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The necessary Decision and its Consequences

Exodus, fracture, the act of conversion: Christianity begun in this way. But the revolution worked by the person of Jesus is never destructive. Rather it transforms cultures, being itself culture.

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

Last update: 2019-06-19 15:09:32

We have discussed thus far the essence of culture and the conditions of cultural encounter and intermingling giving rise to new cultural forms. From the realm of principles, we must now venture into that of facts. But before we do, we need to summarize once again the essential results of our reflections and ask ourselves what can unite cultures so that they do not become merely superficially attached to each other but that their meeting becomes the occasion for mutual enrichment and refinement. The medium that brings them together can only be the shared truth about man, which necessarily brings into play the truth about God and reality as a whole. The more human a culture is, the greater it is, the more it will speak to truth which was formerly closed to it and the more it will be able to assimilate truth and itself be assimilated by truth. At this juncture the Christian faith's special self-understanding becomes manifest. Christian faith, if it is alert and honest, knows quite well that there is a good deal of the human at work in its particular cultural expressions, much of which is in need of purification and opening up. But Christian faith is also certain that in its core it is the self-disclosure of truth itself and therefore is redemption. For man's real poverty is the darkness to truth. This darkness falsifies our actions and pits us against one another, precisely because we are tainted, alienated from ourselves, cut off from the ground of our being, which is God. The communication of truth brings deliverance from alienation and division. It illumines the universal standard which does no violence to any culture but leads each to its own center, since each culture is finally the expectation of truth. This does not mean uniformity. Just the opposite. Only when this occurs can opposition become complementarity because each culture, based on a common standard, can now bear its particular fruit. This is the great mandate with which Christian faith came into the world; it underlies the inner obligation to send all peoples to the school of Jesus because He is truth in person and thus the way of mankind. For the time being, we do not wish to join the dispute over the legitimacy of this mandate, but we shall need to return to this issue. For now let us put the following question. What conclusions should we draw from the aforesaid for the concrete relationship of Christian faith to the world's cultures? First, we must state that faith itself is culture. 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's word is not an abstraction; it is one which has matured through a long history and through intercultural mingling in which it formed an entire structure of life, the interaction of man with himself, his neighbour, the world and God. This means too that faith is its own subject, a living and cultural community which we call the ‘people of God’. The historical character of faith as subject comes perhaps most clearly to expression in this concept. Does then faith stand as one culture among others such that one would have to choose whether to belong to this people as a cultural community or to another? No. At this point, what is special and proper to a culture becomes evident. The cultural subject ‘people of God’ differs from the classical cultures which are defined by tribe, people or the boundaries of a common region insofar as the people of God exists in different cultures which for their part, even as far as the Christian is concerned, do not cease to be the first and unmediated culture. Even as a Christian, one remains a Frenchman, a German, an American, an Indian, etc. In the pre-Christian world, also in the great cultures of India, China and Japan, the identity and indivisibility of the cultural subject perdures. Double membership is in general impossible, with the exception, of course, of Buddhism, which is able to unite with other cultures as a kind of inner principle. But the doubling of cultures first arises in any consistent way with Christianity, such that man now lives in two cultural worlds, his historic culture and in the new one of faith, both of which permeate him. This interaction will never be an entirely accomplished synthesis; it includes the necessity of continuing efforts toward reconciliation and refinement. Again and again man must learn the transcendence toward wholeness and universality which is proper not to a specific people, but precisely to the people of God, which embraces all men. Again and again, on the other hand, what is held in common must be received into the realm of the particular and be lived or even suffered in actual history. Something very important follows from this. One might think that the culture is the affair of the individual historical country (Germany, France, America, etc.), while faith for its part is in search of cultural expression. The individual cultures would allocate, as it were, a cultural body to faith. Accordingly, faith would always have to live from borrowed cultures, which remain in the end somehow external and capable of being cast off. Above all, one borrowed cultural form would not speak to someone who lives in another culture. Universality would thereby finally become fictitious. Such thinking is at root Manichean. Culture is debased, becoming a mere exchangeable shell. Faith is reduced to disincarnated spirit ultimately void of reality. To be sure, such a view is typical of the post-Enlightenment mentality. Culture is reduced to mere form; religion, to inexpressible mere feeling or pure thought. The fruitful tension is lost which one would expect to characterize per se the coexistence of two subjects. If culture is more than a mere form or aesthetic principle, if it is rather the ordering of values in a historical living form and cannot prescind from the question of God, then we cannot circumvent the fact that the church is its own cultural subject for the faithful. This cultural subject church, people of God, does not coincide with any of the individual historic subjects even in times of apparently full Christianization as one thought one had attained in Europe. Rather the church significantly maintains her own overarching form. If this is so, when the faith and its culture meet another culture hitherto foreign to it, it cannot be a question of dissolving the duality of the cultures to the advantage of the one or the other. Gaining a Christianity deprived of its concrete human complexion at the cost of losing one's own cultural heritage would be as mistaken as surrendering faith's own cultural physiognomy. Indeed the tension is fruitful; it renews faith and heals culture. It would therefore be nonsensical to offer a sort of pre-cultural or decultured Christianity which would rob itself of its own historical force and degrade itself to an empty collection of ideas. We may not forget that Christianity already in the New Testament bears the fruit of an entire cultural history, a history of acceptance and rejection, of encounter and change. Israel's history of faith, which has been taken up into Christianity, found its own form through confrontation with the Egyptian, Hittite, Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian and Greek cultures. All of these cultures were at the same time religions, comprehensive historical forms of living. Israel painfully adopted and transformed them in the course of his struggle with God, in struggle with the great prophets, in order to make ready an ever purer vessel for the newness of the revelation of the one God. These other cultures came thereby to their own lasting fulfillment. They would all have sunk into the distant past had they not been refined and elevated in the faith of the Bible, thereby attaining permanence. To be sure, Israel's history of faith begins with the call to Abraham: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house’ [Gn 12:1]; it begins with a cultural break. Such a break with its own antecedent history, such a going forth, will always stand at the beginning of a new hour of the history of faith. But this new beginning reveals itself to be a healing power which creates a new center and which deigns to draw to itself everything truly human, everything truly godly. ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ [Jn 12:31]: these words of the risen Lord also apply here. The cross is first of all break, expulsion, elevation away from the earth, but precisely thereby it becomes a new center of magnetic pull, drawing world history upward and becoming a gathering of the divided. Whoever joins the church must be aware that he is entering a cultural subject with its own historically developed and multi-tiered inter-culturality. One cannot become a Christian apart from a certain exodus, a break from one's previous life in all its aspects. Faith is not a private way to God; it leads into the people of God and its history. God bound himself to a history which is now also his and one which we cannot cast off. Christ remains man in eternity, he conserves his body in eternity. Being man and being body inevitably include however a history and culture, a quite particular history and culture, whether we like it or not. We cannot repeat the event of the incarnation to suit ourselves in the sense of taking away Christ's flesh and offering him another. Christ remains himself, indeed according to his body. But he draws us to himself. This means, since the people of God is not a particular cultural entity but rather has been drawn from all peoples, therefore even its first cultural identity, rising from the break, has its place. But not just that. This first identity is necessary to allow the incarnation of Christ, the incarnation of the Logos, to reach its fullness. The tension of the many subjects in the one subject belongs essentially to the uncompleted drama of the incarnation of the Son. This tension is the real inner dynamism of history; it stands to be sure always under the sign of the cross, that is to say, it always has to contend with the counter-stress of close-mindedness and refusal. […] The path must be found for the true encounter of cultures and religions, an encounter not characterized by loss of faith or truth, but by a deeper contact with truth which makes possible giving all that which went before its full and deep significance. Such a synthesis of truth cannot be invented at a desk or else it will never transcend the status of philosophy or mere theory. Rather, a process of lived faith is necessary which creates the capacity for encounter in truth and thus, as the psalm says, ‘places in a wide place’ [31:9]. But it naturally must be guided and ordered to the thinking of faith. […] The church fathers can ever show us the way to attain the right principles since they faced a quite similar task in their encounter with the religions of the Mediterranean area with its endemic philosophies of religion. For although the faith in the gods and thus the immediate sense of the ancient cults had disintegrated, new philosophical justifications of the pagan religions were devised which show very similar characteristics to the philosophies of religion of our century, for example, to Radhakrishnan. I shall mention only two striking examples. The Roman rhetorician Symmachus (c. 345-402), who passionately defended the preservation of the ancient Roman religion, provides us the first. He became especially famous for petitioning Caesar to reinstate the goddess of Victory in the Roman senate. The key line of his memorandum justifying his request reads: ‘Uno itinere non potest veniri ad tam grande secretum’ — ‘one cannot succeed to such a great mystery by only one road’. This passage is a classical expression of the Roman idea of religion. The divine mystery is so great that no human way can exhaust it; no religion may encompass it. It can only be approached from different sides and must be represented in various forms. Symmachus did not want to abolish Christianity; he but wanted to integrate it into his notion of religion. Christianity should learn to see itself as one way to see, seek and speak about God, recognizing that there are also other ways. Even Christianity may not presume to exhaust the great mystery. Perhaps the problem can be seen even more clearly in the case of the emperor Julian the Apostate (332-363), who wanted to suppress once again ‘intolerant’ Christianity and re-establish the ancient cults, all this against the backdrop of neo-Platonic philosophy. Julian criticized the Old Testament and the Christian faith from the same standpoint as Symmachus. His main complaint against Christianity and his single objection to Judaism involve the First Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not have strange gods before me’. He could not and would not recognize the uniqueness of the one God. Even the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is for him one appearance of the divine, but one which does not deplete the ‘great mystery’. For this reason, the God of the Old Testament and the God of Christians must tolerate other gods besides him. For this reason, the Nazarene cannot be recognized as the one incarnate Logos who is the only mediator of all mankind. In the dispute with enlightened philosophical polytheism, the fathers have identified the supporting foundations of biblical faith; relativizing them annuls this faith and robs it of its identity. What remains after its abandonment would be select elements of biblical tradition, but not the faith of the Bible itself. I shall attempt very briefly to indicate these basic elements as derived by the fathers from Sacred Scripture. a. The first great commandment is at once the first article of faith and faith's foundational principle of identity: ‘The Lord, our God, is one Lord’. All ‘gods’ are not God. Therefore only the one God can be adored in truth; to worship other gods is idolatry. Without this fundamental decision there is no Christianity. One finds oneself outside the Christian faith where it is forgotten or relativized. Christology, ecclesiology, worship and sacrament can only be correctly treated when this decision is made. Christianity revolutionized the ancient world with this confession of faith. The ancient world had proceeded from the exact opposite principle, as the Emperor Julian had again formulated it at the end of antiquity. The one God is by no means an unknown theme in the history of religion. One can indeed say that the vast majority of religions are acquainted with him. Hence they know that the gods are not the final power but only relative powers. The religions are in general also aware that the ‘gods’ are not ‘God’. At the same time, the one God is, to be sure, frequently without a cult or at least is unimportant cultically because he is too distant from the life of man. Hence cultic practice addresses the gods, so that in the religions God, for all practical purposes, is often concealed almost entirely behind the gods. Christian faith was for the Mediterranean world and then again for Latin America and Africa liberation from the gods because now the one God had shown himself and had become ‘God with us’. The pivotal words with which Jesus rebukes Satan, the tempter of mankind, read: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’ [Mt 4:10; Lk 4:8; Dt 5:9; 6:13]. Without accepting this command one cannot stand on the side of Jesus Christ in the religion professed by the Bible. b. Christian existence starts with this fundamental decision and has rested on it ever since. Where the difference between worship and idolatry disappears, Christianity is undone. The Bible and the language of the fathers calls the required decision ‘conversion’ (metanoia). A theology which omits the concept of conversion would overlook the decisive category of biblical religion. Christian faith is a new beginning and not merely a new cultural variant in an ever developing religious framework. For this reason, the fathers stressed emphatically the newness of Christianity. The act of conversion is essential to the special understanding of the truth of Christians. In a large number of religions, as we have seen, the reality of the one God was certainly not unknown, but this one God remains too distant. His mystery is inaccessible. Thus the concrete contents of religion can only be symbolic in nature. They are not truth but relative appearances beside which other appearances are possible. The Christian faith recognizes in the God of Israel, in the God of Jesus Christ, the one true God, truth itself manifesting itself. Therefore Christian conversion is according to its essence faith in the fact of truth's own revelation. While mystery is not thereby abolished, relativism, to be sure, is excluded, for relativism cuts man off from truth, making him a slave. Man's real poverty is darkness to truth. He becomes free for the first time when he is obliged to serve truth alone. Yet another point is important in this consideration. The fathers first of all emphasized very strongly the character of conversion as decision and accordingly the character of faith as exodus. When this point was secure, they emphasized more and more also the second aspect, namely, that conversion is transformation, not destruction. Conversion does not destroy the religions and cultures but transforms them. With this insight, the fathers came more and more to oppose the iconoclasm of narrow—minded Christian fanatics. Temples were no longer dismantled but converted to churches. The inner continuity between the religions and Christian faith became visible. It came to a resurrection of what was best in the former religions. It was not a relativistic philosophy of religion which gave them continued existence; in fact, it was this that had made them ineffective in the first place. Faith gave the religions the space in which their truth could develop and become fruitful. Both aspects of the act of conversion are important, but only after the first step has succeeded, namely the decisive turning to the one God, can the second, transforming conservation, ensue. c. The mystery of Jesus Christ is to be understood only in this context of the First Commandment and the act of conversion which it demands. For Jesus, who did not abolish the Old Testament but fulfilled it, the First Commandment remained the supporting foundation of everything further; the ‘shema Israel’ constituted the underlying content of faith: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’. I make bold to assert that the centrality of this passage for all Old Testament literature is also the essential reason for the unique place of the Old Testament in the Christian faith. Since the whole Old Testament is built around this one sentence, it is for this reason a ‘canon’, Sacred Scripture, for Christians. Only for this reason it attests to Jesus and vice versa. Jesus is the key to the Old Testament because he makes this sentence concrete in his very flesh. […] In his letters from prison, Paul develops the cosmic significance of Christ and thereby opens up for us an ‘inclusive’ Christology in the sense of what we said earlier about conversion. Faith in Jesus Christ becomes a new principle of life and opens up a new space for living. The old is not destroyed but finds its definitive form and full meaning. This transforming conservation as the fathers splendidly practiced it in the encounter between biblical faith and its cultures is the real content of ‘inculturation’, of encounter and cross-fertilization of cultures and religions under the mediating power of faith. It is here that the great tasks of the present historical moment lie. Without a doubt, Christian mission must understand and receive the religions in a much deeper way than it has until now. On the other hand, the religions, in order to live authentically, need to recognize their own adventistic character propelling them forward to Christ. If we proceed in this sense toward an intercultural search for clues to the one common truth, we will find something unexpected. The elements Christianity has in common with the ancient cultures of mankind are greater than those it has in common with the relativistic-rationalistic world. The latter has severed itself from the common sustaining basic insights of mankind and led man into an existential vacuum threatening his ruin if no answer is forthcoming. For the knowledge of man's dependence on God and eternity, the knowledge of sin, repentance and forgiveness, the knowledge of communion with God and eternal life, and finally the knowledge of basic moral precepts as they have taken shape in the Decalogue, all this knowledge permeates the cultures. It is not relativism which is confirmed. On the contrary, it is the unity of the human condition, the unity of man who has been touched by a truth greater than himself. [Excerpts from the conference Christ, Faith and the Challenge of Cultures, given in Hong Kong to the presidents of the Asian bishops' conferences and the chairmen of their doctrinal commissions during a March 2-5, 1993, meeting].