Inculturation — What It Is and Isn’t
In sharing the Gospel with the world, the Catholic Church has adopted a process called inculturation. This can basically be summed up as follows. The traditions of the Gospel have a central doctrinal core, which are based in Mosaic Judaism, but redefined according to Christ and his Apostles. Some traditions are essential and cannot be changed. Other traditions are not as essential, and can be subject to change or adaptation depending on the culture the Gospel is presented to. This is why Irish Catholicism looks so different from Mexican Catholicism. Both cultures are profoundly Catholic, and yet they both look so different. This is inculturation.
Here’s how it works…
Jesus Christ is the Messianic King of Israel. Now Israel, up to the time of Christ, was built on a profoundly Semitic ethnicity commonly known as Hebrew. This ethnicity has its own language and culture. All of this was built primarily around the old covenant religion revealed by God to Moses, but it also had a lot to do with ethnic bloodlines and regional experience. Semites were sandwiched between the Babylonian/Persian empires to the east, and the Egyptian/Greek empires to the west. So naturally, those empires had a bit of influence on Semitic culture and the Hebrews were no exception. Religion was the heart of Hebrew Semitic culture, and like most indigenous religions; the people, language, culture and government were all tied up into one. Eventually, 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes were lost to war, and so the two that remained came to be called Jews based on the name of the largest of those tribes — Judah. When Jesus and his Apostles walked the earth, all of them came from these two remaining Hebrew tribes and were therefore called Jews.
However, at the first arrival of King Jesus, his salvation plan included helping them deal with the Roman occupation of their homeland, not by restoring the Jewish fiefdom called Israel, but rather expanding it into a global Messianic empire called The Church! Israel would no longer be limited to a small strip of real estate in the Middle East, but would rather be expanded to become a global empire that would surpass the size and influence of the Romans, and it would last until the end of the world into eternity. The only difference was this empire would be ruled from within the hearts of men, instead of by an iron rod and brute force.
Jesus instructed the Apostles to go forth into all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:19). The Greek word for “nations” in this verse is ethnos (ἔθνος) which is where we get our English words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” The Helps Word Study describes it this way: ‘éthnos (from ethō, “forming a custom, culture”) – properly, people joined by practicing similar customs or common culture; nation(s), usually referring to unbelieving Gentiles (non-Jews).’
To bring the Kingdom of new Israel (the Church) to the Pagan peoples/nations/ethnicities/customs of the world, it became obvious early on that inculturation would be necessary. The new Israel of God would not be a monolith of one ethnic culture like the old Israel fiefdom under Moses, but rather a tapestry of many different ethnicities and cultures, all united into a common empire based on creed and sacraments. So the idea would be to retain and preserve all that is good and wholesome in these various cultures, while at the same time guiding these peoples into the truth of Christ and his Catholic Church.
We see this begin very early on. It starts with the vision St Peter had of the unclean foods (Acts 10:9-22). God commanded St Peter to eat, but contrary to popular misinterpretation, he was not telling him to break his kosher discipline and start eating unclean animals. It appears that way at first, but Peter gave us the interpretation of the dream later on by his actions. Rather, God told Peter in the dream, in symbolism, that those who eat unclean animals (usually Gentiles) are no longer “unclean” in God’s eyes. God would incorporate them into the Church along with Jewish Christians side-by-side. Again, we see St Paul reaching out to the Pagan Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:22-33), appealing to some of the virtues of Paganism that led Pagans to an understanding of divine justice, and their acknowledgement of an “unknown god” which they worshiped, not realizing that this god was one and the same with the universal God worshiped by Jews. Here St Paul recognized that God was at work among the Gentiles, in hidden and unseen ways, throughout the centuries, using their religion and folktales (in a subtle way) as tools of communicating some of his truths to them. While God gave his full revelation to the Jews, as he promised he would, that did not stop him from giving a little truth to the Gentiles as well. For God loves both. From their own Pagan traditions, they learned some godly virtues such as loyalty, honesty, integrity and even humility in some cases.
How could St Paul go so far as to suggest this? Earlier in the book of Acts we see a context. A dispute arose between St Paul and other Church leaders concerning how Gentiles should be brought into the Church. Some Church leaders wanted them converted to Judaism first. In other words, they wanted to purge them of all their indigenous culture and make them adopt Hebrew Semitic culture instead, even going so far as to make the men submit to painful circumcision. St Paul and his companions strongly objected to this. A council was held in Jerusalem to settle the matter in about AD 50. This was the first ecumenical council of the Church. There St Peter rose to explain that God has called the Gentiles into the Church (new Israel) just as they are. Following his instruction, a simple letter to the Gentile churches was written, in which only basic rules needed to be followed, rules that would guard Christian doctrine and morality. Beyond that, Gentiles were free to act as Gentiles within the Church. They need not dispose of their indigenous culture, nor did they need to convert to Judaism (Acts 15:1-29). Hence, the first recorded instance of inculturation had begun. It was this decision, in Jerusalem way back in the first century, made by St Peter himself, that would turn Christianity from a Jewish sect into a global (Catholic) religion, encompassing many races, ethnicities and cultures.
Inculturation is what allows the Catholic Church to be “Catholic.” The word Catholic means: whole, universal, a unity of many different peoples. Think of the Catholic Church as a complex tapestry, or a puzzle consisting of many different pieces. The Catholic Church (way back in the first century) adopted a policy of saying to all peoples everywhere that she values their culture, music, dance, art, food and folklore. The Church values these things because God values them. And some of these things may have been used as a primer that would eventually lead them to the truth of Christ. Therefore, the Church seeks to adopt these ethnic customs into her fold, insofar as they do not compromise the core teachings of Jesus in the way of doctrine or sacrament.
When we look at the Jerusalem letter the Apostles sent to the Gentile churches, we see two major focal points of prohibition seem to concern sexuality and idolatry. These were a problem then, and they seem to remain a problem today. This is where the Church primarily draws the line. Any practice or tradition, that blatantly smacks of idolatry is forbidden because it compromises the integrity of Christ’s teaching on the one true God. Any sexual practice that deviates from the natural law of one man and one woman living together in matrimony is likewise prohibited, because it compromises Christ’s teaching on marriage and family. These minimal standards must be followed at all times, and a few smaller statutes have been erected since then. Beyond that, however, Gentile Christians are allowed to bring into the Church whatever indigenous cultures they like.
We saw this play out in history as the Church entered Europe. Rather quickly, actually, over the course of just two centuries, the Church became overwhelmingly Gentile, and Jewish Christians became a small minority. As Europe became more Christian, Christianity became more European. Inculturation changed the face of Christianity, meaning it’s outward appearance, but it was still the same Apostolic faith underneath, with a profoundly “Jewish” core. We see the face of Christianity change again, centuries later, as the northern Germanic nations were evangelized. Then again when Africa and the America’s were colonized, inculturation was used again. As a result, Catholic Christianity takes on different outward appearances depending on what culture it evangelizes. These changes come from within, from the people themselves, as they “dress and adorn” the Christian faith in the traditions, colors, music and flavors of their indigenous cultures.
For example, I am a man primarily of Germanic descent (British, Scandinavian and German). So is my wife. Yes, we both have a trace amount of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, but neither of us were raised in that culture. What we are accustomed to is our dominant Germanic culture. She and I treat our children to ethnic mythology and poetry from our people’s ancient history. Our children learn the myths of Thor and Odin, along with fairy tales from England and Germany. Obviously, we don’t take these things seriously, but we know there is some cultural wisdom to be found in them. (Of course, we also read extensively from the treasury of European Christian literature as well as the Bible and the Catechism.) In December, we participate in Yulefest celebrations put on by the local Scandinavian Society, and decorate our home in evergreens which stay up well into January — sometimes February. My wife hangs a wreath on the front door for nearly every season of the year. My daughter wears an evergreen crown in December (with candles on St. Lucy’s Day) and a flower crown in June. Maypole celebrations are part of our Midsommarfest, again put on by the local Scandinavian Society. My children Trick or Treat on Halloween, and we light candles on the tombstones of deceased loved ones the following evening. Then there is Oktoberfest, which we try to hit as often as we can. Our home is filled with the sound of Celtic and Nordic folk music. My son studies the fighting styles of Vikings, and my daughter plays a Celtic harp. This is our ethnic culture. These are the customs of our Germanic heritage. Not only does the Church accept them as part of who we are, she embraces them! Naturally, the Church requires us to adhere to all the doctrines and disciplines of the faith, and I would have it no other way, but Advent wreath-lighting ceremonies are done every year in our parish, as are evergreens and Christmas trees. All of it is part of the Church’s inculturation of our Germanic heritage. Even better, I attend an Anglican Patrimony parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is re-inculturation of our English heritage back into the Catholic Church. Yes, once in a while my family will attend a Passover Seder, as that is part of our cultural heritage too, but its not a very big part. Even if we had no Jewish roots at all, we would still be just as Catholic and Christian.
So that’s what inculturation is. Now let’s talk about what it’s not.
Inculturation is not multiculturalism, which is a form of relativism. Multiculturalism basically asserts that no one culture is better than another, and that all cultures have equal moral value. This is certainly not the case. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice as part of their regular Pagan rituals. This was not rare or isolated. This was commonplace. That part of Aztec culture had to be eliminated, even to the point of purging anything that remotely glorifies such practices. The Catholic influence on Latin America did just that, in the same way Hebrew influence on the Middle East worked to purge the human-sacrificing cults of Moloch. Sex cults also flourished in the ancient world, as we are seeing a resurgence of them in the modern world. These can never be condoned or inculturated. Slavery was, and remains, a big part of North African culture (sanctioned by Islam no less). This can never be inculturated, and Christians have made great sacrifices to purge it from Christian society. Authentic inculturation, from a Catholic point of view, always maintains the Judeo-Apostolic influence as its core. Morality and virtue are based on the Judeo-Apostolic understanding, as is the worship of the one true God. Inculturation can never compromise that. Pagan ethnic-cultures can be adopted into the Church, but only when blatantly anti-Christian properties are purged out. So, for the most part, this means no idolatry and no sex outside of marriage. We generally don’t have to worry about human sacrifices much anymore, but I’m sure there are some in the abortion industry who would love to start a cult following of their own. I think you get the idea. There are very specific and defined limits to inculturation. It’s not a free-for-all, and in the end, if Christianity starts to lose its Judeo-Apostolic identity, it’s not authentic inculturation.
I think the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the modern Church is the so-called inculturation of modernity. Modernity is not a culture. It has no roots in any indigenous ethnicity. It has no history. It has no people. Modernity is an ideology, born in the late 19th century, which asserts that all traditional things must be abandoned in the name of progress. It is sterile, lifeless, lacking origin and ugly. It is the very antithesis of culture. Sadly, modernity has taken on a life of its own over the last hundred years. Art and architecture have taken on a minimalist tone. Abstract paintings and sculptures are touted as “culture” when it fact they are nothing but emotional conveyances of confused modern minds. There is no culture in modernity. Yet for some strange reason, known only to those behind such decisions, the Church has decided to adopt this ugly culture-less ideology into the art and architecture of parishes and dioceses around the world. Even the Vatican is not immune to this contagion. It is a fraud, and I have no problem calling it that. Future generations will one day look back on this era and shake their heads in disbelief at what the Church did to herself in the second half of the 20th century.
The only cure to sterile and ugly modernity is to return to inculturation of real and authentic peoples and their history. If a Catholic parish is erected in Tel Aviv or certain Jewish neighborhoods of New York, I would expect nothing less than a very Hebrew re-inculturation. If a Catholic parish is erected in Mexico, or strongly Hispanic portions of the US, I would expect nothing less than Latin American inculturation. If a Catholic parish is erected in the UK, Anglo-America, Australia or New Zealand, I would expect nothing less than Germanic (British, Scandinavian, German) inculturation. These are all real people, with authentic ethnic cultures, stretching back thousands of years. Returning to authentic inculturation is the only way to liberate ourselves from the sterile and ugly scourge of modernity in our Catholic parishes and cathedrals.
Lastly, I want to discuss a phenomenon I am very familiar with as a former Protestant. I call it the “Protestant freak-out” to inculturation. While my early childhood was rich in the Germanic heritage of my parents, it was slowly spoiled in my teen years and early adulthood by Evangelical Fundamentalism. Such things as Halloween and Christmas evergreens were frowned upon by many in the Evangelical world, as having originated in Pagan culture. There is nothing new about this. Protestants have a long history of frowning on such things. There was even a time in colonial America when the celebration of Christmas was legally banned, because it seemed too Catholic, papist and “probably Pagan” in origin. Modern Evangelicals bear a lot more resemblance to their Puritan predecessors than they would probably like to admit.
The rationale behind this goes back to the Protestant heresy of Sola Scriptura, originally coined by Martin Luther in the 16th century. While Luther, himself, would never have imagined his discipline of Sola Scriptura being used this way, it did happen and continues today. It’s a logical progression really, that makes logical sense when you break it down. If Sola Scriptura is true, then we are expected to believe that religious truth comes from the Bible alone. By logical extension, it would stand to reason that the only religious truth Christians should engage in would be that explicitly found in the Bible. Furthermore, by extension, if the Bible nowhere mentions Christmas, then the celebration of Christmas should be abandoned. Likewise, by extension, if the Bible nowhere mentions other indigenous customs of Europe, they too should be abandoned. This would especially be true of any custom or tradition that might have some remote connection of ancient Paganism or Heathenism, which if you know history, that includes almost all of them. They should all be abandoned, until all that is left is a sterile society that is receptive to the only culture and tradition sanctioned by the Bible.
Of course this is ridiculous, and that is demonstrated by the strange and bizarre religious practices that have emerged in Protestantism since its founding five centuries ago. We can begin our study of these things with the Puritans, Amish, Quakers and Shakers. Then we can move into a study of Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Each of these groups have sought to purge itself of all those things the Catholic Church inculturated from Pagan and Heathen Europe over the last 2,000 years. Today, we see a similar trend among some Evangelicals. A small portion of those Evangelicals have turned to Messianic Judaism as a way of rejecting Catholic inculturation, but this is not to disparage those who embrace Messianic Judaism simply because they truly do love Hebrew culture. In my former experience as an Evangelical, I saw both kinds.
Now I’m going to state something controversial, as if I haven’t already done that. Modernity’s war against inculturation is linked to Protestantism in an indirect way. Though modernity is not in itself a Protestant belief, the purging of European inculturation historically is, and it precedes modernity by hundreds of years. Therefore, modernity finds its anti-European roots in the radical Protestantism of ages past, even though most radical Protestants (contemporary Evangelicals) would disown modernity today.
It should be noted that modernity is a cancer. Just as it currently attacks ethnic-European culture, especially Germanic culture, it will soon turn its sterile and ugly gaze toward Latin American culture, African culture and Asian cultures. We have already seen it begin in places like Los Angeles with the cathedral there, a structure that gives tribute to the contribution of the Latino founding of the city, but curiously lacks a Latino cultural appeal. If you think this is bad, it can get worse. Just look how Germanic culture was gutted from many North American parishes and cathedrals over the last 50 years. The only solution to the sterile ugliness of modernity is re-inculturation of our ethnic and indigenous past.
So to summarize, let me break it down in the most simple way I can. The only ethnic-indigenous culture God ever gave humanity was the Hebrew-Semitic culture. That’s it. God himself chose to come to earth incarnate as a Hebrew and a Semitic man. Yes, God is a Jew. That is what the Catholic Church teaches.
However, our Jewish God loves all people of all races, ethnicity and indigenous cultures. Our Jewish God loves them and wants them. He is the Father of them all and Savior of them all. Yes, God spoke to these people as well, in ages past, in limited ways, through their customs, values and folklore. It wasn’t the same way he spoke to the Hebrew people. No, what the Hebrews received was direct revelation, in fullness and all truth. Gentiles only received hints and clues, but these hints and clues came from God nonetheless. For that reason, they are valuable!
Our Jewish God, Jesus Christ, has no intention of absorbing and assimilating Gentile cultures into the Hebrew culture. That was never his intention from the beginning, and it’s not his intention now. While Christians accustomed to Hebrew culture should continue to practice it, as it clearly pleases God when they do (since that is the only culture God gave to humanity), this culture can never be imposed on Christians who are not accustomed to Hebrew culture. The Apostles made that crystal clear at the Council of Jerusalem in the middle of the first century. In fact, over the centuries, this Apostolic decision led to the inculturation of many indigenous peoples throughout the world, bringing in cultures native to Southern Europe (Greco-Roman), Northern Europe (Germanic), Native American, African, Chinese, Indian, and so forth. All of these must conform the the Judeo-Apostolic core of faith and virtue, but none of them are required to give up those things that are dear to who they are as a people, ethnicity and culture.