Thursday, August 25, 2022

Inculturation: A Wrong Turn - Part 3: Common Assumptions about Inculturation

We continue with the third part of this guest essay by a Nigerian Catholic on the problems of liturgical inculturation. The first two parts were published last week (part 1; part 2.)

Having completed our short overview of the propositions usually advanced in support of inculturation, and seen how unfounded these assertions are; we will now briefly explore the foundations of a number of scholarly and popular assumptions connected with inculturation in general and African religiosity in particular.
I. Mutual enrichment
We will start off with the common talk about the mutual enrichment of the local and universal Church that necessarily results from inculturation or liturgical adaptation to particular communities. Without denying the salutary effect of genuine liturgical adaption and the beauty of ordered diversity, it is important to remind ourselves of the other reality: we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Keeping the victual metaphor, it is to be expected that one who has always drunk coffee will likely contribute little to a discussion on tea tasting. Likewise, to the extent and in the respect that a local Church adapts a unique practice, to that extent and in that respect is she decoupled from the universal practice of the Church. As discussed earlier, diversity per se is not an evil; on the contrary, it may be a great good, especially if there were legitimate grounds for it. Nevertheless, for the wellbeing of the polity, such deviations from the universal should be the exceptions rather than the rule. Liturgical uniformity, on the other hand, by building a liturgical bridge, as it were, between two or more cultures and nations with different temperaments and persuasions, does result in mutual enrichment of the Church’s communities, as the history of the Church give ample witness to.
As a case in point, the Carolingian kings only desired that their kingdom pray as Rome did, but in their humility, they not only granted their people a share in the heritage of Rome, the principal See of Christendom, but afforded the Gallican rite the unique opportunity of substantially enriching the ancient Roman Use itself. The resulting Frankish-Roman liturgy became the liturgical and disciplinary patrimony of the Church in the West. [58] This liturgical tradition and the associated disciplines and principles produced Western civilization, and not the other way round. [59]
Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Horst J. Meuter, CC BY-SA 4.0
The Christian Faith as expressed in the Roman Liturgy and discipline, in its original or hybrid forms, has had as much efficacy in civilizing the pagan and primitive tribes of Europe as it could have in civilizing the pagan and primitive tribes of Africa, if it is allowed to work its way into the fibres of the cultures of the latter as it did in the former. Unfortunately, a hasty effort at the “Africanization” of the Liturgy, sometimes driven by ideologies antithetical to the Faith, and often times without any objective evaluation of the impact, has stalled the salutary effect of the Latin heritage in Africa. A relevant example that presents itself is the Zaire Usage’s close association with the Congolese dictator Mobutu [60] and his aggressive and sometimes anti-Christian cultural agenda, which included the abandonment of his Christian name.
II. Liturgy and culture
The opinion that non-European liturgies are required for the preservation of non-European cultures is the second popular assumption for our examination. It is interesting to note that many Africans and other non-Europeans who clamour for an African or non-European liturgy to preserve or rescue African or other non-European cultures from Westernization, have themselves, alongside the vast majority of people living today, embraced much of all secular Western cultures – language, technology, philosophy, government, entertainment, etc. Their coldness towards, or outright rejection of, the Traditional Latin Mass and other traditional Catholic devotions deprive them of the necessary counterweight to the toxic effects of the post-Christian Western cultures they have adopted. At any rate, do we have any concrete evidence that the Latin Liturgy poses any threat whatsoever to the positive culture of any nation?
We can readily examine this question with reference to a nation that has had a long Catholic history. St. Patrick’s Ireland is a good candidate having always being outside the Roman Empire and its pre-Christian civilization. [61] Certainly, the Roman Liturgy, for all the many centuries it was prayed in Latin by the Irish people, did not destroy the Irish culture; on the contrary, it nurtured it. Latin did not displace Irish, but English did. [62] In the same vein, Latin has never been a threat to the Igbo language, but English is. And this is not because English is taught in school or sometimes used in the church, but principally because Igbo is no longer spoken in many Igbo homes, no longer the Mother tongue; making it the liturgical language does not help. The English language may indeed threaten the identity of the Igbo people, but post-Christian Western values, torn as it were from God and from the natural law, pose a more mortal and infernal danger. A largely sentimental revitalization of traditional Igbo customs and its incorporation into the liturgy stand little chance in stemming the surging and sophisticated onslaught of the decadent West. Western culture became dysfunctional and corrosive by rejecting the traditional Catholicism that nurtured it; it can be tamed and harnessed for the well-being of any society only if it is reconnected to holy Mother Church, its wellspring.
(The first episode of a series broadcast on Irish television in 2007 called “No Béarla”, Irish for “No English”, in which a man tries to make his way through daily life speaking only Irish, with less success than one might imagine, given that the study of the language is compulsory in Irish schools.)
III. The roots of the traditional Catholic liturgy
The third popular assumption for consideration is really a common oversight. In the frequent discussion of inculturation today, it is evident that many have lost sight of the fact that the traditional Catholic liturgy and discipline is a product, to the extent that it is man-made, of societies with values and hopes much closer to the indigenous people of Africa, Asia and Latin America than to post-Christian Western societies. It was the product of customs that value the family, respect life as a gift from God, dances and claps in its joys, and shares the sorrow and fears of neighbours and strangers. In an effort to identify a distinguishing and central African value as a basis for building a “theological model of inculturation,” one African theologian claimed for Africans the eminent exhibition of hospitality. The apparent suggestion, perhaps, is that Europeans are less hospitable. Another countered the proposition only to advance Africans’ eminent sense of communion or “covenant” with people and nature. [63] The individualism of modern Western societies may de-emphasize personal responsibility towards neighbours and strangers, but such an unsocial disposition does not reflect the values of the Church nor the cultures from which the Church elaborated her liturgy and discipline.
IV. Africanism in the liturgy
We will say something here about the stereotypical association of African worship with dancing, drumming, clapping, and other bodily gestures [64] and its alleged incompatibility with silence, reflective prayer, and solemn forms of singing/chanting, because these latter, it is claimed, are religious expressions proper to Europeans. That a form of liturgical dance is still preserved in the ancient Abyssinian Rite of Ethiopia [65], but nothing of that kind exists in the Latin Rite, may seem to support the common supposition that dancing and other dramatic gestures of joy are, in relation to the West, genuine and exclusive African religious expressions. In reality, however, “[r]itual dance was not foreign to the old European Church,” [66] and about a century after the Ethiopian rite was fixed [67], St. Teresa of Avila and her nuns executed “sacred dance in the choir, singing and clapping … in the Spanish way, but with … holy reverence.” [68] As would have been the case in old Europe, it should be noted that liturgical dance in the Ethiopian or Coptic Liturgy is a feature of certain open air processions or celebrations recalling the famed Davidic dance, and has no place in the Mass. In fact, the Eucharistic sacrifice in the Ethiopian Rite, as a sign of profound reverence, is performed in secret, away from the gaze of the lay faithful. This tradition is reminiscent of the obsolete practice of dismissing catechumens before the Eucharistic sacrifice in the Latin Rite [69], the widespread custom of installing iconostases in Eastern rite churches, and, to some extent, the discontinued Mediaeval practice of setting up of rood screens in Western churches. Consequently, Africanism played no role in preserving in Ethiopia certain practices long out-dated in the West.
The Psalmist invites all nations to clap their hands and “shout unto God with the voice of joy;” [70] elsewhere, “let them praise his name in choir [dance].” [71] Practising what he preached, King David famously danced ahead of the procession of the Ark of the Covenant. His actions were emulated down the ages by Ethiopian priests and European nuns. However, such excited displays are out of place in the Jewish temple worship at Jerusalem, in the Jewish synagogue worship across the world (from which much of Christian Liturgy developed [72]), or during traditional Eucharistic worship in Ethiopia, Europe, and the rest of the Christian world. Just as Elijah recognized the Lord not in the commotions of a strong wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “whistling of a gentle air” and then covered his face in reverence [73]; so Christ often went away from the crowd to a quiet place, alone or with his disciples, to pray.
The note of reverence and solemnity that characterize the Jewish and Christian liturgies, especially when this involves direct communion with God in one shape or form, exist in various degrees in many non-Christian religions, including African Traditional Religions. In the latter, it sometimes takes the aspect of extreme secrecy, elitism, gravity, and even terror. At any rate, liturgical dance is not an African singularity but a universal phenomenon, which is however excluded from the most solemn religious activity in Judaism and Christianity, as well in certain Traditional African Religions.
Concerning the place of silence and contemplation in African religious experience and expressions, it should be noted that every human being can laugh and cry, and they know the experience that is neither crying nor laughing. Like lamentation and mirth, silence is a universal language that cuts across cultures and creed. Everyone knows what silence is – even the little baby that screams at Mass intent on disrupting the quiet he or she senses and is thrilled to pierce. It is equally true that all human beings are capable of introspection and reflective thought. In some cultures or civilizations, these habits are so developed that mysticism or philosophy becomes noticeable. In traditional sub-Saharan African cultures, meditation and thought are largely employed to reach out to the world of the spirit or to resolve pressing social and personal problems. Hence, philosophy is rather poorly developed, while mysticism is largely better developed.
Granted, the traditional African mystical experience is different from the Catholic notion of mysticism, but so was the mystical expression of other uncultured nations in the distant past that were brought under the Christian light. Hence, I am a little embarrassed to have to argue for a place for silence in the African culture or in any other human culture. It is therefore not true that the silence and sombreness of traditional Catholic piety, especially in the Traditional Latin Mass, is incompatible with the African temper. It is rather condescending to hold such an opinion. Even when singing in the vernacular, Africans do not always produce “throbbing dance music.” I vividly recall my experiences of weekday Novus Ordo Masses celebrated in Igbo in a neighbourhood village church during my undergraduate days in Nigeria. Usually, the sun was then just about to rise, the church poorly lit and poorly furnished, and without drumming, clapping or swaying, these poor villagers sang, mostly from memories and from the heart, the rich mysteries of the Faith in a simple and edifying form that has much in common with the decorum, balance, and prayerfulness of the Church’s Gregorian chant.
A Pontifical Mass celebrated at the ICRSP Apostolate in Libreville, Gabon, by His Excellency Basile Mvé Engone, bishop (now emeritus) of Libreville, in 2012.
NOTES (numeration continued from previous article)
[58] Duchesne, L., Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1904, p. 102-104
[59] Woods, T. E., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington DC, 2005
[60] Inyanwachi, E., 2007, p. 70
[61] Carroll, W. H., 1987, p. 121
[62] Twomey, D. V., The End of Irish Catholicism? Veritas Publications, Dublin, 2003, p. 52-53
[63] Njoku, F. O. C., 1996, p. 17-25
[64] Wielzen, D. R., 2009, p. 135; Agbo, B. N., "Inculturation of Liturgical Music in the Roman Catholic Church of Igbo Land: A Compositional Study," Journal of Global Catholicism, 2017, 1, 2, 2, p. 6-27; Anyanwu, C., 2019, p. 10-11, 199-200, 229
[65] Perczel, C. F., “Art and Liturgy: Abyssinian Processional Crosses,” Northeast African Studies, 1983, 5, 1, p. 19-28
[66] Martin, G., “Dance types in Ethiopia,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 1967, 19, p. 23-27
[67] Perczel, C. F., 1983, 5, 1, p. 19-28
[68] Auclair, M., Teresa of Avila, Doubleday Image Book, New York, 1959, p. 231-232
[69] Duchesne, L., 1904, p. 171
[70] Psalm 46:2
[71] Psalm, 149:3
[72] Duchesne, L., 1904, p. 46
[73] 3 King 19:11-13

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