When the poet Thomas Stearns Eliot moved from America to Europe, his shock at the decay of European culture led him to turn onto a religious path. His shock found its expression in his path-breaking poem The Waste Land. In 1927 he became a member of the Anglican Church in England and three years later produced what some call his great conversion poem Ash Wednesday (1930). Although Eliot never sought to become a religious poet--and often belittled the potential of poetry as a religious force, his works reflect a man in search for a higher world. He continued to puzzle over how tradition, culture and religion worked to sustain a society.
In 1948 Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award presenter reflected that in his Four Quartets (1943) Eliot had arrived “at a meditative music of words, with almost liturgical refrains and fine, exact expressions of his spiritual experience.” At about the same time Eliot summed up his last two decades of thinking in an essay called Notes on the Definition of Culture (1948). It contemplated the role of tradition in religion, society, and literature.
Eliot compared tradition to a living organism composed of a constant mutual interaction of the past and present. His concept is similar to the great American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber's idea of culture as a superorganic entity. Tradition and culture, according to Eliot and Kroeber, are the highest levels of complexity. A society that holds together is one which is joined together by culture, which permeates and transcends humans. The two intellectuals shared the belief that culture is a living thing, making it organic, but because culture has a life of its own, one which is symbolic rather than genetic, it operates at a higher level of complexity than that of biological organisms. Kroeber’s term “superorganic” comes from this hypothesis.
As biological organisms, human beings live on an intake of organic nutrients. However, communities and institutions, the building blocks of society, do not run on organic molecules. Society runs on culture: a rich stream of ideas, beliefs, values, traditions and the like. Although society is composed of many individuals, they adhere in a culturally-patterned arrangement with each other. Civilization, which is composed of the totality of a society and its culture, is a higher system of human beings working together.
According to Eliot, religion is essential for the development of culture and civilization. However, the mutual interaction between these two fundamental aspects of life, religion and culture, caused much confusion for Eliot. He couldn't pinpoint religion's influence on culture; the two are so intermixed. He wrote, “The way of looking at culture and religion, which I have been trying to adumbrate, is so difficult that I am not sure I grasp it myself except in flashes, or that I comprehend all its implications.”
What our team at A Journey through NYC religions sees on the streets are just that: flashes of understanding. We capture striking snapshots of the interactions between culture, society, and religion. The religious platoons are deploying in ever greater numbers. They are mixing our city culture with their faith traditions in never before seen ways. We see moments in time that will never be replicated.
With our eyes, nose, and ears (and we must not also forget our taste buds and hands!), we travel through the streets of New York City that are normally overlooked by Manhattanites. Our journey takes us into the outer boroughs and inner city, searching for religious safe havens amidst areas of heavy drug use and crime. We drop in on people that are unlike ourselves in conditions that are sometimes challenging. We must try to pry open up our hearts and minds within each encounter to each experience that we feel. Some days are harder than others to bear, but we enjoy every second of it. We accept that the only thing certain is our inability to control where the day’s adventures will take us.
As I embark on a new month within a new year, I am taking this time to reflect on last year’s diligence and to ponder Eliot's conundrum of the relation of religion and culture. It has been commonly said that harvest time is autumn and contemplation occurs in the winter. It is indeed during winter when the roots of trees go inward into the soil and animals hibernate into their caves.
In his “Little Gidding,” Eliot described such a moment of deep reflection:
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
To heed T.S. Eliot’s advice: To make an ending is to make a beginning. In the warmth of my apartment, I take a minute to let flash before my eyes the images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.
Next Wednesday: Reporter's Contemplations Part 2: Feeling like family at Love, Power, and Grace Church, Morrisania, Bronx