St. Paul did his homework carefully before proclaiming Christ to the Athenians. It paid off. In Acts 17, we find St. Paul at the Areopagus preaching about the resurrection of the dead (we will hear this reading during the sixth week of Easter Season, Wednesday, May 12) and introducing God as He in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
This verse probably sounds familiar. Indeed, it is prayed at Mass in Eucharist Prayer I. But there’s an interesting back story to this particular phrase—it is not originally from St. Paul. In fact, he borrowed it from a man who was revered by the Athenians: a pagan poet named Epimenides, who had saved Athens hundreds of years earlier.
It is worth examining how a pagan poet found a home within the prayers of the Mass. St. Paul’s approach for evangelizing the Athenians is a model for how the Church continues to approach cultures today. Like St Paul, Christians are called to heal, ennoble, and perfect culture in the same way the Lord Himself heals, ennobles, and perfects the human person.[i]
Athenian Altars and the Religious Sense
St. Paul begins his preaching by saying to the Athenians, “As I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
But why did the Athenians have such an altar? They had been experiencing a severe famine and, supposedly, on the recommendation of Epimenides, they built the altar to an “unknown god” as a way of covering their bases. The famine lifted, and Epimenides became enshrined, so to speak, in the Athenian imagination for centuries.
This bit of cultural history was not lost on St. Paul. He used the credibility of Epimenides—and the “seeds of the truth” embedded in his poetry—as a starting point for conveying the truth of the Gospel.
These “seeds of truth,” or semina verbi, can be found in all cultures to varying degrees. “The proclamation of Christ ‘who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of the Revelation,' highlights the semina verbi hidden and sometimes buried in the heart of cultures, and opens them to the infinite capacity He creates and which He fills gradually with the marvelous condescension of eternal wisdom (cf. Dei Verbum, 13).”[ii] The task of the evangelist is to recognize these seeds and then, by the light of Christ, to purify and ennoble them.
Purifying, Ennobling, and Elevating Culture
As he preaches to the Athenians, St. Paul does not endorse false worship. He clearly supplants “an unknown God” with “the God who made heaven and earth and everything in it.” He acknowledges their searching and groping for God, but then clearly calls for repentance, saying, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
Clearly, St. Paul is not simply trying to graft Christianity onto pantheism. Rather, pantheism must be left behind. It must be purified from the culture. However, St. Paul is grafting Christianity onto the religious sense that is evident amongst the Athenians. He says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22) and then he uses their religiosity—their movement toward the transcendent—as a stepping stone for accepting the Gospel.[iii]
Some hear him and believe; others scoff. But the main point for us is the fact that Acts 17 serves as a concrete model for inculturation: elements of truth, beauty, and goodness can be found in cultures. These elements are seeds of the Word that can be purified, ennobled, and perfected by the grace of God and light of the Gospel. Christianity has the capacity to transform cultures. This is the heart of our understanding of inculturation.
Common Misunderstandings of Inculturation and Grace
In order to further understand the Catholic approach to culture, it is helpful to contrast it with two common misunderstandings of inculturation, both of which are based on faulty assumptions about the relationship between grace and nature.
The first misunderstanding could be characterized as Christianity against culture. This is a citadel mentality that “may encourage us to think of participation in the life of culture as a necessary evil rather than as a normative cultural vocation essential to serving God.”[iv] In this scenario, there is a contempt for all things secular because culture itself is seen as thoroughly irredeemable. The false assumption is that there are no “seeds of the Word”—no elements of truth, beauty, or goodness—to be found in cultures. In this view, culture cannot be healed and ennobled; rather, it should simply be avoided if not shunned altogether.
This view of inculturation is based on a theological anthropology that sees human nature as utterly irredeemable. Rather than being transformative, grace merely covers a thoroughly corrupt nature in the same way that fresh snow might cover a dung heap.
In truth, Christianity and culture—like grace and nature—are independent of one another, but they are also compatible in some ways: “Though independent of cultures, the Gospel and evangelization are not necessarily incompatible with them; rather they are capable of permeating them all without becoming subject to any one of them.”[v]
The second common misunderstanding could be characterized as Christianity accommodating culture. This approach is based on a type of cultural relativism that holds that the Church should “update” and “adapt” her beliefs in “order to reconcile itself with some of the truth-claims, values and basic orientation of modern secular culture.”[vi]
In this scenario, Christianity is far from transformative; rather, it merely affirms and corresponds to the beliefs of the current culture. This view of inculturation is based on a theological anthropology that sees human nature as sufficient on its own. Rather than needing to be transformed by grace, the human person simply needs to “self-actualize” and blossom like a flower.
In truth, cultures stand in need of the Gospel—in the same fashion that human nature stands in need of grace. Inculturation is not “a simple adaptation of the announcement of the Gospel, but rather . . . the Gospel penetrates the very life of cultures, becomes incarnate in them, overcoming those cultural elements that are incompatible with the faith and Christian living and raising their values to the mystery of salvation which comes from Christ.”[vii]
In sum, what can be said about the relationship of grace and human nature can also be said about the relationship between Christianity and culture. “Grace respects nature, healing in it the wounds of sin, comforting and elevating it. Elevation to the divine life is the specific finality of grace, but it cannot realize this unless nature is healed and unless elevation to the supernatural order brings nature, in the way proper to itself, to the plenitude of perfection.”[viii] This is the marvelous exchange between God and man: God became man so that we might become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4).[ix]
This “marvelous exchange” between God and man is captured in the Eucharistic liturgy when we pray that, through the mingling of the water and wine we may “come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” In the Sacrifice of the Mass, we can find ourselves caught up into the divine by the sheer gratuity of God.
Then, like St. Paul, we say yes to the Gospel, and we receive our Lord and Savior in the form of common bread so that we ourselves can become a leaven in the world. We take heed of the commissioning at the end of Mass, and we proclaim Christ in the Areopagus of our own lives, wherever that may be—in our neighborhood, on social media, and particularly in the least among us. Culture is transformed when Christians live their faith vibrantly.
Scott Sollom, STL is the Director of the Office of Catechetics and Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan University. He has worked in the field of catechesis and evangelization for twenty-five years, and his latest publication is Speaking the Truth in Love: The Catechism and the New Evangelization.
[i] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no. 54.
[ii] Pontifical Council for Culture, “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture” (May 23, 1999), no. 4, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/cultr/documents/r....
[iii] Cf. Directory for Catechesis (2020), no. 418; “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture,” nos. 4 and 9.
[iv] Eduardo Echeverria, Slitting the Sycamore: Christ and Culture in the New Evangelization, Christian Social Thought Series 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2008), 27.
[v] “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture,” no. 4.
[vi] Echeverria, Slitting the Sycamore, 31.
[vii] John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 55; quoted in “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture,” no. 5.
[viii] International Theological Commission, “Faith and Inculturation” (1988), part I, no. 10, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_...
[ix] See CCC 526 (quoting the Liturgy of the Hours, Antiphon I of Evening Prayer for January 1st); CCC 460.
This article originally appeared on pages 16-17 in the print edition.