I was re-reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address–famous for the supposed link he makes between Islam and violence–when I came across this bit on “Hellenization,” or the shaping of Christian thought by Greek culture. He notes that this development has come under significant attack in the past century, as something foreign to biblical thought itself. The Pope’s response to these claims are nuanced:
In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieu. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
This states something quite different than a simple defense of the development of Christian thought in Greek thought-forms and language, a blind reassertion of the Hellenization process. Instead, what must be preserved is the concordance of faith and reason recognized in this process. Not necessarily those “elements” unique to Greek culture. But also, Christianity was born in lands breathing this culture–even in Israel itself, a process of Hellenization had taken place. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was that most widely known by Jews in the first century. The New Testament, itself written in Greek (except perhaps Matthew), “bears the imprint of the Greek spirit.” There can be no simple translation, then, from the New Testament to cultures other than those influenced by Greek ways of thinking, other, that is, than Western cultures. There is no bare return. The New Testament is itself doused in Hellenism. But there may be reasonable ways to express its truth in terms recognizable to cultures-other-than-Western.
My pastor this morning spoke of the God of new beginnings. The Catholic Church in Ireland certainly needs such a new beginning. The unequivocal condemnation of child abuse is prominent in the Pope’s Friday letter to the Catholics there. Priests who are guilty of this crime “must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals” (§7). To begin the healing process, “the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children” (§2). It is reminiscient of Paul’s judgment: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate… And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?… With such persons do not even eat” (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 11).
Yet, the future is not utterly bleak. In equal measure with condemnation, the Pope speaks of hope for “the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church” (§9). The Pope speaks with deep compassion, having met with many victims of sexual abuse in the Church: “I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them” (§5). He prays that they do not despair:
At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning. (§6)
I hope and pray too the Church in Ireland can emerge from its darkest and most hopeless situation. You can find the full text of the Pope’s letter here.
Today marks the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s actually eight days, as the placement of this week (between January 18 and 25 each year) stretches from the Feast of St. Peter to the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on the Christian calendar–two significant dates for two significant figures in the early Church. The theme for this year’s week is Mark 7.37: “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
For a great overview of the history and purpose of this week, see this article by the BBC. I would ask that you join with me in prayer for the unity of the broad Christian tradition, across denominational and theological lines. I plan on posting my own prayer here each day for the next week.
Lord, on this first day of the week of prayer for Christian unity, I ask that You would draw together Your fractured and splintering body. Let us see in the face of our separated brothers and sisters Your face, Lord. Let us love one another as You have loved us in Christ. Draw us together for the sake of this hurting and broken world, and move our hearts to offer ourselves to You as living sacrifices.
I pray especially on this feast day of Peter for the Catholic Church. May she, together with the rest of Your Church, be continually converted to You, and continually renewed in You. Grant her strength of Your Spirit as she continues to be at work in very difficult situations throughout Your world. I ask for goodwill on the part of the Catholic Church toward her Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters. May the same be true of those churches.
I pray also for Pope Benedict, that You would grant him clarity of thought and vision; and even more than this, that he would love You with all of his heart, mind, soul and strength, and that he would guide his Church on the path to the Cross, first walked by Your Son. I pray that You would grant him humility, as he continues to set out each day as a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.
All these things I pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.