Faith and Culture: Have We Lost It?

At my first involvement in RCIA as a newly ordained priest, I was posed a question by a middle aged man telling me that for a long time he had been attracted to the Catholic faith because he went to a mission school during his formative years. What prevented him from seeking baptism was that a Catholic friend told him that if he embraced the Catholic faith, he would have to abandon his Chinese culture and he knew deep within that if he did so, it would cause his mother great displeasure since he was the only child. He plucked up courage to come to RCIA only after his mother has passed on. Situations such as this are neither strange nor one in a million. I also recall vividly being told by a parishioner that a priest told his congregation that cultural practices are not allowed in the Church because these are “evil” and “pagan” practises. The struggle of many people who embrace the Christian faith as an adult with the faith and culture that they had grown up with is indeed a real one and it doesn’t help when eager catechism teachers, faith facilitators or even overzealous Catholics make sweeping statements without really understanding the Church’s teaching and approach to faith and culture. The misunderstanding seems to be when we are unsure what practices are religious and what are cultural. It is true that in the context that we live in, there is a thin line that divides religious and cultural practises, but if we do not make an effort to understand the differences, then we rob ourselves of our very own culture.

We live in a world where there are many “cultures” – pop culture, consumer culture, youth culture, hate culture, etc. It is not possible to explore all aspects of culture here and that is why I would like to limit this discussion to looking at culture as customs that are associated with national and ethnic groups. How can some of our customs remain integral to our faith without being accused of watering down the faith? Some years I remember spending Holy Week in Holland and on Good Friday I experienced something very different to what I was accustomed to in all my growing up years. During the veneration of the cross, every person that was gathered in the Church brought a tulip bulb and venerated the cross by placing the bulb at the cross and it was done with great solemnity and reverence. I thought to myself, here is a beautiful expression of “veneration” in a cultural way that the people could relate to. In fact, the dawn of Christendom brought with it the Christianisation of many practices and celebration from what was known in the past as the “pagan world”.

Faith and CultureThe Redeemer's Embrace - Detail of the mosaic on the wall behind the Altar in the 'Redemptor Hominis' chapel of the National Shrine of St John Paul II in Washington DC, courtesy of Fr Lawrence Lew, OPThe challenge of “inculturation” (or interculturality) is not something that is new because it is as old as the Gospels but the word in itself is rather new. Jesus was an expert in using His culture to speak and proclaim the Good News. His parables were always rich in cultural elements and symbols so much so that the hearers could identify themselves almost immediately with His teachings. The word “inculturation” was widely used after Vatican II. Pope St John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio looks at inculturation as an integral part of the Church’s missionary mandate: “Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community. She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within. Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission… Thanks to this action within the local churches, the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology and charitable works. She comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal” (#52).

Just as culture affects every part of our life, it also affects every aspect of the church, including evangelization, catechesis, liturgy, prayer life, music and even the language. Many of us who have grown up in this post-colonial era have lost touch with our cultural roots. We may still wear cultural costumes from time to time, eat food that have cultural links, and speak a cultural language where we can barely hold a conversation. We must admit that we are fast losing our cultural heritage that is expressed through more than just clothes, food and language. Most of the cultural exposure that the millennials are used to these days come from the West and their lives are very much moulded and impacted by it. No matter how much we may try to expose them to our cultural roots and heritage, it may be a futile attempt because all we can do is just “cut & paste” but it makes no sense on the ordinary life. Perhaps the Church can play an integral role in preserving the “local culture” rather than going to great lengths to impose a culture that does neither define our identity nor makes sense to the ordinary: “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture” (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium #118).

According to Father Eugene A. LaVerdiere, a leading American Scripture scholar, the church’s emphasis on culture and inculturation reflects the work of Vatican Council II… In the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’’ (December 1965), the council focused on various aspects of culture and its relationship to the church (#53-62). The word "culture", it said, refers "to all those things which go to the refining and developing of man’s diverse mental and physical endowments’’ (#53). Today we speak of a plurality of cultures in the Church’s approach to faith and culture.

In the year 1988, the International Theological Commission (ITC) published a document entitled “Faith and Inculturation” which was the outcome of a series of discussions and reflection not only done by ITC but also by others. The starting point of this systematic reflection was the constitution Gaudium et spes (Vatican II) where “the council has shown what lessons and what tasks the Church has drawn from its first experience of inculturation in the Greco-Roman world” (#3). The document also notes that the culture provides an opportunity to move towards a “deeper humanity and towards a better plan for the universe” (#3). In pointing out the transformative nature of cultures, the document also makes reference to a speech of Pope St John Paul II made at the University of Coimbra (15 May 1982) that cultures…may play a positive role of mediation in the expression and extension of the Christian faith.

It is interesting to note that this same document sees culture as an integral part of the growth of the faith and of the human person: “Man is a naturally religious being. The turning toward the absolute is inscribed in his deepest being. In a general sense, religion is an integral constituent of culture, in which it takes root and blossoms. Moreover, all the great cultures include, as the keystone of the edifice they constitute, the religious dimension, the inspiration of the great achievements which have marked the ancient history of civilizations” (#I,8).

Jesus, though He was Son of God, was a man born within a culture and was no doubt shaped by it: “The Son of God was happy to be a Jew of Nazareth in Galilee, speaking Aramaic, subject to pious parents of Israel, accompanying them to the temple of Jerusalem where they found him "sitting among the doctors, listening to them and asking them questions". Jesus grew up in a milieu of customs and institutions of first-century Palestine, initiating himself into the trades of his time, observing the behaviour of the sinners, peasants and business people of his milieu. The scenes and countryside on which the imagination of the future rabbi was nourished are of a very definite country and time” (#II,13). There is no doubt that Jesus was indeed not only a man shaped by His culture but very much immersed in His culture – this can be seen in the way he taught and ministered to people.

Cultures and its heritage are often defined and manifested through symbols, practices and even rituals. They somehow connect the human person with a reality that cannot be expressed in words because words have limitations. It is not true that the more we try and distance ourselves from our cultural identity (roots), that we curb progress because progress is at times seen as leaving the past and embracing a new future. The richness of our local culture can only enhance the beauty of our faith… from architecture, liturgy, music, art, and beyond. However, the process of bringing our culture into our faith life is going to be a challenging one. It is not going to be without suspicion, cynicism, sarcasm, distrust and scepticism. However, this must not hinder us from trying to find these two aspects of our lives as an integral part of the development of the human person: “The process of inculturation may be defined as the Church's efforts to make the message of Christ penetrate a given sociocultural milieu, calling on the latter to grow according to all its particular values… The term inculturation includes the notion of growth, of the mutual enrichment of persons and groups, rendered possible by the encounter of the Gospel with a social milieu. "Inculturation [is] the incarnation of the Gospel in native cultures and also the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church” (#15).

Where do we go from here? First and foremost, if we as Church want to make ourselves ‘all things to all men’ and want to find ways to unite faith and culture, let us begin by suspending all judgment of cultural practices and seek to understand better its roots and significance to the lives of the people. By making uninformed statements we do no justice to the spread of the Good News. The synergy between faith and culture does not only include "the efforts by the Church to make the Gospel enter every socio-cultural context, but also its influence on cultures to which is linked the idea of growth, the mutual enrichment of people and groups, by virtue of the meeting between the Gospel and a given social environment.”

Let me conclude with two experiences that were told to me recently: (a) A Year One student was told in her Religious Education class by its teacher that once you are Christian, you cannot wear Indian clothes; (b) A child was asked by the teacher if he was Chinese… the child answered “I am not Chinese. I am English!” Just because we are Christians, we do not stop being, Indian, Eurasian, Kadazan, Indian, Iban, Eurasian, Dayak, Orang Asli, Chinese, Bidayuh, Bajau, etc. In fact, today inter religious and inter cultural marriages are common and now we have a new hybrid which only enhances the diversity of our country. Each of these ethnic groups have a rich history of culture and let us not rob ourselves of our roots just because we are Christians.


Note: Above article was originally published in CANews - Sept/Oct edition. Please e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for subscription to CANews.