How to accommodate cultural freedom with religious values?
By Laura Freixas
The question we are supposed to answer is, in my opinion, a tricky one. It
seems to take two things for granted. First, that culture, not religion, needs
freedom. So far so good: it is true that in present-day Europe, religious
freedom is protected, while cultural productions are sometimes threatened, not
by religion, but by religious fanatics. But what makes me uneasy is the second
assumption: namely, that values are somehow connected with religion, rather than
It is true that globally considered, religion (under whatever denomination)
offers important values. To the individual, it gives a sense that life has a
meaning and a purpose. It provides rules and commandments, illustrated by the
lives of gods, saints or prophets, whose examples are there for us to follow. It
also contains another wonderful gift: the beauty and mystery that one finds in a
cathedral, or mosque, or small chapel, or in any sacred text, and that is so
desperately rare in our modern world.
The usefulness of religion to the community is also beyond doubt. By means of
festivities, rituals and symbols, customs and traditions, with the help of
characters and stories, religion gives the members of the community a set of
references which provide them with a sense of identity and belonging. Finally,
religion promises justice in the other world, immortality as a reward to the
righteous, and by so doing, it encourages good behaviour in the earthly life.
But let us now ask: are not these values contained in culture as well?
We find beauty and mystery in Bach’s Cantatas, but no less in Purcell’s Dido
& Aeneas or, why not, in the bloodcurdling record of Janis Joplin singing at
Monterrey Pop Festival. Or in a Romanesque church, but not in those modern
convents that are as uninspiring as youth hostels.
What about a good life? Certainly, culture cannot compete with religion in
this respect insofar as novels, plays, pictures or films do not give any set of
rules, nor do they pretend to hold any absolute truth. Religion gives answers,
while culture leaves questions open. But for those of us who do not believe in
Jesus, Buddha or Mahomet, Don Quijote, or Mathilde de la Mole, or the narrator
of Proust’s novel, or the characters created by Chekhov, or even Saint Theresa
of Avila read from an earthly perspective, are as good an example as saints’
lives, the only difference being that here there is no obvious moral message nor
happy ending guaranteed in the other world.
And since we speak of the other world, we must certainly recognize that not
believing in its existence is an awful disadvantage for culture as compared to
religion, although those of us who have no faith would argue that is simply
realistic. But, in a sense, culture, art, is a form of immortality too, if only
in the sense that images and stories exist by themselves, outside time and
independently from their material support. And being handed from one generation
to the next, they also ensure a continuity that escapes destruction by time.
Eternity does exist for art and culture – if only in the minds and hearts of
people who have been illuminated by them.
I hardly need to point out that art and culture have a wonderful advantage
over religion, which is that they do not foster violence. In my country, Spain,
the fans of Cervantes may detest those of Quevedo, or Valle-Inclán’s followers
may be bitterly opposed to enthusiastic readers of Galdós, but none of these
disagreements has kindled any civil war yet, in a country that has known a good
number of them.
Until not so long ago -maybe one century-, there were two foundations to all
of our, European, culture: the Greek and Roman classics, on one hand, and the
Bible on the other. For good or bad, the fact is that the classics are no longer
taught at school nor revived in new cultural productions, and as for the Bible,
in a multicultural, multireligious Europe, it cannot be, nor should it be, the
source of our identity, morals and way of life. How can we, then -and I suppose
this is the most relevant question in an European Cultural Parliament-, create a
common, meaningful foundation for our identity as Europeans? Only, in my
opinion, by culture. A culture which deserves its name -which is not made of
reality shows and gossip magazines-, and which integrates religion not as
religion but as history and literature.
Therefore, to the question: how to accommodate cultural freedom with
religious values? I would answer: let’s rather accommodate religious freedom
with cultural values.