Culture, Identity and Church Unity

By Ratzinger, Joseph | The Ecumenical Review, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Culture, Identity and Church Unity


Ratzinger, Joseph, The Ecumenical Review


In August 1971 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, gave the following presentation as a member of the WCC-administered Faith and Order Commission at its meeting in Louvain, Belgium. The commission was reviewing a report on "The Unity of the Church and the Unity of Humanity".

If one attempts to do justice to the relation between Christian faith and culture in the contemporary world, one encounters the fact that the phenomenon of culture presents itself today in a twofold and somewhat antagonistic form. This fact requires us to take into account the problem of church unity, and the question of the unity and division of humanity. Culture first appears in the historically developed civilizations and particular peoples -European, African, Asian, pre-Columbian American--each with its different characteristics. The whole is overlaid today, however, with a single technological culture which, though it can be compared with other cultures, increasingly determines the situation of humanity. It has produced a unity of mankind such as never existed before. But it has also created tensions, because it has not been able to answer the essential questions of man and is thus, humanly considered, "particular" and can be used as an instrument of particularism. It has thus indirectly led to a re-animation of national cultures, in which men attempt to maintain unity with their own history, with their historical "identity". This overlaying of two unlike but nevertheless related forms of culture creates two "fronts" on which theology and the church must maintain themselves.

1. For the "younger churches" there is the urgent task of a fruitful encounter with the history and culture of their own peoples and also with their religious tradition, and such encounters naturally have profound counter-effects upon the whole church. That the church has not fully "arrived" as long as it remains a mere Western import is denied by no one today. Even so, it is clear that faith can be identified with no form of culture. Faith must again and again be translated anew, and translation means to penetrate the form of thinking and living, not merely to change the words. On the other hand, translation also means identity in essentials. Yet how can one discover this essence, since it never appears in pure form, but always only in historical forms which, as such, are not absolute? The Christ event itself is an event in space and time, i.e. in a particular, in itself accidental, cultural situation; and again, it appears to us never otherwise than in the partly accidental interpretation of the first witnesses. What in this accidental aspect has become necessity by virtue of the eternal significance of Jesus Christ? How far must we all, in order to be Christians, become Jews and Greeks? The questions can be made more concrete: How far are all Christological titles irreplaceable, or how far can or must they be supplemented by new ones? What in Christian liturgy belongs to the proper order of the liturgical year, in order that it should remain Christian, and what is changeable? It will be clear that the mere concept of the incarnation is insufficient: incarnation does not come to us in a unilinear way, but only brokenly, through death and resurrection. It is also clear that the first appropriation of the Christian message in the earliest church has the character of a model; Jewish and Greek culture here undergo a certain crucifixion: existing concepts and forms were broken up and so brought to a new fruitfulness.

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