What does it mean to be Counter-cultural?

Blog Published: April 29, 2009
By Sister Julie

Yesterday’s post on the question Is the habit the answer to vocations recruitment? drew a lot of discussion and perspectives. I want to pull out of there an interesting sub-conversation about what it means to be counter-cultural. In context, the comments are about the extent to which clothing/accessories of nuns are counter-cultural.

But the very concept of “counter-cultural” is understood in many different ways — as in what and which cultures one seeks to counter! My first stop, as always, is a dictionary or encyclopedia, just to get the basic meaning of the word.

Counterculture is a sociological term used to describe the values and norms of behavior of a cultural group, or subculture, that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day, the cultural equivalent of political opposition. A general example would be a competing, dissenting culture that wishes to change the nature of, or at least the dominance of, a predominant culture in a particular society. (Wikipedia)

Now I’ve mentioned in past posts that being a nun is being counter-cultural. But I don’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about the link between the two. I don’t think that one is a nun in order to be counter-cultural. The counter-cultural part is a kind of by-product of the fundamental desire to serve God and live the Gospel. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I wonder how I can subvert mainstream culture today” rather, I wake up and say “Thanks be to God” (… and shortly thereafter, “I need coffee.”) 

So say more about this counter-cultural thing … doesn’t necessarily have to be in regard to nuns’ clothing/accessories … but what does it mean to be counter-cultural? Does it always have to be publicly displayed? Does it reside in a single act or belief or is it more of a collective thing? Would you describe yourself as counter-cultural? Why or why not?

Archived Comments

Susan April 29, 2009 at 6:39 am

I think that one can be counter-cultural in some ways but not in others. But the very act of being counter-cultural opens our minds to other places, other ways in which the prevailing culture needs to change. I’ve certainly found myself in a counter-cultural position many times in my life. It can be a personal, private belief, but at the end of the day if we don’t act on it somehow, we can’t actually affect the culture with which we disagree. I do feel that being a Christian in action as opposed to just in name is to be counter-cultural–Jesus certainly was!

Regina April 29, 2009 at 8:56 am

I do consider myself counter-cultural. In my case, I guess the cultural value I am most rejecting is consumerism, that and competitive ambition. I left a 6-figure, secure income to explore a vocation more completely devoted to God. When people know that, occasionally one is very moved by my choice … I imagine that those people have felt a calling themselves and my example brings it to the surface, and hopefully also gives them a little more courage to explore a counter-cultural calling.

As far as the habit goes, of course I don’t have one because I’m not a nun, but if I were I think I would choose to wear it for a couple of reasons. If I end up as a consecrated hermit I will have the option of using a habit. I think I would use a simple one, because of what I mentioned before, how my example seems to occasionally inspire someone else to be more open to being called. Along with that comes the sometimes helpful pressure other people’s expectations put on me to live up to my public commitments (though, if I admit that pressure too much, it can cause me to hide my true flaws and failings, pretend to be more perfect than I am — NOT so healthy).

Another reason is that women’s clothing choices are never neutral in our society, it’s all tied up with acquisitiveness, position, and sexual attractiveness. The habit is simple and uniform, to me it represents a renunciation of all the vanity and self-conscious femininity that “fashion” carries.

On the other hand, I don’t know why it has to be so all-or-nothing with women religious habits. The male monks and friars I know sometimes wear the habit, and sometimes wear regular street dress. There is not all this emotional drama about it.

Jodith April 29, 2009 at 11:56 am

Being counter-cultural doesn’t necessarily mean a direct challenge to the dominant culture. As you said, one example can be to try and change the culture, but that isn’t necessarily the reason behine one’s counter-cultural actions.

Nuns and sisters, as you have said, exist to serve God, and in many ways that in itself is counter-cultural. But you don’t, necessarily, live to be an example to others of that counter-cultural effort, so you don’t necessarily need to stand out in a crowd.

However, if part of your charism or ministry does have an intent to make a public counter-cultural statement, then I do see a public benefit to wearing a habit, or some other obvious dress that is immediately recognizable, that screams to the world, “I am a NUN!”. For some orders, that is a big part of who they are, to stand out in the world as something different, something apart.

I don’t think, though, that this particular ideal must be a standard of religious life. I think each community needs to discern that particular charism for themselves. Like Regine, I just do not understand why this has to be such a big issue. There are benefits to wearing the habit, yes, but there are also drawbacks. Let each community discern this issue and make their decision around it.

As for myself, I consider myself counter-cultural in many ways, and not in other ways. Publicly, though, not many would look at me as particularly counter-cultural except for my desire to dress as my middle-aged frumpy self, almost completely eschewing the requirements of fashion. Although, I guess that is a significant counter-cultural statement, saying that I will be myself regardless of what others think, and truly just not caring what others think.

Nathalie April 29, 2009 at 6:18 pm

I still can’t get over the fact that there are people out there who actually trash each other over the issue of the habit. Sad. Anyway…

As far as being counter-cultural goes, I guess I would be considered to be somewhat so, although it was never a conscious choice. I haven’t watched television in almost two years and don’t miss it one bit. I haven’t listened to the radio since the early to mid-nineties and don’t miss it. I love being in silence, doing my own thing, hanging out with my cat. I prefer being alone to the company of people. That’s a hard one for a lot of people to wrap their brains around, seeing as I’m so friendly and outgoing, but there you have it.

I am not interested in a relationship, and I think that this is viewed by most as the big “counter-cultural” thing about me. Personally, I don’t see what the big hoopla is all about, but apparently there are a lot of people out there who think that a middle-age woman who not only is still single, but has never been married and is not even interested in a relationship, is just not 100% right in the head. One lady I work with just really doesn’t get it and she asked me recently, “But why don’t you want a man, Nat? I just don’t understand.”

And I think that maybe one of the most counter-cultural things a woman can do is to be herself without a man to help butress her sense of identity. We evidently still live in an age where an awful lot of women can’t even feel 100% whole without a man – almost like women who are single and choose to stay that way, for whatever reasons, are somehow deviant.

Or a bit threatening.

Sister Carol April 30, 2009 at 7:42 am

I’m fascinated by the many insights posted here about being “counter cultural.” For me “counter cultural” means living and expressing the values – in my case – as a Franciscan sister – the values of Franciscanism. It is my hope, that as others meet me, they can sense almost immediately that Franciscanism is important to me.

deerose April 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Just about anyone who is a committed Christian is countercultural in some way because he/she lives, at least in theory, not only for him/herself but for God and others. The prevalent culture of the day in this country focuses on the self. Having said that, one of the most self-centered people I know is a pastor. That happens sometimes unfortunately.

In many ways, I find myself to be countercultural – although I am not countercultural just to be countercultural. My lifestyle is a combination of my values, beliefs and my nature. Firstly, I am not a materialistic person. I don’t need or want a lot of stuff. I’m also not very competitve. I don’t have to feel like I’m better than others. I don’t have the need for power unless having some power (maybe in the form of connections, etc.) will get me what I need, solve my problem, etc. I am who I am – point blank. I’ve never liked a lot of attention and usually prefer to keep a low profile. I am humble by nature (don’t mean to make it sound like I have no faults – I’ve got plenty of them – they are just not in the areas mentioned above!) Although I do admittedly like my creature comforts, as well as a little luxury now and then, I live a simple life. I buy just about everything on sale. I rarely go to the theatre or expensive restaurants. I don’t accumulate much (although sometimes I do purchase more junk than I need which causes unnecesary clutter) and camp mainly when I go on vacation. My retreats with the sisters are my luxury! Being as involved in Church as I am (countercultural activity largely) sometimes gets a strange smirk from secular friends and relatives. But it really doesn’t bother me.

A religious that does NOT wear some sort of definable habit, i.e., veil, is acting COUNTER TO THE CULTURE, or counterculturally, vis a vis the normative culture of traditional religious life. Perhaps this “countercultural” approach of NOT wearing a habit is seen almost as a form of “political opposition” – see Sr. Julie’s definition. Perhaps that is why it causes such ire. Just something to think about.

Christopher May 1, 2009 at 2:48 am

The word ‘culture’ is a slippery customer and probably its derivatives, including counter-cultural, are too. I’m reminded of Hermann Goering’s observation: ‘Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ … I release the safety-catch on my pistol’.

What do we mean by ‘culture’? Is it a manifestation of human achievement (eg a city lacking in culture), or intellectual development (eg a person of culture), or the customs of a particular time or people (eg studying Chinese culture)? And what are we implying if we label ourselves as counter-cultural? Maybe we’re using the term ‘culture’ here to mean a set of values which we perceive to predominate in the civilization, or the society, or the country (or the culture!) in which we live.

As one who tries to live by the testimonies of my Quaker faith I could easily see myself as counter-cultural because – living in Britain where our ‘culture’ increasingly includes materialism, profligacy, and recreational sex – I seek to honour the values of simplicity, moderation, peacefulness and sexual integrity. But if I’m not careful, there could be more than a hint of self-righteousness in setting myself apart from current trends by labelling myself as counter-cultural.

Simone Weil defined culture as ‘an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture professors, who when their turn comes will manufacture professors’. For me there’s an implication of ‘holier than thou’ if I call myself counter-cultural to distance myself from my neighbours.

So I’m grateful to be part of my ‘culture’ – whatever this means! – and I’m inspired by these words of William Penn, one of the founding fathers of the Quaker movement in the 17th century: ‘True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it’.

[I hasten to add that I'm not disparaging those who are gladly describing themselves as counter-cultural in this thread and, on the contrary, I richly admire the values which they ascribe to the term. I'm just adding a few musings of my own because I'd love to read some responses!]

Annie May 1, 2009 at 8:15 am

Thank you Christopher. I worked for 20 years in a pink-collar job. In fact, I was the office gossip. I was always late and, watching the bus taking off from the stopi without me, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t’ God rushing by me in that bus. For four years I have had the luxury to work in the field I feel called to. And it is a luxury, you know, not everybody has a choice. What iIve learned is that God is in the call, not the job. God cares only that we share that call. Knowing this, I could go back to that office without the perpetual dissatisfaction I lived with all those years. I’m not a nun, but habit, dowdy clothes, bright colors–whatever helps you shout it out, go for it.

Maribeth May 1, 2009 at 9:09 am

I would like to propose a different take on how nuns/ sisters are counter-cultural. For the last half century or so, our country has tested on a large scale how independent (separate) each person can become. From youth marrying later in life, single parenting and divorce, the elderly living separated from their adult children, and so many single child households, so many things have have focused on how apart we can each live from each other. Nuns/sisters go through the process of vowing themselves not only to God, but to a body of other women. I find this action to include so many more people in your life to be also counter cultural. And I suspect that some of the young nuns/sisters are young women who have consciously or unconsciously rediscovered during their discernment the joy of having “family”. Big, extended family, joined together by love of God and other similar values.

deerose May 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm

I certainly do understand your point of view. But is having “religious sisters” similar or the same as having biological sisters or brothers? From what I have observed, the bond among family members, in general, appears tighter. The relationship between sisters in the same congregation seems more similar to friendships and acquaintances in school. Some of these relationships are deep and enduring indeed, some superficial, others antagonistic and everything else in between.

deerose May 2, 2009 at 9:00 am

I remember reading a book years ago about love and loving. One of the points that struck me was that an extreme focus, or should I say an almost exclusive focus, on one’s closest relationships, i.e., husbands, wives, kids, parents, friends – and you could probably even extrapolate this to mean ones intimate relationship with God, can become a form of egoism or narcissism.

I’ll give an example. I have a teenage daughter. She has everything she needs and many things she wants. I told my her I’d drive her to the mall at 7. 15 minutes before I’m to take her, a neighbor calls with an emergency and asks for help. What would be the more “Christian” thing, a.k.a. loving thing to do? Tell my neighbor I can’t help because I have to drop my daughter off at the mall or ask my daughter to wait an hour and I’ll take her later? This example is not profound but it illustrates a point. As a Christian, who is to love all, and serve all – within limits of course (not to be a doormat), I should help my neighbor in this case. The same type of scenario could apply to a sister in her primary relationship, God. Can she delay her prayer time if an emergency, or a significant need of another arises?

Although we all have our priorities, and special people we serve on a regular basis, we have to open our hearts to others, maybe even strangers, in times of need. This doesn’t only apply to those serving in paid helping professions. Sometimes we gotta help for free! God calls us to move out of ourselves.

nocode May 5, 2009 at 4:03 am

about counter-cultural…

i guess i go “against the tide” when i try my best to live/practice what i have learned from the teachings of Christ. like when some of my friends are gossiping about someone (who isnt even my friend but i somehow know) and then i open my mouth and butt in a few of her/his good qualities, or tell my friends to stop making fun of someone and remind them that person has feelings too…or whenever i sacrifice any gain of social acceptance just because i choose to stand up for the truth and what i believe is right (based on Christ’s teachings on love and justice and human dignity). whenever i go “counter-cultural” (which is not very pleasant and is very taxing, believe me), i always feel rejected and misunderstood by most people. this always gives a big blow to me since i am very social and sensitive to the people i love and i always try to please them, so being counter cultural is very very difficult for me. but because i love God and want to apply in my life, in my way of living, in my way of relating to other people, the lessons His Son imparted on us, and because i believe in His teachings, i speak up and tell the world where i stand. which is basically on His side. of course i am always not 100% sure whether i get things right but i know deep in my heart what my motivations are and as long as i can honestly tell myself that the reason why i “counter a culture” is because that culture is counter to the Christian culture, then i am somehow happy with my decision to go against the tide.

and if i can share a few personal thoughts on wearing a habit….

i think nuns wearing a habit to be counter-cultural is sooo not the point…..hmmm i will try my best to explain how i view nuns and their habits….in my opinion, as a lay person….if ever i will become a nun, i would love to wear a habit….for the reason that i want people to see in the first instance, even from afar, to whom i belong to, to whom i work for, whose bride i am. for me, it’s like wearing a uniform (i know it is more than that…but let me explain…)…people know at once if someone is a firefighter or a doctor or a policewoman because of the uniforms they were. if there’s a crime that’s about to happen and the potential victim suddenly sees people wearing police uniforms she can run to those people and ask for help or protection. i would love to be in a situation wherein (if ever i become a nun, i still dont know) i am dressed in my habit and while doing grocery or walking on a street, a troubled woman can just approach me and ask me if i have time to have a talk to her, because she have seen from afar that i wear a habit and she knows i’m a nun because of my habit and she’s somehow seeking for spiritual guidance. or like when i was in the senior year of my college studies, i participated in this human rights seminar. and all of the people there were from progressive non govt organizations. and then, i saw a couple of women dressed as nuns, from the same congregation that runs the high school where i graduated from, my heart just leapt with joy. i felt so much more in love with God than i was before i saw this two habit-wearing women. i felt God truly is a good, merciful God who would like to uphold the dignity of His abused children. in my mind it was like, “see, He even sent His representatives! He is with us in this cause!” of course nuns are all God’s representatives regardless of whether they wear a habit or not, and i strongly agree that the holiness and kindness of a nun is not seen in her habit but in how she relates to people and how she strives to keep her vows faithfully, and how she passionately loves and obeys God. but because i am a visual person, because i am born and raised in a traditional Catholic family with an uncle for a priest and several aunts in my extended family who are nuns, and because i have spent 10 years in Catholic all-girls’ school run by nuns, seeing women in a habit affects me in this way. i see them as God’s women. and it strengthens me, it comforts me if we are together in a seminar promoting values which i believe are rooted in the Gospel. and so i was just thinking, while i read the blog posted above, that if ever i become a nun, i would love to wear a habit, so that anywhere i go, even without opening my mouth to speak, people who earnestly seek God may be comforted just by my presence, they can just approach me, or decide to befriend me because they know i can help them seek their way back to God.

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