This article was published in Oasis 10. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:43:31

Faith and culture: this tandem, formulated with a variety of expressions and accents, represents a constant of Christian reflection. But if we have decided to devote this new edition of Oasis to these two terms, and above all to an examination of their mutual relationship, almost in order to summarise this first five-year period of our activity, there is a special reason for this: our working hypothesis, which has grown clearer in recent years, is based on the belief that a correct, always circular, relationship between Christian faith and culture necessarily involves the relationship between Christian faith and religions.


A Necessary Clarification

Before analysing this statement, I would like to make clear once again the context in which it is located. It is clear, in fact, that my analysis, if it does not want to be abstract, must be placed within the contemporary process of the encounter of peoples which I have invoked on a number of occasions employing the category the ‘mestizaje of civilisations’. The qualification ‘of civilisations’ by which I define ‘mestizaje’ is often not seen in all its defining importance, perhaps because the term ‘mestizaje’ produces, in the first instance, a certain strong reaction. But for us the mestizaje of civilisations – implicit in this clarification – is not a political programme. Indeed, its character of being within a point of historical evolution excludes it from being able to be erected into a goal to be pursued in the historical future. At the same time, it is something more than a simple description of a process (and the enunciation of a physical law or a detached observation of a biological phenomenon could be) because it is offered to our freedom as a general interpretative horizon of a summarising and overall character. There are various special categories (identity, otherness, difference, relationship, interculturality, integration, safety, to quote only a few) which are rightly referred to in public debate in order to make the process that is underway an opportunity for a broader recognition of the actors in this field. To speak about mestizaje, however, has the advantage of forcing us to consider in a unitary approach the importance of what is taking place and its potentialities: if we believe in a God who guides history, we cannot, in fact, think that the growing interconnection of peoples is the outcome of pure chance. Mestizaje, however, also refers to the implicit risks that are involved, to the violence that can spring from it: like every human phenomenon, in fact, it, too, cannot be directed a priori to a positive outcome but only guided in its unfolding. Playing upon the etymology of the word, only time (and the commitment of our freedoms at a personal and community level) will decide whether in the en-counter between peoples will prevail the aspect of ‘en’ or the aspect of ‘counter’.


Faith, Culture

In the meantime, and in order to shift the scales towards a good life, a notable contribution can be provided specifically by an adequate structuring of the relationship between faith and culture. Indeed, in the contemporary context of plural societies we have generally been witnesses to a reduction of faith to pure belief, a set of beliefs taken on perhaps in a decided way but condemned to remain within the context of subjective experience because they lack arguments that are objectively documentable. It is evident that in this perspective the space for dialogue between religions is drastically reduced: it cannot be translated only into the enunciation of certain shared aspirations, deprived, however, of paths and instruments by which they can be actuated. But culture, too, does not come out well from such a situation: it dissolves, in fact, into a ‘touristic’ multiplicity of cultures which are incommensurable (and thus incommunicable); certainties, ‘serious things’, are said to be supplied solely by techno-sciences: ‘we would all know, evaluate and make decisions about our life situations from within a technocratic cultural perspective to which we would belong structurally, without every being able to discover a meaning that is not of our own making’ [Caritas in Veritate, n. 70]. Structured levels of knowledge would then be absorbed into the specific level of scientific-experimental knowledge. As at times is repeated in a provocative way, (techno-) science unites and religions (cultures) divide. The conclusion appears obligatory once the premises have been accepted. But are we really obliged to do this? John Paul II was not of this view when, during his unforgettable address to UNESCO of 2 June 1980, he stated: ‘Genus humanum arte et ratione vivit [cf. S.Thomae In Aristotelis Post. Analyt., 1]… ‘Culture is a specific way of “existing” and “being” of man’ [n. 6]. And shortly afterwards he added: ‘Culture is that by which man as man becomes man more, “he is” more, he accedes more to “being”’ [n. 7]. In John Paul II’s vision, culture, well beyond the purely instrumental dimension of having, allows man to explore himself, his own being [n. 7]. And since this humanum which culture is called upon to increase is common to all subjects, but is never completely possessed by any of them, the plurality of cultures is inevitable, and yet, because of a common anthropological root, it cannot depart from culture. As a consequence, communication between cultures is not only possible but shows itself to be necessary on the pathway towards an increase in the humanum.

On the other hand, as the then Cardinal Ratzinger observed with an especially illuminating formulation: ‘There is no such thing as naked faith or mere religion. Simply stated, insofar as faith tells man who he is and how he should begin being human, faith creates culture; faith is itself culture’. Faith, in offering man an interpretative hypothesis of the real, produces culture; but, on the other hand, culture(s) interpreting itself/themselves, interpret(s) faith itself. In historical time such a dynamic is insuperable. To oppose an initial moment of absolute clarity (in our case a mysterious ‘pure faith’ to be located preferably in an idealised reality of origins) to interpretations of growing nebulosity (‘culture’, ‘religion’, in the Barthian sense), therefore, has no sense. It is necessary, rather, to think of a continual exchange between these two poles. Culture should always be purified in the light of faith but faith should always be interpreted according to the demands generated by culture. As Fides et Ratio observes in section 71: ‘Cultural context permeates the living of Christian faith, which contributes to turn little by little to shaping their context’. Seen from the perspective of Christian faith, this means that every culture appreciates certain aspects of divine self-revelation but omits or diminishes others. For that matter, Christian realism states that the balance between what is lost and what is maintained of the initial events is not a simple draw or, even worse, a net loss, an echo of a distant voice which re-echoes every more weakly: with the passing of time, in fact, the intelligence of revealed truths grows. It is within that more complete conception of culture and faith evoked in the words of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that I believe is based, without any concession to relativism, the establishment of a cultural interpretation of faith, just as, conversely, one must speak of an inevitable criticism of culture by faith. With a final passage, of particular relevance to Oasis, I would like to add that this dynamic appears to me to be obligatory for the other religions as well. However they may conceive of their relationship with the Divine, this is always culturally mediated. It could not be otherwise if it is true that culture is the ‘specific mode of human existence’ and that religion is specifically rooted in human existence. This inevitable cultural interpretation thus concerns every religious expression, without, naturally, unduly inferring from this a purported inter-changeability of the various faiths.


Traditions and Tradition

The culture-faith circle, however, would be without flesh or blood if one did not consider the role of traditions. Oasis has returned to this subject on a number of occasions, most recently in its last issue [n. 9] and during the rich meeting of the Scientific Committee that was held in 2009. Many of the papers given at this meeting are printed in the current affairs section of this issue. Nothing, in fact, is more abstract than the image of the individual who constructs, each time afresh, his own cultural interpretation, which is born with him and is destined to die with him. Much more concretely, the cultural interpretation of faith is actuated and is transmitted from generation to generation in traditions, which are offered to the free verification of individuals. Contrary to what an individualistic mentality would lead one to think, to belong to a tradition is not a limitation of personal freedom and creativity. On the contrary: it is the condition for their better exercise because it provides a hypothesis for departure in the reading of the real. Traditions, in the unspent dialectic between giving and receiving which the etymology of the term suggests, thus offers themselves as a location for concrete service to the inevitable cultural interpretation of every faith. Specifically for this reason, they are always in need of purification and criticism because, as Pascal observes, ‘however much force such antiquity has, truth must always prevail, however much of recent discovery, since it is always older than all the opinions that have been held of it’. But – and this is the disconcerting Christian claim – that same Truth that traditions do not know how to exhaust chose to assure, through its own free and definitive initiative, the lasting of Traditio, a location where the living and personal Truth, that is to say Jesus Christ, continually offers himself in its objectivity to the freedom of man. Traditio, as we are told by Dei Verbum, is closely connected with Holy Scripture and the Magisterium [n. 10], it is ‘continuity and progress, conservation and development… The Holy Spirit is the divine guarantee of its fidelity’.


The Cultural Interpretation of Islam

In the light of these observations, the option that Oasis has progressively made its own in favour of cultural interpretation of Islam or, if one prefers, of its various traditions, becomes clearer. By this choice the intention is not to effect an artificial separation to the disadvantage of our Muslim brothers, privileging within their ranks philosophers, prose-writers, scholars and mystics to the detriment of a core of popular faith that would remain extraneous to research, if not looked at with suspicion. This is denied by the fact that one must refer to the need for a cultural interpretation of faith in the case of Christianity as well. Thus, also, the stress placed upon the diversity within Islam, to the point of using at times the plural, does not conceal a strategy of divide et impera, but seeks to take into account the multiple translations that every faith experiences (what we call ¬‘Islam of the people’), without thereby forgoing a distinctive core that is specific to it. I was comforted – it may said en passant – by coming across the same formulation in the interview with the mufti of Bosnia that was published in the last edition of Oasis, namely n. 9. To summarise, to play with the title of a famous book by the Catholic ¬orientalist Louis Gardet, Les Hommes de l’Islam (‘The Men of Islam’), we could say that Oasis does not choose men against Islam but men so as to reach Islam. There are by now many examples of how the encounter with believers of various religions, if experienced with suitable awareness, can be translated into reciprocal enrichment. Each person, in fact, can be stimulated to live at a deeper level his religious membership, to understand it better and at a deeper level. Not without the risk of freedom, however: the possibility of conversion must be allowed for dialogue to be authentic and without simulation. In contemporary plural society this very dynamic of encounter which individual believers already practise is called upon to find forms of encounter at a community level as well, principally in the field that we call the implications of the faiths. From a Christian point of view, these implications represent the modalities in which the Mysteries of faith, according to the sacramental logic of Revelation [Fides et Ratio n. 13], are incarnated dynamically in the history of the individual who lives them, bearing upon how we conceive of ourselves as men, on our way of conceiving society and our relationship with the creation. In a way that respect established procedures, which are essential for the sound functioning of a democratic state, the various cultural interpretations should be able to dialogue with each other first of all at these levels. Society as a whole would benefit, but even before that, religious traditions themselves, in an adventure of mutual edification.