Our culture and the Church’s doctrine
With smiles on my face I watched on the internet how two Nigerian Catholic priests danced like King David to the sound of the African traditional flute common among the Igbo people of Nigeria. I sometimes feel that the sound of this flute “intoxicate” the people, it makes all of us so proud of been Africans, Nigerians and Igbo in particular. The flute sounded in the Church and the priests danced accordingly to the glory of God and to the admiration of the worshipers. But I became worried when I began to hear read some negative comments about the dance and the flute. The comments were made simply because the flute was blown in the Church and the priests danced also in the Church. I wondered what was wrong with it and asked myself if the Church’s doctrines and our cultures cannot embrace and find a common ground of agreement. Syncretism is far from what I mean and I stand against every form of liturgical destruction with all my strength. However, I am very much interested in the relationship between our cultures and the doctrines of the Church.
The word culture may be misunderstood, interpreted or translated in different ways. Its meaning may depend on the context in which it is used, but in this article it simply refers to the expression of who we are through our customs, arts, social institutions and other means by which we are able to express the “Africaness” in us. That was just what my brother priests expressed in their dance, they expressed the celebrating nature of the African people in appreciation for the goodness, power and holiness of God almighty. While on the other hand, doctrine is the Church’s teaching in matters of faith and morals.
This whole stuff about doctrine and culture reminds me of St. Paul’s experience at Athens. Paul walked through the streets of Athens and observed how religious the people were; in other words he observed their culture, their way of life and how they expressed themselves in arts and custom. He stood before the people and said, Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made of human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself give to all mortals life and breath and all things (Acts 17:22-25).
Paul did not condemn the people as such, he rather taught the people to understand and express their faith in God in a better and dignified way. King David recognized the dignity of God’s presence and danced to the glory of God; he certainly did not dance like an African man neither did he dance to the sound of an African flute but danced like his people and to the sound of their own music. My brother priests did as David did.
Though I strongly call for the appreciation of our cultures, we must however let the doctrines of the Church purify them. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines of the Church ranks higher and above every culture and so has the power to purify them. The doctrines of the Church are not opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one and the same Holy Spirit inspires them all and continue to inspire and guide the work of the Church. Letting the Holy Spirit purify our cultures through the doctrines of the Church is not a form of condemnation, I rather see in it what Paul did to the Athenians. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines of the Church, the “unknown god” is made manifest. If the African flute was blown for the glory of an unknown god, the Holy Spirit through the gospel and the doctrines of the Church teaches us to learn to do it for the glory of the one and only God who was, who is and who is to come. Our cultures must submit to God and glorify him, that is why not all forms of dances are allowed in our liturgical gathering even though inculturation is allowed. Inculturation is not a call to abuse liturgical celebration but to transmit the same liturgy to the people without any form of damage to it.
I appreciate the cultural display of my brother priests, but it must be watched so we don’t go to the extreme.