Arts and Culture

American Culture And Religious Faith

Because of some reading I have been doing lately, I have been thinking of the influence that contemporary American culture may be having on me and others. What, in our culture, is supporting or influencing our faith in a positive way, and what is not? When I think of a culture, I think of the way a society sees itself and expresses itself in many different ways such as through literature, theatre, film, government and politics, architecture, philosophy, theology, and religion.

The more I think about culture, the ways that a culture expresses itself can seem, to me, countless. In my dictionary, one definition of culture is the following: The ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group that are transferred, communicated, or passed, as in or to succeeding generations. That definition will be fine for what I wish to reflect on in this column.

In relation to culture, I have been thinking about what philosophers have called the transcendentals. By the transcendentals, philosophers mean characteristics that apply to every being. Usually, the transcendentals mentioned are the following five: being, truth, unity, goodness, and beauty. Every being is one, good, true, and beautiful. God cannot create a being that is not one, true, good, and beautiful. This is because God is one, true, good, and beautiful. So God cannot create a being that does not resemble God. Because God is good, God cannot create evil. God can create people who have free will and so those people can sin, but whatever God creates is good. Perhaps in another column I may try to discuss the mystery of evil (I’m not promising) but in this column I want to reflect on culture in relation to the five transcendentals.

A culture should be embodying and presenting what is true, good and beautiful. When it does, it can be nourishing faith. I think it is a mistake to think that a culture cannot exert a profound influence on a person’s faith and also on a person’s moral life. We co-exist with other persons and so we can influence others and they can influence us.

I will offer two extreme examples in order to make my point more clear. Imagine a culture in which films pres- ent only an atheistic view of reality.

Imagine that the theme or message of every film is “God is dead!” The films in such a culture would not be presenting the most profound view of the human person but rather presenting a view that a human person is not a creature brought into existence by a loving God but rather the human person is a chance product of evolution without a purpose or goal. I don’t see how a diet of such films would aid religious faith.

My second example is also extreme. What if all the films in a particular culture were pornographic? Such a culture would be presenting a profoundly erroneous view of human sexuality. A marriage counselor told me that he had dealt with marriages that broke up because of one partner’s addiction to pornography. The culture I am using as an example would actually be nourishing such an addiction.

I realize that my examples are extreme. The importance of a culture in influencing a person’s religious faith would be a culture that presented only cinematic masterpieces depicting the power of unselfish love.

How could a diet of such films not influence a person’s view of human nature? Couldn’t such a culture support an individual’s Christian faith? I teach a film course at St. John’s University and one of the films the students and I view is Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” starring Marlon Brando. I have proba- bly seen the film 20 times. Every time I see it, I find myself challenged to be a better priest.

To make the point that I am trying to make with my simple examples, any element in a culture — theatre, literature, government, politics, architecture, music, painting, philosophy, theology, religion — can be either a positive or negative influence on a person’s faith.

I have come to believe that each person can form what we might call a subculture, a careful selection of elements in a culture that the person finds true, good and beautiful. Depending on how selective the person is, this subculture can be like a special treasure.

All of us have limitations on our time. Why waste our time on junk? I am not suggesting that we only view Shakespeare but I am suggesting that we should be discriminating. We have access to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Why not allow the good, the true and the beautiful to expand and deepen our horizons? If we do, we may be allowing ourselves to experience the Divine not only in church but also in culture.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.