Against the Recreational Household: Part 2, Cult as Cultivation

Against the Recreational Household: Part 2, Cult as Cultivation May 22, 2017


Today I share with you another of my rambles. This is the second in what I hope to be material I can use for a paper I will be delivering at The Academy of Philosophy and Letters at its annual conference. 

You can read my first ramble, here. (There I explain the method to my madness.)

To begin…

Households are Religious Institutions

Throughout the world, in both the East and the West, households were once religious institutions. This shouldn’t surprise us, the inclination to treat religion as just once more category alongside other ones, like economics or domestic life, is a modern one. And it serves the agenda of modernity.

But pre-modern households served the gods of the hearth. And connecting the household to the gods were the ancestors who lived in the lower regions of the divine pantheon. A house then was part of something very large. It was the low rung of a ladder that went all the way to the top of the cosmos.

For Romans household piety was the cord that bound the republic together. Piety was the practice of paying respect to those in authority and acknowledging one’s debts. It wasn’t a private matter, as we think of it today. It wove through every social obligation, and ideally through every heart. But when a heart was slow to feel it, propriety still demanded it. Debts had to be paid. We even have coins from the period stamped with the image of a man carrying his elderly father with the inscription: pietas. It was the grave responsibility of the paterfamilias to practice it and require it of everyone in his house.

What distinguished the Israelites from the Romans and other gentiles wasn’t the religious character of their houses. What distinguished them was the absence of graven images. This wasn’t a first step in a process of secularization, as some cheerleaders of secularism would like us to believe. Instead it was intended to redirect the gaze of the inhabitants to the images already in the house—the people living there. The Israelites believed that the only images of God that they were permitted to make were people.

For those who belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is not so much that God lives in a house because we do, rather we live in houses because God does. He dwells in a two-story house. The story of its construction is called creation.

Humans were made to live in the lower story of that house. And it is here that God raised the first human household from the soil. (Adam means soil, he was the first earthman.) He was made in God’s image, the image being impressed upon him by the divine breath that commanded to him to cultivate the earth.

To help him in this work, he was given a wife. She was taken from his side, in part to underscore her common nature. They were reunited so as to be fruitful: the fruit firstly proceeding from the very soil of their bodies. I’m speaking of children, naturally. They were to cultivate their bodies, increasing their yield, in order to fill the world with God’s image.

PrintThis is what it meant to “tend the garden”—but it isn’t the whole of it. They were also told to take dominion, to make the world a domus—a dwelling place. And this was to be done by cultivating their environment, making it fruitful.

This is why human culture is essentially a religious enterprise. Latin again helps us follow the connections. The root of the word cultivation (the work that produces fruit) is the same as that of culture (the work of produces fruitful people). The word is cult.

Cults order human life and attempt to harmonize it with reality. When it comes to categories, it is the largest. Everything else is a subcategory. I think this is why Aristotle in the Politics says priestcraft in the order of the city comes at the end, but also at the start, because it is the superintendence of things divine. (Politics, Book 7, chapter 8.) And in every cult, there is a liturgy, work for  people to perform. It begins in the house, as we can see with both the Romans and the Israelites, and from there it grows outward to what we generally refer to as culture, in all of its forms.

Anyway, progress is being made!

Here’s something else for you to enjoy. Wipf and Stock, the publisher of my book, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

Browse Our Archives