Faith and Culture: Chalk and Cheese or Fish and Chips?




Chalk and cheese do not mix, they belong in completely separate categories: Fish and Chips, as my waistline can testify, are made for each other. Why do I begin like this? Well, an important part of our work in CASE ( The Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation ) involves making connections between ‘Faith and Culture'. Are Faith and culture chalk and cheese or fish and chips? Does our faith exist as something so different from our experience of the world that we should treat culture as something entirely other, separate from our faith life? Or is our faith fully part of our culture, something that shapes the patterns of human living in the world?

The answer is somewhere between these but much closer to being the second. While Faith and Culture are not identical they are in a very close relationship. Christian faith is more than any culture, but it can be lived in every culture. Cultures are essential locations of our faith and religious practice and belief and spirituality are significant parts of cultures. Indeed the cultic has always been one of the most obvious elements of most human cultures.

Part of my own background has been the theology and practice of Christian Mission in Africa . Much discussion in that context has been about ‘cross-cultural mission'. The presumption is that the Christian Gospel comes from a European or North American cultural context yet needs to be proclaimed in African cultures. This requires much effort in understanding the languages and meaning systems and patterns of behaviour that exist in Africa , so that the missionaries can discern the shape of Christ in and for those cultures. This involves much listening, dialogue and the search for the dynamic equivalents which make communication possible.

Africa , in the European imagination, was often perceived as the ultimate other – ‘the dark continent' and European missionaries needed to take very seriously the otherness of Africans. The stereotypes of missionary practice might suggest that late nineteenth century missionaries approached this otherness by making African Christians Europeans – by initiating them into European culture – in dress, in language, in music and in faith. However, the later twentieth century began reframing this otherness in terms of ‘inculturation' – how can Christianity be expressed in African cultures? How can we develop authentically African Christians? How can Africans foster their own Christian genius?

These ways of thinking may not be entirely inappropriate in the UK. We are living in a time of extraordinary cultural change. There often does seem a split between our faith and our cultures. Today's British cultures often seem distant from the vision of human living that we expect – it is easy to say that we live in a Post-Christian, or at least Post-Christendom, society. Given this, we shall have to learn a new language and understand new meaning systems that we may translate the Gospel into these new cultural contexts.

There is an important task of discerning the shape of Christ which can be recognised today. To proclaim the Gospel does mean communicating it in ways that make sense to those who need to hear. The task before the Church is to present a living hope to people who seem to have lost their Christian memory. The Church must connect with people.

But let me return to Africa. The great success of Christian mission in Africa was not cross-cultural but more about what happened when people within a culture touched their families, friends and neighbours. It was Africans who converted Africa. African faithful men and women - catechists and teachers and interpreters and religious and priests - really communicated the Gospel in Africa. Too much thinking locates culture as something outside us.

We are part of contemporary British cultures. We are not outsiders but insiders. Each of us is a cultural being and we are all remarkably fluent in contemporary culture. That fluency is not the analytic academic dissection of culture but rather it is daily living. The healing of the split between faith and culture is something that happens inside each of us and inside our own social networks. In how we live and how we relate to others we embody Christ's Gospel in our present experiences. Our faith and our life should be a rich synthesis – or to put it in more gastronomic terms, our daily lives and our faith come together with the same happy combination as fish and chips.

Fr Philip Knights CASE