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.
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.