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Evangelization and Culture Religion in Public Life

 September 5 - November 10, 1993                                                   Washington, D.C.



On the Quincentenary of the voyage of Columbus it is possible to look with new eyes at the process of evangelization in the Americas, and to design yet more adapted approaches to the new configurations of the Catholic population.


The Opportunity


What makes this possible is the new sensibility to the person which has transformed the world during the last half century. From the heavy burdens of totalitarianism and exploitation the peoples of the world have struggled to free themselves--first from Fascism in the 2nd World War, then from colonialism during the `50s and `60s, and more recently from Communism in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In North America this has been reflected in the series of "movements" by race, ethnicity and gender which have dramatically and passionately affirmed the dignity of the person. In Latin America this can be seen in the attention to liberation and the development of basic Christian communities. At its most humanizing, penetrating and far reaching this emerging sense of the person was proclaimed by Vatican II as the movement of the Spirit at work in the World.

For evangelization, the implications of this inspiration are now becoming evident. Attention to the person implies a new appreciation of the free and creative life of the community, especially as over time this comes to constitutes a tradition and a culture. This makes it possible to gain new insight into a people's self-understanding, to be newly sensitive to their mode of learning and communication, and to join more suavely and intimately, more consciously and astutely, in their response to the work of Providence in their life. These are the keys to new degrees of pastoral presence and practice.

In this light the long experience of evangelization in the Americas can be looked at afresh. Poorly understood, the new sense of the importance of culture can generate anger, frustration and alienation at the practice of evangelization of the past. In contrast, a richer hermeneutic and critical sense, with the resources of the human sciences and new advances in philosophy and theology, promises to open a more positive appreciation of the ways of Providence in the past, of the contribution of the various ethnic communities, and of modes of cooperation in facing the challenges of life in the Americas today.


The Challenge


The Catholic experience in North America has been marked by the tension between self-identity and assimilation. In earlier generations retaining one's cultural identity was a mode of defending one's faith in a hostile environment. More recently the emphasis shifted to breaking free from what came to be seen as a "ghetto' mentality in order to join the "mainstream" of American life. For crucial recent decades this focus distracted the Church from responding in an adapted manner to Afro-American, to Hispanic Catholics, as well as to many Asian groups who are either Catholic or newly sensitive to the meaning of Christianity for their lives. What they see and hear is more likely to be evangelical and fundamentalist, poorly adapted to their culture but present and concerned.

What is needed in these circumstances is a renewed approach to evangelization, one that is both steeped in the riches of the past cultures and concerned with their implications for the new and changing circumstances to which these people come. The challenge of evangelization is to uncover the power of the Spirit deep within the culture and traditions of a people, to liberate them from ideologies and enliven their hearts, in order to reconcile, transform and resurrect their neighborhoods in their various dimensions: family (mutual love and respect, education, health), economic (poverty, employment, housing) and political (participatory democracy on the local level).


The Response


For this there are significant and promising resources. The humanities (history and literature) can uncover the values of the various cultures. The social sciences (psychology, sociology and economics) can contribute understanding of the structures of the world in which we live. Above all, it will be necessary with these to think together, deeply (by hermeneutic philosophy and theology), prayerfully and creatively (with the Church as agent of the symbolic transformation of culture) in order to understand the transforming power of the Gospel in our time.

In order to carry out this work in depth and to generate related insight two ten week seminars were held on the following themes.


Specific Themes


I. Evangelization and Cultures in America: the interpretation and critique of culture and tradition as bearers of the religious commitments of a people; the preservation of ethnic identity and its contribution to a pluralistic society; evangelization and cultural communities.


       This seminar reflects the rediscovery of the importance of culture for all humane, and especially for religious, life. Recent developments in the philosophy of the person and their implications for hermeneutics have revealed this deeper significance of culture as the cumulative exercise of the free and creative life of a people and made possible its ongoing correction and improvement.

Freedom, however, must be understood not merely as the exercise of individual rights, but as a people's loving, if at times too human, expression of the Providence of God in their lives. Cultures, then, become not mere geographic or historic artifacts, but essential if ambiguous expressions of religious commitment. In our time, this heightened sense of the importance of cultures raises a number of problems for religion, and hence for evangelization. First, recent intensive migrations of peoples from very different cultures, when joined with their need to enter into close democratic participation with other groups in social decision-making, challenges the religion lived in these diverse cultures and traditions to find ways to inspire a community life more inclusive than any its had ever imagined.

Second and more deeply, there is a threat in our society to religious identity itself more radical than at the times of the division of Christianity between East and West or between Protestant and Catholic. Whereas then the importance of religion was clearly recognized, now some seek to build community by turning to broad generally shared formal values, simply prescinding from distinctive identities and religious roots; others would go further to subvert these roots as divisive and unsuited to the work of building a modern world. The experience of Eastern Europe, however, shows that the abandonment of such roots, far from contributing constructively to modernization, deadens the commitment to the values upon which free creativity is based. If this be so then the real danger to the immigrant ethnic communities today is not simple forgetfulness on their part of their identity, but a pervasive undercutting of their humanity through educational and social programs which ignore or even eat away at their cultural identity and the ability this provides for responding to the work of God in their lives.

Thus, the task of evangelization in our times would appear to be twofold. On the one hand, through cultural critique it must uncover the authentic religious content and modality of culture itself and of concrete cultures, for these are the terms in which people receive evangelization, shape it through their self-understanding, and live Christ with others.

On the other hand, like genetic resources, these cultures contain the religious inspiration and the responses to divine love needed by the general populace in our time in order to overcome the challenges of hedonism and consumerism, to shape new goals, and to promote the welfare of all peoples. The task of evangelization is to enable these richly religious cultures to come together to make their needed contribution to the common fund of civic inspiration and through participation in the democratic structures to play their religious role as leaven in society.


II. Religion in American Life: the historical experience of religion in America; religion vis a vis the commercialization of American culture; religion and the structures of public life in America.


        The issue of religion in contemporary life is marked by three major related problems, one is the perennial struggle to choose between God and Mammon, another is the struggle to broaden the horizon's of one's concerns beyond self to God, a third is the manner of relating one's own religious commitment to that of others. As foundational decisions for life, they must be faced in every effort at modernization and indeed in all deeply human accomplishments.

The present form of the first problem has its roots in the individualistic character of modern culture, traceable to the disintegrative effect of nominalism from pre-modern times. Locke's attempt to fit individualism for modern democratic dialogue by limiting such speech to what was publicly available through the senses pointed inevitably in the direction of a materialistic self-centeredness. The result has progressively evolved into a consumerism which is consuming the very person--a kind of human black hole.

Against this stand the strong, if never unambiguous, concrete religious traditions of the people and of public life, as well as the basic fact that in the end mammon destroys all who enter its service. Faced starkly, as in the 20th century experience of Eastern Europe and Asia, a choice for the foundational importance of the spirit is clear. This is reflected as well in less overtly tragic circumstances on other continents by the emerging sense of the need for values.

A second problem compounds the first. A correlate of the above path from individualism to sensism, and thence to consumerism, was that the intellect could not reason to God and hence that religion was solely a matter of heart. Such faith without knowledge--in reality fideism--can be lived authentically only in a closed room; it is believable only to the degree that it renounces relevance to life in this world and in our times. Our world then becomes secular in the fully negative sense of isolation from religion.

These foundational challenges to religion in our culture, individualism, consumerism and secularism, need to be faced jointly, in depth, and on an interdisciplinary basis. This should be done with a view not only to diagnosis, but to resistance. Indeed, if life is dynamic and progressive the overriding concern must be not only to resist disintegrating forces, but to unleash the transforming power of being as the Living unity, truth and goodness--the Christian Trinity, the Hindu Satcitananda--which characterize the religious grounding of life.

This suggests a need to begin by rediscovering the foundational modern ideals of human dignity, freedom and equality whose spontaneous fascination brings them to the fore of young minds and mobilizes their concern. This suggests, in turn, tracing these ideals to their real religious roots as the only way in which these values can be protected from turning into self-destructive selfishness and instead be opened to a strong and redemptive sense of family and community after the pattern of God's love for mankind. (The resources for this in the various cultures is the subject of the companion seminar.)






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