Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Christianity in culture?

This post could have been titled "Christianity and Culture", but as you will realise that title would both accurately portray the question being addressed - that of the appropriate relation between the Christian life of believers and the culture of the society in which they live - and at the same time miss the essential point being made.

Part of my holiday reading was Cardinal Jean Danielou's book Why the Church? The book was written in French in 1972, and its English translation dates from 1974. My interest in reading the book was to look at how it analyses the situation of the Church of those times. In the first chapter, there are four pages or so devoted to a discussion of the relationship between Christian life and its surrounding culture.
One of the aspects of the present crisis is that we are witnessing the turning point for one form of the embodiment of Christianity in western culture, the form of Christianity which began with Constantine and was the reality in the Occident until the nineteenth century. During that time Christianity was the inspiration for the whole of the literary, philosophical and artistic culture of the Occident. Therefore, there was an expression of Christianity on the very level of civilisation. Now this Christianity is not only in crisis, but, more profoundly, its very validity is being contested.
Cardinal Danielou contrasts the challenging of this cultural form of Christian faith in the west with the recognition that, in mission territories, it is when Christianity becomes an embedded part of the local culture that it is able to evangelise effectively. He contrasts two views. The first view is that of those who would argue that a Christianity that is separated from its cultural embodiment will be better since those who adhere to it will have a real personal faith in Christ and not just a superficial faith that is just lived in a merely social way. The second view is that which favours a situation where a whole nation can be said to be "Christian" and where the embodiment of Christianity in the national culture provides a major impetus towards Christian life for the ordinary person.

The conclusion that Cardinal Danielou draws from this discussion is, I think, most interesting in the light of, for example, events in Ireland, where an embodied Catholic culture would appear to have gone very sadly awry in regard to the abuse of minors and responding appropriately to eradicate that abuse. I do think that Cardinal Danielou has a fundamentally correct insight - that where circumstances mean it exists we should not be shy of the idea of a "Catholic country" which therefore favours Catholic practice - but "events", as one might say, have shown that where the embodiment of Christian life itself in the cultural milieu  is seriously flawed the outcomes are going to be quite devastating. The challenge to be faced by the Church in Ireland is perhaps less one of successfully withdrawing Catholicism from the public culture in order to purify it than one of correcting the manner of its presence within that culture through a process of purification. This latter appears to me to be the import of the practical proposals of Pope Benedict's letter to the Catholics of Ireland.
That is why, on this point which seems to me to be of greatest importance, I think that its absolutely impossible to separate the proclamation of God's word, which is our mission as such, from the necessity of acting upon civilisation and culture in order to impregnate them with Christian values, for only this makes it possible for all men to be Christian still and prevents Christianity from becoming in the future a clique, a little esoteric group. It must remain this great people of God, into which all men are called, and to which we have the hope that those who are still strangers can yet belong. That is why, where we still have the good fortune "that the race is evangelised", according to the words of Peguy, as is the case in certain western countries such as France, Spain or Italy, as is the case for the immense Catholic continent of South America, as is the case for Canada and a part of the United States of America, where there is still the opportunity to have a Christian people, I say that this is something essential that we must not lose.... Certainly it is important that the Christianity of every Christian be directed more and more toward a personal type of commitment, but we must consider it a tremendous thing when a whole nation is a race of baptised people, when baptism is an integral part of the very tradition of the race..
It would be interesting to know whether, if he were alive today, Cardinal Danielou would still describe France, Spain and Italy as "evangelised nations" in the way the he did writing in 1972. The emergence of the notion of a "new evangelisation" suggests an acceptance that these countries should no longer be considered as "baptised peoples" in Cardinal Danielou's sense.

[There is an aspect to the cultural embodiment of Christianity to which Cardinal Danielou refers that he only hints at and does not pursue in an explicit way. This is the extent to which a cultural embodiment of Christian life is also a political embodiment of that Christian life, and whether such a political embodiment is essential to achieving the cultural embodiment that Cardinal Danielou so highly values, or whether the cultural embodiment can be achieved without a political embodiment. I hope to post on this aspect of the question in the next day or two.]

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