DZ Phillips on religion and culture

There is no necessity about the continued existence of Christianity. […] What if someone suggested that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, longed for the liberation of women in the sense in which this is widely sought in America today? The answer, of course, is that it is meaningless to attribute such longing to Sarah. It is meaningless because such ideas were not part of her world. But what if someone wanted to argue that the longing was something independent of all this, something internal in Sarah’s heart? Would not the answer be that the possibility of a secret thought, even in the depths of the heart, depends on the limits of intelligibility within the culture. The limits of intelligibility determine possibilities of speech and thought. This is as true of secret thoughts as of public utterances. So you could not have a longing to be king in a culture where the notion of kingship has no meaning, and no knowledge exists of what it is to be a king in another culture. In the same way, Sarah cannot long for that which has no meaning for Sarah. This is not to argue against new developments or radical changes. Such developments and changes cannot be understood in vacuo, but must be seen against the background or in the context of the events in relation to which they occur. For these reasons, we cannot argue that Christianity has a hiding place in man’s heart, since if the culture declines, in time there will also be a decline in the thoughts of men’s hearts. […]

‘How can we make sure that religion has a future?’ It seems to many philosophers [mistakenly] that these questions can only be answered if one can show that religious belief is more worthwhile or more rational than any alternative in terms of some common measure of worthwhileness or rationality. […]

When believers see religious belief declining it is natural that they should long for some kind of reawakening. There is nothing misplaced in such a desire. What is misplaced is the thought that such an awakening could be made a matter of policy by the Church. If such policy were possible, no doubt there could be discussions within the Church about the cultural forms which ought to be adopted in face of contemporary crises. But such discussions would harbor deep confusions.

What is the source of the confusion? Does it not consist partly in this: if there is a relation between religion and culture, and if the religious element expresses what is spiritual, it is important to realize that the religious element is a contribution to the culture and not simply a reflection of it. For example, Michelangelo’s work does not reflect or illustrate religious ideas, but contributes towards such ideas. Similarly, Beethoven could not have given us the last movement of the Ninth Symphony unless there were conceptions of joy in human life. But Beethoven does not reflect those ideas; he contributes to them by extending them. To see how he does this we would have to speak about the last movement of the Ninth. What is deep in a culture did not come about as a matter of policy. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Tolstoy did not give us their work in order that we might have something excellent in culture. No, they gave us what they had to give and we found it was excellent. Perhaps the point can be clarified as follows: some time ago British universities were asked whether they wanted to be centers of excellence, as if that question made sense. Never had such unanimity been known in the academic senates of the land! Traditional enmities and oppositions were united as members indicated, solemnly, with raised hands, that they wanted to be a centre of excellence. A university, however, does not become a centre of excellence by trying to be one. On the contrary, we are fortunate if scholars give themselves to their subjects as best they can. The results may or may not be excellent.

Religious apologists have much to learn from these conceptual truths. The Church cannot speak to the culture in which it is placed by making this a matter of policy. No, it speaks and perhaps the consequences will be good. The Church cannot decide to speak with authority in the culture. It speaks and perhaps its authority will be authoritative. Jesus spoke as one having authority, not as one who decided to speak with authority. This is simply one instance of a wider truth. A movement, and a religious movement is no exception, flourishes when people are engaged in its particular concerns, not when they are preoccupied with its maintenance. […]

If one were looking for the authoritative voice of the Church in our day, that voice would have to take a spiritual form; that is, and this is a matter of logic not of apologetics, the mode of the message must be as spiritual as its content. If an authoritative voice is heard it may be the voice of a new prophet, or perhaps something will be shown authoritatively through events which may befall the culture.

from Belief, Change and Forms of Life, (1986), 85-86, 94-97.

P.S. from Stephen Mulhall on a lesson to be learned from Kierkegaard

The form in which we communicate the Christian truth must also reflect the fact that its demands will seem to the unconverted to amount to self-destruction, to the denial of everything their nature requires and the death of what they take themselves to be.

from Faith & Reason, (Duckworth, 1994)

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