Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Benedict's Flawed Understanding of Evangelism

Pope Benedict grew up surrounded
by the rich cultural heritage of the 
Catholic Baroque in his native
  In a recent posting (July 30), I mentioned that the re-Christianization of Europe is a priority for the papal ministry of Pope Benedict XVI.  Indeed, when Josef Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005 he chose the regnal name Benedict precisely because Saint Benedict, the great sixth century Abbot and monastic lawgiver is both one of the patron saints of Europe and the patron saint of culture.  Benedict’s followers, the great Benedictine Order of Monks and Nuns, has been one of the great sources of European—and thus Western—Culture.  We will do some entries on Benedict (the Abbot, not the Pope) sometime soon, but much of western art and architecture, music, literature and other cultural manifestations was conserved by or created for the Abbeys and monasteries of this Order.  Since the ninth century, and to some degree even before, the Benedictines have been great educators and their abbey schools—and this is true for the nuns as well as the monks—kept the liberal arts alive through the Viking invasions and incessant feudal warfare of the Central Middle Ages.  Names like the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, Suger, Peter the Venerable, Abelard (albeit somewhat reluctantly a monk), Heloise (as a second career), Hildegard of Bingen and other luminaries of the eighth through the thirteenth centuries are associated with the Benedictine Order.  Cluny, Westminster, Saint Gall, Monte Cassino, Saint Denis, the Nonnberg, and the great English Cathedral priories are (or were) all  Benedictine foundations.  So Benedict, both the pope and the saint, deserve our acknowledgement; but still it must be said that the pope gets culture wrong.   
     The Holy Father is a refined and cultured relic of the pre-Hitler German bourgeoisie.  His father, also Josef, recognized how Hitler’s policies were not only evil but undermined the rich German cultural heritage that had been so shaped by Christian faith and practice and was a firm anti-Nazi. Nevertheless the senior Ratzinger was a policeman who served in the German police both before and during the Hitler regime, retiring at the age of 60 in 1937.  The future pope had two older siblings—his brother Georg (also a priest) and his sister, Maria, who never married and kept house for Josef until her death twenty years ago.  The family were devoutly Catholic and like most Bavarian townspeople of the inter-war years wanted a classical education and exposure to German culture for their sons.  In school Josef studied Latin, Greek and French (subsequently he has learned several other languages) .  He also studied piano and is an amateur classical pianist.  (His brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, is an acknowledged musician, director of the famous Regensburg Dom (Cathedral) choir.  Georg claims that his brother has an “interesting” approach to Mozart and other German composers).  Ratzinger’s early education, typical to both his peasant/bourgeois background and seminary education, was remarkably narrow and while exposed to the artifacts of culture seems never to have explored the concept of culture itself.  While he became a significant theologian—in his own right and not merely as pope—his university studies would have focused quite narrowly on the philosophical grounds of theological reflection and it seems quite unlikely that he ever did address the issue of culture qua culture.  His mistake, and it is a common one and one shared by most Americans, is to confuse “culture” with its products.  Culture is not music or art or literature, it is a system of values inculcated in the consciousness, subconscious, and unconscious of a people.  It is a weltanschauung (a word often translated as “worldview” but meaning something even more pervasive) both unarticulated and articulated at every level of the society whose “culture” it is.  It is this set of fundamental understandings that influence and produce the art, the music, the literature, the architecture and every other expression of the society, including its religion. 
      As Ratzinger knew well growing up in Hitler’s Germany with its attempted revival of the ancient German mythology, the pre-Christian Nordic culture gave the German people a vivid but violent—extremely violent—vision of the world and their place in it.  Christianity came along and modified, indeed drastically altered this culture which is one of the reasons that the Hitler regime planned ultimately to destroy Christianity and replace it with a Germanic neo-paganism.  Indeed, while German Protestantism fragmented into different factions—some working with the Regime to varying degrees while the Confessing Church remained opposed to Hitler—in some Protestant Churches particularly tied to the government, the so-called “German Christians,” the Old Testament was rejected, the altar bible was replaced by Hitler’s Mein Kampf  and the cross by an upraised sword.   Both this Nazi altered “Christianity” and the more overt neo-pagan revival encouraged by such Nazis as Alfred Rosenberg saw that the introduction of Christianity to the Germanic peoples in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages weakened the German Spirit.  The Catholic interpretation of the same phenomenon, a view espoused by Ratzinger and indeed by most Euro-centric historians, is that Christianity and its Gospel transformed, indeed purified, the ancient Nordic—and Celtic, Slavic and other European root cultures—from their violent self-identities and unified them in a common culture that brought a civilizing Christian humanism to Europe and from Europe in the age of colonization to the larger world.   
      There is truth to this theory, but there are also dangers and, true or not, it doesn’t correct the mistaken view that culture consists of its products and that the task before us is to reinforce the products—the classical literature, art, music, etc.  After all, while rejecting the Christian contribution to European Culture, the Nazis kept—and manipulated to their own non-Christian ends—much of the product, whether the great classical German musical heritage so valued by Ratzinger himself, or the art, or the literature.  But much like the Nazi philosophers, the Europeanists presume that European culture is inherently superior to other cultures;  its music, art, etc. superior to that of other cultures; and that Christianity is exclusively linked to European culture.   I write this as a person who prefers Mozart to Indian music, Shakespeare to Kabuki, and Michelangelo to Aztec pottery, but I realize that is my subjective preference and does not denote an objective superiority of my cultural tastes over others.  And while I may prefer a Latin Sung Mass (or an Italian Opera for that matter) over an African Liturgy with drums and dancers, that does not mean that my preferred liturgy is more Christian, more pleasing to God, or more effective a means of salvation than an a Mariachi Mass, a “Guitar Mass,” or a Gospel Mass.   
        Two millennia of European Christian cultural tradition does not mean that the Christian faith and liturgy cannot be refitted into Japanese Culture,  Australian Aboriginal Culture, or the First Nations Culture of the Canadian West.  Christianity is not indigenous to Europe.  A Semitic system of doctrine and a Jewish practice of prayer had to be adapted to the Graeco-Roman world in the second and third centuries and then again adapted and adopted into the cultures of the ancient Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic peoples from the fourth through the eleventh centuries.  It has given us the beauties of the Russian Divine Liturgy, the devout Bach’s superb settings for the (Lutheran) Mass, the Catholic glories of the agnostic Mozart, and the ambiguously Catholic-Anglican liturgical settings of Tallis and Byrd.  But none of this is culture—it is only the manifestation of culture and that Christian culture can manifest itself in a wide variety of world cultures today if only we learn to think outside the very limiting box of what has  been and learn the possibilities of what can be for Christ’s Church and his Gospel.  A reformation today must be one that is open and inclusive ; not a looking back towards an admittedly glorious past but a looking forward to the New Creation Jesus proclaimed as the Kingdom of God    

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