The Liturgical Nature of Culture
Liturgy is a word that describes the way we “live and move and have our being.” Our English word comes from the Greek term leitourgia, which is simple a compound word comprised of laos—“people” and ergon—“work.” Historically, the term was used to describe various works done in public as a member of community, such as military or political service, or even vocational labor, relationship between friends or family members, and care for the ill. In other words, in its oldest and broad usage, liturgy referred to the common customs and routines of life within a community, what in more recent times we might commonly call “culture.”
The English word “culture” finds its Latin roots in discussions of the cultivation and care of livestock and crops. It was first used metaphorically to describe differences between groups of people, similarly to how we use it today, no earlier than 1776. The idea progressed through several different uses over time. It first narrowly denoted what Matthew Arnold would call “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” what we today might call “high culture.” But as early as the mid-nineteenth century, anthropologists began to use the idea to designate all forms of human behavior within society, not limited to high culture, including what we might today call “folk culture” or “pop culture.” British anthropologist Edward Tylor is credited for the first influential use of the term in this way when in 1871 he defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired as a member of society.”
In other words, as it is used most commonly today, “culture” refers to the common behavioral patterns of a group of people—their “liturgy”—including their arts, language, customs, and rituals. It is this anthropological understanding of culture as the totality of human practices in a society that has become the predominant use of the idea among Christians and non-Christians alike. Adopting the anthropologist’s definition of culture is not a problem for Christians—indeed, it may be a helpful category in studying the way humans behave as members of their society, but we must make sure that Scripture informs that understanding. The parallel idea in Scripture to anthropological notions of culture is that of social behavior, something about which the Bible has much to say. For example, when addressing the matter of behavior, New Testament authors admonish Christians to “be holy in all your conduct” in contrast to the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet 1:15, 18). They also identify human labor—both the act and what it produces—as the object of God’s judgment (Rom 2:6) and as an honorable endeavor that can lead unbelievers to “glorify God” (1 Pet 2:12).
It is just this understanding of culture as the behavior of people in society that reveals its critical connection to religion. Our religion—worldview combined with theology—determines the patterns of our behavior—culture. As Roger Scruton notes, culture is “a shared spiritual force which is manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people”; it is “a demonstration of a belief system.” This follows closely T. S. Elliot’s classic argument that “no culture can appear or develop except in relation to a religion.” Culture flows out of and reflects the religious commitments, beliefs, and values of a people group, and it does so as it is cultivated over long spans of time. The very term “culture” illustrates the long-term, progressive cultivation of something over time, influenced and nurtured by the environment in which it grows. Cultural forms are natural products of the environment in which they were nurtured. All cultural forms, then, are expressions of value systems, and thus culture is not neutral—it is fundamentally religious. And like worldview, the development of cultures occurs usually not deliberately or consciously. We simply go about our lives, interacting with other members of society, producing practical tools and creating art, unaware of how our worldview is affecting everything that we do.
Conversely, just as religion is what forms culture, so cultures influence the formation of religion, especially for people or societies that do not intentionally shape their religion and its underlying worldview based on conscious theological beliefs. In fact, as I noted earlier, most people’s worldviews are formed without intentional reflection, and the dominant influence for the formation of a people’s worldview is their cultural environment. The implicit assumptions embedded in the core of cultural behaviors form and shape the worldview of the people in that culture, typically without intentionality or even awareness. Thus, as James K. A. Smith has emphasized in recent years, culture is liturgical, being comprised of rhythms and routines that embody religious values and have power to form those values into those who participate in them.