Apr 26 2018

That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”


That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”

I don’t quite understand Rod Dreher today when he writes:

In 1966, Philip Rieff [(1922–2006)] observed [in Triumph of the Therapeutic]:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.[1]

By this standard, Christianity in the US is dying. Rieff saw this happening in the mid-1960s; it is much, much farther along today. Christian churches and Christian schools have plainly failed to meet the challenges of aggressive secularism.

It seems as if Dreher is taking Rieff’s use of the word “culture” and applying it to “Christianity in the US” as a whole, but a culture is not quite the same thing as a religion. A Hindu religious culture is not the same thing as the practice of Hinduism. An individual living in a Hindu culture is not the same as “being Hindu.”

In fact, “culture,” as a word, is pretty darn arbitrary––if we follow Leo Strauss’s (1899–1973) interpretation of Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) understanding of that word:

Nietzsche has a deeper reverence than any other beholder for the sacred tables of the Hebrews as well as of the other nations in question. Yet since he is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what the others command, he is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or “values” of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of cultures is an outgrowth of 19th century Western culture; its application to “cultures” of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is then a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the radical subjectivity of that science. Differently stated, one cannot behold, i.e., truly understand, any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one’s own culture or unless one belongs in one’s capacity as a beholder to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs, must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating it, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. The variety of cultures that have hitherto emerged contradicts the oneness of truth. Truth is not a woman so that each man can have his own truth as he can have his own wife. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary.[2]

And when Dreher writes:

 It is troubling, from a believer’s point of view, that not everyone in Christendom actually held the faith, and that not all lived up to its tenets. But at least the values of Christianity were what we collectively professed. That was something.

I agree that one should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is something I think Dreher is getting at, nor could any concept of a “perfect Christianity” be achieved by human means alone. But in this passage, Dreher also seems to be saying that words speak louder than actions, that whatever was “collectively professed” once made for a sufficient Christianity despite many (laity and clergy) who did not live “up to its tenants.” But, as Goethe (1749–1832), the last true pagan (and hence someone who can never truly be followed by disciplines born in our age of disenchantment), words are not enough. One must turn words into actions:

Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not made clear by words. The spirit in which we act, is what is highest. Action can only be grasped by spirit and portrayed by spirit. No one knows what he is doing when he acts rightly, but we are always conscious of what is wrong. He who works only with signs, is pedant, a hypocrite or a botcher. There are many such, and they get on well together. Their gossiping impedes the student, and their persistent mediocrity alarms those who are best. The teaching of a real artist opens up sense; for where words are lacking, action speaks. A true pupil learns how to unravel the unknown from the known, and thereby develops toward mastery.[3]

And as far as the “cultural elites” go (mentioned in Rieff’s quotation by Dreher), I don’t know if Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was quite right (or serious) when he said: “It is to do nothing that the elect exist.”[4] I do understand LBJ’s observation that “the greatest bigots in the world are the Democrats on the East Side New York.” As a “true vulgarian,” I’m not interested in following East Coast elites, and my uninterest has very little to do with whether or not I’m a Christian (the way Dreher’s quotation of Rieff regarding “cultural elites” seems to imply).

Alfarabi (872–950 AD), following Plato and Aristotle, held that the elect can do very little for the vulgar:

The vulgar confine themselves, or should be confined, to theoretical cognitions that are in conformity with examined common opinion. The elect do not confine themselves to any of their theoretical cognitions to what is in conformity with examined common opinion but reach their conviction and knowledge on the basis of premises subjected to thorough scrutiny. Therefore whoever thinks that he is not confined to what is in conformity with unexamined common opinion in his inquiries, believes that in them he is of the “elect” and that everybody else is vulgar….

Whoever has a more perfect mastery of the art that qualifies him for assuming an office is more appropriate for inclusion among the elect. Therefore it follows that the most elect of the elect is the supreme ruler. It would appear that this is so because he is the one who does not confine himself in anything. He must hold the office of the supreme ruler and be the most elect of the elect because of his state of character and skill. As for the one who assumes a political office with the intention of accomplishing the purpose of the supreme ruler, he adheres to thoroughly scrutinized opinions. However, the opinions that caused him to become an adherent or because of which he was convinced that he should use his art to serve the supreme ruler were based on mere conformity to unexamined opinions; he conforms to unexamined common opinion in his theoretical cognitions as well. The result is that the supreme ruler and he who possesses the science that encompasses the intelligibles with certain demonstrations belong to the elect. The rest are the vulgar and the multitude. Thus the methods of persuasion and imaginative representation are employed only in the instruction of the vulgar and the multitude of the nations and the cities, while the certain demonstrative methods, by which the beings themselves are made intelligible, are employed in the instruction of those who belong to the elect.[5]



[1] Dreher, “Goodbye Jehovah,” The American Conservative, April 26, 2018.

[2] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, (University of Chicago Press, 1983) 148–49.

[3] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship) (1795–96), ed. and trans. by Eric A. Blackall, (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1983) VII, ix, 303–04.

[4] Wilde, “The Critic as Artist – II.” (1891).

[5] Alfarabi, “The Attainment of Happiness,” Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969) pp. 41–42, iv, ¶ 50–51.

Mar 18 2018

What I Intend to Read Today: March 18, 2018

Western book stack

What I Intend to Read Today: March 18, 2018.

Today’s reads have to do with Russia, information theory and warfare, democracy, racism, and religion:


By the way, SXSW 2018, that is, the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, has been one wild, crazy week:

Sep 7 2016

All Religions, No Religion, And Beyond All That

Texas wildflowers

All Religions, No Religion, And Beyond All That


As Freddie Nacho once put it:

“All religions are at the lowest bottom systems of cruelties,” [i]


Irish Clive once quipped that:

“Atheism is too easy.”[ii]


Suzy Sunday holds:

My own view is that one cannot be religious in general any more than one can speak language in general; at any given moment one speaks French or English of Swahili or Japanese, but not “language.” [iii]



[i] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Toward a Genealogy of Morality, II, iii.

[ii] Lewis, C. S. [Clive Staples]. Mere Christianity. 1944. Macmillan, NY. 1952. pp. 46–48.

[iii] Sontag, Susan. “Piety without content.” 1961. In Against Interpretation: and Other Essays. NY: Delta Books. 1966. p. 253.