Here are some answers to questions for evangelizing in the Year of Faith that begins this week. Did you know early Christianity was classified by the state as atheism?
In a series of essays published between 1992 and 1996, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explores the intersection of faith, religion, and culture, and so titled the second chapter in his 2004 book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. Following the publication in 2000 of Dominus Iesus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith there was “a cry of outrage” condemning the document as intolerant and arrogant with no place in the modern world.
The future pope’s intent in this chapter, “Faith, Religion, and Culture” was to put forth the real question these considerations reveal – the question about truth. Can man recognize truth? Can religion deal with truth? If not, then what is the purpose of faith and religion in culture? In other words he deals with the timeless question: Why believe?
With beautiful theological language, Ratzinger explores whether Christian faith can be inculturated into any society, and whether Christians are obliged to evangelize. These explanations were written by Cardinal Ratzinger two decades ago, collected and published one decade ago, and they are directly relevant to the Year of Faith that begins October 11, 2012 on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This article (and one more following it) will summarize, concisely and clearly, some of the questions that he answered. Why is this useful? Because we need to know how to answer these questions still today.
Can a culture change its religion?
Religion has been an essential element of all known historical cultures, determining the values within them. It would seem that if a culture changes its religion, it loses itself. Is that true though?
Cultures do change; they progress because they are made of men, and man innately seeks to improve his existence and his world, to innovate. A measure of the height of a culture is indeed its willingness and power to be purified toward truth. Man seeks truth, thus, a culture will change its religion if the religion offers the truth.
This is a question at the heart of Christian evangelization: Does the Christian religion deal with truth, a truth that man can know, that man yearns for, that man needs? To be true to the Christian faith, the answer must be, “Yes.” It would have been utterly faithless for the apostles to ignore the charge to carry what they had received to the ends of the earth. The spread of Christianity was not a drive for power, it was the spread of a universal truth about redemption and love that all cultures — all people — need.
Then why aren’t all cultures Christian?
Truth leads man out of alienation and division toward a common universal standard that does no violence; however, truth is darkened by man, distorting his actions and setting people against each other. In truth, diversity is respected because complementary differences are needed to achieve a common standard.
Christianity did not spring from any one culture, but was born among various unions of cultures, an intervention from above demonstrating at Pentecost how all cultures can be one, that unity exists in multiplicity. The revelation of Christ brings cultures together in harmony.
Surprising to many, this rational aspect of early Christianity rendered it critical of established religions; it was thus classified by the state as atheism because it rejected cultural rituals. Christianity was a culture shock, it drew on the heritage of religion, but went further to unite faith and reason, to make both purer and more profound. It rests relentlessly on the pursuit of truth, and on what concerns and unites mankind. All cultures are not Christian because they have not found purest truth.
But isn’t Christianity just a European religion?
Christianity did not originate in Europe, but in the Near East geographical union of three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe) where the three great religions also came into contact with each other. Christianity spread in all directions, and later Islam brought about its near disappearance in the Near East, India, and Asia.
As Christianity then spread in culturally diverse Europe, it became inculturated in the Greek and Roman worlds, and in the German, Slavic, and Romance civilizations. Those cultures have progressed through series of death and rebirths, and Christianity has also experienced renewals along with them.
Christianity has always been an exodus forward from the present, back to what has been lost. Death and regrowth is a pattern in Christianity. Abraham led Israel out of Egypt, an exodus that brought them into existence. Every Christian individual experiences a new birth, Baptism, a death and resurrection. Christianity is not solely an internal experience; it is our meeting of something – Someone – an event. Such is the nature of revelation.
This intervention is seen by cultures as an intrusion, scandalous to man’s autonomy, but only in objective truth can cultures come out into greater realities, and become open to the possibility for unity.
Wasn’t Christianity “Hellenized”?
Sola scriptura adherents say the Christianity of Greek philosophy and Roman law is not the Christianity of the Bible, that Christianity was Hellenized, changed from its original form. They argue that Christianity must always modernize, change with the times, that cultures and individuals can interpret the Bible for themselves and use what they find practical.
While it is true that early Christian dogma was formulated into Greek language using Greek intellectual tools, the New Testament was not the first encounter of biblical faith with other cultures. The theological ethics of Moses and paganism had already encountered each other within the Old Testament. The Israelites rejected polytheism and broke through to monotheism in exile, finding a new ethics. Yet, no one refers to the Old Testament as “Hellenized”. The early Church merely continued the inter-cultural encounter already in the core of the biblical faith itself.
The early creeds did not change the faith either, they maintained its realism. For example, the Greek word homoousios is a an unbiblical word; it was adopted to explain the real “one in being” of the Father and the Son, loyal to biblical truth, even though people argued for a more symbolic word. The insistence on this word shows a refusal to allow Jesus to be numbered among the “avatars” of the many religions. Christ is in reality one with the Father, an echo of the “I AM” from the burning bush. The Fathers grasped that the Bible wasn’t a practical test left to individual interpretation, but the truth in the person of Jesus Christ that all men can recognize.
The next part will summarize his answers to questions about interreligious prayer and evangelization in a technological world, and how these relate to the Year of Faith we begin this week.