27 September 2008

Religion As The Root of Culture

Christopher Dawson is best known as an historian and sociologist who focused on the relation of religion to culture. In our age and particularly during this current presidential election where we see politicians seeking to divorce religion from the public life we must realize that religion and culture are inseparable. Fr. Joseph Koterski S.J. has written a commentary which can be read in its entirety here on Mr. Dawson's work 'Religion as the Root of Culture.' Here is a brief excerpt.

But however much the West is admired, openly or with secret jealousy, legitimate concern arises over where we are headed. Will, for instance, the easier access to material goods promised by westernization simply drown thirsty eastern Europe in hedonism? Or, to consider America and western Europe, will the relentless secularization even of religious institutions desiccate the very sources of the cultural life of the west? [6] There is no shortage of prophets of doom who think it already has, and the massive evidence available is compelling.

Our culture certainly does not feel like a religious culture. Even the Catholic sub-culture in which many here in the audience grew up seems to be in shambles. The prevailing wisdom among the most successful, prosperous and lively sectors of our society — the media, the legal and medical professions, the professoriate and the wizards of technology — is that this culture has a fine life of its own and plenty of drive; religion is better left a private matter, available to the superstitious but invariably a bull in a china shop when it enters the arena of public policy discussions.

At best, religion is considered an inspiration to the good manners and morals needed in civic life, so there is no harm in paying it lip service, so long as the rhetoric is sufficiently pluralistic and innocuously inclusive.

Bleak as the prospect of restoring the spiritual dimension of our culture any time soon is, there is a more constructive assessment possible than merely gloomy despair. We dare not be naive about this. The irrepressible optimism of the 60s brought many well-intentioned religious leaders to expect no harm to come from exchanging a predominantly eschatological model of religion (concern with saving one's own soul and one's neighbor's) for the social gospel of liberal Protestantism (the reduction of Christianity to part of its ethical and moral teachings). [7] But the reason for hope even amid the current confusion consists in the increasing recognition that the task of the Church is direct evangelization and that the renewal of culture is its hoped for fruit. [8] Like any good apple or peach, the fruit may be what we most directly enjoy, but in the long range perspective of the tree, the moisture and nutriments in the fruit actually help to root the seed in some new ground so it may gradually but sturdily grow, transforming the land and the landscape as it does so.

To appreciate the call to refocus religious energy on direct, one-to-one personal evangelization as a genuine blessing and not a fall-back strategy of desperation requires that we see "the big picture" of the proper relation of religion and culture. In what follows, I would like to develop two points: 1) Dawson's analysis of the distinctive trait specific to the Christian religion as formative of Western culture, and 2) an important shift the Church has been laboring to make in this regard.

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