Speaking in Many Tongues

Why the Church Must Be More Catholic
Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens. 1515

By now, much of the world knows about the uproar caused by Pope Benedict XVI’s September lecture at the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria. In his lectio magistralis Benedict quoted a text of the fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, which asserted that the advent of Mohammed had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Calling the emperor “erudite,” Benedict cited these words without any rejection, either explicit or implicit, of the view they set forth, and the resulting perception of disrespect for the Prophet triggered violent reactions in parts of the Muslim world, possibly including the retaliatory murder of an Italian nun in Somalia. In the aftermath, the pope expressed deep regret for the reactions his speech had caused (though not for making the speech itself), and Vatican officials and church leaders hastened to affirm his profound respect for Islam and commitment to interreligious dialogue.

Meetings with representatives of various Muslim governments and with Muslim religious leaders were organized; indeed, the end of November found Benedict visiting Turkey, amid an atmosphere fraught with political and religious tension, spreading a message of goodwill and love. But while attempts to clarify Benedict’s view of Islam and to restore harmony between the Catholic Church and Islam are urgently needed, lost in the furor is another aspect of the pope’s lecture at Regensburg, one which, perhaps more than his statement on Islam, holds tremendous long-term implications for the future of the Catholic Church, especially in the so-called Third World. I am referring to his remarks on “inculturation.”

Benedict’s notion of inculturation

As hinted at in its title-“Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections”-the pope’s lecture at Regensburg took up his vision of the intrinsic and crucial harmony between faith and reason. According to Benedict, severing the link between these two realities leads to violence in religion and to “jihad” or “holy war,” the practice of conversion by the sword.

Ranging through theology and history, the pope argues that the Christian unity of faith and reason emerged from the encounter between the Bible and Greek philosophy, with its concept of logos. He goes so far as to state that “the encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance,” and he interprets Paul’s dream (in Acts 16) of a Macedonian man pleading with him to evangelize his region, as “a ‘distillation’ of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry.” For Benedict, “it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.” In his view, this “critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith.” Benedict sees today’s dangerous cleavage between faith and reason not only in the Islamic concept of God, but also in a process which has occurred over the centuries in Europe, one the pope calls “de-Hellenization.”

In broad historical strokes, the pope outlines this de-Hellenizing process in three stages. The first began with the Protestant Reformation, with its sola scriptura principle. The second stage was ushered in by the liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The third stage, which Benedict calls “inculturation,” is now in progress. It is important to understand Benedict’s thinking on inculturation-what his predecessor John Paul II referred to in his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris missio, as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.” In a nutshell, Benedict holds that the “Greek heritage” forms “an integral part of Christian faith”; the New Testament, he notes, was “written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit.” In light of this foundational imprint, it is “false” (falsch), “coarse” (vergröbert), and “lacking in precision” (ungenau) to hold that one must “return to the simple message of the New Testament,” bypassing its Greek heritage, “in order to inculturate it anew” in different cultures. While there exist elements in this Greek heritage that need not be “integrated into all cultures,” Benedict acknowledges, the “fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason”-presumably about the need for reason to be open to faith, and about the intrinsic mutual harmony of the two-are “part of the faith itself.”

With this emphasis on the Greek heritage as part of the Christian faith, Benedict notably does not advocate a return to the premodern age; on the contrary, he says, “the positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly.” Nor is he opposed to a “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions”; rather, he maintains the need for “listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular.” At issue, therefore, is not whether inculturation, understood broadly as dialogue between the Christian faith and the cultures to which it is proclaimed, should exist-indeed, what Benedict terms “the Greek heritage” is itself the fruit of inculturation. At issue is, first, whether the Greek heritage is in fact “an integral part of the Christian faith” and, second, whether inculturation is best understood as part of the de-Hellenizing project.That the Greek heritage is “an integral part of the Christian faith” seems at first a historical truism. Yet recent church and missions historiography has challenged the thesis underlying Benedict’s claim that Christianity “took on its historically decisive character in Europe.” What Benedict considers secondary for Christianity, namely its origins in the East, is increasingly regarded as indispensable to a correct understanding of contemporary Christianity. Furthermore, the doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiastical developments of Christianity in the East are in fact increasingly recognized as numerous, vital, and of enduring significance today.


The emergence of ‘World Christianity’

In a noteworthy development, historians of Christianity have lately taken to calling it a world religion. “World Christianity” connotes the increasing awareness that Christianity, contrary to how it is often portrayed in the popular imagination and in standard textbooks of church history, is not a Western religion.

Partly as a result of a jaundiced reading of Acts, Christianity has traditionally been portrayed as a movement which, though born in Asia or the Middle East, quickly moved to the eastern part of the Roman Empire through Asia Minor and to Rome itself, where Peter and Paul completed their apostolic careers. From Rome-and later from other European countries-the Christian Church (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) subsequently dispatched its missionaries to all corners of the globe: a Western religion, according to this conventional narrative, out to evangelize and civilize the pagan and barbarian non-Western world. Today, church historians recognize that the roots of Christianity are sunk deeper in the East than in the West, and that its beliefs and practices, though eventually packaged in Greek, Latin, and Teutonic categories and exported to the so-called mission lands, cannot be fully understood apart from their Semitic, and more broadly, Asian origins. Additionally, an awareness of the diversity of early Christianity has grown so dramatically that it would be more accurate to speak of “Christianities,” in the plural, with their enormous variety of languages, cultures, theologies, liturgies, and church practices. Even the so-called Western Christianity was far from being monolithic; as historian Peter Brown has shown, it contained great linguistic and cultural diversity, for example in Noricum, Ireland, Francia, Frisia, Germany, and Rome (see Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD 200-1000).

Historical studies of early Christian missions have also shown the fallacy of the conventional reading of Acts, with its version of the Christian expansion toward Rome and the West. In fact, in the first four centuries, the most successful fields of mission were not Europe but West Asia and Africa, with Syria as the center of gravity of Christianity before 500. The most vibrant and influential Christian centers were found in Asian and African cities such as Damascus and Alexandria, Axum and Antioch (where, incidentally, the followers of Jesus first became known as “Christians”); and in countries such as Armenia (the first Christian nation), India, and somewhat later, in China. Of the five ancient patriarchates, only Rome was located in the West, and of the remaining four, three were located in Asia (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople) and one in Africa (Alexandria).

Doctrinally, the first seven ecumenical councils, from Nicaea I in 325 to Nicaea II in 787, were all held in the East. The greatest theologians of the early church were also working not in what is now conventionally designated as Europe but in Africa and Asia, even though most of them wrote in Greek: Origen, Bar-Daisan, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Cyril; the list goes on and on. Even those who became influential in the West originally came from Asia, such as Justin and Irenaeus, and Latin theological luminaries such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine hailed from North Africa. As for spirituality, monasticism was an invention of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers. In light of all this, it seems highly simplistic to claim, as Benedict does, that “Christianity...finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”

Even the so-called European or Western Christianity was rooted in the Greco-Roman civilization of the Mediterranean world, a civilization made up of various elements of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and West Asian cultures. In addition, what is eventually referred to as “European civilization” was not the only one claiming to be the inheritor of Greco-Roman civilization; besides the Holy Roman Empire, two other empires, namely Byzantium and Islam, also contended for the same title. Alongside Christianity, Judaism and Islam have contributed significantly to the formation of “Europe.” Within this Europe, Christianity was never monolithic but pluralistic and multiple.

If this is the reality of Christianity, then surely we need a better narrative of the Christian movement than the one peddled by standard textbooks of church history. And serious attempts have been made recently in this direction, by church historians such as Walbert Bühlmann, Andrew Walls, Enrique Dussel, Lamin Sanneh, Dale Irvin, Scott Sunquist, and many others. Sanneh-to cite the work of just one author-has been exploring the ways in which Christianity diversified as it moved from continent to continent, country to country, and culture to culture. In contrast to Islam, which remains entrenched in its birthplace of Mecca and Medina and retains the exclusive authority of Qur’anic Arabic, Christianity, as Sanneh points out, ceased from its very beginnings to worship in the language of its founder and recorded his words and deeds in Koine Greek. For Sanneh, translation, then as now, is the privileged medium whereby Christianity is interpreted and appropriated to fit the local culture. Sanneh notes in missions study a shift from “global Christianity” to “world Christianity”-from the kind of Christianity that is a reduplication of Western churches in mission lands, to a Christianity “received and expressed through the cultures, customs, and traditions” of the societies that preexisted it. “World Christianity,” he notes in Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, “is not one thing, but a variety of indigenous responses through more or less effective local idioms.”

To illustrate the historical developments of Christianity then, perhaps the most accurate image is not a many-branched vertical tree, whose trunk represents the European Corpus Christianum of Christendom, but a rhizome-a plant with a subterranean, horizontal root system that grows below and above ground and moves crab-like in all directions. There have always been Christianities, even in Roman Catholicism, which, of all denominations, has most strongly and persistently promoted uniformity and centralization-fortunately, in my view, to no avail. Inculturation, not de-Hellenization Current demographic changes suggest that the future of Christianity lies in the non-Western parts of the globe.

This massive shift of the Christian population from north (Europe and North America) to south (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), a fact long known among missiologists, was recently brought to the attention of the larger public by Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. If today’s trends continue, by 2025 the world will hold 2.6 billion Christians, half of whom will live in Africa and Latin America. By 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. This demographic shift inevitably raises the question of whether in the twenty-first century and beyond, the Christianity of the “South” must express itself with the “Greek heritage” that Benedict calls “an intrinsic part of the Christian faith.” Of course, the answer depends on what one means by “intrinsic” and “Christian faith.” That the Greek heritage, however one describes it, is part of the Christian theological tradition is beyond doubt, and hence it is reasonable to expect a non-Western theologian to be familiar with it.

By the same token, it is also reasonable-more than ever-to expect the Western theologian to be conversant with the theologies developed in other parts of the globe. And even if one grants, for the sake of argument, that a New Testament written in Greek “bears the imprint of the Greek spirit,” as Benedict says, still it cannot be true that living the Christian faith depends categorically on embracing this “Greek spirit”- whatever this is. Such a limiting spirit would indeed jeopardize the catholicity of the Christian faith and of Christianity itself. That this Greek heritage has not been a part of many Christian churches-in the past as well as now-needs no lengthy demonstration. One must not forget the Church of the East or the Assyrian Church (together with the St. Thomas Christians and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India, as well as the Chaldeans in communion with Rome and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India) and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (that is, the Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, and Syrian Orthodox). These churches, though not without some Greek influence, have developed their own non-Greek theologies and liturgies in West and East Syriac, Coptic, Ge’ez, Amharic, Armenian, and Arabic.

Not acknowledging their non-Greek heritage is not only a serious historical injustice, but also a tragedy since these churches-most of them located in the Middle East-are experiencing a severe decline due to persecution, war, and violence. So the issue of whether it is possible to go back to the message of the gospel, to understand it and to live it, without going through the Greek heritage is an urgent question. And again, the question has been settled historically. To take one example, when the East Syrian Christians came to China in the seventh century, they faced the challenge of communicating their faith to the Chinese. A large black stone stele, erected in 781 and discovered some eight centuries later near Xi’an (site of the ancient imperial capital of Ch’ang-an), contains a text of eighteen hundred Chinese characters and about seventy Syriac words together with a long list of names of Persian or Syrian missionaries. The text contains a lengthy exposition of the Christian faith in prose and a shorter summary in verse. The exposition refers to the Trinity, the creation of the world, the original fall of humanity, Satan’s rule, the Incarnation, salvation, the Bible, baptism, evangelization, the Eucharist, and such other essentials of Christian belief and practice as could be chiseled into the limited space of a stone stele.

Both a tool of and a testament to inculturation, the stele text discloses a missionary attempt to make Christianity understandable through recourse to Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist concepts and terminologies. The author, Adam (whose Chinese name is Jing-jing), describes God as “unchanging in perfect repose,” a formula used by the Tao Te Ching to describe the Tao (Way). He speaks of some people mistakenly identifying “nonexistence” (the Taoist “nameless nothingness”) with “existence,” and refers to Christianity as the ever-true and unchanging “Tao” itself. Jesus is said to have established his “new teaching of nonassertion,” the key Taoist notion of wu wei; to have “hung up the bright sun” (meaning the crucifixion), taken an oar in “the vessel of mercy” (the bodhisattva or the Guan Yin), and “ascended to the Palace of Light.” God is said to have produced “the four cardinal points” (a basic concept of Chinese geomancy) and “the two principles of nature,” the “yin and yang” of Taoist and Confucian cosmology. The Messiah is said to teach “how to rule both families and kingdoms”-a Confucian phrase in the book of Great Learning. Like the “Dunhuang Documents” found in the library of the Dunhuang grottoes, the stele provides a rich insight into the Christianity of the T’ang period, and reveals a serious effort at interpreting the Christian faith in non-Greek concepts and terminology. Today, many Asian and African theologians are attempting to express the Christian faith in terms of the cultures and religions of their peoples. Their works, too well known and too numerous to mention here, are inspired neither by a logos-versus-will theology of God (the pope attributes this to Duns Scotus), nor by a de-Hellenizing agenda (the pope discerns this in the Reformation and liberal theology).

Rather they are sustained by the belief that the Spirit of God is redemptively present in their own cultures and religions, just as it was in the Greek. In his Regensburg lecture, Benedict asserted that “the encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.” True enough. But the encounters between the biblical message and the Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Assyrian, Indian, and Chinese cultures in the early centuries of Christianity did not happen by chance either. They too occurred under the power of the Holy Spirit, within God’s providential design. Consequently, all these cultures-no less than the Greek-form an integral part of the Christian faith, or more exactly, of Christian theology. Such a recognition arises out of a deep concern for the future of Christianity. A statement of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences put it starkly thirty years ago: “The decisive new phenomenon for Christianity in Asia will be the emergence of genuine Christian communities in Asia-Asian in their way of thinking, praying, living, communicating their own Christ-experiences to others.... If the Asian churches do not discover their own identity, they will have no future.”

Therein lies the challenge for Christian theology to come. If Benedict could quote a Byzantine emperor, is it too far-fetched to imagine that a future pope will quote the sayings of Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and other wise men and women of non-Christian religions? Perhaps it is not too audacious to imagine that by doing so, this future pope will provoke not violent reactions but universal rejoicing as he recognizes the truly universal presence of Holy Wisdom in human history.

Published in the 2007-01-12 issue: 

Peter C. Phan, a Vietnamese American, holds the Ignacio Ellacuría Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University. He has written or edited more than twenty books and three hundred essays. His latest work includes a trilogy: Christianity with an Asian Face, In Our Own Tongues, and Being Religious Interreligiously (Orbis Books). This essay has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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