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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.1 (2004) 17-44

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Western Irreligion and Resources for Culture in Catholic Religion

William A. Frank

FROM ITS BEGINNING Christian faith has inspired and informed great works of the human spirit. It has provided the cultural bedrock for a great deal of Western civilization. Christianity's influence is unmistakable in masterpieces of literature, music, art, and architecture, and in the intellectual traditions and spiritual movements given birth in the monasteries, cathedrals, and universities of the West. The lives of the saints bear their own testimony to the formative power of Christian culture. The practice of religion leaves its tracks in history. In this essay, however, I do not intend to retrace the steps of those who have set before us this rich cultural patrimony. Nor do I intend to play the apologist for Christianity's contribution to the world's great cultural achievements. I am interested, rather, in thinking about the mental or spiritual soil, as it were, that gave rise to such works. Whereas masterpieces are peak achievements, I am interested in the distinctive cultural forces at sea level or even at the subterranean level of a society. If the practice of the Christian religion has been a major force in the constitution [End Page 17] of broad features of Western culture over the last two millennia, in the contemporary scene it seems to have lost a good deal of its influence. Major achievements of contemporary culture stem from a prevailing cast of mind marked by a kind of practiced indifference to the deep claims of religion.

The idea of this essay rests on two assumptions, neither of which is particularly controversial. First, I assume that within the history of mankind religion has played an architectonic role in the cultural life and identity of human communities. In world historical terms, philosophy and natural science's claims to provide the governing vision of the world and mankind's place in it are only recently arrived. Second, I assume that contemporary culture, or at least Western culture, is in an important sense profoundly irreligious. The nature of this Western irreligion will have to be spelled out. But the main point is that the common foundational mentality and sensibility that now largely condition our judgments and aspirations as a people and a culture are no longer keyed to religion.

Religious people cannot rest easy with the contemporary situation. It is with this concern in mind that I examine the Catholic religion for the kind of imagination—the network of sensibilities and understandings—that its practice inculcates in its believers. I believe that the elements of such a cast of mind—which are the "sea-level" or "subterranean" elements of common culture—are genuine resources for the development of a more authentic, broader culture.

The point of this essay, therefore, is to explore the possibilities inherent in the practice of the Catholic religion for the development of culture in an era heavily influenced by Western irreligion. I shall develop my thoughts as a series of reflections centering on four questions: In what sense is contemporary Western culture irreligious? What is the nature of culture? What is the nature and dynamic of religion? What resources are there in the practice of Catholic religion for the development of a more authentic culture? [End Page 18]

Western Irreligion

Contemporary Western irreligion is more significant in the absence of or indifference to religion than in overt hostility to it. We now live in the secular age—what others have called the technological culture or the opulent society—or what I think might best be termed the age of Western irreligion. 1 The main point, however, is that the immanent realm of history and material reality, the finite world of man and the cosmos, provides the final horizon for human life. In this cultural situation, wherever the human spirit stretches out, it engages either only itself and its own imaginative constructions or impersonal cosmic forces. Mankind's cosmic loneliness is the conviction that...


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