John Paul II stated in 1982 that “the Church’s dialogue with cultures of our time…[is a] vital…one in which the destiny of the world…is at stake.”
This startling challenge to dialogue is even more imperative thirty years later with the increasing tensions and violence between, and within, cultures, whether secular or religious. This call to dialogue was repeated by Benedict XVI in speech to politicians and diplomats in Westminster this September.
The theological term “inculturation” describes what this dialogue should mean. In authentic dialogue both parties must be open to change.
Theologically inculturation assumes that whatever is true and good in any culture has its source in the Holy Spirit. Pastorally the Church is committed to learn from these truths and further enlighten them with the values and truths of the Gospels.
Unfortunately, despite the frequent reference to the importance of inculturation in ecclesial documents, few are seriously taking up the challenge to enter into realistic dialogue with the cultures of our time.
There are several reasons for this tragic fact. First, there are deliberate efforts to reject efforts at inculturation within the institutional Church, for example in catechesis or liturgy. There is a fear that true dialogue will mean our ecclesiastical cultures themselves may have to change.
Second, there is also a revitalised fundamentalist view that the study of culture(s) is unimportant for evangelisation, that it is even a waste of time. Yet inculturation is a fundamental imperative of the Gospel itself. In fact, Jesus Christ was extremely sensitive in his preaching to the cultures of his day.
As the master of inculturation, he knew that his message had to penetrate to the very roots of cultures. For example, he used the medium of storytelling characteristic of the cultures of his time as a significant way to teach.
A third reason why inculturation is stalled is that theologians and evangelisers are increasingly confused about the meaning of culture. This is understandable. Anyone who writes today on culture is confronted with a disheartening task, because the word is indiscriminately applied to vastly different situations.
So we read about “global culture,” “youth culture,” “café culture,” “postmodern culture,” and so on. Rarely is any serious thought given to what these expressions mean. Politicians even employ the word to rationalise their anti-immigrant policies. Management texts glibly define it as “what we do around here,” yet culture is far more complex than this. Ecclesial documents and theologians also tend to use the word in similar simplistic ways.
Anthropologists themselves are partly responsible for the confusion surrounding the meaning of culture. Until the 1980s most anthropologists accepted the description of cultures as discrete entities, frozen in time, homogeneous and without internal dissent, unreceptive to outside influences.
Yet anthropologists now admit that in these postmodern times cultures are fragmented to some degree or other, internally contested, their borders permeable. Cultures are hybrid, constantly interacting, mixing, and changing. They are not static objects, but processes whereby people struggle for meaning in a chaotic world.
At the same time, in reaction to the uncertainties evoked by rapid globalisation, new nationalist and fundamentalist movements are appearing everywhere. People confronted with chaos feel the need to belong behind rigidly defined identifying borders.
These contemporary insights into the complexity of culture are critically important for our understanding of inculturation.
How a challenge is defined, and then explained, inevitably affects what is actually done about it. Inaccurate perceptions of, and defective attitudes to, cultures and dialogue invariably result in bad theology as well as defective pastoral policies and practices.
This applies not just to a better appreciation of the cultures around us, but also to our understanding of the many contemporary tensions in the Church itself.
Only those people who assume that the Church is a pure spirit can claim that it does not form a highly complicated global culture containing myriad, multifaceted and interacting subcultures, that are frequently in tension and polarised.
The challenge we face is not just to dialogue as Catholics with different secular and religious cultures . The multiplicity of cultures and subcultures within the Church must be ever-learning the art of dialoguing with one another. We are frankly not good at this. No culture is exempt from this imperative, above all the Church. If we cannot dialogue internally, there is no hope we can dialogue with cultures outside the Church.
Father Gerald Arbuckle SM is co-director of the Refounding and Pastoral Development Unit at Hunters Hill in Sydney, and author of eleven books on leadership and culture. The latest – Culture, Inculturation, And Theologians: A Postmodern Critique – was published last month.
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