Culture is a pervasive reality. It impacts all dimensions of life, social, economic, political, and religious. We are born into it, we grow and work in it, we live and die in it. We cannot escape it. There is no human reality that is culture-free.
Born into a culture and formed in it, we are influenced by various other cultures for better or for worse. As a human-divine institution the Church both influences and is also influenced by peoples and their cultures. With its own Gospel culture the Church interplays dynamically with the culture of a people in whose midst it is deeply inserted.
The call to consecrated life, formation in consecrated life, the living of the evangelical counsels, community life, spirituality and mission are all impacted by culture. For this reason the present seminar is important and necessary.
Looking at the topics to be discussed, it would seem best for me to provide a description of today’s culture, from which the various speakers could start. Surely there will be some overlapping but there is some benefit from a certain degree of repetition.
What is “Today’s Culture”?
In this presentation the analogical term, “culture” is used to mean generally a “a way of life” or a set of values, attitudes, beliefs, customs and practices that are shared by a group and distinguishes it from another. Culture is transmitted from one generation to another through language, rituals, institutions (e.g., family, schools), laws, art, and tools of social communication. It can refer, among other things, to a certain social group (e.g., the culture of the poor, of the elite), nationality or race (Thai culture, Indian culture, Chinese culture), ethnic group (dalit culture, adivasi culture, the culture of the dominant group), or age group (youth culture). In fact arguably there is a certain culture of consecrated life based on values, beliefs, and practices commonly held.
Other than the question of culture in general, the further question is what is today’s Asian culture?
We are faced with the fact that Asia is characterized by a rich variety, a brilliant mosaic, of ancient cultures and languages, Malay, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Myanmar, etc., each with its own recorded and unrecorded historical roots in time immemorial. Moreover, there have been many inter-cultural developments through trade and commerce, conquest, migration, marriage, mass media, education. While a particular culture may be dominant in one country, it might in fact exhibit such intercultural mix.
In addition today cultural observers speak of an emerging global culture that emanates from the West and is increasingly bearing upon traditional Asian cultures through the process of economic globalization and the rapid advances of technology and science.
When speaking of today’s Asian culture, we take all these observations into account. They speak of cultural heterogeneity in Asia.
Positive Characteristics of “Asian” Culture
Given the rich kaleidoscope of Asian cultures, can we speak of an Asian culture? At the macro-level it is possible to observe commonalities which one could label as Asian cultural values. Reflecting deeply through the years on Asian cultures in its dialogue with the various cultures and peoples, the Church has identified various cultural characteristics generally common to Asians.
In 1998 at the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia, the Asian Bishops spoke about such cultural commonalities which Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation echoes:
The people of Asia take pride in their religious and cultural values, such as love of silence and contemplation, simplicity, harmony, detachment, non-violence, the spirit of hard work, discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical enquiry. They hold dear the values of respect for life, compassion for all beings, closeness to nature, filial piety towards parents, elders and ancestors, and a highly developed sense of community. In particular they hold the family to be a vital source of strength, a closely knit community with a powerful sense of solidarity. Asian peoples are known for their spirit of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence….Many people, especially the young, experience a deep thirst for spiritual values….
All of this indicates an innate spiritual insight and moral wisdom in the Asian soul, and it is the core around which a growing sense of “being Asian” is built. This “being Asian” is best discovered and affirmed not in confrontation and opposition, but in the spirit of complementarity and harmony [Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, 1998, no. 6].
Cultural Values that Foster Consecrated Life
From the above we perceive cultural values that can promote consecrated life in Asia, from vocation discernment to formation, from the living of evangelical counsels to spirituality and mission.
A sense of the sacred still prevails among Asian peoples. We point to the finger of God in the significant events of our lives. We are not afraid to speak openly of God and his mysterious ways. We go to holy places and shrines, visit churches, mosques, and temples for worship, or for temporary refuge, silence, solitude from the busyness of life. We are deeply appreciative of men and women of God-experience. The sense of the divine is deeply ingrained in our Asian cultural psyche. This is certainly a major reason for the steady increase of vocations in Asia, both to the priestly and religious life.
Perhaps it is our poverty as a continent that promotes frugality, simplicity, hard work, and dependence on God. But certainly such cultural values correspond quite well with the faith and trust in God that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience express.
The Asian sense of community with its corollary values of complementarity and harmony rather than individualistic assertion and confrontation finds realization in the community life of consecrated persons. Close-knit family relationships, filial piety and respect for elders would likewise promote relationships in the formation process as well as harmony within the religious community. One can cite folklore and stories among Asian peoples of the close relationship between teacher, guro and disciple.
Cultural Values that Hinder Consecrated Life
Yet in Asian cultures we also find values, traditions and practices that are anti-Gospel and hinder the living of consecrated life.
As a preliminary remark, what the Asian Bishops observed some 23 years ago in the 1986 FABC Plenary Assembly in Tokyo on the Laity and reiterated at the 2004 FABC Plenary Assembly in Korea on the Asian family would have to be very seriously considered in relation to consecrated life in Asia. The Asian Bishops observed:
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Church in Asia is that posed by the Asian family. The Asian family is the cellular receptacle of all of Asia’s problems, poverty, repression, exploitation and degradation, divisions and conflicts. The family is directly affected by the religious, political, economic, social and cultural problems of Asia, by the problems relating to women, health, work, business, education, etc. [For All the Peoples of Asia, 1992, p. 184; Final Document, 2004 FABC Plenary Assembly, The Asian Family towards a Culture of Integral Life,” no. 48].
Close family relationships, we know, are ambivalent. They can be a driving force for great personal sacrifice on behalf of the family, as in the case of migrant workers, many of whom work under contracts and in working conditions that could rightly be called “new slaveries.” But such close-knit family relationships are also often at the root of intermittent violence between families and clans. They are likewise the reason for endemic corruption in Asian societies, where the family comes first before the public good.
In the context of poverty, families can look at consecrated life as a step-up in the social mobility. Vocational motivation can be quite problematic. The concern for family can also become an overwhelming source of tension for a member of the community. In the close-knit Asian family we in the priestly and consecrated life do not seem really able to “leave father, mother, brother or sister” for the new family of faith. We still seem to be primarily attached to our family by blood.
It is also true that Asia is characterized by the great social and economic distances between the rich and the great majority of the people who are poor. Those who are called to consecrated life bring with them a culture of the poor and a culture of the rich. Friendships, and perhaps cliques, in consecrated life are often based on ethnic terms and economic class. Surely the tasks of formation and building community would have to take these divergent cultures into consideration.
In many Asian cultures patriarchy as a social attitude that considers men as superior and women as subservient has far reaching attitudinal effects. This is true for social life in general as well as for priestly and religious life. [As I observed at the recent Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa last month, patriarchy is probably less general in Asia than in the African continent. But the problem in both continents remains serious]. Formation in consecrated life can react to patriarchy by overemphasizing the opposite behavior. A balanced gender formation can provide a vibrant, healthy and dynamic sense of equality in dignity and complementarity in men and women in consecrated life.
An Emerging Global Culture?
Reflecting on today’s pastoral challenges various church assemblies in Asia have pointed at a present social and cultural phenomenon – the emergence of a global culture. Thus the FABC Plenary Assembly in Korea in 2004 observed:
Of even greater significance, economic globalization is also bringing cultural globalization in its wake. Since the middle of the 20th century Western secularism has been strongly influencing Asian societies. But at no time has the secularizing process, now with a significant post-modern spirit of individualistic sense of freedom, been more rapid and effective in reshaping the value systems of Asian families than in the last two decades of the 20th century. The bearers of this change are economics… and the on-going revolution in mass global communication that has truly made the world a global village [Final Document, no. 21].
What is this cultural phenomenon which we might call a post-modern culture?
It is an off-shoot, even a reaction, to the modern spirit. The modern spirit developed among European intellectuals, like Voltaire, in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was the era of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution. It proclaimed the primacy of human reason and rejected religious faith and authority. It denied divine revelation or “God’s metanarrative”. The philosopher, Rene Descartes, sought absolute certitude through reason immune from faith. Armed with reason and science, Modernism rejected “traditional” religious beliefs. It asserted a “metanarrative of human scientific progress.”
But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the philosophies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. They rejected all “metanarratives” as absolutely universal whether that of human reason or that of religious faith. They were skeptical about social and moral norms. Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” was really a critique of the claims of objective truth in the Age of Reason. Other philosophers like Martin Heidegger exalted personal subjectivity rather than objectivity.
The emerging global technological culture exhibits the world view of the postmodern spirit. It rejects objective truth and gives primacy to personal subjectivity. It professes incredulity to all metanarratives that claim absolute truth. It believes that truth is of the moment and in time will change. It believes as true only in what the self interprets and constructs, i.e., in personal narratives. It is individualistic. Therefore truth is relative. Hence, pluralism regarding truth is a “dogma” of postmodernism. Someone has called this type of pluralism as an ideology of “whateverism.”
I admit that this is a simplified way, perhaps even simplistic way, of considering the post-modern spirit.
There are indeed many positive things that it has contributed. “It is bringing into Asia a greater awareness of individual dignity, autonomy, and human rights so characteristic of the West. It creates and promotes global solidarity almost instantaneously in times of great disaster. It has made knowledge of the world and of the human person to grow by leaps and bounds. The application and sharing of that knowledge has generally and significantly improved human life” [2004 FABC Plenary Assembly, Final Document, no. 22].
I would also add that the postmodern spirit has highlighted the importance and necessity of personal historicity, personal narratives, and subjective experience, including feelings, in integral human growth towards maturity in Christ. In a course on spiritual direction that I once attended it was important for me to know the place of feelings in discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in my own life.
Impact of Postmodern Culture on Values
It has been observed that the emerging global culture is uprooting families from their traditional cultures. Neo-liberalism, materialism, secularism, consumerism are being brought into the sanctuaries of homes even in the grassroots through local TV and radio programs “that ape the media programs served by the West whose values and portrayal of family and life gradually become normative for viewers and listeners” [Ibid.. no. 24].
We can see also see how cinema and the lives and loves of the rich and famous add to the trivialization and subsequently the rejection of values once held sacred regarding love, marriage, family and permanent commitments.
Tools of social communication that are meant to enhance communication become hindrances to unity. They disturb the discipline that harmonious community living requires. They are “wants” that become “needs.” Simplicity and frugality are jeopardized. Silence, solitude and the sense of the sacred are disturbed by the ubiquity of instruments of social communication.
The emerging global culture is likewise creating a new kind of poor, those who, in the language of Pope John Paul II, “who do not know” – the poverty of knowledge, of technological knowledge and of access to that knowledge. Poor countries and poor families are further marginalized by this new form of poverty.
Such is presently the post-modern world into which Asia is entering at a rapid pace. It has been developing for more than a century. It is materialist, secularist, individualistic, and relativist. It disdains authoritative religious and moral norms. What is necessary is not absolute moral or doctrinal truth. Truth is that which people believe in as rooted in subjective experience.
A religious thinker (I don’t’ remember who) has said that we live chronologically in a postmodern world, but as Catholics we are not postmodern in the pejorative sense described above. We do believe in God’s metanarrative, in absolute truths, in objective truth learned by reason and faith, in the “traditional” values of marriage, family and permanent commitments.
This brings us to the reminder that Jesus gave at the Last Supper. We are in this world but we are not of this world.
+Orlando B. Quevedo, O.M.I.
Archbishop of Cotabato, Philippines
FABC-OCL Seminar, Hua Hin, Thailand
November 17, 2009