Archive for category Ecumenism
Speak and Act as Prophets Did: The Teachings of Dr. King & Rabbi Heschel
By Sister Mary Scullion and Rabbi Arthur Waskow
This Op/Ed article was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the morning of December 25, 2012.
Forty-four years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Forty years ago, his close friend and prophetic partner, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, died. In biblical tradition, “40” is a ripe number, suggesting a pregnant pause before a major transformation – Moses and the Israelites wandering 40 years in the desert, Jesus’ 40 days of temptation. What do we learn from their teachings, a generation since their deaths?
The two of them were, in their day, an odd couple. King was a product of the black Baptist church, raised in the oppressive confines of the Jim Crow South and the crucible of American racism. Heschel, descended from a long line of Polish Hasidic rabbis, fled Nazi-dominated Europe (where most of his family was killed).
A towering Jewish intellectual, theologian, and mystic, Heschel brought ancient Hasidic spirituality into the tumultuous world of social activism in the 1960s. Given his writings on the religious struggle of the modern person in a confusing world, and on the urgent relevance of the ancient Hebrew prophets, it was no surprise that he found a kindred spirit in King.
Today, religion is often divisive (even violently so); in the 1960s, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel modeled a friendship rooted in deep admiration and mutual affirmation of their respective spiritual traditions. Today, we debate the role of religion in the civil arena – usually resulting in rancorous and judgmental culture wars; King and Heschel were public theologians and spiritually grounded activists, witnessing to the power of faith in the service of social transformation.
he iconic photograph of the two of them together at the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery is emblematic of the best possibilities of the vision of the civil rights struggle. (Later, Heschel noted famously of that experience, “I felt my legs were praying.”)
Heschel and King worked closely together in spiritually rooted prophetic opposition to racism, poverty, and militarism in American society. Like the biblical prophets, they spoke truth to power – but also spoke truth to the disempowered, who can only win their fair share of democratic power by learning and acting on the truth. They spoke truth to their own supporters, even when those supporters urged them to hush – as many did when they spoke out against the Vietnam War. The two of them witnessed to the absolute unity of means and ends, as embodied in nonviolence. The two of them likewise demonstrated a deep unity of prayer and social action.
A biblical generation later, many Americans who likewise see the connection of faith and social transformation are drawing on the legacy of these two brothers. What issues would Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel address today?
Perhaps the mass imprisonment of more than two million Americans, most of them black or Hispanic. Perhaps the breathtaking increase in poverty and economic inequality. Perhaps the horrendous violence in our society.
Perhaps the physical and legal attacks on American Muslims and Hispanic immigrants. Perhaps the government dysfunction that threatens our financial stability. Perhaps our collective failure to address the climate crisis that threatens the web of life, including human life, on our planet.
These two prophets would speak forcefully to the image of God in each person, the inherent dignity in even the most marginalized of our sisters and brothers. They would give voice to the “beloved community”
as the ultimate answer to the crises of poverty, homelessness, addictions, and violence. They would translate the language of Torah, Prophets, and Gospels into a concrete and compelling vision of justice and peace for our world today.
And they would not be content with rhetoric alone: In their generation, they modeled putting faith into action, and today they would urge us to collective action to address injustice and work for the common good. They would insist that any genuine vision must translate into concrete policies, legislation, and real public action.
But now that is our task. Today, no less than in his day, we are confronted with what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” As much now as then, we are challenged by Rabbi Heschel’s words: “In a free society, when evil is done, some are guilty; all are responsible.”
Forty years have passed since Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel worked and witnessed among us. Perhaps, like a biblical generation that represents a pregnant pause before a major transformation, we may be ready to act for a transformative rebirth in our time.
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Sister Mary Scullion is executive director of Project HOME. Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of the Shalom Center. Their organizations are among more than 50 sponsoring the King-Heschel Festival at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia on Jan. 4 and 5. For more information, see www.mishkan.org/story/heschel-king-festival.
My Way into an Interfaith Future
June 27, 2012
Last week I introduced you, my readers, to an interfaith “think tank” in which I shared recently at a conference center known as the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. Some fifty leaders from among all the major religious systems of the world gathered there to explore the common ground that might lead to deeper interfaith cooperation and appreciation. The goal seemed desirable and all of the participants came with hope and excitement. The need for interfaith cooperation is apparent all over the world. Where divergent religious systems confront each other, violence almost always ensues. One has only to look for documentation at the Jewish-Moslem conflict in the Middle East, the Hindu-Moslem conflict between Pakistan and India, the Christian-Islamic violence that cuts across Africa, the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Ireland or the Sunni-Shia conflict that keeps Islam divided in the Middle East. One could also look at Christian history to see the anti-Semitism of the ages, the violence of the Crusades directed against Islam, or the Thirty Years’ War in Europe that followed the Reformation as both Protestant Europe and Catholic Europe sought to impose its faith on the other.
This reality forces us to ask what there is about religion in most of its forms that makes violence all but inevitable as it appears to be in religious history. At the Chautauqua conference it did not take long for this flaw to be revealed. Indeed, it became present and visible in the first presentation.
This presentation was given by Dr. John Cavadini, a Roman Catholic Professor of Theology from Notre Dame. The Roman Catholic Church articulates its claim to supremacy quite overtly. The current pope has reiterated a position taken by his predecessor that there is but one true religion and that is Christianity and that there is only one true version of Christianity and that is the Roman Catholic Church! He went on to warn those Catholics engaged in ecumenical relations that they should never refer to other Christian traditions as “sister churches,” since that implies some legitimacy. When that point of view is publicly articulated there is a genuine embarrassment in the listening audience. Such an attitude makes any significant conversation aimed at unity a rather worthless activity. Professor Cavalini tried at our gathering, unsuccessfully I believe, to navigate these troubled waters by making a distinction between revealed truth and our understanding of this truth. The central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was not subject to debate, he said, but the way we understand that doctrine is always unfolding.
Lest the blame for interfaith failure be placed too heavily on Roman Catholic shoulders, let me hasten to say that almost every religious tradition makes similar claims to be the exclusive possessor of revealed and “saving” truth. Protestant fundamentalists assert that the Bible is the literal “word of God” and those denying that claim are either to be condemned or subjected to conversion pressure. Protestant evangelicals believe that the prerequisite for salvation is that one must be “born again” or “accept Jesus as their personal savior.” Muslims make the Islamic claim that in the Koran the Word of God was dictated directly to the prophet Muhammad. Within Islam itself both the Sunnis and the Shia claim that theirs is the only true expression of that faith tradition. Other sacred writings from the religions of the East are similarly invested with claims of being vessels through which the absolute truth of God has come into human possession. These claims that ultimate truth is the possession of a particular religious system are what make interfaith conversation all but impossible. The attempt to be open, to understand or to appreciate another faith perspective is thus deeply threatening to every religious system.
One of the things that every religious system seeks to do is to offer religious certainty and for that to be possible that religion must escape the quicksand of relativity. Relativity, at the same time, is almost always impossible to escape without falling into religious triumphalism. At the Chautauqua “think tank” these problems were quickly identified and named. We could not start without finding a new way into the interfaith issue. As I thought about this over the next few days I tried to discover that illusive new path. Let me try to outline it briefly.
The first step in any interfaith process is to be conscious of the fact that these exclusive claims exist and that we must begin where people are, not with where we wish they were. No one speaks in a vacuum and no one listens in a vacuum. We need to listen to each other closely, the same way we want others to listen to us. Let me then begin this process autobiographically.
I am a Christian. Any interfaith activity in which I am engaged must start with that fact. I am not apologetic about this self-identification, nor am I willing to jettison this definition of myself for the sake of interfaith unity. The deepest commitment of my life is my commitment to walk the Christ path as my doorway into the mystery of God. Christianity is of absolute importance to me. I want to explore its wonders as deeply as I possibly can. Yet, I do not think that God is a Christian, certainly not in any creedal way, and that insight opens me up to all kinds of new possibilities. Christianity, like every other religious system in history is clearly a human creation that has evolved over the centuries. The virgin birth, for example, did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Christian era. It was certainly not a part of primitive Christianity. Neither Paul nor Mark appears ever to have heard about such an idea. The ascension was a tenth decade addition. Surely a quick reading of Paul would reveal that Paul was not a Trinitarian. The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity were not worked out until the third and fourth centuries. Doctrines are always attempts to put rational forms onto a transformative experience. Doctrines, therefore, can never be ultimate, but the experience that made the development of the doctrine seem proper might well be. Can we then separate the God experience that we Christians believe we have met in Jesus from the explanations of that experience which form the content of our faith tradition? That is a crucial distinction. The Jesus experience might well offer me a doorway into that which is ultimate, but Christianity itself cannot be ultimate and it thus cannot be the final revelation of God. God can never be contained inside any human form or bound by any human words. This means that neither my understanding of God nor my Church’s understanding of God can ever be ultimate. This realization does not, however, invalidate the truth of my experience.
As a Christian, I walk the Christ path. My deepest hope is that if I walk the Christ path long enough and faithfully enough, I will discover that I inevitably will transcend the boundaries of my own religion. That reality thus becomes a religious inevitability. When I articulate the fact that this is true for me I discover that it also seems to be true for people in all other religious systems. The Muslim must walk the Islamic path; the Jews must walk the Jewish path; the Hindus and Buddhists must walk the Hindu or Buddhist path. All walk with the realization, however, that God is not a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu or a Buddhist. All religious systems are designed by human beings to help its adherents walk into the mystery of an unbounded God. If any of us walks our own faith path long enough and faithfully enough, we will discover that our walk carries us beyond the boundaries of our own religious systems, since God can never be limited by or exhausted in any thing that is a human creation, whether it be scripture, creeds, doctrines or dogmas. To say it boldly the God experience may well be ultimate, but the religious system through which we walk into the God experience can never be.
The next realization comes when we discover that while we are walking our separate paths, we are also taking into ourselves the values and the treasures found in our own tradition. We hold these treasures close to our hearts; we do not want to lose them. I grasp joyfully the pearl of great price that Christianity gives me. Then I realize that my brothers and sisters in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are doing exactly the same. They must embrace the treasures of their religion and cling to the pearl of great price that they have received from their religious system. So perhaps the deepest and the common religious call to each of us is not to affirm our unique creeds so much as it is to explore our faith so deeply that we each transcend its boundaries and escape fear-laden limits. Then beyond the boundaries and the limits of the faith system that has nurtured each of us, but without sacrificing the pearl of great price that our own tradition has given us, we can turn and face in a new way our brothers and sisters who have walked a path different from our own. In that setting I can speak to them and say: “This is the essence of my faith. This is the treasure that I have received as I walked the Christ path and now I want to share this treasure with you.” Each of my interfaith pilgrims will in turn do the same. They will say to me: “This is the essence of Judaism, of Islam, of Hinduism, of Buddhism. This is the treasure, the pearl of great price that I have received by walking faithfully and deeply the path of my religion and I want to share it with you.” We each receive the treasure of the other. No one has to sacrifice the treasure of the system which has nurtured him or her. We all become enriched. We no longer have to protect our truth or play the familiar religious games of supremacy that we have so often played in the past. No one loses, everyone gains.
The alternative to genuine interfaith cooperation may well be genocide. While we can assert that there is no relativity in the God experience, there can also be no triumphalism in the various explanations of that experience. No religion is therefore ultimate, but God is and God is met on many paths and our call is to walk our path faithfully. In that realization, the beauty of an interfaith future is born.
~John Shelby Spong
Is an Interfaith Future a Possibility in Our World?
John Shelby Spong June 20, 202
Recently I was part of an intensive two-day “think tank” experience on “The Future of Interfaith Cooperation,” which asked the question as to whether the religious violence that marks so much of our world can ever be overcome and be replaced with interfaith understanding and cooperation. This “think tank” was sponsored by the Chautauqua Institution located in Western New York about an hour south of Buffalo. For those of you not familiar with this institution, let me give you some background that will reveal their interest in this particular subject.
The Chautauqua Institution is a vacation community made up of both owners and renters that draws into its planned programs some 170,000 people each summer. Chautauqua began in 1874 as a Methodist training camp, but it has grown since then into being one of the most impressive intellectual and interdisciplinary centers in America. Over the years to its grounds have come speakers drawn from the ranks of American presidents and presidential candidates, U.S. senators, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries, novelists, scientists, poets and even entertainment celebrities. Every morning there is a public lecture in the amphitheatre by someone at the top of his or her field followed by questions from the assembled audience that numbers as many as 5,000 a day. In years past, I have attended lectures here given by the poet John Ciardi, the scientist Buckminster Fuller of geodesic dome fame, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the best known commentator on world religion in our generation, Karen Armstrong, as well as a host of best-selling novelists, noted historians and top tier scientists. The conversation at meals and on the campus is rich because new ground is always being broken and lives are always processing and interacting with new ideas.
At 2:00 pm each day in an open space called the Hall of Philosophy, which with special chairs added across the spacious lawn can accommodate over 2000 people, there is a “religion” lecture given by top theologians, biblical scholars and even critics of religion. Frequently the religion lecture will interact with the lecture given in the morning, making the dialogue rich indeed. Though this center began with quite specifically Christian roots, over the years a significant Jewish population has come as both owners and renters, giving the community a quality that is always missing in a monochromatic world. Recently, Muslem, Hindu and Buddhist people have begun to discover this place. During the nine individual weeks of the summer program, as many as 7,500 people will be on the grounds at a time.
To complete the daily experience, in the evening, once again in the large amphitheatre, there is an event that will draw people not just from the Chautauqua community but from a wide orbit of Western New York and Western Pennsylvania. This event might be a Broadway play, a symphony, an opera or a ballet. It might feature famous acrobats, popular vocalists and even Country and Western stars. I have met there entertainers like the flutist James Galway and Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in the “Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland. I have also met Alan Alda, the star of M.A.S.H., who played Hawkeye, Jim Lehrer the long time anchor of the PBS news hour and many others. It is a very rich intellectual diet.
The religious aspect of Chautauqua life has always been central, but it has also been directed by those willing to walk the frontier of religious thought, drawn by the intellectual power of this community. The pressure to explore the interfaith area comes from the increasing religious pluralism that already marks this community and from the anticipation that this trend is not likely to diminish any time soon. How various religious traditions can live together in mutual respect is a question that is also increasingly being asked in world at large. It is driven by the fact that the vast distances that once marked our world are shrinking rapidly caused by such things as increasing air travel, by the instant communications of the Internet and quite frankly by the fact of the destructive tensions that always seem to mark those places where competing religious convictions have collided in the past and still collide today. One thinks of the violent anti-Semitism that has been part of the Christian West since the first century of Christian history. Reaching a crescendo in the Holocaust of 20th century Germany, it was presaged and predicted by such historical events as the Inquisition and the expulsion from or the ghettorization of the Jews in almost every nation in Christian Europe. It was present in the call for the burning of synagogues by no less a Christian figure than the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, and by the acquiescence to the Nazi agenda by both Pope Pius XII and the German Lutheran Church in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, collisions between Christianity and Islam shaped world history and created the Crusades. Led by the Vatican, the Crusades were aimed at the destruction of the Muslims and their removal from Christian holy places. Islam was defined by Christians as evil and its members as “infidels.” In the first years of the 21st century, that hostility was reversed. The anger, long brewing in the victims of the Crusades, has helped to fuel the fury of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Members of a branch of this movement known as Al Qaeda, saw themselves as vindicating Islam and its “one true God, Allah” against the “infidels” of the West in their attacks on September 11, 2001.
Interfaith awareness was enhanced for most Americans during the Vietnam War when this nation found itself confronting a Buddhist culture and we watched as Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the streets of Saigon in protest against the war. Later in the two wars in Iraq, the people of the West suddenly confronted the heretofore little known division of the Sunnis and the Shia in Islam that added a dimension of civil war to those conflicts. Why that was such a shocking surprise is hard to understand since for 400 years we have watched Ireland being torn apart by violent, hate-filled and destructive religious bitterness between Protestants and Catholics.
For these reasons the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation has been growing for some time. This is what motivated the leaders at Chautauqua to convene this “think tank.” They are aware of the bitter history of religious wars and religious hatred. They are also aware that the seeds of intolerance are present in every religious tradition. They began to ask whether an interfaith future for our world was possible if it were intentionally encouraged. The leaders of the Chautauqua community, specifically Thomas Becker, president, and Joan Brown Campbell, the head of the Department of Religion, decided to assemble the “think tank” to see if the Chautauqua Institution could make a contribution to an era of genuine religious peace and good will in an increasingly interrelated and deeply pluralistic religious world.
To this interfaith gathering were invited Catholic and Protestant professors and pastors, Muslims imams and academics, national interfaith leaders, Buddhist monks and nuns, Hindu scholars, rabbis and Jewish academics, as well as representatives from the National Council of Churches of Christ in America. They also tapped the resources present in various colleges and universities that already deal with multi-faith realities. Some journalists were also in attendance. The gathering opened with great hope, but it did not take long to see that good will, high hopes and even cross-cultural friendships are not enough to bridge the religion gap.
Interfaith dialogue cannot occur as long as any single religious perspective claims for itself a corner on ultimate truth. No one can say or think “My religion is the only true religion,” “My church is the only true church” or assert that one religion alone controls the access to God. Yet at some point, no matter how camouflaged or perfumed, in some form those claims are made by almost every religious system, and it is powerfully present in the thinking of almost all forms of Christianity. These attitudes were certainly articulated at this meeting.
Those advocating this point of view felt this discomfort, but found themselves caught between the twin terrors of total relativity and triumphalism. They tried to remove the offense with pious words, calling for love and forgiveness and even suggesting that while ultimate truth is claimed in their faith tradition, that truth is never fully understood. So flexibility in understanding is allowed, but only to the degree that the ultimate truth they claim for themselves has not yet been fully worked out. This provided a facade of openness that attempted to escape relativity on one side and triumphalism on the other. It was an argument that represented a stretch for those who presented it, but it also showed how difficult developing interfaith cooperation really is. If the doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, is the lynchpin that protects Christianity from meaningless relativity, there is no way that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus will ever be more than tolerated partners in a meaningless interfaith dialogue, while the secret agenda will remain to convert everyone else to another’s religious “truth.”
Until these difficulties are recognized and dealt with, no progress toward an interfaith future seems possible. We are left to enjoy friendships and to articulate unrealistic hopes. Unless we find a new way to relate to the world’s religious pluralism we will have only the two choices of the acceptance of continuing religious violence or of watching benignly as all religious systems as we now know them die. Unity might be found in our common humanity, but that does not appear to be possible unless we can develop a common religious understanding.
I think there is another possibility to these two fairly dreadful and certainly stark options. This possibility will, however, require that religious people think differently from the way we have been taught to think before. I will try to spell that possibility out next week in this column.
~John Shelby Spong
Let other lights shine
Andrew Thomas Kania
Early Christian missionaries in India and China worked closely with local cultures to create rites that thrived until the Church insisted there should be only one – the Roman Rite. An understanding that we are poorer for this decision is critical for the future of the Church
A great but little known tragedy occurred within the life of the Catholic Church on 20 June 1599, at Udayamperoor in the southern Indian state of Kerala. On that day at the Synod of Diamper, the Archbishop of Goa, Aleixo de Menezes, set in process the Latinisation of the St Thomas Christians. It was, in short, the deliberate and enforced emasculation of the Christian tradition of India, a church tradition that had its roots in the legacy of St Thomas the Apostle.
Inspired by Counter-Reformation zeal, Menezes’ policy is now seen as being one of the darkest chapters in ecclesiastical history – an example of what can occur if the Church does not listen to the historical as well as cultural voice and yearnings of a people, and if the Church becomes so Roman that it loses its catholicity.
In the mind of Menezes, Catholicism was all about a Roman Rite, specifically, a Latin Church, teaching the world the truth of the Gospel. There is, up to a point, nothing inherently wrong in Menezes’ assumption – a path to the absolute truth and divine purpose is found within this rite and Church, but only if this rite and Church realises that exactly the same can be said of any other rite and Church within the Catholic communion.
Once this principle is lost, we are no longer a Catholic Church. Rather we become a large, sectarian Christian community, voraciously in search of new members. By the Synod of Diamper, more than 1,500 years of Eastern theology that had developed from the time of “doubting Thomas” was incinerated and lost forever because of a mindset that could not let the particular into the universal, nor the universal into the particular. The shoes of those fired up by the Council of Trent wiped clear the footprints in the sand of Malabar of those who had followed the imprint of the shoes of a fisherman.
Around the time of the Synod of Diamper, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci was deeply involved in the evangelisation of the Chinese people. Having mastered classical Chinese, Ricci had embarked on a programme of educating the governing elite in order to convert “from the top down”, as Professor Liam Brockey puts it. Along with other Jesuits in China, such as João Soeiro, João da Rocha, Niccolò Longobardo, Lazare Cattaneo and Alessandro Valignano, the missionaries came as much to an understanding of Chinese philosophy as the Chinese with whom they were in contact came to an understanding of Catholicism.
Yet herein lay the problem. Other religious orders within the Catholic Church, such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans, questioned the extent to which the culture of the people being evangelised should be integrated within the Roman Rite that was being offered for their salvation. Whereas the Dominican Domingo Navarrete had much sympathy for the methods and practices of the Jesuit missionaries, the suspicions of Franciscans and Dominicans aroused by Jesuit missionaries dressed as Chinese literati, and by their incorporation of Confucian ideals, led to the “Chinese Rites” controversy – a controversy, as Professor J.S. Cummins highlights, that was eventually to lead to the suppression of the Jesuit order.
A papal bull issued by Clement XI in 1715 followed by a bull issued by Benedict XIV in 1742 forbade ancestor worship as well as key elements of Confucian philosophy. The official response from the Chinese to Pope Clement’s bull was a decree by the Kangxi Emperor in 1721 in which he accused the Catholic Church of pettiness and narrow-mindedness. The emperor described Catholicism as being no more developed a religion than Buddhism and Taoism. In his mind, all three were characterised by bigotry.
The emperor declared that Western preachers were then forbidden to enter his empire. More than 200 years later, in 1939, the newly elected Pope Pius XII lifted the bans placed on Chinese Catholics and Catholic missionaries as part of the “Chinese Rites” controversy. But by then two centuries of suspicion and recrimination had settled. The Catholic Church, as at Diamper, had severely faltered once more. A Church that called itself “universal” had proven once more that it was highly myopic.
Too often, great books and great ideas become lost in libraries under a mound of comparative mediocrity. One such great book of the twentieth century is Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the common destiny of man – a text that to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton’s quip on Catholicism, has not been tried and found wanting, but has not really been understood and implemented. Catholicism has a relevance and a message that could guide the Church well into the new millennium. It could, that is, if the Church would dare to risk the vision of de Lubac. Both great benefit and great risk are inherent in the initiatives that he proposes.
Fundamental to de Lubac’s thesis in Catholicism is the basic premise that humanity is a diverse community; diverse not only in terms of race, but also in terms of language, culture and national ambition. This diversity is a source of richness, as every drop of humanity reflects a Creator who has imprinted within the hearts of all men and women, irrespective of the disparity, a “divine character”.
As de Lubac writes: “Christ is also all in all, for he encloses all in himself by his sole power, infinite and all wise in its goodness, like the centre to which all lines converge, so that all the creatures of the one God should not be strangers or enemies to each other without common ground whereon to show their friendship and the peace between them.”
Diversity, according to de Lubac, enhances the sublime nature of the unity. Humanity comes to understand that what separates is as God given as what unifies, and that what separates also serves the unity. A conscious agreement to a set of beliefs by peoples as racially and culturally distinct as can be empowers the agreed beliefs with a strength that transcends all possible distinction.
The way to the future development of the Church, de Lubac writes, is that the Church comes to understand that we cannot ride roughshod over culture and supplant in the forced vacuum a dogma and hope that this dogma will somehow “take”. This in fact will rob the people of a richness that could easily have been incorporated, as far as dogma allows, in the life of the local Church in question. We see in the example offered to us by Sts Cyril and Methodius that it is possible to take the culture of a people into account and embrace this with uncompromised Church teaching.
As de Lubac further writes: “This twofold desire willingly to entertain whatever can be assimilated and to prescribe nothing that is not of faith, although it is acknowledged and systematically employed, is by no means the calculated plan of cunning men in search of a successful method, as has been sometimes suggested.”
“It is governed by doctrinal considerations. It is true all the same, as experience proves, that it is the only fully effective way. But it can only be done at the cost of a systematic, persevering effort that love alone makes possible. For it requires of the apostle not only a continual adaptation of self, like St Paul, who, becoming all things to all men, did not speak before the Areopagus as he spoke to his fellow countrymen.”
It is therefore critical for the Catholic Church, as it develops in the future, to see where in the course of its history it has not spoken with the same intuition of St Paul to the Greeks, but more as Menezes to the St Thomas Christians. In its great missionary zeal, the Church in the New World incinerated as part of the fire of its apostolic work elements of human and cultural yearnings that had developed over thousands of years, and that would have, if incorporated or established as a new rite, added too, rather than lessened, the wonderful Catholic fabric of the Church.
Nations and peoples such as the Native American, the Australian Aboriginal, the New Zealand Maori or the Canadian Inuit, bring to the Church similar “dreamings” of the pre-Christian peoples of Europe and Asia.
Moreover, it would be of great benefit to the Church of the West to nourish and vivify the Mozarabic, Ambrosian and Celtic traditions, which have too often, like small shrubs in the undergrowth of a tropical rainforest, suffered from the massive canopy of the Latin Church. Let the art, culture, and mystical and spiritual yearnings of peoples find a voice both ecclesiastical and liturgical within the Church, for certainly the Holy Spirit did not cease to breathe life into the Church after the death of the Church Fathers, and the Spirit does not only call for ritual diversity in the East.
All easily said. But a contrary argument and question can be put forward. Where are the great theologians of the past: the Sts Paul, Cyril and Methodius, people of insight that could take culture and embellish it with the Gospel, without losing any of the impact or truth of the gospel message?
De Lubac was right to close his treatise on this subject with a great word of warning. For the call to ritual diversity within the Church – the establishment of new rites, and new sui juris Churches, is one that demands from the architects of such planning a strong sense of dogmatic certitude and faithfulness. A compass is only useful inasmuch as it tells the traveller where a certain direction lies from the place in which they are holding the device. If one does not know where they are dogmatically speaking, all they will do is eventually lead others into a nowhere land.
The architects of future rites within the Church cannot be people who are intolerant of dogma. But, similarly they must be people culturally sensitive, and people of imagination. As de Lubac writes: “It is equally unfitting to speak of liberalism, of tolerating error, or of making the salt of the Gospel savourless. For if Christianity must be shown with all its exigencies, it must also stand out in all its purity …
“And if it is once understood that the work of conversion consists, fundamentally, not in adapting supernatural truth, in bringing it down to human level, but on the contrary, in adapting man to it, raising him up to the truth that rules and judges him, we must especially beware, as of blasphemy, of confusing ourselves, its servants, with it ourselves, our tastes, our habits, our prejudices, our passions, our narrow-mindedness and our weaknesses.”
It is time for the Catholic Church en masse to move away from a monochrome form of Catholicism, and to understand that the message we hold is not one that has lost any of its salt. We do not need to make the errors of Menezes or the errors of the Church with regard to the work of Matteo Ricci, but acknowledge that although the message we speak is universal, the language and the symbolism by which we convey the message is not.
The call for a re-awakening of catholicity within the Church was also part of the vision of that great Englishman Friedrich von Hügel, when he wrote near the beginning of his seminal work, The Mystical Element of Religion, that Christ is too large for any single culture fully to comprehend and therefore “his character and teaching require, for an ever fuller yet never complete understanding, the varying study, and different experiments and applications, embodiments and unrollings of all the races and civilisations, of all the individual and corporate, the simultaneous and successive experiences of the human race to the end of time”.