What is a culture, what is a civilization, if not a collective sense of self-identity and awareness, of historical memory and placement in the world and in time itself? This common thread of shared and essential practices, customs, and rituals both gives a people a positive sense of who they are and what they value, and also distinguishes them as particular from their neighbors.
If, as Anglo-American essayist, poet, and social critic T.S. Eliot does, one sees a people’s religion – both its underlying spiritual and theological faith and its external religious rites and practices – as integral to their unique culture, then without a doubt we can identify orthodox Trinitarian Christianity as the prevailing religion which has underpinned most of the last two thousand years of Western civilization. What does it mean when this prevailing arche or cornerstone, this fount of Western culture, is removed?
A secular transformation of a civilization does not mean the changing of that civilization to become something it never was, but rather the death of that civilization and its eventual replacement by another. As T.S. Eliot observed in his essay “Notes towards the Definition of Culture”, discussing what he refers to as the “material organisation” and “spiritual organism” of Europe,
[i]f the latter dies, then what you organise will not be Europe, but merely a mass of human beings speaking several different languages…The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture is religion… I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it… It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have – until recently – been rooted. It is against a backdrop of Christianity that all our thought has significance. (pp. 197, 199-200).
For Christianity to dwindle or even begin to die out in Europe and the West, in other words, is for the core cultural basis common to European – and therefore, all of Western – civilization to die. Not only our common religious heritage and life, but the sacred and secular architecture, music, sculpture, painting, philosophy, and literature which we all converse in, appreciate, and recognize would also fade and die as well.
Removing the common source of religious inspiration for these things would result in their evaporation, or their consignment to a seemingly distant past rather than a creatively reimagined, revivified continuum of a living Christian tradition. Put another way, to remove the Christian lifeblood from Western civilization is to cause that civilization to fatally hemorrhage. Alienated from its life source, it would inevitably die, or, if reanimated by another source’s blood, become something else entirely than what it once was, an altogether new creature. A terminally ill person, no matter how fertile or virile he or she once was, cannot create new life or breathe new vigor into those already living. Should the sense of disconnect between the European and Western “Christian past” and the post-Christian “modern present” continue to grow in the West, the very trappings of our common, even ostensibly secular life so informed by Christianity’s manifold legacies would vanish before us.
Or, perhaps, to play the optimist on another note, the Christian trappings of Western societies would remain in some form, but become essentially unintelligible runes or strange curiosities in the sight and hearing of a people divorced from any real awareness of or appreciation for them. To Europe’s credit, while many cathedrals and churches have been deliberately secularized or conveniently desecrated for secular uses, today’s secular and non-churched Europeans have not yet become so divorced from an appreciation for the brilliance and creative Christian output of their forebears as to support tearing down the great structures.
It is a strange and fearful thing to ponder a younger, modern generation’s incomprehension of and illiteracy toward the grandest achievements and legacies of their ancestors, of a detachment, blindness, and deafness toward both the genius of their forebears and a lack of appreciation of the source for their inspiration. To this end, whenever I have traveled in Europe, I have often been struck by the strange spectacle of walking in majestic Gothic cathedrals among young Europeans whose conversation topics and overall demeanor reveal them to be non-believers. What is it like to wander the great temples of Christendom without belief in their God? What does a great cathedral or monastery become in the eye of the atheistic or agnostic modern beholder who cannot fathom that which inspired the creation of so sublime a building? What do they imagine was the purpose of pursuing such costly, often centuries-long construction, such elaborate decoration and majestic masonry and woodwork? If not for the greater glory of God, these Christian temples adorned with centuries of prayer and oblation become divorced from their original, intended purpose, and, in the imagination of the modern beholder, re-imagined as atheized temples to man’s own mental prowess and creative imagination. They are thus, perhaps, a fitting symbolic metaphor for the broader crisis facing European cultures today.
The ephemeral but noble idea of a Christian society
In Eliot’s essay “Christianity and Culture”, he uses the concept of the “idea” of a Christian society to refer not to any culture which we might falsely imagine to have been an authentically, entirely Christian one – what he calls the myth of “a perfected Christian Society on earth”, but rather to question “the end to which a Christian Society, to deserve the name, must be directed”. (pp. 6). Eliot asks us to consider “to what end” such a Christian society ought to be oriented, and question the ways in which our society does not strive toward this ultimate purpose He does not strive in a utopian fashion to bring such a society into existence or make it attractive to those outside the faith, but rather simply to identify and make clear such a society’s “difference from the kind of society in which we are now living.” (Ibid.). This is something just as relevant today as it was when Eliot first articulated it.
Eliot is right that religion is the very ontological heart of a culture, and throughout a people’s history, their religion serves as the defining link between their past, present and future. It guides their sense of internal awareness of who they are, how they understand the existential questions of what truly matters to them, and where in the world and with what other peoples they will forge a common destiny.
A common religion: Where does the United States fit in?
Within this framework, the United States stands out as a unique exception in world history as the first mostly Christian-populated nation-state founded explicitly without an official, prevailing national Church or common confession. Because of this careful Enlightenment-inspired establishment of a certain separation between the State authorities and different churches, many among the millions of people who came to the shores of the New World did so seeking the liberty to worship as their conscience bade them. The benefits and beauty of such liberty are obvious to all those who live in a society where, for instance, one can take for granted that one may freely choose to convert to the religion of one’s choosing. This is a precious freedom which I exercised along with so many others.
There is great freedom in our collective valuing, as a society, of religious liberty for all people, and our country is and has been greatly enriched by this diversity. Unlike European and Middle Eastern history, which are largely defined by recurring dynastic political wars in which religious differences often played crucial underlying roles in escalating or legitimizing sectarian violence, America’s political history is entirely void of any major religious wars.
Yet one particular aspect of American religious life has troubled me, and it is in many ways a symptom or consequence of our foundational national religious pluralism, or, if you prefer, our long history of allowing many different confessions to live side by side largely in peace (the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, anti-Mormon “extermination order” issued by a corrupt Illinois Governor, and anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments of many in the Ku Klux Klan terrorist groups notwithstanding). What continues to trouble me is the uncomfortable reality that, as a people, Americans are fundamentally disunited by religion.
For better and for worse, most people in this country do not share my religion (if I am using the term ‘religion’ to denote my specific confession within Christianity). I am an Orthodox Christian who grew up in a Roman Catholic family in a mostly Roman Catholic Long Island town which was first settled in the 1600s by English Anglicans and Calvinist Scottish Presbyterians. In over 300 years, mirroring fascinating demographic changes, my hometown’s religious landscape has changed to an extraordinary degree. The two beautiful mainline Protestant churches which have stood for over three centuries around the Setauket Village Green are now home to dwindling, liberal congregations. My hometown’s largest place of worship is St. James Roman Catholic Church, where I attended Mass for years with my family along with thousands of others. My town has two small synagogues, two Orthodox churches (one is a monastery of American monks who are all converts), and there is a mosque and a Hindu temple nearby. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints (Mormons) also have two small chapels near the town center.
I grew up in this very ethnically and religiously diverse community with many Jews, Muslims and Hindus among my friends. Our differences in religion never served as a barrier to friendship, but naturally such differences did prevent a commonality of certain shared experiences, cultural foundations, worldviews, etc.
Tellingly, the specific Christian religion practiced most widely in this country (Roman Catholicism) is still practiced by a minority of Americans, as there are still more Protestants in the United States than there are Roman Catholics, though this will soon change.
This diversity is not, to me, inherently good or bad, but it does exemplify something which to me is problematic: disunited as we are by religion, what then is the foundation or glue which holds America together? Unlike the United States and our comparatively short history, throughout the rest of Western civilization, religious identity and practice were virtually inseparable bonds and indicators of nationhood. A people were united among themselves, and distinguished from “others” beyond their nation, by their faith and religious practice.
Think of so many of the conflicts or delineations in world history: what separated the typical Englishman from the typical Scot? What separated them both from the typical Irishman or Frenchman? Religion, and more particularly, a particular sort of Christian confession (Within Protestantism, the Church of England/Anglican vs. Kirk of Scotland/Calvinism, and then the Protestant/Catholic divide uniting most Scots and Englishmen vs. most Irishmen and Frenchmen). What distinguished all of these from the typical Russian, Romanian, or Greek? Their Christian confession in terms of the East/West, Latin/Greek divide. The intersection of rligious differences and national identity remain at the center of major global conflicts today, from Kosovo and Serbia to Russia and Ukraine, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, etc.
Since religious belief, practice and ritual has been a recurring and essential component of every major civilization in history, and the creation of a society united by the absence of religion has only been attempted once on a massive scale (this having failed so spectacularly with the end of the Cold War and the tremendous resurgence of Christianity in Eastern Europe), I cannot help but wonder: what, again, is the true unifying component of American society or civilization? What was it at our founding, that strange moment of juridical and legal separation from the British Crown, and what, if anything, is it now?
As much as some of us might want to say that Christianity has been, and today remains, the foundation or unifier of American life, any serious probing into that claim reveals a tale of multiple different “Americas” existing side by side and yet largely independent of one another, the “Catholic America”, “Methodist America”, and so on. If we broaden this to Judeo-Christian, or even Abrahamic, still many Americans remain excluded. So, then, if the pillar of American society and cultural life cannot be one particular Church, confession, or even one religion, or even a set of broad religious identity such as monotheism, what, precisely, is it that constitutes the ground or heart of American cultural identity? Some abstracted, inevitably subjectively interpreted concept of liberty, freedom, or personal agency?
I have wondered about this for many years, and the more I learn, the more people of different faiths I meet (and, increasingly, those without any faith), the more I come to understand that the United States has largely always accommodated a multitude of confessions and practices since long before its establishment as a sovereign republic. I am not convinced that this longstanding religious pluralism is bad or dangerous, since the history of all great civilizations tends to follow a similar pattern of broad tolerance for those of different confessions, and serious problems when such tolerance is interrupted (the Sepoy Rebellion, Irish revolts against Queen Elizabeth I, Guy Fawke’s plot, Thirty Years’ War, and Dutch War of Independence come to mind).
Yet the United States is different from all other great powers in one crucial respect: in the vast British Empire, most Britons were Anglican, while most Russians in the Russian Empire were Orthodox, most French were Catholic, most Indians Hindu, most ancient Persians Zoroastrian, and so on. Alone among all great powers in history, the American people are and always have been a hodgepodge of many different religious identities and allegiances from before the United States even existed as a geo-political entity or nation. It is in this country that what has arguably been called the fourth Abrahamic religion (Mormonism) arose at the height of the restorationist movement within the Second Great Awakening. This country produced the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and numerous other competing denominations and sects. It is this country that many of my Muslim friends say allows them true freedom to worship but without compulsion, and it is here that so many of my Jewish friends’ ancestors came fleeing pogroms or hoping to build new lives and families after the Holocaust.
The Christian religious legacy in the West: What comes next?
I would like to agree with Eliot when he contends that “[a]n individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend on that culture for its meaning.” (pp. 200). Even today, if an American or European is an atheist or agnostic, he has still been formed, let us hope, within a cultural context and an inheritance of ideas that is at least latently Christian. Yet given how rapidly the foundations of the cultural deposit are shifting – leading to the recent publication of so many books on the topic of Western cultural decline and how Christians ought to respond and engage with this phenomenon – I am not confident that most Westerners today, especially Americans, are going to have a clear or even conscious sense of their “heritage of Christian culture.”
I am inclined to agree with Eliot that “the culture of Europe” (and the West generally) could not “survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith””, and while I trust that it shall never disappear, Eliot’s cautionary words ring true in my mind: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism.” Eliot simultaneously consoled and cautioned his audience when he first delivered this essay in the form of a 1939 address at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge that “[w]e should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.” Eliot died in 1965; I fear that it is my generation that is living what he so feared to see, and that his estimation was off by several decades.