Recently I have been on a nostalgia trip. It is a mystery to me why some memories come back so vividly that we can easily relive an experience in our memory no matter how long ago it happened. When I was studying theology as a seminarian the relationship between faith and culture fascinated me and it still does. The experience that has re-entered my memory happened almost 60 years ago.
A group of us studying in the major seminary gathered one evening a week during outdoor recreation period under a lamppost to discuss various topics related to priests’ apostolates. The group came to be known as “The Lamplighter Group.” We held 10 meetings. The meetings started with someone presenting a paper and then discussion followed. Some of the topics we covered were the Church’s place in the temporal order, a philosophy and theology of work, the nature of leisure. I still have copies of the papers that were presented.
Probably because I was interested in film, theatre and literature, I was asked to give a paper on how persons build culture. I believed then and still do that a culture is an external manifestation of how persons view themselves, what they think it means to be a human person. So film, theatre, literature and other media hold up a mirror image that reveals, and perhaps to some extent, creates how we think of ourselves. I thought the relation between faith and culture was important when I was seminarian and I am even more convinced of its importance now.
Of course some people have more influence in creating a culture than others. I suspect readers of this column feel as I do that there is much in our culture which we can not affirm and some of our culture we absolutely reject. What can we do if we think the meaning of the human person that is projected in our culture does not coincide with the view we have?
I have spent much of my life doing two things in relation to our culture: identifying what I disagree with and looking for voices that affirm and support my own view. Being a Catholic in a secular culture, I don’t find it easy to find my view of the human person presented in contemporary film, theatre, literature and other media. That it is not easy may make it even more important to keep searching. As a priest I think I should help others search.
Reading over the paper I presented almost 60 years ago as part of the Lamplighter Group, I am surprised that I can still affirm the view I presented at that time. In the paper I used the following quotation from the classic book by Josef Pieper, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”:
“Culture …is the quintessence of all the natural goods of the world and of those gifts and qualities which, while belonging to man, lie beyond the immediate sphere of his needs and wants. All that is good in this sense, all men’s gifts and faculties are not necessarily useful in a practical way; though there is no denying that they belong to a truly human life, not strictly speaking necessary, even though he could not do without them…Leisure is the same as culture in so far as it means everything that lies beyond the utilitarian world.” (pp. 20, 78)
Living in a secular culture, in many ways a post Judeo-Christian culture, I have to work overtime to find films, theatre, literature and television that speak meaningfully to Christian belief. The ages of faith are past! Being aware of this can alert us to be critical of our culture and to be ready to experience a religious vision when we discover it in some contemporary work of art. In fact, we may appreciate religious works of art – be they film, theatre, literature or some other art form – even more because we will welcome them as rare treats in a secular culture.
I believe religious works of art, works that deal profoundly with the human mystery and the mystery of God, can nourish our faith and that religious faith can lead artists to create great religious art. Religious faith does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in human persons who are part of a culture. A culture can nourish a faith or, unfortunately, it can be a detriment to faith. I think of the type of music that might be used at a Eucharistic liturgy. When the music is beautiful, it adds enormously to the celebration. It can help the members of the congregation to raise their minds and hearts to God.