This year's synthesis question for deacon formation tackled a central theme in our intellectual formation: Culture.
"What is culture? How does culture influence how we see ourselves, understand our past, name our God, interpret texts and understand our world? In each area give one concrete example from the courses."
Here's my attempt to answer this important question.
I love the Bill Murray movie “Lost In Translation.” It is a story partly about a famous American actor who goes to Japan to film a TV commercial. The high comedy comes from his attempts to understand a culture he is clueless to. In one scene, he seems to be blissfully lost in an alternate universe as he appears on a Japanese TV show that is almost insulting to his and an American audiences’ senses. He is told it is the most popular TV show in Japan. The Japanese get it. Americans do not. Ultimately, he realizes that he just has to surrender to the uniqueness of the culture in order to understand it.
In many ways, we do much the same thing as effective pastoral ministers. Surrender to the culture in order to understand it.
Christian Anthropology teaches us we are embodied, physical beings who are shaped by time and space. As “interdependent, relational and economic beings,” we are “embodied in a particular culture.” Seattle University Professor Father Michael Raschko said, “Culture is a way of being in the world. It is a way of seeing and understanding. Culture gives us our basic sense of reality.”
I have been spending a lot of time working with a client in Vancouver, B.C this year. The experience has deeply impacted the way I see culture. The drive from my house to the Canadian radio station is a little over 100 miles in distance. But we are worlds apart in so many ways. The way we speak is slightly different. The way we experience the world is totally different. As I assimilate into their culture, I am constantly reminded of the differences between U.S. and Canadian perspectives and walk with a deep sensitivity so as to not insult their culture by some careless word, thought or action.
As we interpret Sacred scriptures, it is imperative we employ the same cultural sensitivity. If we do not, we fail to convey, “what God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to tell us,” as described in Dei Verbum. Sometimes this failure can have disastrous consequences.
Seattle University Professor Wes Howard Brook and other scholars argue Martin Luther made a mistake in not taking culture into account in a misinterpretation of Galatians and Romans. His failure to understand the cultural context in which Paul was communicating to each community in Rome and Galatia led to a fateful misinterpretation that has haunted Christianity ever since. The misinterpretation gave birth to bad theology causing many Christians to believe for centuries that Jews, like Catholics, thought they could “work their way to God.” This anti-Judaism and anti-Catholicism led to a belief that “Catholics were similar to the Jews and they were all going to hell.” Sadly, this ideology of “God rejecting the Jews” culminated in the holocaust in Nazi Germany, a culture gone mad. The social sin of racism reared its ugly head under Hitler partly due to a flawed biblical interpretation. Luther failed to convey, “what God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to tell us” in Paul’s Letters in order to justify his own personal issues with the Catholic Church.
As Seattle University Professor Leticia Guardiola-Saenz taught us, “the Bible is indeed divine and a connection to God, but also there is certainly a connection with a particular culture. So, the Bible comes from a culture.” She added, “The bible shapes culture, but it’s also shaped by culture.”
How we as the Catholic Church understand ourselves is shaped greatly by the culture of the Roman Empire of the 4th Century. Pacific Lutheran University Professor Dr. Brenda Ihssen’s class deeply influenced our understanding of our Church’s past. In fact, I would call it one of the greatest revelations about the Catholic Church encountered during formation: the Romanization of Christianity leading to the Roman Catholic Church. To realize the cultural assimilation that occurred in Christianity at the time of Constantine should be a little discomforting to us all. In his book “The Story Of Christianity,” Justo L. Gonzalez said, “After Constantine’s conversion Christian worship began to be influenced by imperial protocol. Incense, which was used as a sign of respect for the emperor, began appearing in Christian churches. Officiating ministers, who until then had worn everyday clothes, began dressing in more luxurious garments.” Gonzalez asked the important questions we should all ask, “What would happen when those who called themselves servants of a carpenter, and whose great heroes were fisherfolk, slaves, and criminals condemned to death by the state suddenly saw themselves surrounded by imperial pomp and power? Would they remain firm in their faith?”
Eusebius of Caesarea was the first Christian theologian and at this time he believed, as Gonzalez noted, “what was taking place was a direct intervention by God, something similar to the events of Exodus.” Eusebius wrote about this moment, saying the architecture, the riches, and the power were a “sign of divine favor.” I suppose such a justification made sense at the time, but a radical transformation of faith by a culture that facilitated the execution of Jesus Christ should make all Catholics feel a little uncomfortable for those who think our faith is about incense, cathedrals and men in fancy garments. I guess that is what formation is all about. Working through our preconceived notions about our faith in light of what we learn.
When I was 13-years-old, I joined a friend who I knew deep down was an amoral person (after all, he set up another friend to have sex with his 12-year-old sister a week earlier) in throwing apples at a power line filled with chirping birds. One of the apples I threw hit a bird killing it instantly. As I saw the bird fall to the ground, I thought I was going to throw up. As I looked at its lifeless body in shock and sadness and endured the taunts of my friend who was laughing the entire time, I started to cry. The experience deeply shaped how I feel about myself as being a good or moral person. Father Raschko noted, “Grace comes out of people’s life stories and cultural circumstances.” As I reflect back on that experience I remember that the incident happened in the Hunts Point area of Bellevue, one of the richest spots on the planet. My friend’s parents were very well to-do, but not a family of faith. The culture of my youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s was shaped by a radical belief that “if it feels good, do it.” Why burden yourself with guilt and concerns of morality. The power of grace for Augustine came from looking back on the story of his life to see clearly God at work in his life through his transformation from a life of sinfulness.
Sadly, we all can get caught up in the madness of our culture. Consider St. Paul. The haunting image of seeing the first deacon Stephen martyred, and Paul’s own complicity in the murder, must have burned a deep imprint on his soul. As his spirit wrestled with the haunting image of such an angelic face being stoned to death, I’m sure a door was opened for an apocalypses from Jesus Christ Himself. As I read Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, I deeply understand his conversion and zeal for his ministry rooted in his own mistakes. As I look back on my own personal life story, I am comforted by Paul’s word about not integrating with our culture, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rm 12:2) As Wes Howard Brook put is so beautifully, “we are as much strangers in a strange land as were Jesus’ followers.”
“How we talk about God is the key to shaping how we think about our world.” Father Raschko challenged us all to broaden our vocabulary when talking about God. As I think back on all of the images of God throughout my lifetime, I realize that Elizabeth Johnson makes a good point in her book “She Who Is.” She contends God has been named by the patriarchal culture throughout the centuries. “God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, yet the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis and instruction conveys a different message: God is Male.” In the book, The Shack, God is portrayed as a black woman named “Papa.” I think Johnson would be approve of such a thought.
I hear a universal, indisputable truth in Johnson’s contention that “sexism is sinful, that it is contrary to God’s intent, that it is a precise and pervasive breaking of the basic commandment ‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.’” (Lv 19:18; Mt 22:39) As I read an article about women in the Catholic clergy this week on the Facebook page for St. Michael’s Society, I was angered and saddened by all the men who commented on the article in the comments section saying horrible things about the women advocating such a change. A culture that continues to treat women with vile character assassination is not a culture living up to the dignity Jesus Christ afforded the marginalized he encountered in His ministry or behavior He would tolerate. We still have a long way to go to achieve the Kingdom of God.
Father Raschko taught us “by coming to know about Jesus is how we come to know about God.” One of the most powerful personal revelations about God and Jesus for me came in the lyrics of a song by my favorite music group U2. In the opening line to “Walk On” are the words: “Love. It’s not the easy thing. The only baggage that you can bring. It’s all that you can’t leave behind.” I heard these words the week before Christmas 1999. They changed my life and altered the path I was on. Love has always shaped my personal philosophy of God through Jesus living example, but the revelation “love is all that matters” shattered the constructs of my world. It was no longer about status or wealth or power. Nothing, but love mattered in this world. How cool was it to hear this perspective alive and well in the lyrics of a song in our popular culture?
The culture of the L’Arche community I’m serving in this year’s pastoral placement provides evidence that the Kingdom of God is present here on earth. My participation has renewed my faith in my fellow human beings to do as God commands: to love God and to love each other. The community is built around “core members” with mental disabilities. Every assistant, every volunteer serves “core members” in a culture of dignity that is the embodiment of Catholic Social Teachings. The God of love’s presence is felt the minute you walk in the door. It’s a beautiful example of God’s intention for humanity. The spirit of Jesus Christ is felt every night we pass a candle around the dinner table to say prayers. Wes Howard Brook’s contends, ”The biblical world is the real world. The world of faith is the real world. It’s a world apart from God that is the illusion.” Amen.