Christianity and Culture

John Connelly, the sage of Regis High School in New York City, once told a class of 30 sixteen year-olds, "Gentlemen, the culture wars are over. We lost." The class's discussion was emphatically not about any number of hot button social or political issues of the day. In fact, the reading assignment we were discussing described the way nineteenth-century German scholars came to define academic curricula, about what counted as classics, and whether literary works written in modern languages were worthy of study. At the time, these seemed to be recondite matters, worthy of academic study, perhaps, but not the sort of thing to keep me up at night. But I've come to realize that the discussion those German scholars had was more influential than even they realized. Our entire education system owes a lot more to nineteenth-century Germany than it does to laws written in state or local capitols or to popular magazine rankings. If the culture wars are over, that's largely because weve largely forgotten how history influences who we are.

At least, most of us have. There are people like Brian Daley, SJ who haven't, and we should all be thankful thathis scholarly work helps keep alive cultural possibilities that most of us never knew existed. Last weekend Pope Benedict XVI awarded Daley and the French historian of philosophy Remi Brague the Ratzinger Prize, which has been described as the Nobel Prize in theology. During the ceremony, the Pope said, "Father Daley and Professor Brague are exemplary for the transmission of knowledge that unites science and wisdom, scientific rigor and passion for man, so that man might discover the [true] art of living. The Pope also said It is of precisely such people who, through an enlightened and lived faith render God credible and close to the man of today." Although some Catholic news services have mentioned the story, I don't think it has quite gotten its due. (You can see a short article on the prize here, and you can see a video of the awards ceremony here.)

Fr Daley is a historical theologian at the University of Notre Dame, although he would argue that the term "historical theologian" is redundant. Every Christian theologian must concern himself or herself with history because Christians believe that God entered history in the person of Jesus Christ. To consider history is also to consider culture, and so Christian theologians must wrestle with the languages and cultures in which the Church has taken root and grown. For a Christian to neglect history and culture is for him or her to neglect the Incarnation. And if the Christian neglects history and culture, he or she also neglects the role of the Spirit in the life of the Church.

Daley's great contributions to the history of Christian theology have been studies of how Christians in the first seven centuries spoke about Jesus. These Christians understood that the only way Jesus could be praised properly, and the only way the Bible could be understood correctly, was if they had a common language to describe Jesus person and his mission. I won't get into that entire history here, but it is certainly enough to say that most Christians today use language that was forged at the Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451).

Yet to say that Christians use that language is not to say that Christians completely understand what it means. And here Daleys work is especially important. What exactly does begotten, not made mean? Consubstantial? Two natures in one person? These terms are no less clear in the original Greek, yet coming to terms with the cultural context in which they arose can help Christians link their praise of Jesus Christ with the praise of their predecessors.

Daley's scholarly work includes more than 60 scholarly articles on figures such as Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Leontius of Byzantium and many, many others. He has written a book on eschatology (the study of the last things) in the early Church, and he has written another book that is a translation and commentary on early Christian homilies on Marys dormition. He translated and commented on Hans Urs von Balthasars Cosmic Liturgy: The Univerise according to Maximus the Confessor.

My own favorite, though, is his book on Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), in which he gives a thorough introduction to Gregory's life, times, and work, and in which he translates some of Gregory's orations, poems, and letters. Gregory was a bishop, rhetorician, poet, and one of the most important theologians in the Christian tradition. His epithet is simply the Theologian. Gregory was a stout defender of the Council of Nicea, and Christians still use his formulations to talk about the human and divine natures in Christ and the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. In his account of the Theologian, Daley stresses that the Gregory was not only a great theological figure, he was also a great cultural figure. Many compare his Greek favorably with Demosthenes', some think his poetry rivals Homer's. Gregory translated the Christian message into the language of the educated Greek society of his day.

Such translation has always been a vital part of Christianity from Peter and Paul to Daley's fellow Jesuits Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci to our own day. Brian Daley does far more, though, than make the riches of early Christianity accessible to a contemporary audience. Through his preaching, his indefatigable teaching and mentoring at Notre Dame, his scholarship, his work on the Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue, and his contributions to the Society of Jesus, Daley shows his students and friends what it means to be a cultured Christian, translating, in his life, the history of Christianity into our contemporary culture.

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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