Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On the Occasion of the Visit of Benedict XVI to the United States

Images stick: “Slit the Fig”

or The Relation Between Gospel and Culture

In explaining the relation between faith and culture[1], then Joseph Ratzinger quoted the Old Testament prophet Amos who said: “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7, 14). He went on: “The Greek version, the Septuagint (LXX) translation of this prophetic book [which is not merely a transliteration of the Hebrew], renders the latter expression more vividly as follows: ‘I was one who slits the fruit of the sycamore.’ The translation is based on the fact that the fruit or ‘figs’ of the sycamore must be slit before they are picked so that they will ripen within a few days. In his commentary on Isaiah 9, 10, Basil presupposes this practice, for he writes:

“The sycamore is a tree that bears very plentiful fruit. But it is tasteless unless one carefully slits it and allows its sap to run out, whereby it becomes flavorful. That is why, we believe, the sycamore is a symbol for the pagan world: it offers a surplus, yet at the same time it is insipid. This comes from living according to pagan customs. When one manages to slit them by means of the Logos, it [the pagan world] is transformed, becomes tasty and useful.”

“Christian Gnilka comments as follows upon this passage:

“In this symbol are found the plenteousness, the wealth, the luxuriance fo the pagan world…, but its deficiency is found therein as well. As it is, it is insipid, unusable. It needs a complete transformation, whereby the change does not destroy its substance; rather it is recognized as an advantage… On the other hand, the necessary transformation can scarcely be more keenly evident in this image than through the fact that whata formerly could not be enjoyed now becomes edible. In the ‘running out’ of the sap, furthermore, the process of purification is suggested.”

“One other point: The necessary transformation cannot come from the tree itself and its fruit – and intervention of the dresser, an intervention from outside, is necessary. Applied to the pagan world, to what is characteristic of human culture, this means: The Logos itself must slit our cultures and their fruit, so that what is unusable is purified and becomes not only usable but good…. Yes ultimately only the Logs himself can guide our cultures to their true purity and maturity, but the Logos makes us his servants, the ‘dresser of sycamore trees.’ The necessary intervention requires understanding, familiarity with the fruit and its ripening process, experience, and patience…. The gospel does not stand ‘beside’ culture. It is addressed, not merely to the individual, but to the culture itself, which leaves its mark on the spiritual growth and development of the individual, his fruitfulness or unfruitfulness with respect to God and to the world. Evangelization is not simply adaptation to the culture, either, nor is it dressing up the gospel with elements of the culture, along the lines of a superficial notion of inculturation that supposes that, with modified figures of speech and a few new elements in the liturgy, the job is done. No, the gospel is a slit, a purification that becomes maturation and healing. It is a cut that demands patient involvement and understanding, so that it occurs at the right time, in the right place, and in the right way, a cut, then, that requires sympathy and understanding of the culture from within, an appreciation for its dangers and its hidden or evident potential. Thus it is clear also that this cut ‘is not a momentary effort that is automatically followed by a ripening process.’ Rather, an ongoing and patient encounter between the Logos and the culture is necessary, mediated by the service of the faithful.”

The Meaning of “Culture”[2]

All of this is preceded by what Ratzinger had worked up on the meaning of culture. First, he made it clear that the gospel is not embedded into a mind that is a blank slate (tabula rasa). “Man is never alone; he bears the stamp of a community that provides him with patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. This system of notions and thought patterns that preconditions the individual human being does by the name of culture. The first and foremost component of culture is the common language; then comes the constitution of the society, that is, the government with the subdivisions, then law, custom, moral concepts, art, forms of worship, and so on. ‘Culture’ is the system of the life into which the Word fo the gospel enters. It must make itself understood within it, and it should have some effect in it, make an impression on this entire pattern of life, be the leaven within it, so to speak, that permeates the whole thing. The gospel to a certain extent presupposes culture; it never replaces it, but it does leave its mark upon it. The nearest equivalent to our concept of culture in the Greek world is the word paideia – education in the highest sense, which guides a human being to genuine humanity. In Latin the same idea is expressed in the word erudtio: a man is freed from roughness [ex + rudis] and is trained in true manliness. In this sense the gospel is by its very essence paideia – culture, but in this education of man it joins forces with all the other factors that form humanity as a communal enterprise.”[3]

[1] J. Ratzinger, “On the Way to Jesus Christ,” Ignatius (2005) 42-47.
[2] It is worthwhile including that Karol Wojtyla philosophically crafted the meaning of culture in terms of the human person: “My reflection here on the constitution of culture through human praxis arise within the context of this controversy as well. They are intimately linked to an understanding of the human being as a person: a self-determining subject. Culture develops principally within this dimension, the dimension of self-determining subjects. Culture is basically oriented not so much toward the creation of human products as toward the creation of the human self, which then radiates out into the world of products;” “The Constitution of Culture Through Human Praxis” Person and Community Land (1993) 265.
[3] J. Ratzinger, op. cit. 43-44.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fr. Bob: Good to find you here. Can you list the several citations where we find the references of being as truly being-for. I have the Introduction to Christianity chapters, I have found Gaudium et Spes 24, but I also believe there might have been some references to the Trinitarian concept of personhood in the writings of JPII. On this particular blog, you need to address the mystery of evil. A dialogue is going on while a lot of evil is happening. It is like saying, the parents need to talk while the kids are burning the house down. The Logos is talking to the culture, meanwhile the culture is murdering its people. A few comments on this gruesome fact would help. The problem of time is in there somewhere. See ya, White Wulff