This past Friday, the seminary took a break from classes to explore questions of Church and culture in a seminar on the multicultural setting of ministry. Many issues were raised that are of profound importance to the Church’s self-understanding and therefore to her relationship with the cultures in which she finds herself. I raised a number of questions with the rector during a brief conversation, and he made it clear that what was presented was not being proposed as an ideal for us, but a perspective that was to be critically evaluated and reflected upon. What follows is my attempt to do both.
Our presenter raised a number of very important points, but I will confine myself to a more abstract critique of the overall flow of his perspective. This perspective can be outlined as a description of the possibilities for interaction between cultures in an age of globalization, and a claim for which of those possibilities is the best one.
First, though, we have to pin down how the word “culture” was being used in our seminar. (A grasp of this is crucial for the full weight of my critique to be felt.) As it was discussed, culture is the man-made component of the external world in which human beings live. There are four dimensions in which each culture manifests its own proper characteristics, the first being its material aspect: artifacts and architecture are prime examples of this. Certain social institutions arise from culture, including family, government, trade, and explanations of the whole (such as religion or philosophy). It also includes the symbols assembled in language, stories, rituals, or writing. Finally, culture places emphasis on certain values, spoken or unspoken, good or bad, and exerts influence on society by holding them up as worthy of imitation either in the abstract or in concrete particulars. Being of human origin, all cultures are inherently limited and therefore biased (so it is said) in their grasp of ultimate values and realities. In other words, no one culture (religious or otherwise) has a stranglehold on reality; all cultures must collectively approach one another to gain mutual insight and approach the ultimate. While the Gospel transcends any one culture, there is always a danger that one dominant culture will insert its own bias into the Gospel and thereby place itself in a position of inherent superiority over all others.
In our age, technology has made it easier for people of different cultural backgrounds to encounter one another than in any prior age. Broadly speaking, the types of encounters can be placed on a spectrum. On the one end is monocultural interaction. This is simply the presence of one culture whose members are mostly homogeneous and unaware or uninterested in the existence of other ways of being in the world. By nature, most of us are comfortable in this situation and seek to reestablish it when equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of persons of a different culture. Next on the line is the bicultural, signifying the ability of persons to effectively live within two cultural settings without the difficulties of transition between them. Moving along further across the spectrum, the multicultural world is one in which many cultures exist side by side without any real interaction, in which each culture bumps up against the others but retains its own integrity. A cross-cultural interaction is one in which members of one culture insert themselves into another while doing no violence to it, operating within its own proper dimensions. Finally, on the other end of the spectrum is an intercultural encounter in which people of many cultures do not merely coexist but actively interact, seeking to understand one another’s cultural setting through dialogue, clarifications, common projects, and tolerance of ambiguity, pluralism, and mistakes.
So far, so good. It can be safely acknowledged that this last kind of interaction is something the Church can hold up as desirable; being the sacrament of unity between God and men, it follows that her mission requires her to set aside coercion and violence while re-establishing harmony within humanity as a sign of the ingression of the kingdom into our historical existence.
Yet there is reason for caution here. By viewing the intertultural ideal through the lens of the four cultural elements listed above, it becomes clear that this ideal is itself a sort of culture with its own artifacts, institutions, symbols, and values. In this respect, the spectrum I outlined above bends back on itself to form a circle or an ascending spiral in which intercultural symbols and values become established as the elements of an over-arching meta-culture that exerts its own influence on the colliding cultures and subcultures within it while resisting any influences that oppose.
We must recall at this point that, being products of human activity, cultures are inherently biased; this is no less true, then, of our ideal of interculturalism. To the degree that interculturalism imposes its values, symbols, and institutions on its constituent cultures and subcultures, and is not open to other perspectives, it is guilty of the same absolutism it is meant to ward off. Anyone with eyes to see is very familiar with this imperialist enforcement of cultural (and by extension, religious) relativism. The prevailing winds of our media and higher educational system reek of such dogma—the turgid and tiresome political correctness, the obligatory endowed chair of religious studies held by an agnostic, the at once prolific and banal prophets who sermonize on the glories of diversity while failing to catch through the sea of fluttering rainbow flags the ironic smiles on the faces of “fundamentalist partisans” shifting from foot to foot in the wings. It is precisely this ideology that a certain Joseph Ratzinger named the “dictatorship of relativism” in his opening homily to the conclave which elected him pope, and this dictatorship is itself an institutional artifact of the Culture of Death.
The reason why we as Christians must qualify our assent to the intercultural ideal, then, is that there a real possibility that the values, symbols, and institutions of this ideal be derived from attitudes and philosophies antithetical to the Gospel. We can see the results of a premature and naïve embrace of the ideal in those once great missionary orders that now confine themselves to teaching missiology instead.
Yet if this possibility exists, then there is also the possibility that the intercultural ideal be informed by the Gospel and hospitable to it. This possibility echoes out from among the “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” standing before the Lamb and the throne, crying out in a loud voice, “salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10). The “stepping-out-of-oneself” which is so necessary for true intercultural harmony is a discipline integral to the giving of oneself that is humanity’s highest calling. Indeed, it is “law of the gift” that John Paul the Great so tirelessly preached, inspiring in the flock the paramount desire for the civilization of love that called upon each person—no matter how great or small in the estimation of the world—to discover herself through a sincere gift of herself (Letter to Families, 14). Yet this is not to be achieved through the de-mythologization of religion and the bracketing of our own very concrete origins in the person of Jesus, but through standing firmly upon those origins as upon rock. For the one who sees him “sees the Father” (Jn 14:9), and in him “the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9). We ought not kid ourselves about the possibility of achieving for ourselves what is first and foremost the work of the Holy Spirit.
Recommended reading and works referenced in this essay:
Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily to the conclave
“Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today” (PDF), an address given by Cardinal Ratzinger during the meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996. A very perceptive diagnosis of the conflict as it now stands, though light on solutions (as indicated by the title). You may disagree with Benedict but there’s few who can cast the conflict in such an illuminating posture. I would suggest this specifically to those who attended our seminar this past week.
John Paul II’s Letter to Families