no doubt, a product of societies views and its approach to the human figure.
    If I were to set up a stand, a stand of my own, it would be one which handed out small prints of paintings by artists (past and present) of the female nude. My reasoning is this, the societies (both religious and secular) in which we live are struggling to see the figure for its beauty and incredible design- my aim would be to educate.
    The reason society must needs modesty is for two reasons:
    The first is so that one can respect one’s own body,
    The second is to remove the occasion for others to disrespect or objectify our bodies. The issue I take with this is that these two points stem from the assumption that the body, or form, will inherently produce one of these two outcomes. This is not so. We, everything we are was said to be good (Gen. 1:26-31), and it saddens me that such intolerance and such a misunderstanding of this beauty is made grossly visible at a Catholic Liberal Arts College. I then offer a word of caution to all:
    Whether you are made uncomfortable by clothing such as leggings because they highlight the human form (which is beautiful and good and should be thought of as such) or whether you desire to see women and/or men walk around wearing them as some form of erotica, realize that both of these sentiments do the same thing. Both you who look down on women/men for not dressing modestly and you who perversely look at women/men (as it is not only women who are objectified and it would be narrow and uneducated to think so) perform the exact same action.
    You both are objectifying the person you are looking at regardless of intention.
    So instead of ranting about modesty or the liberty we have as humans to dress immodestly, I advocate instead the education of appreciation for the human form – for the bodies and persons made in God’s image. I advocate that all parties educate themselves and cease this cycle of judgment and objectification under the guise of correct moral standing or a sense of liberty.
    In the end, as both Christians or members in this society it is imperative that we understand that condemning one another so rashly discredits both causes and must then be approached differently.
    It is entirely possible, that the problem exists only in your point of view.
    I close by saying that both change and tolerance can only be peacefully, and therefore effectively, made in a society that is fluid enough to move in the same direction, else ways, it would be stretching in every direction and get no where other than exhausted.

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