The question of identity anticipates the answer of culture. Essaying on this topic invites a reflection on the impact of faith and culture on man. It is an interrogation of anthropology in relation to theology in search of a harmony that will undergird ecclesia praxis relative to marriage and couture in Africa. Many Christian scholars presuppose that a ressourcement of culture is needed for an aggiornamento of faith. Whether or not it is a valid point, such a presumption should be left elliptical at this moment.
In delving into the topic at issue, the impact of the ressourcement of faith to the aggiornamento of culture is phenomenal. Hence, the crux of the matter is striking a balance between particular cultural expressions within a universal faith’s cultural family. The ramifications of this faith have taken cultural flesh across times and climes to form a melting pot of cultures. As such, there is an existing, relatively diffused, matrimonial couture culture. The question is raised on the propriety of using African-typical dress for Christian weddings instead of the prevalent occidental originated couture.
The question avoids the critical focus, which should be the inconvenience of having two traditional marriages, namely native traditional marriage and Christian marriage. Arguably, the separate and sequential celebrations of these marriages by the same couple and the same people produce schizophrenic relationships relative to the faith required by this sacred reality. So beyond the dress culture, there is bigger meat to fry concerning Christian marriage. The inculturation expected relative to marriage is far beyond the dress code. This reality is tangential or circumferential to the actual challenge before the African theologians.
They should interrogate the theology and liturgy of this sacrament to arrive at a harmony that speaks to African Christians. Though the question of marriage couture borders on the discipline rather than on the doctrine of the sacrament, the question of appropriate wedding dress code for Africans is not insignificant. Faith seeks culture, and every culture is open to faith and waits eagerly for the illumination that comes from the eternal Word, whose agency is the Church. No culture is starved of logos spermatikos, a seed of the Word. Inseminated with the seed of the Word, every culture is a living and dynamic reality. Unfortunately, many treat culture as a static artefact found in museums of time or a fossil to be excavated from an archaeological site of history. However, culture is differently wired since it is dynamic, involving the totality of the human person. In its wide range of perspectives, culture grows. It grows as people grow in their use of reasoning, feeling and operating faculties within the environment.
In reality, every culture has the ingredients that prepare her to receive the Word, the Good News. These ingredients are treasures with which God has provided cultures to enable them to contribute to the love-meal of the faith in Christ. These ingredients are valuable and valid and should be welcomed with joy and gratitude. No element should be refused in the pot of faith, provided it is not inimical. Again, no ingredient will require other earlier ingredients to be discarded for a new recipe. Since it is one pot of meal, what has been accepted should not be denigrated or discarded, and no element should be denied access to maintain healthy diversity. In every culture resounds the eternal Word spoken once with reverberating echoes across fountains and mountains.
These echoes that resonate get amplified, channelled, and directed to a mission and become known words downloading Logos of God into the mythos of men and transforming the mythos of men into Logos of God. Or rather, the existence of the mythos of men evinces the possibility and readiness of cultures to receive the Logos. Therefore, the word that has not become indigene of a particular space and time suffers ill-treatment such as disregard, disdain, tokenism, paternalism, etc. Every culture seeks to receive the Gospel, according to its history and appreciation of mystery. Once a Church graduates from one level to another, she has to interrogate herself about her place in the lives and mentality of the people. Though Christianity has found its footing in many cultures, it is still a stranger or seen as an enemy in some places. The necessary interrogation with settled and not so-settled questions engages the faith. This exercise is an effort in that direction, reflecting on the Christian wedding’s theology, mystery and culture in the African context. Inculturation of the dress has to come clean from certain pathologies.
Let it be stated that the Christian faith introduces us to a new culture different from our locational culture. This situational culture lives side by side with the local culture. Since cultures are dynamic, giving and receiving, inculturation should avoid the pathology of self-enclosure. It should avoid self-sufficiency, radical self-identity, suspicion and xenophobia in relation to other cultures. In reality, the course of the Gospel leaves facial features on the faith. Hence, it would be ill-advised to excise the faith of elements of other cultures or to treat with suspicion the gifts already received from them for the universal faith edification. The mentality that affirms cultural particularities to the exclusion of elements from other cultures presents the faith solely from its horizontal dimension. The emphasis on particularity has to be commensurate with the focus on universality. Gifts by and from others are also part of the faith, even if at the contextual level.
Unfortunately, some experts in inculturation make the mistake of taking cultures as ends in themselves instead of a means to an end. Dress is one of the elements of culture. It tells a lot about people. It is as dynamic as culture. How can our traditional dress code enrich the universal Church? It does not become a gift until it is offered and sufficiently appreciated as a treasure. Cultures are not legislated into existence. Firstly, their beauty is meant to enrich the Christian marriage. For instance, colourful African attire emphasises the harmony in the marital life cooked with many ingredients from different backgrounds. Hence, African attire spells elegance, dignity in diversity and harmony in differences, revealing marriage to be a union in distinction.
So while the white garment emphasises purity and peace, the coloured local dress speaks to the context of the couples. So, it is not good for pastors to discourage people who prefer and adopt local dress. Similarly, it is not good to force people to adopt local dress code. African traditional dress adds value and diversity, and enriches the Christian marriage culture, showing that every good thing seeks Catholic fullness and participates in glorifying the Lord. But this should not be legislated. Whoever feels like expressing faith in the beauty of their particularity is welcome to do so without coercion or intimidation or cajoling. And whoever feels like maintaining the old should not be tagged as an enslaved mind and thoughtless Europhile. Both are valid.
Adequate development of faith has to properly integrate the particular and the universal for an output that maintains continuity with the past as it innovatively progresses to the future. This organic growth faithful to both the diachronic and synchronic nature of the faith echoes the truth that God our Father is also the God of our fathers. In other words, He who gifts us treasures to be shared is also He who has enriched the Church with so many treasures. Discarding what has shaped faith meaning-making over the decades and centuries would only impoverish the expression of the faith by discount. The earthly peregrination of the Christian faith has given and taken from various cultures to possess her stature and features.
Christianity, not being a cultural affair, is beyond particularities. As such, it is both indigene and guest to all cultures. So while African dress brings a fresh appreciation of our Africanness and enriches the universal Church with costumes from our land, this piece invites us to receive gifts from others with joy, gratitude and responsibility.
• Rev. Fr George Adimike is a priest of the Archdiocese of Onitsha. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org