by Erin Doom
The Mission of Eighth Day Institute can be summed up in eight words: “the renewal of culture through faith and learning.” This phrase seemed to be a clear, concise, and simple way to summarize my intentions for the development of what was still only an idea back in 2008. However, the more I’ve reflected on this simple statement as the idea has grown into a reality—and believe me, I reflect on it frequently—the more I realize how ambiguous it really is. More questions are raised than answered: “What is culture?” “Can a culture decay?” “Is our culture in decline?” If so, “What is the cause of our cultural decline?” “What does it mean to renew culture?” “Can we even speak of the renewal of culture?” If so, “How do we go about accomplishing it?”
If we as Christians are serious about engaging culture, and we most certainly are around here at Eighth Day Institute, then we are obliged to wrestle with such questions. It is imperative that we provide a precise and clear understanding of what we mean by “cultural renewal.” I do not presume to do so here, but I do intend to jot down a few notes on the subject that I hope will help clarify our mission.
In a series of articles published in the New England Weekly in 1943, T. S. Eliot began to reflect on the nature of culture (republished in book form in 1948 and now available with a companion essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in Christianity & Culture). We resonate deeply with Eliot’s reflections. For example, he concluded that no culture has ever appeared or developed without a religion, that a new culture is always being made, that there is a permanent standard by which we can compare one culture with another and by which we can discern the improvement or decline of our own, and that there is a distinction between higher and lower cultures. In Eliot’s words, “[w]e can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidence of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” He went on to predict that the decay of our culture was heading for a period of time when there would be no culture.
Eliot’s prophecy was right on the mark. In fact, almost seventy years later, as our friend Ralph Wood suggests in his book Contending for the Faith, we have passed beyond Eliot’s predicted period of “no culture” and entered into an “anti-cultural era.” Wood thus challenges the church to create its own culture, a summons that sounds awfully similar to the title of a book sitting on my desk waiting to be read by Andy Crouch called Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. We agree with Wood (and Crouch). We believe we are called to create a new culture that is based on an ancient, but neglected and forgotten one found in the Tradition of the Church. We are called, in other words, to forge a new culture in a creative way while remaining faithful to Tradition. In Eighth Day lingo, then, one of the primary ways we believe culture can be renewed is by looking back to learn from the ancient foundation of our faith. In our neck of the woods, therefore, we try to look back as often as we can, while maintaining a forward-looking gaze.
Fr. Andrew Louth recently helped me understand the nature of our work even more clearly. When I coined the phrase “renewing culture through faith and learning,” I admit I had images of Latin Christendom, Byzantium, and Russian Orthodoxy in mind. I vividly recall my conversation with Fr. Andrew in which he shattered my ideas regarding cultural renewal as we discussed secularism. “Secularism,” he remarked, “is a reality that is not going away any time soon. What we should really strive for, then, is not so much a triumph over secularism as the preservation of our Christian identity in the midst of a secular age.”
As our discussion continued, it turned to one specific question: How are we to faithfully preserve our Christian identity while swimming in a sea of secularism? Our conclusion was the same as Ralph Wood’s: Tradition. As Ralph Wood puts it, the Church has handed down
a distinctive kind of existence – with unique ways of birthing and dying, of becoming youthful and growing old, of marrying and remaining single, of celebrating and sacrificing, of thinking and imagining, of worshipping the true God and protesting against false gods – and that these distinctive beliefs and practices constitute the church’s own culture.
The Church has already gifted us with particular ways to live holy lives in a fallen world. These ways have been handed down from innumerable guides in the faith, i.e. holy ways handed down from holy people. And so they are trustworthy ways, ways we would do well to pay attention to, ways Eighth Day Institute seeks to exemplify so as to make an ancient Christian way of existence into a new way of life for us in the twenty-first century.
The more I’ve reflected on cultural renewal, the more I’m convinced Fr. Andrew is right. Although his remarks initially took me by surprise, I have since discovered all kinds of echoing voices. T. S. Eliot, for example, says,
[W]e should look for the improvement of society, as we seek our own individual improvement, in relatively minute particulars. We cannot say: “I shall make myself into a different person”; we can only say: “I will give up this bad habit, and endeavor to contract this good one.”
Two great Russians express the same idea succinctly. According to Dostoevsky, “Everybody wants to change the world, but nobody thinks about changing himself.” Or, in the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, “Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”
We are indeed called first and foremost to a life of repentance and obedience, to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit in the deifying light of Christ. If we pursue such a life, taking up our cross daily and following Christ on the difficult but glorious path of denial of self and death to the ways of this world, we will be changed from glory to glory. In doing so we will inevitably create a culture that will not go unnoticed. And thousands will be saved. And in our books, that is “cultural renewal.”