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The Church’s Cultural Patrimony


3. The Church’s Cultural Patrimony

Christianity is a historical religion and inculturation is part of the Church’s history. A by-product of this historical process is a certain accumulation of cultural elements, beginning with the cultures of the Bible and going through the long list of successive inculturations. I call this accumulation the Church’s "Cultural Patrimony". The word  "culture" is widely abused nowadays, but the pre-Vatican opinion that the Church’s cultural patrimony constitutes a culture in the normal sense of the word is - by and large - no longer held. According to anthropological definition,
this patrimony lacks the coherence, the completeness and the simultaneity of a culture, which is a whole way of life.

However, because of the unique history and character of Christianity, elements from the Church’s cultural patrimony are always included in the synthesis brought about by inculturation. This is because there is nothing in the evangelised culture that corresponds to such elements, which are considered necessary or useful.  We have already mentioned the cultures of the Bible. These are strictly necessary for the understanding of Scripture, which, in the Christian tradition, cannot be replaced by any other historical or mythological literature. The Church  "identifies" with biblical culture, but this is not our own living culture of today. The cultures of the first century AD are, in fact, dead cultures. The reason for emphasis on biblical culture is because it belongs to the humanity and historicity of Jesus himself, who is the subject of evangelization/inculturation. Because of this, African Christians should not be afraid of absorbing some foreign cultural elements. People of every culture have to do this and it is part of the reality of inculturation itself, especially where these elements are essential   to Christian identity.

Then there is the use of words, gestures and rites - particularly those that belong to the liturgy of the sacraments  - in which the Church claims to be acting as Jesus himself did or has commanded us to do: Baptism by water or the consecration of the Eucharistic bread and wine, which Jesus substituted for the blessings of the Jewish Passover Meal. The Church is not conscious of being able to change these things, without being unfaithful to the historical Jesus.

The Church’s cultural patrimony also includes a great many non-essential elements, most them being relics of previous inculturations. Some are imposed as part of the current discipline of the Church, others are optional and more or less useful, as the case may be.  These non-essential elements include doctrinal formulations, devotions, styles of ecclesiastical architecture and dress.  The study of past inculturations, especially the history of doctrinal formulations is necessary for the student of theology, if essential meaning is to be detached from transient cultural forms. It is to be hoped that African Christianity will seek and enjoy much greater freedom in these non-essential areas.


4. Inculturation: the Demands of Culture

"Our first task in approaching another people, another culture...is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy." So wrote Max Warren, Secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1942-1963.  As we have seen, human cultures are vehicles of divine truth and theatres of God’s salvific action. Like Moses before the burning bush, we must take off our shoes. Cultures must be respected. Disrespect for culture is an abuse of a human right and not even evangelization can ignore this obligation. The transformation of culture that is worked by evangelisation should lead to its enhancement, not its diminishment.

A common form of disrespect for culture is to refuse to take it seriously as a coherent and whole system of images and values. Instead, an eclectic, "pick and mix" approach is adopted, whereby cultural elements are lifted from the culture and inserted incongruously into otherwise culturally foreign contexts.  This happens, for example, when African cultural elements are incorporated in a liturgical celebration that is otherwise entirely western in character. This is acculturation, or the borrowing of disparate elements, but it is not inculturation.

Inculturation, as we have seen, is the transformation of a culture by faith and the cultural re-expression of faith by culture.  An inculturated Eucharist (or other liturgical rite), therefore, should be a genuine instance of a wider process involving the transformation of the whole culture. It remains recognizably the Christian Eucharist, with its necessary components and structure, but the style, the context, the spirit, is culturally new. The Ndzon Melen Eucharistic Rite, devised by Fr. P.-C. Ngumu and Fr. P. Abega, in Cameroon, in 1969, for example, was based on the cultural model of a reconciliation assembly among the Beti people.   The whole celebration was African in flavour and inspiration. It was very far from being a western celebration of the Roman rite, with a few African elements inserted. This was ensured, among other things, by continuous dance and African instrumental and vocal music. Many Feast Day,  if  not  Sunday, celebrations in Africa now achieve this, as does the  celebration of  the Zaïre Mass, and they provide strong grounds, in  my  opinion, for implementing the suggestion of Fr. Eugene Uzukwu  CSSp., the  Nigerian liturgist, concerning a Special African  Liturgical Region of the Roman Rite.

When considering liturgical inculturation in Africa, we usually think of Africanising a western sacramental rite, but there are also cases in which an African rite has to be Christianised. Numerous have been the attempts over the years to Christianise African initiation rituals. Another celebrated case of inculturation is the Liturgy for Second Burial in Zimbabwe.  This is a Christian version of the Kurova Guva ("Smearing the Grave") ritual of the Shona people, which takes place a year or so after the original burial of the deceased. This rite was approved by the Catholic Bishops of Zimbabwe in 1982. The Christianising of African traditional rites, perhaps even more than the inculturation of Christian sacraments, demands the Christian transformation of the whole background culture, and this is a question of theological inculturation.


5. The Christian Transformation of African Culture

The Christian transformation of culture is a way of taking that culture seriously. It is not a take-over bid, a form of cultural imperialism. Rather, it is a reinterpretation of that culture, which results in the enhancement of its authentic meaning. I will now give examples of this, both general and particular.

African ethnic religions are typically "religions of nature". That does not mean that they are "nature religions", in which natural phenomena are objects of worship. It means that created nature offers both an explanation of the divine and at the same time the means of contact with divine reality. In African religion, the physical environment is not only sacred, but it is also an organic universe.  In other words, nature is biologically continuous with humanity, and it connects human beings with the world of spirit.

Such a conceptual scheme can be Christianised, with reference to an ascending Christology. Christ has ascended through all the cosmic spheres and "has placed all things under his feet" (Ephesians 1:22). In other words, by becoming human and through the mystery of his death and resurrection, Christ has brought about a cosmic rebirth.  In this new world order, humanity and created nature  - which is the setting of human life - have been reattached to God. The physical environment can therefore speak to us, not only about God the Creator, but also about the redemption wrought for us by Christ. The cosmic Christ can be discerned both in the human community and in the natural environment.

Another example of an ascending Christology is provided by the experience of base communities in urban Africa.  From their reading of the Bible, members of these communities understand the humanity of Jesus from their own experience of being human.  In their concern for social justice and in their compassion for the poor and the sick, they celebrate the compassion and the healing activity of Jesus. From this experience of realities in the town, in other words, the consideration of what it means to be human in conditions that are inhuman, they rise to an intuition of the divinity of Jesus. Christology, therefore, illuminates and reinterprets this experience of urban culture.

A particular example of the Christian transformation of an African organic universe is provided by Thomas Christensen’s theology and catechesis of the African Tree of Life.   Christensen is an American Lutheran missionary, who has worked for a number of years in Cameroon among the Gbaya people, who are also found across the border in the Central African Republic. A semiotic analysis of the structure of Gbaya signs revealed that the root-symbol of the Gbaya is the Soré tree. The whole web of meaning that underlies Gbaya culture is centred on this ordinary little tree (anona senegalensis), which is called by them  "the cool thing". A branch from the Soré tree is used ritually to help Gbaya overcome the threat of death in cases of blood feud or the breaking of taboos that entail the sanction of death.  It helps them cope with their consciousness of sin and takes them through the threat of death into a new life. It is therefore very much a "tree of life". Both Christensen and the Gbaya saw in the Soré an analogy with the cross of Christ as the means of salvation in Christianity. They therefore reinterpreted the whole Soré symbolic complex in the light of a Christian theology of the Cross.

The association of Soré with the crucified Jesus was first made by Gbaya Christian preachers themselves. It was a search for theological meaning evoked by evangelization. This led to the reflection:  "What does Jesus have to do with Soré?" The answer is that the cross-links Jesus with Soré. It is the symbol of all that God has done for us in and through Jesus. The cross is the fulfilment of Soré, transforming it and enhancing its meaning.

Christensen examined all the Gbaya life contexts in which Soré played a role. These included ritual meals and sacrifices, purification in life-crisis rituals, blood-pacts, marriage, dancing, hunting, conflict resolution and reconciliation, justice and peace, vows and promises, exorcisms, funerals, prophecy and moving house. He then examined biblical and patristic tree symbolism, and particularly the tree of life image as applied to the cross.  This reaches a climax in the thirteenth century writings of St. Bonaventure.

When the Gbaya Soré meanings are applied to the cross of Jesus, they bring a metaphorical newness to Christian teaching, but they are themselves transcended by the reality of salvation wrought by Christ. The Gbaya believe that God is at work in Soré. The application, therefore, of this symbol to Jesus draws attention to his divinity. Soré is the symbol of life and the transmission of life through the covenant of love, which is marriage. It is therefore an apt symbol of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word of Life. The use of Soré in the washing rituals at Gbaya funerals are the means by which the bereaved return to normal life, Christensen shows their relevance to the "water of life" in Christian Baptism, through which a person dies and rises to eternal life. The prominence of Soré in meals of reconciliation, lends itself to a Eucharistic application with the "Bread of Life".

Many parallels can therefore be found between Gbaya culture and Christian salvation theology. Moreover, this transformation of Gbaya culture by Christian faith sets the scene for particular Gbaya inculturations of the image of Jesus himself and of the Christian sacraments. We can appreciate, therefore, that inculturation is not a set of unrelated, piecemeal adaptations.  Rather, particular instances of inculturation must reflect a Christian approach to a whole culture

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