DIALOGUE BETWEEN FAITH AND CULTURE

Rev. Fr. Dr. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua

Director: Mission and Dialogue

Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja

I have encountered some people who claimed that they became atheists because religion and belief in God for them have caused more evil than good in the world. They claimed that some people in the name of religion have created God in their own image and likeness and consequently imposed laws of their subjective imaginations on believers.  This argument however is not enough to conclude that belief in God is anachronistic. God exists and he is worshipped and adored in religion. According to the Catholic Catechism, faith is a theological virtue that enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed. Faith has to do with strong convictions even when human reason is not capable of proving the revealed truth. Belief generally applies to a truth that may not have a tangible proof. This calls for complete trust and devotion.  Faith is the opposite of doubt. Faith is the most important element of the Christian life: “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11, 6). “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11, 1).

Many people have defined culture in very many variant ways. Some people see culture as a way of life of a people but we must ask if every way of life whether good or bad that people have been used to can be called culture. Every culture has values that are fundamentally good for the promotion of human dignity. But there are some practices among some people we cannot identify as culture even though the practice has taken centuries and have become part of the life experience of the people. This inhuman practice is what religion should evangelize. Religion does not take root in a vacuum. Nearly all the revealed religions are incarnated in the culture of a particular people but culture has the vigor of traditional religion.  Africans already believed in God and worshipped him before the advent of Christianity and Islam. Therefore the revealed religions like Christianity and Islam is in contact with a religion that is already manifested in the culture of a people. For Christianity and Islam to be incarnated in the life of the people a form of dialogue between the new faith and the ancient culture of the people is indispensable. Consequently, dialogue plays a major role in the new era of evangelization.

Some people believe that one of the errors of primary evangelization by the early missionaries was lack of adequate knowledge and respect for the culture of the African people. The theology of inculturation and contextualization will therefore succeed more with dialogue of life and religious experience. A close study of the missionary activities of Mary Mitchell Slessor presents a missionary method that is still valid for today. She was born on December 2, 1848 and died in January 13, 1915. She was a Scottish missionary to Calabar in Nigeria.  Mary  Slessor lived with the local people especially in Okoyong, learnt more and more about their culture and dialogued with the people about the horrible killing of twins. At the time she came to Nigeria, witchcraft and tribal customs especially those believed to be directed by the deities like Arochukwu were hard to confront. Some tribes in Calabar and many parts of Eastern Nigeria thought that twins were a curse by an evil spirit. Both babies were brutally murdered and the mother was ostracized from the society. Some think that the killing of twins was decreed by Arochukwu deity. Mary Slessor confronted the situation with her religious experience by trusting in God. She prayed: “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow.” Rising, she said, “Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of kings. She rescued many twins and ministered to their mothers. She was continuously fighting against this evil practice, often risking her life to stop the leaders from killing twins. The Lord gave her favor with the tribesmen, and Mary eventually gained a respect unheard of for a woman. When she started the rescue of twins, some people expected that she only had a few days to live. They expected Arochukwu to defend himself by killing Mary Slessor, the twins and all those who partner with her in the rescue operation. Even the mothers were afraid because they believed that something tragic would happen in the community because of the survival of the twins. When the native discovered that Mary Slessor was not killed by the deity, a dialogue of life commenced and this paved the way for a complete abolition of the killing of twins. Thereafter, she lived with the people, shared in their pains and endured their suffering.  She picked up the twins that were condemned to death with a Christian faith that the good God who commanded that you must not kill will not allow evil to befall anyone or the community. These methods also saved her from physical attack from the people. At the end of the day, it was clear to the local people that twins are normal human beings that have the right to life. In Nigeria, Mary Slessor is a model of women liberation. She is akin to a patroness of Nurses and midwives.

Dialogue between faith and culture goes with respect for the culture of a people. This  creates a space for people to open up their minds   to comprehend the evil practices that call for a dynamic change. This respect opens the eyes of the people and the evangelist to identify the good values of the people. Whatever devalues human dignity cannot be describe as faith or culture. Whatever is good in a culture can be seen as religious since God who is the object of religion is perfect and good. Whatever contradicts human dignity even in a religious practice cannot be claimed to come from the God of mercy and compassion.

This reminds me of the report of Friday, August 10, 2012 that was posted on the internet at 10:37am: “Mali Islamists amputate hand of suspected thief.” This was also published in some print media on August 9, 2012. This was strange to the culture of the people of Mali because the incident was the first case of amputation under sharia (Islamic law) imposed by insurgents controlling the country’s desert north. Witnesses told News agency, Reuters, that a large crowd gathered in a square in the village of Ansongo, about 100 km (60 miles) from the regional capital Gao, pleading in vain with the MUJWA rebel group to spare the man. The people thought that the action was inhuman and a good God could not have commanded that kind of punishment. But Aliou Toure, a top MUJWA figure in Gao, told Reuters by telephone: “Yes, our men cut off the hand of a thief after a judgment based on supporting evidence. “They did it according to sharia.” Abdel Moussa, a local tea vendor in Ansongo, said a large crowd of men, women and children watched the amputation in horror after pleading with MUJWA figures to stop.  This action calls for dialogue with the culture of the people given that this could have taken place because of the war but using religion as a cover for this action. The soldiers did not realize that coup d’état was a more serious sin than stealing a cow.