Jude Chinwenwa Nwachukwu, C.Ss.R
In our search for authenticity, it is pertinent to reflect how the Christian faith interacts with culture; bearing in mind that culture itself is a mark of identity and a means of expressing authenticity of life. Faith, though divine
in origin, must be practiced through and within a culture. This marriage between culture and faith finds its locus in the human person, called to communion with God and with one another through Jesus Christ, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
My Culture, My Life
Social Sciences tell us that culture is the way of life of a people. It consists of acquired and transmitted patterns of self-expression characteristic of a society. These related patterns that make up culture include language, dressing, belief, morals, laws, custom, art, music, thought-system, etc. Obviously, culture is a mark of identity.
Culture originates from man’s rational and social nature. It flows from man’s efforts to subdue the earth by his knowledge and labour. These repeated efforts give rise to customs and institutions. Culture can be seen as a form of patterned adaptive behaviour of man to his environment. Therefore, such behaviours can be interpreted differently as environments and societies vary. This gives rise to plurality of cultures. Hence, culture as a way of life becomes a sort of patterned response to environmental and sociological demands. Because it is a response and at the service of life, culture is dynamic.
Life itself is at the centre; the human person is the subject of culture. In other words, life is prior to culture. There is no culture without the human person. Man is created in the image and likeness of God and is destined for eternal life through Jesus Christ. Therefore, human life is sacred and is endowed with dignity. Thus, life is objective from the perspective of its beginning and end. However, culture gives practical and specific expression to life. It adds glamour and beauty, wholeness and originality to human life. As a result, every aspect of culture must respect human dignity and be at the service of man’s eternal vocation. For instance, my dress pattern, thought-system, mode of language, etc must respect my dignity. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Wrong models of culture abound. Cultural relativism is the attempt to see each culture as absolute and to judge it based on its own standards. Relativism denies the intercommunicability of cultures. Cultural eclecticism sees cultures as substantially equivalent and interchangeable. This means one can culture can replace another. The fact that cultures intercommunicate and borrow from one another does not imply one culture should replace another. Cultural levelling neglects the profound uniqueness of varying cultures of different nations by which the individual defines himself in relation to life’s fundamental options. It indiscriminately accepts all sorts of conducts and life-styles. This is the problem of the New Age Culture in which “everything goes”, and the culture of death, which promotes abortion, euthanasia, sexual abuse, etc.
According to Pope Benedict XVI, these wrong notions separate culture from human nature. Thus, cultures can no longer define themselves within a nature that transcends them, and man ends up being reduced to a mere cultural statistic. This, in turn, exposes humanity to enslavement and manipulation (Caritas in Veritate No. 26). Cultures need one another, above all, they need Redemption.
My Culture, My Faith
What then is the nature of this marriage between culture and the Christian faith? Both culture and faith stand in relation to man, his dignity and his eternal vocation. However, faith transcends culture. Though it is expressed though cultural elements, faith cannot be reduced to a mere form of culture. It is more! Faith has its origin in God as its object, and is enshrined in the human person as its subject. Therefore, it is in the light of faith-values that all cultures must be certified. Since culture originates from man’s adaptive capacity, and is applied by man, who is weakened by original sin, culture can easily be misinterpreted and abused. Hence the need for faith to intervene. Faith comes in, not for people to despise their culture, but to align it to higher values—the Gospel values. It does this by introducing a divine character into culture. Thus, faith transforms culture into a means of salvation and leads it to an eternal end. For instance, cultural elements such as language, music, dress, artefact, etc can be employed by faith in divine worship.
The marriage between faith and culture is necessary for the Christian to make the Good News of Christ his own. Faith must be communicated in familiar concepts and imageries, rendered more intelligible and appear more relevant to one’s situation in life. Still, we must never forget that faith challenges and enhances cultural identity.
However, the holy Catholic Church is often accused of imposing foreign cultures, especially Jewish and Roman cultures, on others. Christianity is a historical religion. It demands that the Church and her members in every age and place be connected to Jesus in interpersonal relationship. The expounding and handing-on of the faith since apostolic times, in certain concepts and imageries, has developed into the patrimony of the Church. This patrimony has a “life” of its own over and above the cultures from which it developed. This living patrimony has become a necessary means of expounding and transmiting the faith. It has become a living and dynamic means of getting connected to Jesus and apostolic faith, thereby rooting the interpersonal relationship with Christ in a historic deposit of faith. The Christian faith cannot be isolated from the cultures in which it was first inserted because the Tradition contains certain irreducible elements conditioned by biblical and subsequent cultures. Instances of this living patrimony is found in the Church’s liturgy, organization, moral patterns, Sacraments, etc. However, the apostolic patrimony must dialogue with other cultures. The power of the Gospel everywhere transforms and regenerates. If the faith had to change as it enters a new culture would amount to “emptying the Cross of Christ of its power” (I cor 1:17). Just as the Word took flesh and came to dwell among us (Jn 1: 14), the Christian faith takes flesh in various cultures.
Christ my Life: A Realized Authenticity
“Life to me, of course, is Christ...” (Phil 1:22). These words of St. Paul sums up our reflection. By His incarnation, Christ assumed our human nature to Himself so that we can be one with Him. In Him all cultures hold together (cf. Eph 1: 10, Col 1:17). In Christ we realize the fullness of our lives (cf. Col 2: 10). Thus, it is only in Christ that our identity as Image of God shines out and we realize authentic living. Culture must be at the service of this realized authenticity. Christ is our life! Our life is now hidden with Christ in God (cf. Col 3: 3), who, through His Cross draws all peoples to Himself (Jn 12: 32). Life in Christ makes all cultures a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
McBrien,Richard. Catholicism. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994.
Shorter, Aylward. Toward a Theology of Inculturation. New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
Otite Onigu & Ogionwo W. An Introduction to Sociological Studies. Ibadan: Heinemann Books, 1979.
Iheriohanma, E.B.J. Sociology: A Practical Understanding of Social Reality. Owerri: Tropical
Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes nos. 53—62.
Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter “Caritas in Veritate” No. 26
JohnPaul II, Apostolic Exhortation “Catechesi Tradentae” No. 53.
The article was originally written for Plentiful Redemption Magazine (3rd Edition), Ibadan. 2010. It appeared on page 43.