Dear Friends: This article “America – a culture of religious faith” will hopefully dispel any doubt that the moral decay Americans are accused of might be overstated. I am not suggesting that the American culture is not influenced by the so called “modern secular lifestyle”. What I am showing is what I consider a more realistic portrait of the true god-loving American.
I have attempted to describe this by first providing an oversight of what faith, culture and the American lifestyle truly are all about. The section on faith and culture is taken from the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Despite negative impressions of him in many circles, he is definitely a learned theologian.
I hope you enjoy this article as much as I do and looking to hear from you soon.
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) has written extensively on the development of faith and culture, both as independent entities and in the interrelationship between faith and culture. Specifically, the 2006 English version of Ratzinger’s book, “Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures”, provides his thinking on cultures that are in conflict in today’s world and especially Western society. Additionally, his 2003 book, “Truth and Tolerance, Christian Belief and World Religions” extensively describes the interrelationship between faith, religion and culture. These themes run throughout other theological works and talks he has developed, most notably, his lecture at the University of Regensbury on September 12, 2006 entitled “Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections” which is another example of the multiple opportunities he has created to address the topic of faith and culture.
The purpose of this article is three-fold: (1) to identify the thought of Joseph Ratzinger on faith and culture, in their autonomous or independent states (2) to identify Ratzinger’s philosophical ideas on the integration of faith and culture, and (3) provide an overview of recent research conducted on faith and culture in Western Society, specifically American society recently (2000-2012).
As a practical matter, people are born, live, work and die within cultural or social environs, most of which were found upon strong religious histories and values, as is the case with American society and culture. For the most part, cultural societies exist, in the framework of Catholic theology, within a “relative autonomy(ous)” state in which they function vis-à-vis other entities, particularly and historically faith communities. However, what is essential in their autonomy “is a correct understanding of the(ir) just autonomy….. (that) cannot be divorced from God the Creator and his saving plan” . This is the core concept in a correct understanding of faith and culture that is being explored here and how it is viewed in the American culture.
Definition of terms:
Both the terms “faith” and “culture” will be more specifically developed in the Review of Literature section.
1. “Faith” is generally defined as a belief in a transcendent God who is the source of all divine grace.
2. “Culture(s)” are “inseparable” from people and their history and “share the dynamics which the human experience of life reveals” .
3. For the purposes of this paper “Western Society” is defined as the American culture. Western European culture will be included but in a very limited manner.
4. Recent timeframe is defined as the cultural and religious conditions facing the American population in the years between 2001 to 2012.
Statement of the Problem:
There has been much researched and written upon in regard to the social and cultural realities facing the American society, including its relationship to religion during this recent and present century. A vital aspect of this research has been focused on the decline in morality in American society and the scandals associated with the institutional Church . For the purpose of this presentation only a few will be noted here. However, it is my contention that three are common. They are: (1) a moral relativism in Western societies (2) economic instability and uncertainty, and (3) the breakdown of the family.
Likewise, religious institutions including Catholic institutions are facing moral decay unique to these times as well. They are (1) a growing loss of moral authority in the presence of church scandals including child abuse and financial mishandling of the resources placed under its stewardship, (2) a growing exodus of Catholic adults to other faith communities or to no religious affiliations, (3) the polarization of spheres of influence within the church defined as “left” or “right” .
As a result of these conditions in Western society and the Catholic Church, the Christian, out of practical necessity is forced to adapt to a social and cultural environment as he/she likewise searches for God in the midst of the church, the “people God”.
Additionally, the bombardment of new information forced upon all through the advancement of the social media compounds the messages being delivered and creates an imbalance in the needed harmony between a person’s faith development and the person’s cultural socialization. Cultural values are frequently distorted with the multiplication factor of social media.
What is Joseph Ratzinger’s thought generally on the development of faith and culture and is his thought clearly characteristic of the religious beliefs of those living in this present age within Western (American) society.
Review of Literature:
Faith: (autonomous view)
In the definition of terms section of this paper, it was stated that “faith” is generally defined as a “belief in a transcendent God who is the source of all divine grace”. Although this is true, Ratzinger has developed a very specific explanation of what faith is and how it is fashioned within the human spirit. In Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, The Church as Communion, Ratzinger ventures into the “heart of belief” as it describes the experience of faith in a transcendent God.
However, in his usual thoughtful methodology of providing a detailed explanation, Ratzinger first describes what religious belief “is not”. Believing that it will rain in the morning, as he states as an example, is an act of believing more in line with “I think” it will rain. It is not usually a belief that carries a “particular kind of certainty” which is more the case with religious belief.
Religious faith or belief although possessing this “a particular kind of certainty” still lacks a complete act of the “will”. Ratzinger admits that “faith never reaches complete certainty in this state”. “Certainty”, at this stage, is more a “perhaps” , but it is a “perhaps” that can be different.
Ratzinger provides an example from the work of Thomas Aquinas who followed Augustine in this regard as well. Simple stated, when two lovers “believe” and are “certain” about the others love for them, their belief and certainty has a quality of “thinking with assent” of the “will” that is different than a scientific belief and certainty. These lovers are captivated by each other as a result of this “assent”. Their believing and certainty take on the quality of “being convinced.” from their “hearts”. They have been touched by “divine grace” and each has been accepted by the other freely. Such is the reality of transcendent faith. There is the act of giving faith and freely accepting the gift.
Culture: (relative autonomous view)
The point Ratzinger develops here is that cultures have religious values. He indicates that “religion is an essential element of culture” by nature. By essential element, Ratzinger means that religion “determines the scales of values and, thereby, the inner hierarchy of values within these (world-wide) cultures”.
Likewise, “enculturation” denotes a commonality or unity among the various cultures. Additionally, when any culture allows its members to include other cultures into its cultural experience, the primary culture is allowing itself to become better adapted to the truth and to man.
Also, in every culture there is an “indispensable part” of itself that deals with the divinity and this is the “heart” of every great culture. Culture is the social form of expression which leaves its mark on the community and shapes it. In fact, no one can comprehend the world about or develop and understanding of oneself if the question of divinity remains unanswered. This marriage between the culture and the divine is similar to the “assent of the heart” mentioned previously. In short the “relative autonomy” as understood between grace and nature is identical to the relationship of “faith and culture”. Culture reaches its perfection when it integrates into the heart of divinity.
Finally, culture is not a closed system. Culture develops as it encounters new realities and new cultures and assimilates itself into these new perspectives. This is the universal nature of all cultures. Enculturation actually frees man from the alienation inherent with life and which prohibits the truth from being revealed. However, the final test is the lived out experiences of both man and the societies surrounding the person in a divine progression.
Faith and Culture:
Ratzinger’s main thesis is laid out in the sections with his thoughts in Truth and Tolerance – Christian Belief and World Religions. In this book he states that the examination of the interrelationship of faith and culture must first begin with the question of what binds cultures closely together and through the medium in which they encounter each other inwardly and which fertilizes and purifies them together. This medium by which they encounter each other can only be their shared truth concerning man.
The real problem that hampers this integration is the darkening of the truth. This darkness sets cultures in opposition to each other and forces them to survive on their own self-sufficiencies. Religion can lead cultures back to a common standard of interacting and healthy development.
Ratzinger indicates that faith is creating culture and is culture. The messages of faith are not abstract concepts but the maturity of belief through a long history of mankind. This maturity of the faith culture is the presence of another cultural agent, namely the people of God in the midst of the social environment, transforming the social culture in the process. God has linked himself to the history of his people and through this interaction the highs and lows of cultural development both faith and dependency upon the living God can be realized.
The American Culture and Religious Faith:
So what is the value of religion in the American culture? American culture is a Western culture and grouped among the wealthy nations of the world. However, a profile of American as a de-Christianized nation is questionable as a result of some of the following research data.
In a Pew Global Attitudes Project retrieved in 2007, it reports that a majority of Americans indicate that religion plays a “very important” role in their lives. The study reports that this degree of religiosity in American society is disproportionate to other developed Western nations.
More recent follow up studies conducted in 2008 by Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut and in 2012 by The Pew Forum report that 73-76% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Additionally, the Trinity College study in 2008 further reports that of the 73% reporting themselves as Christian, the largest subgroup of these Christians are self-reported Catholics by a 25% majority.
Even more noteworthy is a 2012 Pew Forum survey that reports 36% of Americans attend church nearly every week or more. According to a 2002 Pew Forum survey, 60% of Americans say that religion plays an “important role in their lives”. Comparing these results against other developed countries in the European continent was eye-opening. Responses on the “importance of religion in their lives” show a favorable reply of 33% in Great Britain, 27% in Italy, and 21% in Germany, a major gap from the 60% reported by Americans on this same question. Clearly, Americans are more openly religious than European countries. Although not an essential factor, it was of some interest that Germany, the homeland of Joseph Ratzinger, had the lowest response to the importance of religion in one’s life among the responding nations. Could this be a motivator for him to write of this subject of Western decadence?
The other economically developed country in the North American culture is Canada. A study of the Abrahamic religions among Americans and Canadians reports that the Catholic Church numbers approximately 68 million adherents. The next closest denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention with 16 million adherents between America and Canada.
Finally, additional verification of the importance of religion of Americans was conducted by the Harris poll of 2,303 U.S. adults 18years old and older. Astonishing, 82% of this survey group indicate that they believe in God, the same number from two other Harris surveys in 2005 and 2007 demonstrating a consistent belief in the last twelve years. Furthermore, 76% believe in miracles, 73% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, 72% believe in angles and 71% believe in the afterlife and 70% believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Similarly, a 2011Gallop poll found that 92% of Americans replied “yes” to the question, “Do you believe in God?”
What we can observe here about American society is that religious belief is openly professed and with some degree of sustainability over the course of a decade of research. The American culture demonstrates a belief in a transcendent God despite the notoriety of a materialistic and a secular lifestyle. This was a pleasantly surprising finding for me. This study indicates that Americans not only say they believe in a transcendent God but attend church often; believe in Jesus Christ and His Resurrection from the dead as well as the afterlife, miracles and angles. All these beliefs are indicators of a transcendent choice toward the divine on the part of a majority of Americans. The very element for a healthy integration of a nation’s faith and culture is based on this choice for the divine.
One reason for these promising statistical results is the fact that America has been established on Judeo-Christian values and historically is an Anglo-Saxon Protestantism nation. The founding Fathers of this country strongly believed that Americans were “endowed” by their creator with “inalienable” rights. One of these rights is the “freedom” to worship and the profession of their religious beliefs despite the prevailing culture.
America has also been known as a “land of opportunity”. In this regard Americans have always been progressive in their views of “freedom of speech and assembly”. For this reason, many diverse opinions, views and beliefs are openly aired in the public square which, unfortunately, gives the impression that all Americans are supportive of these concepts. It appears that these recent studies on the religiosity of Americans speak clearly that the American culture is vibrant and God-fearing. Faith and culture have truly met on common terms within the American experience.
Are these facts about America’s religiosity and founding principles a challenge to the thought of Joseph Ratzinger on faith and culture in Western society? The answer is an emphatic “no”. Ratzinger clearly describes the essential characteristics of faith and culture and these are indisputable concepts. He provides a high theological understanding of these commonly used concepts. They ring true and are acknowledged by the finest theological minds and absolutely clear in their presentation.
If any clarity is required, it is my belief that attitudes toward generalizing and labeling cultures as non-religious and morally decaying can be questionable and an injustice to the inhabitants of these cultures if we misjudge the inner motivations of their inhabitants.
Negative moral conclusions about a culture’s faith can be incorrectly depicted by individuals who seek to mischaracterize for personal justification and self righteousness the apparent wrongdoing of other Christian believers. In some cases these mischaracterizations wrongly conclude that wealth and materialism are unhealthy and irreligious qualities. In fact, Americans are an extremely generous nation, A Giving USA report on charitable giving for the year 2002 reports that Americans are the “world’s biggest givers” and this financial giving is primarily from individuals as opposed to corporations and foundations. I believe that it can be confidently stated that faith and culture have truly met in American society.
1. Allen, John L., Jr., John XXIII, John Paul II to be canonized together, National Catholic Reporter – The Independent News Service (on-line edition), 2013.
2. Founding Fathers, Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776.
3. Guarino, Thomas G. Nature and Grace: Seeking the Delicate Balance, Josephnum Journal of Theology, Vol.18, No. 1 (2011) page 1.
4. Pew Research, Technology Triumphs, Morality Falters, Successes Of The 20th Century, page 1.
5. Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio, Vatican City State: Osservatore Romano, 1998, # 71.
6. Ratzinger, Joseph. Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, The Church as Communion, page 18, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2005.
7. Ratzinger, Joseph. Truth and Tolerance – Christian Belief and World Religions, page 71, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2004.
8. Ratzinger,Joseph. Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, page 45, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2006.
9. Soboroff, Jacob. Vatican Scandals: Will the Vatican’s Massive Scandals End The Catholic Church As We Know It, Huffington Post.com (2012) page 1.
10. Vexen Crabtree, on-line report. United States of America – Foreign Aid, from 2002 Giving USA annual report on giving in America, August 28, 2003.
11. Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, “Religion in the United States”,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_United_States, page 27.