Religion & The Loss of Symbolic Life

It’s been a while since my last post . . . just been covered up with other things. But I’m back in business, anticipating weekly commentaries on subjects ranging from appetizer to dessert.

Last Friday Kelsey Dallas of Desseret News published a Q&A with longtime Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward about how “faith shape-shifted over the last 70 years.”

Kenneth Woodward covered religion for Newsweek for nearly 40 years, traveling the world to interview revolutionary Catholic priests, the Dalai Lama and Elder Boyd K. Packer of The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints.

Sixteen years after his retirement, he still has stories — and unique insights —to share.

His most recent book, Getting Religion: Faith, Culture and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama, published in 2016, analyzes religion’s shifting role in public life. He observes that faith groups don’t influence politics and culture without getting influenced right back.

This is an interesting interview. This one man’s personal history as religion editor is a window on the past that informs the present in a valuable way, I think. As C. S. Lewis says in The Abolition of Man, “The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.” What might we see through Woodward’s life, and particularly his comments in this interview? The most important and telling comment in this interview is, I think, about how dramatically life changes, how life is read, interpreted, experienced, when religion is not thoroughly embedded symbolically in and through. Whereas America existentially “knew” life this way in a pretty saturated way 70 years ago, even if without much thought, it does so no longer . . . except for a few (perhaps a growing number of) intentional semi-monastic Benedictine-Option like island communities of practicing Catholics and Evangelicals. But as Rod Dreyer’s and others’ work illustrates, it’s hard even with great commitment. The prevailing winds of modernity have been blowing with a steady constancy for a long time, and like Aruba’s famed Divi Divi trees the culture is bent away from anything like an integrated whole. It’s a complex tale, this disintegration, which I address in Rediscovering God’s Grand Story. But in a single comment in this brief interview the complexity sharpens to clarity; the reality stares one in the face when Woodward is asked if his being a Catholic was helpful to him as religion editor and he responds:

Let me give you an example. It was very easy when I went out to Brooklyn to cover the Hasidic (Jewish) community, even though you almost needed a passport to get in there.

They had almost the equivalent of the Catholic sacramental system: Everything in life had symbolic meaning.

The fragmentation and reductionism in late modernity has stripped the world of symbols and as such has stripped it of meaning. As Tom Howard says, “imagination is the synthetic faculty; that is, it brings things together (synthesizes) rather than breaks things apart (analyzes) . . . It is an image-making faculty; that is, its tendency is from the abstract to the concrete, and not visa versa.” Imagination is the ligature of the pieces and parts to see the thing whole, connecting the head with the heart to find meaning.