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Religion and Society

Culture Between the Indefinable and Certainty

The Christian tradition and new challenges /1. The intellectuals of the twentieth century used culture in opposition to nature, for anthropologists it must be cited only in the plural, and despite St. Paul, St. Augustine and the missionaries, the Church did not develop an explicit teaching in relation to it. Only with John Paul II did it become a habitual subject of theology.

Although many books have been written on the subject, it is notoriously difficult to say exactly how one should define ‘culture’ as we use the word today. On the whole, twentieth-century scholars spoke about culture as something that is different from, and indeed has to be contrasted with, nature. But often it is difficult to say where the boundaries lie. A famous example is the twentieth-century discussion about the taboo of incest.



In 1948 the French ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss presented it as a classic example of the step from nature to culture; forty years later Norbert Bischof, a German behavioral biologist, discovered that wild young graylags behave as if they know about the taboo and concluded that its wellknown absence in breeding stocks is due to calculated interbreeding. A picture by Rembrandt obviously is a result of culture; but would an alien coming from another star immediately recognize it as such? After all, some birds and insects construct surprisingly sophisticated nests and habitats. And are the kitsch views of towns that Hitler painted in his youth expressions of culture as well? Incidentally, it is not helpful to distinguish between nature and culture by referring to conscious deliberation. Many cultural phenomena seem to be the side-effects of human behavior that no one chooses intentionally. Clearly, a nation is a cultural datum; yet people do not decide to establish a nation. Instead, one day they discover that they have formed it. As Aristotle put it, man is by his very nature a social being; but this obviously does not mean that society or a state are nature; rather, they are classic examples of cultural entities.



The English writer T.S. Eliot once tried to say what culture is by speaking about ‘the whole way of life of a people, from the birth to the grave, from the morning till night, even if everybody sleeps’. But how should we summarize this way of life without mentioning almost everything that may happen during the existence of a people? And by the way: when a people catches a cold is this a cultural phenomenon? Certainly for some time this would strain its ‘whole way of life’. One of the problems with the contrast ‘nature/culture’ is that culture in one way or another always entails nature while nature entails culture only in so far as we think about and behave towards it, that is, consider it through the medium of a culture. In a way, nature as opposed to culture is what remains of intra-mundane reality when we try to abstract from everything that man says and thinks about it or does to it. Together with the differences between various cultures, such forms of blurring in the notion of culture have seduced many philosophers of culture and cultural anthropologists to relativism.



In fact, cultural differences were the main argument that nineteenth- and twentieth-century relativists used to justify their standpoint. A human’s beliefs and activities should, the argument ran, not only be understood, but also assessed, according to his or her culture. As one of the founders of cultural anthropology, Franz Boas, declared in 1887: ‘our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes’. The successors of Boas at the University of Columbia, such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, were passionately opposed to anything that evoked theoretical or ethical universalism. A hundred years later a contributor to the journal American Anthropologist wrote: ‘There can be no value judgments that are true independent of specific cultures’. This may, of course, mean that one cannot be certain about the exact meaning and therefore appropriateness of value judgments without a consideration of the cultural context in which they are uttered; but mostly it is understood as a denial of the possibility to discover what really is valid or true. After all, the contemporary use of the expression ‘culture’ mainly goes back to Kant who claimed that we never can reach the ‘thing in itself’, and to Johann Gottfried Herder who in addition questioned the theoretical and ethical universalism that Kant continued to defend. Whether Herder really was a relativist is however debatable; some have argued that he only insisted on a legitimate plurality of cultures.



Besides the heritage of a medieval ontology which was characteristic of Catholic theology prior to the Second Vatican Council, it was probably this relativistic bias of most discussions concerning the notion and special character of culture that for a considerable time prevented Catholic authorities from taking up this notion as a topic relevant to theology. Besides a few passages in the documents of the Council, especially in Gaudium et spes, it actually was not before John Paul II that reflections on culture became a common theological subject. In the main three reasons may have lain behind this new attention. One was certainly the distinction between the accommodation and the inculturation of faith developed by missionary theologians, especially by the French Franciscan Jean-Marie Masson who was active in Ceylon. John Paul II first used the notion of inculturation in his encyclical Slavorum Apostoli (1985), which was devoted to remembrance of the Saints Cyril and Methodius, in order to show how Christian faith could, and should, become an integral part of a people’s daily life.



The second reason, in contrary fashion, was probably the alarming observation that since World War II and especially since the time of the Council the culture of the Western world was decreasingly characterized by Christian belief. This development led to reflections about how faith and culture might be related to each other. Finally, one reason may have been the Pope’s familiarity with the history of his home country. It was above all their Catholic culture that helped Poles to survive as a nation for the almost two hundred years during when their country was divided between parts that were Orthodox Russian, Protestant German and partially Catholic Austrian; and it was principally Poland’s Catholic tradition and culture that prevented the Communists from transforming the country into a obedient satellite of the Soviet Empire. Of course, John Paul II was also aware of the problems that arise when – as was and in part still is the case in Poland – religious traditions and national pride are welded together too much.



The Discovery and Recognition of Dignity



It would certainly be an exaggeration to say that the Church has developed anything resembling an explicit teaching on culture; it seems appropriate to say that it has elaborated and expanded the classic notion of tradition and considered its description of the Church as a ‘standard lifted high among the nations’ by urging an awareness of both the differences between, and the common ground of various cultures. Although the word ‘culture’ was not used, many of the problems involved have been familiar to missionaries since the very beginning of the spread of Christian faith: quite often they were confronted with the question as to whether, and to what extent, they could accommodate their preaching to the way of thinking, the traditions and the customs of the region of the world they were sent to. As time went on, especially in modern times, missionaries became gradually aware of the problem that instead of simply announcing the Gospel they in fact spread the culture in which they themselves had grown up. As long as Europeans basked in the alleged cultural superiority of their continent, a fact considered obvious since Europe was the home of the only true religion, only a few people noticed the problem. But it became a problem that was clearly visible during the ‘Age of Colonialism’ which began with Columbus’ discovery of the New World, the consequences of which still strain the relationship between the Western World and many other regions of the world.



When Bartolomé de las Casas, in the face of the brutalities of the conquistadores, defended the rights of the Indians he implicitly was aware of the fact that a Christian cannot restrict himself to the distinction nature/culture. By not sharing in what someone calls ‘culture’, man does not become ‘almost an animal’. The discovery and acknowledgement of the dignity of each and every human being may be culture. But this dignity itself is neither culture nor nature. Nor is God a ‘cultural phenomenon’, though the way we address and serve Him inevitably has a cultural aspect. It is this dual insight that has prevented the Church from succumbing to that relativism which characterizes most contemporary discourse on culture: though the way we relate to reality may inevitably be mediated by a definite culture, the latter does not prevent us from discovering truths that transcend cultural differences and historical changes; and though the way we articulate them may be influenced by culture, there are truths that cannot be squeezed into the alternative ‘culture or nature’. Of course a cultural relativist would deny both these claims. But then one has to confront him with an elementary objection: why should what he claims not apply to his own point of view as well? After all, everything that, for example, cultural anthropology teaches, is as much culture as what it analyses. Why should we, to give a simple example, reduce the claim that the universe has been created to ‘mere culture’ without at the same time admitting that this reduction itself is the expression and conclusion of a specific culture?



On the other hand, however, why emphasize that faith is culture if the contemporary discourse on culture seems so easily seduced by relativism? Did not Pascal, Kierkegaard and Christians among the existentialists teach us that faith is a strictly personal decision, indeed a ‘risk’? St. Augustine in his Confessions already spoke as if in the end nothing except the relationship between


‘my soul and You, my Lord’ really mattered. As a matter of fact, sometimes the culture of a people is so suffused with religious convictions that many cease to notice how much faith a personal commitment entails. In spite of its exaggerations, the ‘dialectical theology’ of the early Karl Barth was a legitimate protest against such tendencies in traditionally Protestant countries; the movement initiated by Luigi Giussani among young Italian Catholics points in the same direction, though instead of protesting against anything it simply reminds the believers what to share in a faith means.




The Perception of Reality



Yet religion and faith inevitably have a cultural side. On the one hand, ‘faith has its own eyes’ (St. Augustine): a believer not only interprets his life story in a specific way but also notices aspects of reality that for an unbeliever cannot but be the delusions of a superstition. He, as it were, reads reality in a language which, without a translation, would remain unintelligible to someone who does not share his faith; and the translation would inevitably be incomplete. This language, moreover, is historical: pondering upon their faith and their experiences in the light of faith, believers constantly discover new notions and use words in a new way, often because someone else contradicts them. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, partialities, in fact heresies, must occur since they force the Church to reflect upon and often to deepen what it teaches. While it is transmitted from generation to generation, faith thus shapes the way in which the members of a religious community perceive reality. It is a specific culture that modifies any culture of which it has become an element.



On the other hand, as soon as a faith has begun to shape the culture of a community or a people, it manifests itself in countless cultural ways: it leads to specific forms of behavior, expresses itself in a cult and in rites, singles out certain times for specific religious activities, prompts the building of places of worship, influences lifestyle and relationships with neighbors, marks the arts: indeed, most of what humans do and make. Every vigilant visitor to a country that is marked by a religion different from his own notices the difference. A religion that finds no cultural expression does not exist; a faith that exclusively survives in the human heart is almost inconceivable except, perhaps, in the case of a conversion in borderline situations such as those of Auschwitz.



Christian theologians have given much thought to the question of what is the most promising way to integrate faith into a heathen culture. In today’s Europe, however, we are confronted with the problem of what actually occurs when faith begins to fade away in a culture which, more than any other, was in the past moulded by Christian insights. Europe is famous for its number of cultural relics of a glorious Christian past, relics that are not at all limited to churches and works of art; countless studies address the enormous influence of faith on European languages as well as the Christian origins of ideas that Europeans have spread throughout the planet. Yet the number of Europeans who are more than ‘nominal Christians’ decreases every decade. Since the seventeenth century in particular, Europe has tried to carry the Gospel to the furthest corners of the globe; at the same time, and in a dramatic way during the twentieth century, it gradually ceased to be a Christian continent. Though only a few would agree with Marx or Nietzsche that religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, have only negative consequences, the number of Europeans who feel that not much would be lost if faith ceased to have any influence upon their culture is alarmingly high. Christianity, they seem to think, has done its homework but there is no good reason to keep it alive. Hegel already implicitly advanced such an assessment in the last paragraph of his Philosophy of Right, which was first published in 1833. Personal commitments have lost their importance since faith has become an integral element in the substance of our culture.



This is not the place to discuss the many reasons that explain this worrying development. It indicates, however, that for a Christian the new emphasis on culture has two aspects. On the one hand, a Christian should obviously be interested in influencing the culture of the country or region of the world that he goes to or lives in. The Lord’s request to announce the Gospel all over the world inevitably leads to an effort to reform cultures as regards those features that are incompatible with, or impede, what God expects from us. On the other hand, however, such a transformation in the long run will remain unsuccessful if it is not rooted in the deep understanding and completely free decisions of many individuals. If such roots, which transcend everything that reminds of a specific culture, wither away, it is only a question of time before a culture loses its Christian character. Faith is, and generates, culture but at the same it radically transcends it. Were this not the case, it could never survive a cultural collapse.



As Jews and Christians confess together with the author of psalm 21, God does not expect from us ritual sacrifices but a pure heart: mine as well as yours.


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