Illness and Inculturation
LAWRENCE A. HOFFMAN
The Kavanagh Lecture delivered October 12, 2004
Envision this: I am visiting a hospital patient after massive brain surgery has left her temporarily (but maybe forever, everyone fears) unable to move or speak. Hearing of her illness, Debbie Friedman, a famous composer and singer of Jewish spiritual music, pays a surprise visit, guitar in hand. The patient somehow utters the Hebrew words mi sheberakh, the title of the Jewish prayer for healing, to which Debbie has written a now world-renowned melody. So Debbie sings it, and as she does, the patient unaccountably sings along, her first set of words in two weeks.
It is Christmas morning, as it happens, no special day for the patient, who is Jewish, but a significant occasion for her roommate, an elderly Haitian woman, who is surely not Jewish, but is clearly alone. Knowing spirit when she hears it, she joins in the chorus, garbled Hebrew and all. Through a mixture of song and tears, the patently morose room fills with modest sounds that cut across religion, class, culture, and race. We are all in need of healing and healing comes—through prayer.
Two years earlier, the same patient lies in bed, head attached to wires monitoring brain waves. Her roommate this time is an elderly African-American Pentecostal woman, a religious variety the patient has never before encountered. One Sunday, seven beautifully bedecked ladies visit, close the curtain, and pray up a storm. The Jewish patient—a college graduate who majored in Marxist thought (no less), so no automatic believer in a personal God—startles us with her question: “Why don’t people pray like that for me?”
I am present both times because the patient is my daughter. I have prayed with her frequently outside the operating room, and again in recovery, wondering all the while why prayer means so much to someone who questions the whole enterprise of interceding with a personal deity.
My daughter is not alone. I have other instances too, like the story told by a rabbi who invites congregants with personal concerns to ascend to the ark, one by one, while Yom Kippur worship is progressing, and utter a silent prayer to God, as if each of them is alone rather than standing in front of a congregation of two thousand. When he sees his most outspoken congregational atheist standing in line for a turn, he is so surprised that he almost forgets to read the service. “I don’t really believe in it,” the atheist explains afterward, “but I just felt like doing it.”
Why is that? Why does an outspoken religious cynic participate in a liturgy that puts him on public view as he accesses a God in whom he does not believe?
My theme here is the nexus of theology, liturgy, and illness—set in the context of inculturation, the most useful model, I have found, for the questions I have been forced to confront over nearly two decades of my daughter’s chronic sickness.
A Genealogical Just-So
As a child raised in Canada, then proudly British enough to fly the Union Jack rather than a distinctively Canadian flag, I early came in contact with Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so Stories: how the tiger got its stripes, the dog its growl, and the giraffe its neck. By extension, I now wonder how religion got its inculturation. My model, oddly, is Nietzsche’s attack on Christian/Jewish ethics as a slave morality rooted in resentment (ressentiment) over the aristocratic values of the naturally superior.1 What Nietzsche said is hardly what I champion, but I am in awe of how he said it: a literary technique so powerful that it is hard to forget his point even if we disagree with it: a philosophic genealogy, described by Bernard Williams as “a fictional narrative, an imagined developmental story, which helps to explain a concept or value or institution by showing ways in which it could come about.” 2
Nietzsche was not the first to discover the power of an argument set in fictitious history—philosophic genealogies go back to Plato, Locke, Rousseau, and Hume, whose imagined accounts of human history are equally attractive. Nor was he the last. Genealogies have figured prominently in recent accounts of such topics as knowledge, the state, and truthfulness. A genealogy is a particularly powerful “just so.” 3
Philosophical “just-so”s serve vital ends, as fancy often does. The physicist Vladimir Mlodinow, for instance, recalls imagining “a world with an infinite number of dimensions . . . up/down, right/left, and forward/backward, but also a countless array of other directions”—hardly the real thing of experience, but enough to spur a quantum leap into new ways of thinking that physicists now take for granted as true.4 A quantum leap may be beyond my own personal reach here, but I do hope my imaginative history will help us rethink our pastoral theology and practice. I differentiate my tale from Kipling’s just-so by renaming it “just-how,” a genealogy describing “just how” inculturation was born.
Once upon a time, a tribe of prehistoric humans inhabited a land bordered on one side by a jungle and on the other by a lake or river (they didn’t yet know the difference) where the opposite shore could be seen, though only barely, and only on clear days. Eventually, the spirit of discovery led the tribe to dispatch reconnaissance groups to see what lay within the jungle (not beyond it, of course, since they had as yet no notion of “beyondness”—the jungle, they fancied, went on forever). When the jungle actually ended at an ocean they reasonably concluded that they were at the end of the earth, warned against continuing further by the salty water that heaved up frightening waves when storms approached. So they returned home, but committed now to exploring the other direction, across the river, where they could, at least, see an opposite coast. A second exploration party boarded rudimentary boats to see what lay there.
One of the party packed recipes for cooking native vegetables. Another memorized her grandmother’s favorite lullaby. A police officer packed weapons. And, oh yes, there was also a rabbi (or priest, imam, pastor—substitute what word you will) who carried the sacred literature of his people, in part the tribal just-how story (just how the ancestors had met their gods in the first place), but also a just-what account (just what sacrifices, feasts, and fasts the gods expected of men and women). Some specialists brought the tribal rites, their music and performance that more or less acted out the just-how and the just-what. Thus were born theology and liturgy.
In the unlikely event of encountering other humanoids, the explorers reasoned, their gods just-might want to spread their own just-hows and just-whats among just-about-everyone.
The explorers found the opposite shore pretty much like their own: a little more rain, perhaps, and some slithery snakes they weren’t too happy about, but they were pleased that their theologians had just-why explanations for these strange life forms—as they did for everything else. They also discovered sentient life not all that different from their own. It was the first time any single tribe had met another.
Now, one of the theologians in the landing party was named Pelikan. As it happens, a distant descendant of his, Jaroslav by name, was interviewed on National Public Radio on September 21, 2003, and asked to comment on space exploration. Intrigued by the possibility of sentience beyond humankind’s latest river, outer space, Pelikan advised taking Bach’s B Minor Mass, and beaming it as far as possible, with the message, “This is the best our species has done. Show us what you can do.” More on Pelikan’s advice later. This is not an argument for a classical cultural canon; it is just a philosophical genealogy that has reached its end so far in us. Human beings, we can conclude, are boat builders, who inherently like to show their best to others.
And that is “just how” inculturation got started: the human need to meet and greet no less than meet and beat, modified (to be sure) by such variables as power, greed, and theological certitude; and then, of late, modified back to counter those very same variables so as to avoid the imperialist hubris of the past. But inculturation is a two-way street. As it turns out, the second tribe too wondered if anyone lived across the river. When they discovered that the “anyone” not only existed, but was actually arriving in boats, they trotted out their own array of warriors, theologians, and liturgists, a curious but wary greeting party.
Only imperialists overlook the fact that the people on the other side of the river are equally certain of their gods and rites. Not having built boats first, they have never had to deal with the responsibilities of power, but they too have things to show. Inculturation is a dialogue between partners who beam their respective finest, and watch with bated breath to see what the other guys beam back. Inculturation is a case of mutual showing.
Inculturation is not just intercultural, however. It is inter-Other; it applies whenever some “one” meets some “other,” as long as each party faithfully beams its stuff and watches for stuff being beamed back. It is inter-gender, for example, as long as men do not imagine that women are just men shaped differently—and vice versa. It is inter-class too—if, for instance, we were the tribe with the boats who chanced upon a society of billionaires, a case where our Lex meets their Lexus, so to speak, anomalous in the sense that the people being inculturated would be stronger than the inculturators.
My interest here, however, is illness. Visiting the sick is its own case of inculturation, an instance of mutual showing.
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