Why “faith and culture”? Do they go together? Can they be separated? Can faith exist without culture? Can culture exist without faith? These questions are at the heart of the Augustine Institute’s new Faith & Culture initiative, of which I am honored to be at the helm.
And yet Faith & Culture is not simply about such questions but about the answers to such questions. Let’s begin, therefore, with the answering of these axiomatic questions.
In the broadest sense of the word, faith and culture are inextricably connected because a culture is always an expression of the faith that informs it. If a culture is animated by a belief in the triune splendor of the good, the true, and the beautiful, it will shine forth goodness, truth, and beauty. If it is animated by a nihilistic denial of these transcendental foundations, it will manifest only viciousness, falsehood, and ugliness. In the former case, the culture cultivates healthy growth in good things; in the latter case it cultivates nothing and destroys everything. The former finds in the faithful fruits of the tree of tradition the seeds of new and renewed cultural expression; the latter pulls the tree of tradition up by the roots, casting its fruit aside, leaving in its place a desert wasteland of deconstructed despair, barren and fruitless, capable of nothing but the sterile sneer of the cynic. The choice is ultimately between faith and culture or the absence of faith and therefore, and in consequence, the absence of culture also. There is no middle path.
As the foregoing illustrates, any renewal of faith cannot be separated from a renewal of culture, and vice versa. In fact, to put the matter more correctly and accurately, no renewal of faith is even possible without a renewal of culture. If we do not give the present generation the fruits of the tree of cultural tradition, we will leave them malnourished and unable to bear faithful and fruitful witness, and unable to sustain the life of faith within their culture-starved spirit.
On the deepest level, the tree of cultural tradition is not merely a tree but the very Tree of Life, which is to say that it is inseparable from the God who gives it life.
Switching metaphors, we can see cultural tradition as the fruits of the marriage between Christ and his Church. Prior to the coming of Christ, the Bridegroom, we can see the marriage being prepared in the theology and history of the Jews, and in the philosophy and literature of the Greeks. In the Old Covenant of the people of Israel, in the moral and metaphysical musings of the Greek poets, and in the love of wisdom of the sages of Athens, we see the preparation of a virgin culture for the wedding feast. With the coming of Christ, the Bride becomes one flesh with the Bridegroom, united in his Mystical Body. Thereafter, the fruits of genuine culture can be seen as the children of that mystical marriage.
The saints are of course children of that marriage but so, too, are the great works of civilization. Even as the New Testament baptizes the Old Testament, so Boethius and Augustine baptize Plato, and Thomas Aquinas baptizes Aristotle. Dante baptizes Homer and Virgil, and Shakespeare baptizes Sophocles. This is the bona fide tree of cultural tradition, the family tree descending genealogically from the marriage of Christ and his Church.
At this point we might hear a dissident and dissonant voice, crying in the wilderness or the wasteland, claiming that we have forgotten those great works that are not Catholic of perhaps not even Christian. Are we suggesting that such works do not possess any cultural worth? This voice, which is the devil’s or at least one of his advocates, does not know from whence the springs of cultural life have their source. Any work of culture that shines forth the goodness, truth, and beauty of triune reality is shining forth the truth of Christ and his Church, even if its author is unaware of the fact. Thus the works of Homer and Sophocles prefigure Christian literature insofar as they are asking the right questions and coming to at least some of the right answers in their engagement with the great moral and metaphysical questions. Such works express the desire of the virgin for the coming of the Bridegroom.
Modern works, inspired or influenced by secular humanism, can be likened to the divorcée who has deserted the Bridegroom and wandered off into the dark wood of disenchantment. Such works have value insofar as they reflect the virtues of the rejected Bridegroom, albeit unknowingly, but they lose their cultural worth insofar as they succumb to the viciousness, falsehood, and ugliness of the Bridegroom’s real absence.
Returning to our original question, we can see and say that there is always culture whenever and wherever there is faith, and there is nothing but the decay of culture whenever and wherever we see the decay of faith.