The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Christianity, the Inca, and Culture

Dr. Sabine Hyland wrote a book a few years back entitled, The Jesuit and the Incas, on one of the first mestizo clergy in Peru, Fr. Blas Valera. A son of one of the conquistadores and an Inca noblewoman, he was one of the first scholars to do a comparison of ancient Incan civilization with the European and classical world, and created a world view quite favorable to the conquered empire. Indeed, it was Fr. Valera's contention that Inca religion was quite close to Christianity, down to an almost Christian idea of an incarnate God named Viracocha, and an absolute creator god named Illa Tecce. Valera wanted the Spanish clergy to begin to use these names for the Christian God and Jesus Christ, but to no avail. In the end, Fr. Valera was framed on charges of fornication and imprisoned by the Jesuit order for four years. Scholars now believe that he was really imprisoned for syncretic heresy. Only through the intervention of some influential Jesuits was he finally freed and sent to Spain, where he died in a pirate assault on Cadiz in 1597.

Besides being a student of Latin American history and culture, the story of this Jesuit compels me for other theological reasons. It comes down to the now classical division in Christian thought between what belongs to the world and what belongs to the Gospel. For "world optimists", such as St. Clement of Alexandria and the Jesuits of the "Chinese rites" controversy, all cultural and intellectual forms can be preparations for the Gospel: there is a natural piety and intellectual striving that prepares the way for the Good News of Jesus Christ, and it too can be incorporated in the Christian life. For those more pessimistic about our fallen human state, from Tertullian to the Protestant Reformers, culture is more a hinderance to the pure Gospel rather than an aide. Not only does Athens have nothing to do with Jerusalem, but Jerusalem had nothing to do with any place else.

Since the latter view is rarely taken to the severe extremes of people like Ulrich Zwingli who didn't even allow hymns in his services or a Quaker prayer meeting, what usually occurs in the process of propagating the Gospel in some cases is an idealization of what the New Testament religion should resemble. In some places, like in those of the radical Reformation, it takes the form of a dull imagining of what the worship of the ancient synagogue and early Church must have looked like. In others, such as the Americas, relations of power also came into play. Christianity was taught to the conquered peoples, but as the Christianity of the conquerer. It came to the extreme in the times of Fr. Valera in Peru, when the Spanish conquerors insisted that the indigenous peoples use the Spanish word to refer to the Christian God ("Dios") rather than the Quechua word. In this and other ways, Christianity was imposed as a white man's religion for a white god.

Valera, taught Quechua by his mother, is one of the few voices who objected to this process. He insisted that Inca civilization was not barbaric, but rather had many of the same features of the foundational cultures of Greece and Rome in Europe. Quechua itself for Valera served the same role in the Inca Empire as Latin did in Europe; it was considered a complex lanuage of the court and scholars that united the vast Andean empire. The Jesuit priest also insisted that the Inca were fundamentally monotheistic in their religion and unlike their cousins in North America, they did not practice human sacrifice. Even such classical institutions of the West as monks and vestal virgins had their parallels in classical Incan culture. In this way, Fr. Valera felt that Christianity would come as naturally to the natives of Peru as it did to the pagans of Europe. Unfortuneatly, according to Hyland, this opinion branded Valera as a heretic and led to his years of incarceration.

Posthumously, of course, our mestizo Jesuit is the victor in terms of what has happened in history. Especially with the Second Vatican Council, inculturation is encouraged in many parts of the world that are newer to the Christian message. In many places, the cultures of the places where missionaries arrive are no longer denigrated, but respected. We can argue the merits of this point of view, but what does this have to do with us who who live in historically Christian societies?

I have unfortunately been involved in many milieu where there was only one acceptable idea of how the Gospel could be incarnate in society. With the Society of St. Pius X, the Gospel reached its perfect incarnation either in the High Middle Ages, or in France in the right-wing movements leading up to the suppression of the Action Francaise. With the Orthodox, the Christian imagination will always be stuck before the fall of Constantinople. Even in many mainline Catholic circles, culture can only advance by going backwards, either in music, literature, or the plastic arts. If there is a real crisis of Christian praxis in my opinion, however, it is the crisis of the Christian imagination. Christians must always attempt see the beauty of Christ in the world in which they live, not in a world that has long passed into memory.


At 9:36 PM, Anonymous FrGregACCA said...

I have long argued that the essential error of fundamentalism, at least in the Christian world (although I suspect it is also true elsewhere), is the confusion of words with the Word. Among Protestants, extreme Fundamentalists argue, for example, that the King James Version is the only acceptable English translation of the Bible. Among Roman Catholics, we see the same thing in regard to the TLM, the Vulgate, and, in English, the Douay-Rheims-Challoner Bible. For certain Anglicans, only the classical Prayer-Book is acceptable (often along with the KJV). Words are confused for the Word. Certainly the same principle applies when what is at issue is not words but forms of music or other matters of artistic expression.

Of course, one can make the opposite error...

Which makes me think that our Byzantine Orthodox friends may have a point when they state that an ikon, and by extension any other artistic expression of the faith, can only be successfully produced by a faithful [Orthodox] Christian.

At 1:52 AM, Blogger Huw said...

I like this post a lot - and I say that as one who thinks Greek philosophy added some cool but optional stuff to the Jewish faith we started with.

I'd never heard of the "Chinese Rites" controversy. I see there, too, they enforced a foreign language requirement for the sacred names. (This seems a background to the discussion of the name, Allah, among some Catholic bloggers.)

Without meaning to open the door far enough for an argument, I note that not all denominations are suffering from a crisis of imagination.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Frank said...

Really incredible post.

I am stil recovering so can't really comment.

It seems as a follow up to a post about 2 weeks ago or so on culture etc.

It is interesting as we are both Mexican Americans--and certain superior/inferior--and sympathetic to Traditionalism in many externals--but a lack of substance per se in the preiminence of Medeival European Christianity or a certain period of European Chrisitianity vis a vis art or literature (which there is some truth too but does not go to Ultimate Truth)

Please pray for me.

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