Religion and Culture – The Bishops’ call to defend “our most cherished freedom.”

To get a handle on the relationship between religion and culture, I would like to point out who we are as Christians, state what I take religion and culture to be, express the relationship between these two terms, take a step toward reaching into the concrete, and conclude with one partial example of what To Rise to the Level of our Times might mean in the concrete of my religion and my culture.

Let’s begin with a challenging assumption. If we are genuine Christians, then we are not our own but first Christ’s as Paul reminds us,

 “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” 1 Cor. 6:19.

We are the adopted children of God the Father. We are members of the Body of Christ. We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. These we are as a gift. They are not who we are by nature but what has been given to us flowing from the Counsel of God who in his wisdom created and sustains the world as it actually is. Thus this is who we actually are, even if we don’t know it.

Religion is that life in the concrete. Religion is personal, communal, historical, and eschatalogical [is about the fullness, completion in time of time]. To say more about religion, requires us to know a bit about culture.  Culture is what gives meaning and value to our life. There is the culture of our family and its heritage; the culture of our community and its heritage; the culture of our country and its heritage; and the culture of our global world and its heritage. Although the previous sentences may seem to be very abstract, in fact  they reference what is utterly concrete. But the concreteness has to be spelled out and that we’ll do a bit of in just a moment.

What then is relationship between these two terms, religion and culture? Religion is a part of culture but it has a unique relationship to what gives meaning and value to the various shapes of culture that form our life. Simply put, the role of religion in a culture, any culture, all cultures is first to understand the culture, second to evaluate it, and third to give it direction; that is, not to be directed by it. If we are to be genuinely religious then requires us to relate in a critical way with the range of meanings and values that imbue our every day life.

Now a step toward the concrete reached by answering a few questions.

  • Do we identify with the Tea Party, the Coffee Party, the Republican Party, the Democratic Part, no Party?
  • Do we find ourselves labeled as conservative or liberal or progressive or non of the above?
  • Do we lean toward Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or neither?
  • Are we for or against any of a host of hot button issues – abortion, equal marriage rights for all, etc.?
  • Do we think the Bishops are correct in their call to defend “our most cherished freedom,” think the Bishops are overstepping their political boundaries, or couldn’t care less?

Our answer to these questions and a host of others not included in the list define us in part. Without reflecting our answers identify concrete realities of our life that give direction to that life, shape our conversations, lead to our action or inaction. They are concrete or they don’t exist.

To “Rise to the Level of our Times” is an invitation not to be lead but to lead. To understand and give direction to our culture. Since I am a Roman Catholic, I thought I would take the latest Bishop’s issue and begin a dialogue about that.

I was struck when this issue first came to light, where did the Bishops get the words, “our most cherished freedom.” The reason for that question is part of my past. Until Vat. II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Catholic Church’s position for perhaps 1500 years was that, simply put, “error has not rights.” Political freedom was not something that the Catholic Church embraced. For me, not to acknowledge that past, lessens the legitimacy of the Bishops’ argument. This was further compounded by the fact that the history presented in the Bishops’ document, correct in its details, may insinuate to the reader the opposite position; namely that the Catholic Church has been part of the crafting or at least supporting religious freedom from its very beginning in our country.  

The strongest evidence to the contrary is the history leading up to Vat. II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Perhaps the most influential theologian writing and speaking on behalf of religious freedom at the time was the American, John Courtney Murray, S.J. At the first session of Vat. II, he was not permitted to attend because of his very stance on religious freedom. He was under a cloud of suspicion by the Roman Curia of the day. When the climate changed dramatically at that conclave, Fr. Murray was invited and indeed did attend. He proved to be influential in crafting the document now known as the Declaration on Religious Freedom. It was in the 1960s, therefore, that the Catholic Church’s position on religious freedom found its present and welcomed stance.

There are other dialogical factors that are involved in the Bishops’ statement, many much more serious than the one I have chosen, but enough for today is the food for today.

My point is To Rise to the Level of our Times requires work. We have to understand our culture and give it direction. In this example, the Bishops’ statements are not the whole story.  The previous couple of paragraphs are mere hints at the work that is to be done, if we are not to be lead but to lead. They invite dialogue because matters are complex and don’t lend themselves to bumper sticker summaries. It is in the very dialogue that the light of our faith comes to light in its appeal to and resonance with the inner reality that we are. We are not our own. For we are adopted children of God our Father. We are members of the Body of Christ. We are Temples of the Holy Spirit. We are this in gift to be given for the sake of the world.

I would be happy for us to select any of our culture issues and guide a conversation that would help us to be Christian first, and in that primacy to be guided by the light that has been given to each of us.

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6 Responses to Religion and Culture – The Bishops’ call to defend “our most cherished freedom.”

  1. Tim Spitale says:

    I agree with you. It seems to me that our country has become polarized, that is you are either this or that and there is no middle ground. I think that we need to dialogue and discuss the issues. Rarely is something all good or all bad. I have tried to point this out to others that they need to research the issues before they vote.

  2. Dick says:


    My daughter from Chicago is visiting and we’ve planned some family stuff so I’m a little behind in responding. We seem to have a similar mind set on many matters. I read a PEW Research article on the “Catholic Vote,” only to learn that their survey reveals that the “Catholic vote” mirrors the American Vote. If the Catholic is white, their voting pattern is white, if it is Hispanic, then its Hispanic; if they tend conservative, then it is conservative, etc. This exhibits a point that came out, I think, in the one Adult Scripture session in which I asked us to evaluate whether we are first American Citizens who happen to be Catholic or Catholic who happen to be American Citizens. I think we are more shaped by our culture than our faith. I don’t believe that even if we were more shaped by our faith that would mean we all voted alike but there would be a lot more noticeable Catholic position on issues; may be not candidates but issues. What do you think? I thought that there should have been more disagreement among us on the Bishop’s stance and I think there is but …

    On another note, do you have any suggestion on what I could do to attract more interest among our group?

  3. Tim S. says:

    That is very interesting. But, I know in one case, between my brother and myself. We were raised in the same house with the same influences and parents and yet, we are almost polar opposites when it comes to political views. Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother and we get along fine in every other aspect. And because I love and respect him, I usually steer the conversations away from politics. I would rather get along with my brother, than be right. As for attracting more people…I don’t know. I like our conversations, but it would be nice if we had some other views! I will think about it and see if I can come up with any ideas.

  4. Dick says:

    The differences between you and your brother are not that uncommon among family members. I am fascinated by the question, what makes the difference? Or what is the source of our differences? In my studies I learned and basically think is correct that first our world, everything that we know about and are interested in, is shaped overtime in something of an organic way; that is, the insights build on one another, get connected to one’s that are about the same kind of things and/or interests; has a structure to it. Our life is not just a series of random events. Secondly, that “our world” in the sense that I am using it, is also structured by our values, what matters to us. There are probably many other things, but these two are major factors in shaping the world in which we live.

    If any of that resonates with you, how would you see it applying to the differences between you and your brother? would be an interesting question for me.

  5. Tim S. says:

    I never really thought of what our differences were before. My brother is a very hands on person (he builds audio and visual systems) while I am more of an academic (I am a geologist) and not really mechanically incined. We both value family. He left the church but still believes in God. I am a reader (I like to read), he is not. I am concerned about our environment, and issues concerning the earth, while although he recycles, it is not a big concern. The biggest difference is that we married into different families and our political ideas reflect those of those families. And while my brothers ideas have remained the same, mine have slowly shifted away from those of my youth, which were more like his and my parents. So although we came from the same beginnings, we went down two different paths. And our “worlds”, which are somewhat different, have influenced our ideas.

  6. Dick says:

    I got interested in what makes a difference from my 8 years in the seminary. We almost always were seated alphabetically. So there was a guy who sat behind me, took almost all the same classes, even our summer courses; yet we couldn’t have been more different in our understanding of what all that learning meant. He and I literally lived in different worlds. We would walk out of a class talking about what when on and I would think, Wow that isn’t how I understood it. To top it off, we both achieved roughly the same grade point average over those years. I used to ask myself, how can this be?

    In 1974 I went off to Chicago to earn an MA in Theology and accidentally [now I think providentially] took a course on Insight, A Study of Human Understanding. Next to the scriptures, that book changed my life and I’ve been pursuing it ever since. Almost all of my interactions with our Adult Scripture group is influenced by my appreciation of how it is that any of us come to understand and how that understanding is structured. I can sort of hear that understanding in how people express themselves. Words really are windows into our culture, our life; it’s impossible to get out of it.

    So when you and your brother talk, you pick up where the differences are pretty quickly I bet and, as you commented, steer away from that. I am so intrigued by the differences that I usually go at that. Again in our gathering I tend to say, Can I push at that a little in response to whatever anyone has to say. I really love the exchanges.


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