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Reporter’s Contemplations, Part 1: flashes of understanding in six months through NYC religions

We see moments in time that will never be replicated.

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Mako Fujimura's "Still Point." A reflection on T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: "At the still point of the turning world, there the dance is, where past and future are gathered." From the collection of Howard Lutnik 2003


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

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  • Dear John,

    Thank you; I will certainly look through the links you've posted!

    Today, A Journey trekked through the balmy weather of NYC in the early AM for a live interview on Moody Radio. One of the topics discussed was the mosque controversy that occurred last fall (influential emans wanted to build a mosque by the WTC). The mosque controversy placed a limelight on the uniqueness of the religious public square that exists in NYC (one that I believe we take for granted at times!). We interviewed pastors and spoke to church members regarding their take, and received varied responses across the board. One pastor in the Bronx said to me that he was against the mosque being build, but would preach universal inter-faith love among his members. Like this particular pastor, most people were conflicted. I can see that the controversy really questioned peoples' tolerance and sense of justice. What is most important, and often gets overlooked, is that voicing one's opinions on religious/political beliefs is valued and something people in this city take seriously.

    I can't say New Yorkers went back to church after the controversy, but it got them thinking of their own stands and their city's political role in religion.

  • ps. Oh yes, and of course grim events in New York City.

    9/11 clearly reawakened spiritual needs that many thought they no longer needed to consider. The reports here at "Journey" indicate that this remains true.

    On the other hand, the financial crisis for which Wall Street was in large measure responsible, seems to have had more mixed effects. People went back to church after 9/11. There is not so much evidence for the same result after the stock market crash of 2008.

  • Melissa,

    Just got back to this and saw your note and good question - what contributes to changes at universities?

    I wish I could say, though I think you have touched on one of the processes in your note.

    Both popular and unpopular spiritual movements all over the world have brought religion back "into the general cultural ccnversation." i.e., Inspite of all the "experts" saying that religion was about to go the way of the dodo bird, religion is "alive and kicking, thank you very much."

    In addition, there has been the accumulating pressure of deep and powerfully effective religious conviction from many parts of the world and from many people - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn standing up to the Soviet Union, the Polish Roman Catholic Church, leaders and people standing up to Soviet oppression, Bishop Desmond Tutu standing up to the apartheid of South Africa, the deeply spiritual testimony of Nelson Mandela, the worldwide testimony of Mother Teresa.

    As well as the horrors of civil war and genocides that wrecked Yugoslavia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the genocide of Rwanda, as well as sex trafficking and countless other horrors that seem completely resistant to mere technological change. Terms such as sin and evil had to be resurrected to have language to deal with the realities these events exposed.

    And so now, one can find countless major research projects and journals in a host of academic and cultural domains, many of which I have now posted with links on a public site, which people can view. As you scroll down, all the entries welcome religion in some way. If one were to study each website and its own report of its history, one would I am sure find specific information about how it was that a particular project, scholar or journal rediscovered the need to consider religion.

  • John,
    What a great suggestion you have on identifying changes in language (as you know by experience as a young evangelical in the 60s)! Popular spiritual movements have also contributed to acceptance of religious values, such as yoga and the infusion of Eastern religions.

    I believe that phrases like "compassion," "interfaith," and "social justice," have become accepted in such a wide scale due to the interconnectivity globalization brings. I've heard about the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare and am amazed at how seemless the center ties in religious values with something so practical, cross-faiths and cross-cultural, emphasizing that we're all human. Another organization that comes up for me is the Fetzer Institute (

    I am interested in checking out the kind of research you do. In your findings, what contributes to the change in universities becoming more opening to religion and values?

  • impressed with your writing skills. thanks

  • Melissa,
    Again, I think that you may have hit on a very significant idea when you chose to quote from Eliot's poem about "last year's words and language" vs "next year's words".

    When I was a young evangelical in college back in the 1960's, I do not remember any of the language you and your colleagues at Journey thru NYC Religions frequently use - "social justice", "concern for the poor", "church planting". Rather, there was a lot about "personal salvation" and "sending missionaries to Africa".

    May I suggest that you stay alert to the "next year's words", possibly by comparing notes with colleagues about what "last year's words" were and trying to identify more changes in language and ideas.

    I ask this because as I continue to read Journey, I detect changes, something new is happening, and I can't put my finger on what that difference is. You folks report religious renewal across the board, not just old style evangelical revivals. In research I am doing, I detect changes in research universiites, becoming open to issues of religion and religious values. Wierd shifts that seem to come from nowhere.

    For example, just the other day, I discovered the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare.
    My generation was more interested in the politics of healthcare. Compassionate healthcare is a great idea, but when I found this, I was surprised. This is different. How? Maybe, it's simply deeper concern, more human.

    Your citation of Eliot's poem made me realize that he was pointing to the loss of something, which was related to religion. Oftentimes we only see the surface of religion - churches and services. Eliot was pointing to something deeper, and you folks seem to be finding "it".

    When you smell, hear, see, touch "it", detect new language and ideas, let us know. Thanks again to you and your colleagues for this mighty work.

  • I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. Best!

  • John - You've got a great point in identifying the IDEAS that are motivating the revival of religious culture. Often, it is hardest to assess what it happening in the present moment, in comparison to assess what has happened 20 years ago, per se. I can't say for the rest of the world or the nation, but for NYC, the ideas and events that has influenced this religious revival I believe is influenced in part by the economic downturn of Wall Street. Many of the people we talk to reference the Wall St meltdown and call for a return to a moral corporate and political culture. There's also more need than ever now to help the homeless and the "impoverished working class," as one pastor in Flatbush, Brookyn said. What he meant was that the widening gap of classes has left people with homes and clothes, but struggling for essentials for their families, like food. There's also a major return to the family as a cohesive unit, as drop out rates and single parent families are increasing. Perhaps all these factors combined are contributing to the IDEAS motivating religious revival.

    Gary - Many thanks! Keep reading and we'll keep you updated!

    All the best,

  • This look way interesting. I’ve been noticing a decline in faith appreciating attitudes in over the years. I hope your publication contributes to the revival.

  • Melissa,
    Great article, and wonder-full opening to your planned series.

    You have 2 distinct and interesting, and related threads going, as I understand what you have written.

    1] "The religious platoons are deploying in ever greater numbers." You and NYC Religions are doing a great job of finding and reporting these groups, churches, et al.

    2] "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." TS Eliot - Here may be the harder part. Identifying the new IDEAS that are motivating this renewal of religious culture.

    Your quote of Eliot is quite intriguing, maybe even precise - "last year's words and language" - can you find any evidence of this? "next year's words .. another voice .. a new beginning" - can you point to evidence of this?

    Looking forward to future reports.

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