By David Lewellen
A different culture must be studied and learned just like a different language, according to Fr. Anthony Gittins.
“Good will is simply not enough,” said Fr. Gittins, CSSp, a professor of theology and culture at Chicago Theological Union. “You need serious skills and habits. … Take lessons. Be willing. It’s scary, but believe that it’s possible.”
Fr. Gittins began to form those conclusions as a young missionary in Sierra Leone while he was also working on his doctorate in anthropology. As a white cleric from Great Britain he brought a particular faith, which he initially assumed that the African laypeople he worked among would assimilate. But he quickly realized that not only couldn’t they do so, but he didn’t want them to.
In his new book, Living Mission Interculturally, Fr. Gittins distinguishes between “multicultural,” in which cultures live side by side with little interaction, and the more difficult but rewarding idea of “intercultural,” in which two people or cultures are changed by their encounters.
Theology has lagged behind anthropology in this idea, Fr. Gittins said, but faith can only be lived through culture — meaning that people of a different culture will experience faith differently.
That leads to the possibility of syncretism, which “get a bad rap in Catholic theology,” Fr. Gittins said. But one must be careful to assess and discriminate between good and bad syncretism; if others “live out their Christianity in a different way, it becomes enriching to both of us. We need to be enriched reciprocally.”
Understanding another culture does not just mean a nation or an ethnic group; it can also extend down to the level of a particular parish. And not all encounters with other cultures are positive, of course; Westerners may well feel confused or disgusted by the practice of female genital mutilation, and Gittins pointed out that as a Catholic priest, if he encounters a patient with a sexually transmitted disease, “there’s going to be a degree of disgust. I’ve got to deal with that and go beyond that to empathize with this person. We come up against our prejudices, our likes and dislikes. We have to note our personal response and disavow our own tendency to offload our response, legitimate or illegitimate.”
In interreligious interactions generally, and for chaplains in particular, he said, “Be very careful not to try to convert or coerce.” Gittins himself spent many summers working as a hospital chaplain, “assimilating my own authentic way of operating into the way I related to doctors and families and patients.” From the experience, he learned that “hospital chaplains need to be very careful listeners, and very slow to judgment, and very willing to take advice from people who know better.”