Dec 31, 2007

Culture and Truth: Reflections on Fides et Ratio

Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 2 – April 1999


1. Cardinal Ratzinger’s Reflections on Fides et Ratio

2. A View from the Prison of Experience – Sister Sandra Schneiders to LCWR

Cardinal Ratzinger:

Culture and Truth: Reflections on Fides et Ratio

On February 13, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met with the assembled leaders of doctrinal committees of the bishops’ conferences of the United States, Canada and Oceania in Menlo Park, California. After the meeting, he gave a talk on John Paul II’s recent encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), expanding on the topic of genuine inculturation.

While not directly concerned with liturgy, the talk has broad relevance for many issues connected with debates over liturgical practice in various cultures. Of particular importance is Cardinal Ratzinger’s discussion of the "self-transcendence" of cultures. Christianity, says Cardinal Ratzinger, encounters cultures at the point where they are questioning and transcending their own limitations in their search for God. Every culture is called to transcend itself to encounter God­just as Israel and the Greeks were.

The following excerpts from Cardinal Ratzinger’s address end with a critique of the concept of "experience" as a criterion for judging and limiting divine revelation.

Truth and the Problem of Cultures

Whoever poses the question of truth today is necessarily directed to the problem of cultures and their mutual openness. Christianity’s claim to universality, which is based on the universality of truth, is often countered in our day with the argument of the relativity of cultures. It is maintained that in fact the Christian missionary effort did not disseminate a truth which is the same for all people, but instead subjugated indigenous cultures to the particular culture of Europe, thus damaging the richness of those cultures which had evolved among a variety of peoples. The Christian missionary effort thus appears as another of the great European sins, as the original form of colonialism and thus as the spiritual despoiling of other peoples.

To this argument we must reply first of all by noting that in the history of evangelization there were certainly mistakes; about this, no one would disagree. Moreover, that the cultural multiplicity of humanity must find a place in the Church, as the common home of all people, is today recognized without exception. But in the radical critique of the Christian missionary effort from the standpoint of cultures there is something deeper at work: it is the question of whether there can be a communion of cultures within the truth that unites them, the question of whether truth can be expressed for all people beyond cultural forms.

Cultures are predisposed to the experience of encounter and reciprocal enrichment. As man’s inner openness to God leaves its mark on a culture to the extent to which that culture is great and pure, so there is written in such cultures themselves an inner openness for the revelation of God….

When the Pope insists upon the inalienability of an acquired cultural inheritance, one which has become a vehicle for the common truth about God and man, the question naturally arises as to whether this does not amount to the canonization of a Eurocentrism in the Christian faith, a Eurocentrism which would not seem capable of being superseded later by the possibility that a new patrimony could enter ­ and in fact has entered ­ into the permanent identity of the faith….

Israel’s Self-transcendence

The Bible is not simply the expression of the culture of the people of Israel but rather manifests a constant conflict with the completely natural desire of the people of Israel to be only themselves, to shut themselves in their own culture. Faith in God and their yes to the will of God are wrested from them against their own ideas and wishes.

God places himself against certain expressions of the religiosity and religious culture of Israel which, in the worship of the high places, in the worship of the "queen of heaven" and in the claim to power of its own kingdom, sought to assert itself. From the anger of God and of Moses against the worship of the golden calf at Sinai to the late post-exilic prophets, Israel must constantly be drawn away from elements of its own cultural identity and religious desires; that is, it must leave the worship of its own nationality, the worship of "blood and land", in order to submit to God, who is completely other, a God who is not of Israel’s own making, the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who is God of all peoples.

Israel’s faith requires a continual self-transcendence, an overcoming of its own culture, in order to open itself and enter into the expansiveness of a truth common to all. The books of the Old Testament may appear in many respects less pious, less poetic, less inspired, than certain passages of the sacred books of other peoples. But they possess their own originality in this struggle of faith against particularity, the process of taking leave of what is their own, which begins with Abraham’s departure on his journey.

Everything Particular Now Belongs to Everyone

In a sense, when Saint Paul departs from the law, a departure based on his encounter with the risen Lord, this fundamental trajectory of the Old Testament is brought to its logical conclusion: it expresses fully the universalization of the faith of Israel, released from the particularity of an ethnic structure. Now all peoples are invited to join in this process of self-transcendence of their own particularity, the process which first began in Israel. All people are invited to direct themselves to the God who has gone beyond himself in Jesus Christ and, in Him, has broken down the "wall of hostility" (Eph. 2:14) which was between us, and who leads us to one another through the self-emptying of the cross.

Faith in Jesus Christ is of its nature a continual opening of the self: it is God’s breaking into the world of human beings and the response of human beings breaking out toward God, who at the same time leads them to one another. Everything particular now belongs to everyone, and everything which belongs to another becomes also our own. The "everything" referred to in the parable of the prodigal son, when the father says to the elder son, "Everything which is mine is yours" (Lk. 15:31), later reappears in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus as the Son’s address to the Father: "Everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine" (Jn. 17:10).

Christian Culture’s Encounter With Other Cultures

This fundamental pattern also shapes the encounter of the Christian message with Greek culture, an encounter which did not begin with the proclamation of the Gospel but had already developed within the writings of the Old Testament, above all when these were translated into Greek, and which continued in early Judaism. The encounter was made possible because at the same time a similar process of transcending the particular had begun in the Greek world. The fathers of the Church did not simply mix an autonomous and self-standing Greek culture into the Gospel. They were able to take up the dialogue with Greek philosophy and use it as an instrument for the Gospel, because in the Greek world a form of autocriticism of their own culture which had already arisen through the search for Godwas already under way.

John’s Gospel Challenges "Dictatorship of Appearances"

[F]or the Gospel of Saint John, the Christian faith decision is precisely this: that one not yield to appearances or raise appearances to the level of the highest reality but rather that, beyond appearances, one must seek and direct oneself to the glory of God, the radiant splendor of truth.

Today the dictatorship of appearances can be clearly seen on two planes: on the level of political activity where in many cases what really counts is what "appears" about facts ­ what is said, what is written, what is presented, more than the facts themselves. Widepread opinion assumes a greater importance than what in fact really happened.

Limits of "Experience" as Criterion

Something similar occurs on the theological level when in approaching the biblical message the so-called modern worldview (in the thought of Bultmann, for example) becomes the single measure for judgment which decides about what can and what cannot be, though in fact this worldview, if correctly represented, does not even attempt to decide on questions of being, or ultimate reality, or final possibility, but rather seeks to understand the laws which govern the things that are apparent to us and nothing more.

In this connection, the Holy Father emphasizes the limits of the concept of experience, which today, in keeping with the dominant limitation to what is apparent, is often elevated even in theology to the level of the ultimate standard. As the encyclical explains, "The word of God refers constantly to things which transcend human experience" (No. 83). It can do so because human beings are not limited to the world of appearances or to subjective experience. Indeed, the reduction to experience traps the human person in the subjective. Revelation is more than experience, and only thus does it give us an experience of God and help us to bring our own experiences together, to order them rightly, and through positive and critical discernment, to understand and communicate them.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s complete address appears in Origins (Vol 28: No. 36, Feb 25, 1999).


A View from the Prison of Experience

A striking illustration of what Cardinal Ratzinger means by the "dictatorship of appearances" and the "trap" of subjectivism can be seen in a recently published address by an influential feminist theologian, Sister Sandra Schneiders.

Sister Schneiders, a member of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, spoke to a meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on "Congregational Leadership and Spirituality in the Postmodern Era". Her address was later published in Review for Religious (Vol. 57, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1998, pp. 21f).

Sister Schneiders, a frequent lecturer at seminaries, describes the process that led many women religious to seek what she candidly calls a "spirituality without religion" based on personal experience:

For many the God of Christianity seems too small, too violent, and too male; the focus on Jesus Christ seems narrow and exclusive; the resurrection seems mythological if not incredible and, in any case, irrelevant to a world in anguish; the institutional church seems hopelessly medieval, sexist, and clerical; liturgy is alienating; morality is out of touch with reality; and church ministry is a continual battle with male hostility and power dynamics. Spirituality centered in personal experience was increasingly engrossing while religion, especially the Catholic religion, was increasingly alienating.

After a certain amount of experimentation, many religious have settled into a kind of personal, often highly eclectic, spirituality with the context of a nominal Christianity whose central tenets and practices are of little practical import in their lives. Their God may no longer be the God of Jesus Christ, but a non-personal, benevolent cosmic energy holding reality together in some mysterious way. Jesus may have been consigned to history as one of the many prophetic figures whose memory remains motivating although they themselves are long dead. The Bible may no longer be, for them, revelatory or normative Scripture, but one religious classic among others. Christian sacraments may be quarries of symbolic elements which can be combined with analogous elements from other traditions in the formulation of meaningful rituals. Prayer may be any practice from listening to music, to Zen sitting or Tai Chi, to hiking or massage which is calming and focusing and helps one keep a balance in a crazy world.

Sister Schneiders freely acknowledges that such views and practices have been "profoundly disintegrative" of religious life:

It can no longer be taken for granted that the members share the same faith, a serious situation for a lifeform which is based not only on faith but specifically on Christian faith.

But in her view this "profound disintegration" is not all negative. She praises the "God quest" of women religious who seek personal mystical experience that "bypasses what are experienced as the superficialities and hypocrisies, and even the violence, of the official structures of institutional Catholic Christianity". This "God quest", she says, has caused many to "question whether Catholic Christianity offers an adequate, much less a preferable, access to Holy Mystery or compelling motivation for ministry".

Where does this lead? Sister Schneiders explains,

This is the point at which the disjuncture between spirituality which is a matter of passionate concern and religion which is a locus of struggle and alienation is apparent; and, in my opinion, this may be the bifurcation point at which the choice between death and transformation [of religious life] is going to be made.



The Editors