Christianity and Culture

By Geffre, Claude | International Review of Mission, January-April 1995 | Go to article overview

Christianity and Culture


Geffre, Claude, International Review of Mission


To begin with, I would like to state three convictions: first, the gospel is never confined to any one particular culture. It is concerned with the good of all people in time and space. Inasmuch as it is less a specific doctrine than the good news of salvation bound to the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is transcultural. Second, whatever its limitations and serious shortcomings, no human culture is a culture of death. Since the beginning of human existence, every culture has strained to transcend the immediacy of human needs and contained in itself transcendental values having to do with meaning and ethics. Third, throughout the history of the Christian church, inspite of failures and crises, there has been a mutual fertilization of Christianity and cultures. Cultures have helped Christianity to explicate its own riches and to universalize them. In return, Christianity has contributed towards the purification, development and transformation of the riches found in cultures.

I will proceed in five steps: first, I will begin by venturing the search for a definition of culture. Second, in view of a retrospective vision of historical Christianities, I would like to emphasize the new conjuncture of Christianity facing a plurality of cultures at the dawn of the third millenium. Next, I will reflect on the theological foundations of any inculturation of the Christian faith. Fourth, I will try to delineate several enduring criteria for the encounter of Christianity and cultures, and finally, by way of conclusion, I will argue that the faith of all times is necessarily conditioned and coloured by the cultural experiences of a given era.

The search for a definition of culture

Culture tends to be of greater importance in modern societies. It has of necessity acquired political and social dimensions. Therefore, culture can no longer be restricted to being a reference to particular works of art. Culture signifies a certain system of values and elements that induce modes of life. If culture has been granted such a prestigious role, at least in western societies, it is because it has far-reaching social and anthropological functions, and because it partially assumes the educational role that used to be undertaken by religion and the school.

There are hundreds of definitions of culture. From a descriptive point of view, culture may be defined as a combination of knowledge and technical, social, and ritual behaviour that characterizes a given human society. In a more detailed manner, the Second Vatican Council defined culture as follows:

The word "culture" in its general sense indicates all those factors by which man refines and unfolds his manifold spiritual and bodily qualities. It means his effort to bring the world itself under his control by his knowledge and labour. It includes the fact that by improving customs and institutions he renders social life more human both within the family and in the civic community. Finally, it is a feature of culture that throughout the course of time man [sic] expresses, communicates and conserves in his works great spiritual experiences and desires, so that these may be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family."(1)

On a more reflective level, it seems to me important to recall that every culture necessarily maintains a privileged relationship with life, history, ethics and religion.

First, cultures are comparable to living beings, which grow and which, in order to survive, have to discard some elements while acquiring and developing others. It is the strong bond existing between culture and concrete human life that allows one to assert that the reducing of life by the success of fantastic scientific models may lead to a form of barbarism, namely, the destruction of culture.(2) The latter is nothing more than life in the process of self-transformation, and its essential components will certainly always be related to art, ethics and religion. …

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