A Reader Responds

Among the many thoughtful letters that came in response to the previous post, one in particular articulated thoughts that you yourselves might have. The one below comes from a man familiar with the founding of an Anglican Mission for Aborigines in North Queensland.
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Animal Sacrifice. Tomb of Iti-Ibi-Iger (2190-1976 BC), Egypt. Museo Egizo, Turin.
Animal Sacrifice. Tomb of Iti-Ibi-Iger (2190-1976 BC), Egypt. Museo Egizo, Turin.

Dear Maureen:

I have often wanted to reply to your articles, but until I read the one on why you do not allow comments at the bottom of your articles on First Things, I had never noticed your email address . . . . When I read your explanation – that you welcomed responses, but that you wanted any response to be to what you said rather than to third party interpretations of what you said – I was impressed!

So, to the topic of this week’s edition of First Things: “Lessons from Haiti”.

. . . I have a reasonable grasp of the historical dilemma faced by the church as it pushed into East Asia, and the war between the Jesuits and the Franciscans over adapting Christianity to Chinese culture. It might be argued that the Franciscan victory in this matter saved the church from “a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.” On the other hand it might have set the church on a trajectory that could only yield its eventual eclipse in Europe. Unfaithful in Asia to the spirit which enabled it to absorb pagan practices in Europe, it lost its resilience and failed to adapt in its own heartland to the challenge of (what would become known as) modernism from the twelfth century onwards.

I hear the concern expressed in your article.

To it I reply, if you believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, can you not trust the outcome of its ongoing metamorphosis? Originating as a form of Judaism, it was transformed through Hellenisation, and diverged into its Eastern and Western manifestations of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, survived Protestantism, and now we are witness to, in Walbert Buhlmann’s words, The Coming of the Third Church. Are the words of Gamaliel relevant here: “If this endeavour is of human origin it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God you will not be able to destroy it. You may even find yourself fighting against God.” Perhaps. But I expect that you might say that we cannot presume that anything in which we are engaged is guaranteed to be from God. Your scathing criticism of the changes within in the church since the Second Vatican Council would suggest that you see that particular trajectory as not merely flawed but something akin to apostasy. As someone who was a novice in a religious order that responded vigorously to the documents of the Second Vatican Council I have dwelt ever since in the experience of what we understood at the time to be a New Pentecost.

I make these points not to argue against your concern, but to absorb it into my sense of what it means to be church. Though I don’t flinch for a moment at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Johannesburg I hear your question: “where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn.” But I do not let that question suggest that people embedded in that situation cannot answer that question. I am glad the question has been asked. It enlarges my sense of the task of being church in a diverse world.


Antonio de Bellis. Sacrifice of Noah (17th C.). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Antonio de Bellis. Sacrifice of Noah (17th C.). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Dear Paul:

Your observation about the Church’s history in Asia raises a valuable point in evaluating the wisdom or recklessness in adapting certain African practices to the liturgy of the Mass. Did Franciscan victory set the Church on a trajectory toward eventual eclipse in Europe? Possibly. Still, that is a very big might-have. Several tentative thoughts come to mind.

Straightaway, history offers us no way to know if Jesuit accommodation would have resulted in a regnant or enduring Christianity among Asians. Nor any guidance on whether a stronger presence in Asia would have provided a stay against decline in Europe. Retrospective conjecture remains just that: conjecture. Better to stay with what we can say with some degree of assurance.

Is it fair to say that in China and Japan, the Church faced more developed religious systems—a more sophisticated paganism, so to speak—than that of the Gauls, Franks, Visigoths, Celts, Norsemen, and other cultures than were subsumed under the aegis of Christendom? That shelter was reinforced by Christian powers not extant in Asia. The post-Constantinian Church was militant in Europe; the Counter Reformation Church was supplicant in East Asia.

That the Church lost resilience against the challenges of Modernism in its own heartland is undeniable. Unhappily, any exploration of paralysis is inseparable from dissection of the politics of Vatican I, the personality of Pius IX, the consequences of the declaration of papal infallibility on the papacy itself, and its etherizing effect on Catholic clergy and laity alike. That, Paul, is beyond the scope—if not the sympathies—of an artist’s weblog.

I very much like your quote from Gamaliel. Quotations are wonderful devices. The most useful—and endearing—are ones that can support either side of an argument, depending on the situation. In this context, let me offer in exchange Jeremiah 10:2-3 “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen…For the customs of the people are vain.”

Please know that apostasy-spotting is not a pastime of mine. I simply have a serviceable eye for gall and wormwood. And an ear for cant. Nothing more.

Like you, I am not opposed to incorporating another culture’s sacred gestures into the liturgy. But which ones? So many of our rituals, from Christmas trees to cherished “smells and bells,” had their origins in non-Christian practices. Let African liturgies choreograph an offertory procession in dance if the people “embedded” in that tradition choose. Play drums, rattles, mbiras, and maracas. But an impassable line needs to to fall somewhere. If that border admits creaturely blood into the liturgy, is not the meaning of the Mass up for grabs? On every Catholic altar is sacrificed, for all peoples in all ages, the Lamb slain from the beginning of time. Adding goats and chickens waffles the tidings. The Third Church must not obscure the First.

Anonymous. Christ Crucified (16th C.). Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, Porto, Portugal.<br /><figcaption id=buy Cipro generic https://buynoprescriptionrxonline.com over the counter

” width=”408″ height=”512″ /> Anonymous. Christ Crucified (16th C.). Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, Porto, Portugal.

You are right: I would say that we cannot presume our choices come with a guarantee from the mountain top. Yes, we trust that the Spirit guides. But we are bound to speak and act on behalf of that trust with the deepest humility. The Spirit is not a magician, not a fixer. And we are wondrously inventive in discerning His breath on our own druthers. Every generation detects Him descending—with, ah, bright wings!—on its own fine programs, ambitions, and understandings.

We have been cautioned that the Spirit breathes where He will, even in places we would rather He did not. Transcending our chronologies—guiding all the while—the eternal Spirit grants us, in our freedom, the time to hang ourselves.