The Religious Roots of Culture: Secularism Distorts History

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Prof. Tony Esolen reminds us that cultural literacy is an important feature of education. Without a grasp of our historical roots, our great literary, musical, and artistic artifacts become unintelligible and inaccessible, depriving us the riches of our beautiful cultural inheritance.

Esolen’s observations have implications for more than just our artistic patrimony. The stories we tell define us, our heroes become our icons, and our music reveals our aspirations. When we lose an understanding of their inspiration, and their underlying premises, we lose sight of the very things that produced the world we live in. What Esolen reminds us is that the world we know was forged by a religious imagination.

The great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, who taught at Harvard in the 50s and 60s, explained that culture is most fundamentally a work of religion. The work of culture-making itself is a matter of giving expression to our sense of ourselves, our purpose and aspiration, and our cultural artifacts reveal our experiences of success and failure in pursuing them.

If Esolen and Dawson are right, then the stakes at play in preserving cultural literacy are far more than the quality of our entertainment. By preserving our cultural memory, our literature and other works of art help us to remember who we are—and help us to understand where we are going. In this way, our education, perhaps especially our primary education (elementary in the truest sense), determines much more than our educational trajectory. In this way, education becomes a matter of preserving civilization itself.

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