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A critical examination of the points of precedence between faith and culture

A Critical Examination of the Points of Precedence between Faith and Culture

By Obiorah Ifenna


The ontological structure of man’s existential constitution reveals a being who is primarily cultural and as well religious. Man is a being known for a certain way of life (culture); and whose way of life incorporates an initiative search for the supernatural (faith).  From the both we see the elements of culture and faith playing out to define that singular entity; and the two properties alike are fundamental to that creature called man. In fact, the dialogue of faith and culture, as it pertains to man, is a very ambiguous one.  A reflective inquiry into which one precedes the other is a very difficult task; though it might lead to a better appreciation of the being of man.

Thus, this piece of writing aims at establishing a point of precedence between faith and culture. It tries to suggest an answer to the question: “Whether faith precedes culture or vice versa”.

Clarification of Terms

  1. Precedence: Precedence implies to be or go before something or someone in time and space. It also means to surpass in rank or importance.
  2. Faith: This is a strong belief in the doctrines (of a religion), based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
  3. Culture: Etymologically, the term “culture” is derived from the Latin word “cultura” whose verb form means “to cultivate”. In its general sense, culture indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities (Gaudium et Spes, 53).

Exposing  the points of precedence between faith and culture

There is no other phenomenon so pervasive, so consistent from society to society, as the search for God (gods).  Throughout history, and beyond in the dark recess of man’s earliest cultures, faith has been a vital and pervasive features of human life (Ninian, 1976, 3). Thus, where there is culture there is faith; and faith in the supernatural had always contributed in shaping the cultures of men. Hence, a true synthesis between faith and culture makes equal demands on each of them. The rapport between faith and culture is often presented as circular and reciprocal. Thus, in the first cadre of the analysis, and judging from the essences of both, one could say that none precedes the other - both chronologically and in order of importance. This is only possible when we view both realities from the objective viewpoint. Both co-exists in man and are equally essential. 

 Nevertheless, a further analysis of the dialogue of faith and culture reveals the precedence of culture over faith. One cannot speak of a particular kind of faith, until there is an entity; a people, whose lived experience informed their convictions about the supernatural. It is only from the lived experience of a particular people that a particular kind of faith can emerge. This lived experience is undoubtedly cultural.

In line with the above and to buttress further the precedence (importance) of culture over faith,  JohnPaul II, in the twentieth anniversary of the Pontifical  Council for Culture on May 14, 2002, did not only emphasize the importance of dialogue of faith and culture, but he established the precedence of culture over faith. He puts it beautifully thus: “A faith that does not become culture is a faith that is not fully accepted, not fully thought out, not lived faithfully”. Through these words, he insisted that faith cannot just stand alone – that faith must become culture. For him, faith must be incarnated and become a lived culture.

Driving it home, it is a reality that the continent of African is both the origin and the receiver of a large number of cultures. And as such, faith among Blacks is an incredible mosaic. Belief in gods and spirits is of course firmly typical of agricultural societies like that of Africa. Generally speaking, God is seen as a creator. He is exalted and at the same time present everywhere. Thus, without any apology, one can say that chronologically, the African culture precedes the Christian faith. The Christian faith, brought by the early missionaries, became a reality in the African because it met a receptive culture – a culture that is welcoming and accommodating.

To buttress further the importance of the African culture for the Christian faith, Benedict XVI, in “Africae Munus”, the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace, urged (African) Christians, that while witnessing to their Christian faith and way of life, they should acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their lives and cultures. For him, it would help to manifest the treasures of the Church’s sacramental life and spiritual in all their dept and to pass them on more effectively (Africae Munus, n. 92). Herein, he pinpointed the preservative role which the African cultures play to the Christian faith. For him, the Christian might not be effectively be transferred to the next generations without the good elements found in our cultures.

Notwithstanding the line of thought that prevailed herein – a line of thought so unusual among staunch Christians will never like to place reality above their faith.  As a Christian, I do affirm that the Christian message transcends each culture, since the church, that announces Christ, does not introduce or impose any single culture or race. And in a more beautiful manner, I must re-affirm that the Christian faith helps in the moderation of cultures; for the church goes into a culture, collects the ones that good and sanctifies them; and cleanses the bad ones.  




The dialogue of faith and culture is a very ambiguous one. In the first cadre of my analysis of precedence, we see faith and culture as essential realities that surfaces in man intermittently. Second: But in the subjective level, following the dialogue the cultures (especially African cultures) and the Christian faith, then one can say that culture precedes faith; since the Christian faith came to meet our culture, our culture accommodated it and helped in its preservation. Third: Nevertheless, the Christian faith transcends each culture since it helps in shaping them. 

Work Cited

Benedict XVI, “Africae Munus” (The Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace). Abuja: Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, 2012.

Flennary, Austin, (Ed), Vatican II, Vol. I, The Concilar and Post Conciliar Documents. “Gaudium et Spes.” (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World). 7 December, 1965.

JohnPaul II, “Muto Proprio Inde Pontificantes”. The twentieth anniversary of the Pontifical        Council for Culture on May 14, 2002.

Ninian Smart, “The Religious Experiences of Mankind.” (2nd Ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976.


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