recognize, preserve, promote

This story from the Acts of the Apostles today[i], about Peter realizing that the Spirit had descended upon the Gentiles and wondering aloud how baptism could be withheld from them, reminded me of two other stories. One we heard recently, also from the Acts of the Apostles, about Philip baptizing the eunuch.[ii] But it also called to mind to me the story in the Book of Numbers, when Moses appoints 70 elders to become prophets. Two men were outside the camp––Eldad and Medad––but the spirit rested on them, too, and they also started prophesying in the camp. When Joshua complained to Moses about it, Moses said, ‘Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!’[iii] As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, ‘The wind blows where it chooses … So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’[iv]

With my friend Patrick Tam, a catechist for the Diocese of Fairbanks, during my trip there in 2005.

It also reminded me of an experience I had some years ago. I was in Alaska in 2005. I have a friend who lives there and has worked as a catechist among the native Yup’ik people for decades now. He had brought me there to do some workshops on liturgical music. I was going from town to town, village to village sometimes on snow machine and sometimes by bush plane. At one of the stops I was taken to the village community center in the evening. It was mobbed with people there to watch and participate in Eskimo dancing––called yurak. This involved men playing frame drums called cauyaq (“jow-yuk”) and singing, chanting really, telling stories. At the same time there were women and younger guys doing a series of synchronized arm and head movements, movements that also told old stories. I loved the music; it was very hypnotic and mantric. And I wondered why this music hadn’t been used for their liturgical music. When I asked about this, I was told that the missionaries decided that their music was too pagan and that it had to be routed out. So the native music got replaced with European hymns translated into Yup’ic and then, later, some of the same stuff we were using in the lower 48, not all of it of very high quality (our fault, not theirs).

This was quite a first hand lesson in how sometimes missionary activity wedded itself to what I came to think of as de-culturation as opposed to inculturation. We often wiped out native ways under the guise of evangelization, not recognizing until too late sometimes, as some of the documents of Vatican II articulated it, the “native genius.” The local bishop in Alaska had officially apologized for this some years before, but the damage had already been done. Fortunately, the Eskimo dancing and chanting tradition live on where the real soul of the native peoples lives. Unfortunately, that music and that spirit and that crowd of people still had not found their way into the church.

One of the things that distinguishes Catholic theology from a lot of Protestant theology, at least theoretically, is the understanding of the human person behind many of the reformers, the spiritual anthropology, if you will. The Protestant formula of “salvation by faith alone” is often wedded to the idea that there is no natural goodness in the human person, that human nature is totally corrupt (according to Calvin, for instance, as I understand him), and that we are utterly powerless to do anything good. Behind any righteousness God covers us with, sinners remain as they were before divine acceptance. There is the apocryphal teaching of Martin Luther that is a strong image for this: grace or salvation functions like “snow over a dung heap.”[v]

On the other hand there is Thomas Aquinas’ formula––a formula I hasten to add that we Catholics have often not lived up to in practice either: Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perfecit. Pope John Paul II defined it this way: “Grace builds on, does not suppress, but presupposes and perfects nature.” Our friend Peter Haas, himself a Protestant minister, and I have had long discussions about this. He wrote in his last book that this may be one of those essential aspects of the spiritual life that the Reformation threw out that really needs to be recovered, and is being recovered, the pearl of great price buried in the field of Catholicism, that grace builds on nature.

I hasten to add also that I mean this with no disrespect to Lutherans or other Protestants. I have no idea how operative this mentality actually is in peoples’ minds. I know it is the foundational argument I have had with many Christians of the more evangelical bent, particularly in regards to things like music and yoga, for instance, my two “hobbies.” In other words that certain types of music can’t be considered sacred because they are pagan; yoga can’t be practices because it is pagan. But the same mentality has often actually been at work in our own Catholic tradition, from the blatant dualism that drove so much of Christian and monastic asceticism throughout history with its negative focus on the body, all the way through Catholic missionaries all over the world up until Vatican II wiping out native cultural genius, as in my example in Alaska or the famous Chinese Rites controversy involving the Jesuits after Matteo Ricci in the 18th century.

There are three words that are used in the Vatican document on Relations with Other Religions, Nostra Aetate. When it calls on Catholics to dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions––and maybe we could apply that to other people, to the world, in general––it says that we should “recognize, preserve and promote the good things … found among these people,” their spiritual and moral values, their socio-cultural values. Not only to recognize the good things we see in other places out of our own communion, but to preserve them, maybe we could say baptize them. And not only to preserve them, but even to promote them! Pope Francis is certainly in this line. Just yesterday he gave a talk to the Neo-Catechumenate movement, which is one of the Catholic Church’s biggest missionary movements. And he urged the new missionaries to respect different cultures they encounter and not try to conquer souls as it spreads the faith around the world. He warned them not to dictate to others, not to follow pre-ordained scripts, but to love and respect the cultures and traditions of other people. Jesus “didn’t say conquer and occupy,” he said, “but rather to make disciples, share with others the gift you have received.”[vi]

There’s a phrase I love, which I first heard in reference to some of our missionary activities, that some peoples and cultures were “baptized but never converted.” What we are dealing with here is the other way around––things and people that are in some way perhaps already converted, just not yet baptized, like these Gentiles in the story from the Acts of the Apostles. I base this all on a theology of the Word: wherever I see something good, true, or beautiful (those transcendentals of Greek philosophy), I see there already, to use Justin Martyr’s words, seeds of the Word, that should never be trampled down or dried up, but instead should be watered with the waters of Baptism so that they grow into the whole Christ. To our sadness, perhaps, some people––maybe many people, maybe most people in the world––will never be baptized in the name of Jesus, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing, preserving, and promoting whatever good, true and beautiful we find among them already, and so in our own hearts baptizing them, claiming them for Christ, even claiming them as Christic, as true manifestations of the Word, the fullness of whom we believe was made flesh in Jesus.

The amazing detail about this story from the Acts of the Apostles is that the Spirit comes upon these people before they are baptized! Like Peter realizing that the Spirit had fallen on heads outside of the tribe of Israel, like Moses recognizing that the Spirit had come down upon people even outside the camp, we too need to learn how to recognize the movement of Spirit at work in our world in unexpected and surprising places. Wherever there is beauty sprouting up––be it in a work of art or a flowering tree; wherever there is truth springing up––be it in a scientific discovery or in the scriptures of another tradition; and especially wherever there is goodness blossoming forth, wherever there is kindness, gentleness, generosity––all those fruits of the Spirit, and those can only come from God.

And of course, in keeping with today’s gospel[vii] and second reading[viii], another word for goodness is simply “love.” Wherever we see love happening, especially self-sacrificing love, that is the Holy Spirit at work, whether there has been a baptism or not. Many of us too were baptized but never really converted; meaning, sadly, that many of us are baptized Christians but do not really love, never really manifest the fruits of the Spirit. When I look around me and I see many people who are not baptized but do manifest those fruits, they put me to shame in my lack of love. When I see their patience, their gentleness, their kindness and generosity, I not only want to recognize it, and preserve it, and promote it––I want to claim it for Christ, and claim it as Christ.

And maybe even imitate it and learn from it.

cyprian, 6 may 2018

[i] Acts 10:25-48.

[ii] Acts 8:26-40.

[iii] Nm 11:70.

[iv] Jn 3:8

[v] The closest I have ever seen to an actual citation of this is from his Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: “Let us confess with Paul that all our work-righteousness is loss and dung.”

[vi] May 5, 2018.

[vii] Jn 15:9-17.

[viii] 1 Jn 4:7-10.

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