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,
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.