A Message from Ralph Wood: On Cultural Renewal at Eighth Day Institute

Forefeast of Epiphany

CULTURE is a word related both to cult and to agriculture—i.e., to religious devotion and the cultivation of the crops. In the former sense, it pertains to all those things that do not bear directly on such matters as civil society, government, nationhood, patriotism, even civilization itself—although all of these may be turned into a ‘cult’ in the bad sense. As G. K. Chesterton observed, the Church has already survived the collapse of two civilizations, the Greco-Roman and the Medieval. We are now living in the ruins of a third collapsed civilization—the modern West. We are witnessing the truth of Oswald Spengler’s prophecy in his famous book of 1922, The Decline of the West, although Walker Percy much preferred a literal and livelier rendering of the German: Die Untergang des AbendlandsThe Going Under of the Evening Land.

‘Renewing culture’ in the usual sense of the phrase means reading and discussing important books, visiting art galleries, attending dramatic productions, and the like. Thus do we become more sophisticated and ‘cultured’. This usually means that we join what is now called ‘the winning side of history’, by villainizing the deplorables and divinizing the righteous. In neither case does the Church have any essential role. The evening land of the modern West continues its rapid plunge into the abyss.

The old divides between left and right, sacred and secular, even church and state, remain rather much the same. In our secular setting it is no longer possible to weld these dualisms into a seamless whole, except by ruthless coercion. Hence the attempt of the Eighth Day Institute to renew our culture in a radical new sense—i.e., to help make it possible for the Gospel to be heard, received, and embraced afresh, unblocking the doors that secularists have thrown up. To adopt a phrase from Dorothy Day for the Catholic Worker Movement, it seeks 'to make it easier for people to be good'.

Yet we are not meant to read this phrase in the moralistic sense of doing good, for we can ‘do good’ without God, thus prompting us to cluck in self-congratulation for not needing God, and thus opening ourselves to a deadly secularity, whether of the right or the left. It’s an altogether different thing to be good in a Christian way. This requires our radical participation in the very life of God via liturgical worship and all the things that it trenches upon. Not least of these is our ecumenical engagement with major cultural artifacts; i.e., great books and other artistic masterpieces. We undertake such labor so as to discern the points at which they reflect, complement, but also sometimes clash with holy things. In all three cases, we seek to renew our culture with meat and drink it hungers and thirsts for.

Thus does Eighth Day Institute not seek ‘to make the world a better place’, but to help shift the balance between good and evil, seeking to tilt our culture more toward the former. This shift is finely figured in the Russian Orthodox cross with its slanted lower bar. The left arm signals the malefactor who cast the final trajectory of his life downward, alas, in rejection of divine life. The right arm, by contrast, symbolizes the good thief who tilted his life upward, albeit in the last moment, toward eternally renewed participation in God’s own life.

Will you help tilt our culture toward the good?

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