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Monday, April 23, 2012

Inculturation

Two items came to my attention shortly after writing John Duns Scotus and the Crisis of the West, Part 2, and they fall right in line with several of the themes I've been stressing lately. The first is an article by David Gibson that appeared on April 23, 2012. The Real Clear Religion link was titled rather more provocatively than the original: Benedict XVI, Papal Enforcer versus Is Pope Ratzinger Suffering From the Seven-Year Itch?

The article begins by addressing the recent announcement that “Benedict had signed off on a crackdown on the organization representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.” Of more interest to us, however, is that the article went on to mention recent sanctions against an American and a Spanish theologian. In each case the actions were taken by the respective Bishops conferences:
In the U.S., bishops in recent years have taken action against a number of theologians, most notably last year when the bishops' doctrine committee sharply criticized the work of a highly regarded theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, saying it contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors.” Last month, Spanish bishops warned Catholics that the writings of one of the country’s best-known theologians, the Rev. Andres Torres Queiruga, were “distorting” certain “elements of the faith of the church” and should not be read.
Let's take the case of Elizabeth Johnson first.

It's my experience that, generally speaking, a theologian has to go pretty far to be sanctioned by the Church. The first thing I noticed in the Wikipedia article is that, back in 1990 Johnson had criticized the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in ways that I certainly have sympathy with (cf. Levada's defense of the Catechism):

In 1990, when the Vatican offered a draft of a new catechism for comment, Johnson criticized the text for its use of Scripture 
in a fundamentalist way, with little regard for insights about the New Testament forged in the last half-century of Catholic biblical renewal," quoting the evangelists as if they all held identical views, and ascribing to them concepts only developed after centuries of theological dispute. She praised the text placing Jesus rather than the church at the center of its discussions of worship and ethics, but objected to its "truncated view of the humanity of Jesus Christ" who "walks around like God dressed up in human clothes.
But there were then and still are a lot of people who share those or similar views. Those views, expressed 22 years ago, obviously didn't get either Johnson or anyone else in trouble. On the other hand, that Johnson might not be the easiest person to deal with is strongly suggested by Andrew Greeley, no apologist for the Church hierarchy:
Andrew Greeley has described her as a "feminist ideologue" and "one of those hard feminists who think that the use of that label [patriarchal] is enough to settle a debate."[5]
[5 ]Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council (University of California Press, 2004), 83, 138
Greeley's characterization, written 14 years after Johnson's criticism of the CCC, also strongly suggests that any statements by Johnson should be examined closely to determine whether they are best understood through an ideological prism.

The sanctions against Johnson were occasioned by the publication of her book Her Quest for the Living God, which appeared in 2007. In 2011, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote that Quest "does not recognize divine revelation as the standard for Catholic theology" and "differs from authentic Catholic teaching on essential points." Those are, of course, very broad statements and Johnson was quick to deny their accuracy

Professor Johnson responded that the Bishops' statement "in several key instances...radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote" and called these statements "misrepresentations."

Johnson and her supporters further responded in political fashion and alleged that the sanctions simply represented a mindless, arbitrary exercise of power for its own sake:
She noted that she had not had a conversation with the bishops.[9] Fordham President Joseph M. McShane issued a statement that called Johnson a "revered member of the Fordham community" and noted that she viewed the bishops' action as "an invitation to dialogue."[10] Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope said that "The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There's nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It's making an example of someone who's prominent."[10] Terrence W. Tilley, chair of Fordham's theology department, said: "What the bishops have done is to reject 50 years of contemporary theology.... Sister Johnson has been attempting to push Catholic thinking along new paths. And the bishops have now made it clear — this is something they stand against."[7] The board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement that said the bishops' critique showed "a very narrow understanding" of the ways theologians serve the church."[7]
From this we are to gather that assurances from fellow academics that Johnson is
  • a "revered member” of a university “community" who,
  • having been sanctioned by the bishops will condescend to “dialogue” with the bishops regarding their action,
  • and who represents “50 years of contemporary theology”
  • and is “attempting to push Catholic thinking along new paths”
should render her substantially immune from serious criticism. Failure to recognize this, by the same or similar token, renders the bishops action “political” and, therefore, presumably illegitimate. The illegitimacy of their action is further proved by their opposition to things that at least some theologians have been saying during the past 50 years and by their opposition to “push[ing] Catholic thinking along new paths.” What those paths are isn't stated, but their "newness" (and we are reflexively skeptical at the notion of newness in human affairs) is clearly intended to designate those paths as presumptively worth following.  None of these statements, of course, are in any way serious statements of theory and are irrelevant to the question of whether Johnson's thinking is or is not Catholic thinking. Not unless one supposes that new paths are ipso facto good paths and that passage of time somehow privileges error.

The central dispute between Johnson and the bishops has to do with how we speak about God. In Quest Johnson wrote that "all-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement." In opposition to that view, the bishops, through their Committee on Doctrine, responded:
The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable.... The standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding. God does use human, and thus limited, means in revealing himself to the world.
What the disagreement comes down to is that the bishops contend that Johnson fails to distinguish analogy, metaphor and symbol for purposes of God-language. It is an open question whether Johnson does this out of ignorance, or with the intent to obscure issues to further her agenda. Further, Johnson appears to reject any distinction between culture and revelation.

The bishops' position regarding the distinction between analogy and metaphor is that analogy—in contrast with metaphor—is more than a figure of speech. It is, of course, a figure of speech, but it goes beyond that by asserting the literal appropriateness of what is asserted, even while acknowledging our human inability to fully grasp the meaning of the assertion. But the truth of the assertion itself is precisely what is known. Metaphor lacks that formal structure and, further, lacks the threefold movement of assertion, negation, hyper-assertion that is the mark of analogy: 1) God is good, the source of the good that we know; 2) the goodness of God exceeds human understanding because God is infinite, and so God is not good as we know goodness; 3) the statement God is good is a true statement even though we cannot grasp God's goodness, because God as infinite creator is the source of finite goodness—good can only come from good, but in the case of God good comes from a goodness that transcends our limited understanding of goodness.

Regarding the distinction of revelation and culture, the bishops write:
What is lacking in the whole of this discussion is any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology. The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment. The standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding.
In other words, while a proper evaluation of God-language in the Bible is by no means without serious difficulties—and we think especially of some expressions from the Israelite scriptures--Johnson appears to attach no significance to scriptural language that would give it greater weight than human language that is not seen as revelatory in the same sense as Scripture. Given Greeley's warning, it is not surprising that Johnson's attempt to conflate analogy with metaphor and revelation with general culture is agenda driven, for Johnson views the use of masculine names for God, when used exclusively, as religiously inadequate and even idolatrous, an instrument of patriarchal oppression.

The bishops work through Johnson's argumentation painstakingly, but it's uphill work, given Johnson's ideological mindset. We have seen her claim that "all-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men.”  Her use of the word "unequal" is telling, for "equality" is a concept far better suited to mathematics than to real, subsistent beings.  This is a strong indication that Johnson is ideologically driven, for while Johnson professes to be interested in analogy as it pertains to God, she has little interest in the analogy of being as it pertains to human beings--a key part of God's creative activity.  She is, in fact, a proponent of treating men and women as identical—as univocal concepts along Platonic lines, rather than as analogical beings within an overarching commonality along Christian lines. For a Christian, who recognizes the analogy of being, the commonality of human nature cannot be the whole story in such matters, since gender based differences, even within that human nature, must be taken into account.  The refusal to recognize and accept differences that are rooted in reality, in the very being of existing individuals, the desire to treat as equal/identical realities that in fact are not identical is the sure sign of the ideological mindset that is characteristic of the modern age. N. T. Wright has recently expressed the reality of human life succinctly: “Justice never means 'treating everybody the same way,' but 'treating people appropriately,' which involves making distinctions between different people and situations.” One may, of course, question the appropriateness, utility, or practicality of disparate treatment among individuals and groups of people, but to maintain that it is inadmissible to take account of real differences is to descend into a quasi-magical manipulation of concepts rather than dealing with reality. This is an approach that is driven by the gnostic urge to create a new reality in the image of the gnostic dreamer, who is in revolt against the very structure of reality.

The case of the Spanish theologian, Andrés Torres Queiruga, is perhaps a bit more clear cut. At the linked blog we read:
The notification [from the Spanish bishops], issued on March 30, 2012, alleges that the following "elements of the faith of the Church are distorted in the writings of Professor Torres Queiruga":

* The clear distinction between the world and the Creator, and the possibility that God intervenes in history and the world beyond the laws that he himself established.

* The newness of life in the Spirit that Christ grants us, with the consequent distinction between nature and grace, between creation and salvation. As well as the necessity of supernatural grace to achieve the ultimate goal of man.

* The undeductible character of Revelation, by which God has revealed to man his salvific plan, choosing a people and sending his Son into the world.

* The uniqueness and universality of the salvific mediation of Christ and the Church.

* The realism of the resurrection of Jesus as a (miraculous) historical and transcendent event.

* The true meaning of prayers of petition, and the value of intercession and mediation of the Church in its prayers for the dead, especially in the Eucharist.

* The real distinction between the time of personal death and the Parousia, understood as the culmination and fulfillment of history and the world.
That's quite a laundry list, but the following statement by “a group of Torres Queiruga's fellow theologians” clarifies the core issue. Skipping the insults that the Torres Queiruga's fellow theologians hurl at the bishops, it appears that the issue is one that we also saw in the case of Johnson, above—a failure to distinguish culture and revelation:
Andrés Torres Queiruga is being accused of "reducing Christian faith to the categories of the dominant culture" and of "eliminating or obscuring the novelty introduced by the Incarnation of the Son of God." Those who impute such a serious charge against him do it from a faith expressed in the categories of a venerable but obsolete culture. By acting in this way, are they not the ones who are reducing the faith to the categories of that culture? "New paradigms" are not decided by theologians, but by cultural transformations. We speak of a "new theological paradigm" when theology has to think of faith within a new cultural paradigm. It is what the Church was freely able to do in its most ancient tradition to express salvifically the Christological and Trinitarian faith within the Greek paradigm, quite different from the Semitic one. What evaluation would the Confession of Chalcedon earn from an unchanging concept of the paradigm of the gospel of Mark? This inculturation of faith is what is now being prevented, because the law of fear prevails in the theological community and many theologians are silent in order not to have to face problems that bring with them "side effects".
Clearly, we are indeed seeing a type of cultural relativism, which the “fellow theologians” don't really bother to deny or hide.  In their view, the major job of the Church appears to be to accommodate itself to whatever surrounding culture it finds itself in contact with. What other meaning could their blanket reference to an "obsolete" culture have?  Further, in their emphasis on inculturation and on accommodating “new paradigms,” the “fellow theologians” appear to 1) minimize the commonality that all humans share and, at the same time, 2) ignore the possibility that cultural expressions of human nature may, in specific cases, be untrue to or even destructive of that human nature. It goes without saying that the Church must look for ways to communicate the Gospel as it will be best understood by the various cultures it encounters. However, there is always an underlying constant. which is human nature itself: no matter the various culturally conditioned ways in which man may express his experience of reality, human nature remains the same and constitutes a stable frame of reference. This is the point of Eliade's “archaic ontology”: because human nature is a constant, there is also an essential unity in all the varied cultural expressions, in spite of any differences, and that unity persists both through time and space.  The notions of "obsolescence" and of "new paradigms" are thus revealed as essentially ideological, non-theoretical terms that are best avoided in favor of reference to the constant element: human nature as it is knowable to us. A further, and essential point, is that not all cultural expressions of human nature can be presumed to be equally valid.  Human beings are prone to error, and so some cultures, or specific aspects of those cultures, may be more conducive to a truly human life than are others--in whole or in part, in varying degrees.  It is precisely the duty of the Church to distinguish, among the vast range of cultural expressions, those which are and those which are not compatible with Christian faith.  This is a complex task, and nothing in it can be taken for granted.

So, yes, Christianity did to a considerable degree become inculturated to the Hellenistic culture in which it was born. But there are two important points to be made in that regard: 1) Christianity may have been inculturated to Hellenism, but Hellenism was also transformed by Christianity, and it is a real historical question which was changed the most.  There were centuries of conflict between Christianity and Hellenism, and when a more or less stable new cultural paradigm came into being, the dominant Hellenistic culture had been fundamentally transformed, even as the Church, too, in its outward expression, had also changed.  2) It would be foolish to assume that the inculturation of the early Church was an unalloyed good, even at the time in question. To the contrary, we have emphasized continually that the absorption of the Platonic tradition of thought led to serious and persistent deformations of Christian thought, with consequences that continue to the present day.

Modern historical research is bringing an ever more thorough understanding of the worldview of the earliest Church. Our emphasis in these studies has been to show that Christianity is based on truly unique insights that distinguish it from the “archaic ontology” that has been dominant throughout history. It should be the task of theology to recover and preserve those insights, as uninculturated as possible. There can be no doubt that the Church has a long way to go in its task of renewal, to rectify some of the abuses and misunderstandings that have arisen as a result of past inculturation. For anyone who truly believes in the validity of Christianity's core insights and in the revelation of God in Jesus, inculturation is not a good to be sought. Rather, the task is to recover and maintain the purity of revelation and to bring our fellow men to an understanding of it without dilution.  This is the "new paradigm" that Christians are called to create in every age, and in every culture.  This is not an impossible task, thanks to our common human nature.  The most important support for that task is the development of a truly comprehensive theory of revelation--one which can place all cultures in a context that can demonstrate the relationship of all cultures to the revelation of God in Jesus.

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