At the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism gave itself a hermeneutic that certainly marked a profound shift regarding Church-world relations. This is what the Council said: “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions that men and women ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics” (Gaudium et Spes, 4). The key notions here are that of signs of the times and intelligibility. The Church must observe what is happening around her, and after that, speak to men and women in a way that is intelligible and meaningful to them, from the treasury of the Gospel that she has received from Jesus Christ. Talking about intelligibility, it might be helpful to recall the distinction found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, between ratio, that is, mere reason, and intellectus, that is, reason that is open to spiritual discernment, going beyond mere reason.
To speak about culture in the singular is a risky path to take, especially in the context of a world that prides diversity and pluralism. Different cultures are found across the globe. The culture one has in mind here is the culture that has emanated from the Enlightenment, trends that are most dominant in the Western world with obvious implications for other parts of the globe, granted the dominance of the West in shaping global imagination. The Enlightenment culture has a proud confidence in science. It places the individual over the collective. Parochialism is the dominant ethos. Regarding the Christian religion, one notices a systematic emptying of the figure of Jesus that began in liberal protestant exegesis and has found a confortable home in Roman Catholicism. We must reconstruct the historical Jesus: the Jesus of the individual of von Harnack; the existential Jesus of Bultmann; the futuristic Jesus of Moltmann that must dehistoricized the idea of God; et cetera. Within the African context, what became dominant was the figure of Jesus as the liberator, meant not only to usher in economic and political liberation, but to free Africans from the spiritual colonialism that came with the missionary effort of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Helpful gains notwithstanding, it is difficult not to notice that these “signs of the times” are basically the subjective preferences of the individuals that are but reflected in the “times.” In effect, the signs of the times do not constitute a neutral sociological category. They are the product of the dominant patterns of reasoning and the philosophical presuppositions at work in any given society.
As the walls continue to close in on the Church, it is helpful to recall the manner in which our ancestors in the faith faced such challenges at the start of the life of the Christian Church. The main challenge today for the Church, especially in the Western culture, is the eclipse of God from the worldview of the contemporary Western imagination. The culture tells us God must be removed from the world, because God is interfering with our freedom to do as we please. God is the great poisoner of the well of human happiness. With a weakened figure of Jesus that followed the so-called quest of the historical Jesus, the person of the Christian God has suffered a similar emptying. The only God that Western Christianity seems to be able to cope with is the God that makes no demands on humans, a God who can only approve our choices and lifestyle, but cannot call us to repentance and conversion. God must maintain a relationship of “I Am OK” – “You Are OK” with us if God is to remain relevant.
Such a weakened notion of God comes with the democratic principle of approaching biblical morality. We can now vote and decide for ourselves what we can accept and what we cannot in the laws of God. This mentality has certainly generated a new scenario in the internal life of the Church, what John Paul II once referred to as the battle between the Church and the Anti-Church. The battle is not just being fought between the world and the Church. The new field of action is the sanctuary. The God of the Bible, the God who spoke through the prophets, the God who at the fullness of time sent His only Son (Gal. 4:4), must now cede place to those who know better, as they enthrone themselves around the high altars of the Church. Now is the time for the priesthood of the faithful to offer the sacrifice, according to the recipe prescribed by the editors of the New York Times, the Economist, the Boston Globe, BBC, CNN, and the rest. Will the small boat of Peter withstand the huge media and financial power of the lobbyists and militant secularists governments?
We must ask ourselves: What is the source of our life as a Church? The early Christians give us the answer: Jesus Christ. When the early Christians undertook the mandate to proclaim Christ to the Greco-Roman world, they were certainly in a much more vulnerable position than we are today: the hierarchy was its in embryonic form; the canon of scripture was still developing; there were Christological controversies at the turn of every corner; they had no financial and intellectual guarantees and above all and very much like today, the political establishment was violently opposed to their presence and mission. Martyrdom was not uncommon in the life of the early Church.
Consequently, the early Christians could undertake the mission to bring the gospel to the Greco-Roman world precisely because they were convinced that something had happened in the history of the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They were convinced that Jesus was not just a good man like Socrates, but was God’s own Son, who, by entering history, transformed the vision of the world. Jesus had established his Kingdom in the world because he had remained faithful to the mission entrusted to him by the Father. Even when he was enticed by the Tempter to adopt the path of power, to prove that he was the Son of God by throwing himself down from the temple pinnacle or by coming down from the Hill of Calvary, Jesus had remained faithful, knowing that true faith is not about testing God, but about following God and being faithful to God. The resurrection was therefore, God’s response to the godly fear of Jesus, who in his days on earth, “offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death” (Heb. 5:7). The resurrection was the supreme vindication of the Weltanschauung of Jesus by the Father. It is only after the resurrection that Jesus could say, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Then he went on to commit his abiding presence with the community of his followers, the Church, which will forever embody the Christological presence in the midst of the world.
Today, again and again, the Church is called upon to offer a different gospel. She must prove herself, if she is the Church of Christ. One clearly notices the presence of an Anti-Church, the voices that call on the Church from within to change her teachings so that she can be relevant to the times. We are told that the Church is outdated. She has to modernize her teachings in order for her to be intelligible. If Jesus Christ was a Socrates, then the Church could update his philosophy so that it becomes acceptable to contemporary patterns of thought. However, if Jesus is the Christ of God, then what we have is a completely different game all together. In the final analysis, the Church must not only confess to the world that she is simply the mission of the Christ of God, and that she too is ready to accept the path of suffering and rejection which comes wit identifying with the Christ of God. It is only by accepting rejection that she can rise on her own Easter morn with her Alleluias, when many would have given up on her, thinking her dead and buried.