With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, August 18, 2006

Inculturation Through the Ages I: The Foundations

As she carries out missionary activity among the nations, the Church encounters different cultures and becomes involved in the process of inculturation. The need for such involvement has marked the Church's pilgrimage throughout her history, but today it is particularly urgent. Redemptoris missio 52.

A common complaint issued by different sectarian groups about Vatican II is that Vatican II opened up the Church too much to the ways of the world, pagan traditions once rejected by the Church have snuck in, and the Church is slowly being undermined when it tries adapt its message and practices to interact with the needs and expectations of the nations at large. Not only have such criticisms forgotten that Jesus Christ is himself the expectation of the nations, but also that the Church from its inception opened itself up to the gentiles, not only blessing the good that could be found in the gentile traditions, but actively seeking to integrate them into the body of Christ.

St Paul converted St Dionysius the Areopagate on Mars Hill not by denouncing the beliefs of the philosophers, but pointing out that the Platonic unknown God, the God beyond the comprehension of the human intellect, was the same God that the Christians worshiped. He did not seek to divide but to unite.

Early philosopher-Saints such as St Justin Martyr defended the Christian faith upon the same grounds. Christianity was not a complete break from all that had come before it. Christianity fulfilled it and all those who, in their own way, sought for truth and lived out that search to the fullest were seen to be as Christians. Early Christians desired to bring the best of the Hellenistic culture they lived in with the fullness of the Christian faith, and they clearly borrowed from both pagan and Jewish traditions to create their liturgical and theological traditions.

There were throughout the centuries many who were skeptical of this practice. Each generation a new group of Christians would reject attempts made by their fellow Christians to adapt the Christian message and practice to the needs of the different gentile nations. Criticism of St Thomas Aquinas, for example, chided him for looking to pagans such as Aristotle. "We have the fullness of the truth in the Church, what need is there for Aristotle?" What need indeed.

Centuries later, St Thomas Aquinas' theological work came to represent the height of Catholic theology and philosophy. As a rather absurd twist of fate, many of those who believe that the Church has harmed itself by inculturation consider themselves to be Thomists. How can this be? They follow the method of Thomas' critics more than the method of Thomas himself! Closed to the world, they try to hide in the dark museums of antiquity, with a belief of a historical reality which never existed.

In a series of posts on inculturation, we will look at many of its examples throughout the ages, showing how Vatican II is not the end of tradition but its standard bearer.

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  • At 8/18/2006 12:12 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    This reminds me of a quote by Pope John XXIII, which I can't remember verbatim, but it was something about thinking of the Church not as a museum but rather as a living garden.

  • At 8/18/2006 12:17 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Nicely done!
    Looking forward to the subsequent posts.


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