Thursday, April 10

Considerations on Inculturation and Local Theology

Inculturation is one of the issues facing the modern church – Occidental (Western) thinking has been imported and imposed onto other cultures, leading to inculturation (and in many cases, homogenization). There is a shift toward a world church and away from a mainly Western way of thinking theologically. In other words, we are attempting to be diverse, yet also unified. In a Protestant church, this kind of diversity could probably lead to the formation of another denomination. In the Catholic Church, this diversity is accepted, appreciated and upheld. This is why we have local theology - the dynamic interaction between gospel, church and culture. This itself has problems, however.

It is very difficult to find a community that does not have prior theological development. As these communities already have prior theological developments, they therefore already have a sort of local theology in place. Certainly, there seems to be those who prize their differences, accept part of their former local theology yet also help to devise a new local theology. But there are also many communities across the planet that have had established traditions for hundreds of years. 

For example, there is a community allegedly planted by St. Thomas the disciple in the 1st century in India. Early Thomean literature, such as the Acts of Thomas, develops apocryphal tales of the saint’s time there and the effects of the gospel within that culture. In the Acts of Thomas (likely written between AD 150-200), the disciple is called by God to go and preach to India in a dream, and much like the ancient prophet Jonah, he declined. Yet God had him taken to India by a merchant having been sold as a slave by a disguised Jesus, where he then proceeds to bring the gospel into the Indian culture.

Regardless of the historicity or implications of this account, the tale demonstrates that we have been inculturating others from the start. Local theology and tradition had a clash at the Council of Jerusalem in AD 49-51, where Jewish traditions were debated. Other councils have addressed such traditions and local theologies (sometimes heretical theologies, such as the Arian theology). On a related note, there is one point which has been continually occupied one’s thinking: how local is local theology? Should we have a local theology for every town? For every county? For every state? For every country? 

Certainly, Western theology has dominated thinking for centuries, and in many cases it will likely continue to stay a mainstream theology. But what about those who live in small villages in Africa? And as we continue to not only expand across the world but now across the solar system, do we then decide to have cosmic theologies? Should the astronauts on the International Space Station have a particular theology? If and/or when the NASA moon base is developed, should the individuals who live there have their own theology? There are certainly a lot of questions associated with local theology. But perhaps the main thing binding all Christians is the central element: Christ. Our views of Christ may change, but Christ himself does not. 

Augustine's Enchridion: Faith, Hope and Charity

St. Augustine wrote his Enchiridion in response to a request by a friend of his. This friend, Lawrence, requested that the Bishop would write a handbook on Christianity. He therefore set out to write on the three Christian cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love. One would note, however, that the majority of the work deals with faith, whereas hope and love are given a few pages at best. The saint goes through what he believes to be the major Christian doctrines and teachings, and deals with subjects such as baptism (including touching upon infant baptism), the role of angels in their interaction with mankind, the salvific nature of Christ's act, the nature of original sin and a variety of other important teachings. Naturally, then, the question would arise of what sort of theology he is trying to advance in this little Christian handbook, and just how convincing his theological vision may be.

Prior to a further exploration into these things, it is pertinent to develop a Biblical approach to the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love. The first epistle to the Thessalonians helps greatly in this investigation. 1st 
Thessalonians 1:3 and 5:8 has the triadic Pauline formula, "faith, love and hope." This formulation is used in other Pauline texts (1st Corinthians 13:13; cf. Colossians 1:4-5; 2nd Timothy 2:22), and is a clear focus in the New Testament canon. According to 1st Thessalonians, when Timothy reports back to St. Paul about the church, he speaks of their "faith and love" (3:6), implying that hope is lacking. Paul seeks to "supply what is lacking" (3:10) and restore and provide hope in the Thessalonian community, so 1st Thessalonians was written in order to console the brothers and sisters in that community and provide them with hope. With this hope, they are urged to bear in mind that they are different than the pagans and so too ought to act different – all the while expecting the sudden and imminent "day of the Lord" to come "like a thief in the night." This is important because the Christian theological vision deals with a number of different factors in light of faith, hope and love.

Indeed, in hope we are to await the
 parousia of our Lord. In love, we are to care for other human beings and for the world around us. In faith, we are to trust in God and believe. What St. Augustine does in this handbook is expand on these themes. He starts off seeing evil as a perversion of good, which therefore informs the remainder of this work. If evil is a perversion of good, this means that even those things which are evil also have good in them. This logically flows into discussion of angelic nature, as Lucifer began his existence as a very good angel yet in his pride, ended up perverting what was good in him and became what was evil. This in turn led to his possession of (or disguise of) a serpent in Eden (Satan is identified as the serpent in Revelation 12:9, 21:2). As he had been the guardian of Eden (interpretation of Ezekiel 28:12-17), he knew the garden well. He used this to tempt Adam and Eve to fall to sin, thereby corrupting all of the Creator's perfect creation. This, Augustine argues, is the beginning of original sin. When Cain and Abel were born, they already had original sin.

The reasoning behind original sin – in the mind of St. Augustine – is that each of us were in the body of Adam when he committed this first sin, and therefore were fallen with him (a similar line of thinking is seen in 
Hebrews 7:9-10 in regard to Levi being in the body of his ancestor Abraham). As we are born with this original sin, according to the saint, this is also why we have infant baptism. If baptism is intended to cleanse us of sin (in this case, original sin), he believed this was good enough justification for such an act. He also mentions the soul of a person existing even as a fetus, thus seemingly declaring that even an unborn fetus has original sin (the value of an unborn child is also seen in other early Christian writings, such as the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didascalia and others). The baptism of infants, however, continues to be a theological controversy today. As such, we may then ask how convincing his theological vision is through the example of his support of infant baptism. There are a number of Biblical and historical considerations on this controversy.

For example, in ancient Israel, infants were initiated into the covenant through circumcision – in his letter to the 
Colossians, St. Paul compares this to baptism. St. Augustine's concept of original sin along with the infant mortality rate led to individuals in the Western church desiring to have their newborns baptized immediately – which is a practice that has been carried down to the present day. The practice of infant baptism is also mentioned by Hippolytus in the early 200s, so it was a practice of the church at least by that point. The major point that is often made by supporters of infant baptism is conveyed by quoting Mark 10:15, which declares that one must receive the Kingdom of God "as a little child" (or "like a little child," the rendering of which is not as strong as "as" for the argument). Some also point out that in the Acts of the Apostles, we read about entire households being baptized. Logically, we ask – would this not include infants? We may wonder, however, if these households had infants at the time, so this is mainly speculation. There are also a number of other considerations, and also arguments against infant baptism, but the approach taken by St. Augustine can be said in some ways to be rooted in Scripture and tradition, and in that sense is therefore not based solely on opinion.

One may consider Augustine's theological vision to be entirely convincing as a Christian handbook, given not only his argumentation but also his sources. He uses the Lord's Prayer and early creeds to back up his Christian theological thinking. He also goes through Christology point by point, arguing for both the humanity and the deity of Christ, the parenthood of Jesus – from Mary through the Holy Spirit, noting that the Holy Spirit is not the Father, discussion the virgin birth and other key points. In this short handbook of sorts, St. Augustine also deals with the future judgment of souls, the resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and a variety of other key concepts.  As such, he therefore covers a wide range of Christian theological teachings, and by including creeds and the commonly used Lord's Prayer, he engages in the established Christian viewpoint. One would find his theological vision convincing.

One point of contention – or complaint, rather – is the lack of time devoted to love. In chapter thirteen of 
1st Corinthians, St. Paul writes that "now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (verse 13). If the greatest of these is love, why is most of the time devoted to faith? We do not find a statement in the canonical New Testament declaring that "God is faith" or "God is hope," but we do read in1st John 1:8 that "...God is love." God can and does provide hope and can facilitate faith, but God is love. Throughout Scripture and tradition, we are commanded to love other human beings. If God took on flesh, this suggests a relatability and commonality shared between us and God. If God exists as a Trinity, He exists in community. As humans we are created to be social beings, so that we too are encouraged to exist in community. To truly engage in and participate in this community, we must do so through love and charity. Now, St. Augustine is not lax to point these things out, but one would note that he spends less time on love and more time on faith. Perhaps, though, the main reason for this is that we need to have a clear understanding of faith, who we have faith in, why we have and need faith, how faith works, how this faith provides us with hope, and then how we can use this faith to give and receive true love between ourselves and others, ending with charity toward the human person.

Overall, St. Augustine's theological vision can be considered convincing as it not only reflected the traditional and established Christian understanding of the time, but is also primarily the Christian theological views that are still in place today. We may have a different shift and a different focus in Christianity today in a post-Vatican II world, particularly when it comes to matters of liberation theology, global and local (or contextual) theology, the preferential option for the poor and a variety of other considerations, but when it concerns Occidental Christian thinking, St. Augustine is spot on. He therefore portrays a Western Christian point of view and relates his doctrine of salvation, grace, the role of the Trinity, the nature of good and evil, his view of baptism and his doctrine of original sin through this lens. Writing toward the end of his life, this is a nice summary of what the saint has not only been searching for throughout his life, but also shows how far he has come. This short handbook may not necessarily be the definitive handbook on Western Christian theology, but it is certainly one of the classics of Christian writing.

Tuesday, March 4

Thoughts on Aging and Spirituality

The history of aging is a rather interesting and ever-changing topic. In ancient times, some cultures would consider the aged individual to be “already dead” or in their “sleeping period” (sleep was often used as a euphemism for death in antiquity). For others, old age was a crowning achievement, something to be celebrated and embraced. In early canonical Biblical texts, men lived to be in their 900s (Methuselah was 969 when he died, allegedly), which is also seen in Sumerian King lists and other ancient sources. Within the Biblical corpus, in the post-Flood world, individuals began to live less and less longer – Noah lived to be 950, living for 350 years after the Flood, and there is a progression in the aging from the time of Shem to Abraham - 600 to 175, and even to Moses - at the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7). Moses was actually considerably old for the period he lived in, as he said (via attribution) in Psalm 90:10, "Our days come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away."

The perception of age, then, has shifted throughout the centuries. If, even by the time that the aforementioned Psalm was written it was the norm to live to 70-80 years of age (perhaps due to nutrition – Jews would not eat pork, for example, which prevented them from getting trichinosis and other diseases), then clearly the average age has not remained constant. The age of 65 is considered “old” by most countries today, particularly in Germany and the United States. But when we think today on elders and the idea of older individuals, it may bring to mind images of an Indian shaman, an older Buddhist monk full of wisdom, the current Pope, a grandfather, among other things. Often age is associated with wisdom – although this is certainly not always the case.

In its connection to spirituality, consider the example of C.S. Lewis. Lewis (known as “Jack” to his friends) began his life praying as a small boy, yet after the death of his mother he practically abandoned his faith. As he grew older and entered into discussions with other learned men such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Roger Green, he began to move from his atheistic point of view into the Christian (Anglican) faith. After the death of his wife, however, he began to question God and his faith overall – until he one day began to use his pain to strengthen his faith. Through the example of Lewis, we can see how someone’s spirituality can change form, content, practice and strength as he or she ages. This is also clearly seen in the lives of men such as St. Augustine, St. Francis, Thomas Merton and many others. Our respect for those who are older than we are ought to be continually borne in mind, and as the ever-increasing older population grows, so too should our understanding, our relationship with them and hopefully lead to a more positive and helpful understanding of aging.