ARE FAMILY MOMENTS FAITH MOMENTS, 2011 Catholic Theological Society

Oct 1, 2011

Johannesburg, South Africa, 28-31 August 2011

TOPIC: Distinction Sacred / Secular in the context of Family Life in Africa.

Toni Rowland

Before we address the question, “Are family moments truly faith moments?” it is necessary to reflect briefly on the concepts sacred and secular. I am suggesting that there is a blurring between these categories. Sacred can refer to religious in a particular church context but also to spiritual as every human being has their own spirituality, a sense of the sacred that may or may not be related to a church, even one in which they worship. According to Wikipedia the term secular can refer to the contrast between church and state, but is commonly understood as meaning “not to do with church or religion,” or ‘of the world.’
In dealing with African spirituality many have noted that there is no distinction between sacred and secular. Skakhane (2000:125) writes, “The African worldview does not entertain any dichotomy between that which is spiritual and that which is material.” It is also accepted that family is integral to life in the African worldview and so an African spirituality is necessarily although not exclusively a family spirituality. Dlungwane (2000:133) writes that the African spirituality incorporates the values of family, hospitality and community. The concept ubuntu has this broader dimension.
However, in asking ,“Are family moments truly faith moments?” or conversely, “Are faith moments truly family moments” the focus is put primarily on the daily life experience of every human being who is essentially a family person whether they happen to be living in their biological family or not.
The two (sacred) images, Church as Family of God and the family as the domestic church which underpin the discussion are fairly recent focus areas in the Church, one from the African Synod of 1994 and the other from the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960s where it was recaptured from the time of the early church. Many subsequent Church documents and, depending from which department they originate, while they acknowledge the importance of the family in the church and society, do not take on board a specific spirituality of marriage and of family life. One could well ask, “If the Church is not teaching this how can people come to understand it?” Ecclesia in Africa called for the development of a theology of the concept Church as Family, but from the perspective of family ministry in the local Church much more must be done to link faith and life, faith moments and family moments. Aylward Shorter writes, “If the church is truly to be a family of God, then both the Church and the family which provides its model should reflect God’s priorities.” Theology of Church as Family.
Families are generally regarded as individuals who happen to be living in the same house and have a relationship with one another which brings with it certain rights and obligations e.g. marital rights, socialisation of children, transmitting faith, teaching them to pray as well as obedience and respect for elders. These are either secular or sacred but the spirituality underlying this attitude is still individualistic, particularly so within the western, rational worldview, rights, my duties, my God. Traditional African spirituality has the more balanced and more integrated view. A true family spirituality demands a paradigm shift that can comfortably accommodate the aspects of family life such as human growth and development, embodiedness, sexuality, work and leisure. These are in fact living sacramental experiences. Family spirituality would see the birth of a baby as well as the baptism as a faith moment. First communion and confession are related to life experiences of a meal and reconciliation as happens constantly in family life. Ways could be found to relate the Sacrament of Confirmation to initiation and rites of passage.
People of faith, like everyone else, live their lives in a modern-day secularised society where God and religion have been reduced to a mere occasional blimp on the radar screen of life. They have disappeared from the mainstream in the world of media, business, education, sport. One could hardly call a soccer player crossing himself after scoring a goal a sign of an integrated spirituality. Values and morals while being an aspect of religious life are not its primary concern. The main focus of religion is the transcendent, the spiritual, experiencing and acknowledging the presence of God or a higher being with whom one has some kind of relationship. Spirituality differs in different cultures. For example even within western society Portuguese and German families differ as do African, Asian and American families in their cultures and their spirituality.
Many post-Vatican II Church documents speak of the important role of the laity in the temporal – or secular – domain, the political, economic, social and cultural domains that include family life. What they are to do is not always as clear as what happens in a catechism class or scripture sharing group. In the world they witness to God’s presence by their lives and so are called to build a bridge between sacred and secular. Do they do so or is it a case of “go to Church on Sunday, continue to sin on Monday?
There are a number of writers on family spirituality. David Thomas, a lay married theologian in Christian Marriage describes the sacrament of marriage as “ living in the presence of God.” An awareness of consciously living the paschal mystery, relating one’s own Good Friday and Resurrection moments to those of Jesus has been dealt with in a number of MARFAM publications such as Marriage and The Paschal Mystery. This invites reflection too on statements from Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est. He writes of God’s loving as the measure of human loving, and vice versa. This is a contemporary Catholic spirituality which I believe goes beyond prayer and scripture reading.
Wendy Wright, another author on family spirituality speaks not of “going out” but coming home, nesting, building that intimate community of life and love that Pope John Paul II spoke of as the first of the tasks of the domestic church in Familiaris Consortio. John Paul’s further writings on Theology of the Body explore the same spirituality.
It has been noted that everyone has their own spirituality, as an aspect of their culture and according to Bate all human life is cultural. There can be a distinction between spirituality and religion. At the same time spirituality is embedded in secularised society. Why is religion practised outwardly while spirituality is internalised, even unconsciously? Is religion an escape from an unsatisfying life, or are the long-held reasons of fear of punishment or promise of reward the driving force? For many there is great joy in religious practice but clearly there are also challenges from any religious group and its doctrines and rules. Christian theology tends towards the other-worldly with concepts of leaving home and family, separating oneself from the practical reality. However sexuality and all the related issues could be seen as straddling the dividing line between sacred and secular.

For our purposes here we now explore the distinction between sacred and secular in the more defined context of family life in the Catholic Church in Southern Africa.
Firstly on the subject of African traditional spirituality we ask whether it is secular or sacred. There is an abundance of writing by African theologians including Magesa and Mbiti claiming that it is impossible to separate the sacred and secular. Dlungwane (2000:133) comments that African Christians have tended to adopt a dual personality. One the one hand in tune with their African spirituality, they experience “a personal and human relationship with God, i.e. the peculiar manner in which an African in her/his totality appropriates the salvific mission of Christ.” On the other hand, Christianity has been presented in doctrinal and biblical terms and “has failed dismally to penetrate the African soul.” (2000:133)
African social life is traditionally essentially family-centred. That, in particular the qualities of the ideal African family identified by the 1994 African Synod, is the reason for the choice of the image Church as Family. There are different approaches to using this image. The image or model can be most meaningfully used when incorporated into spirituality rather than merely an outward expression of caring for families in their needs. Another common approach is to apply the term family to the whole community rather than the biological family in whatever form it takes.
Already shortly after 1994 SECAM in a critique noted that the African family in such an ideal form had virtually become extinct; socio-economic, urbanising and secularising realities were destroying the family.
Ancestor veneration, naming, cleansing, rites of passage such as initiation schools and virginity testing, lobola and the beliefs and traditions around marriage and around life, death and funerals do continue but to a lessening degree. The apartheid era and in particular migrant labour have played a major role in the loss of culture and loss of family life. The younger generation merely continues this trend but more so as a result of exposure to western media and technology.
Family life in the Southern African region has some glaring dissimilarities with most other parts of Africa. In many parts the traditional African extended family is still more commonly found and in some cases the traditional spirituality is more integrated with less distinction between the sacred and the secular. However in the particular area of family life Christian writers Onyango-Ajus, P & Kiura,J in Families, First School of Christian Life and similar publications appear to have all but dismissed traditional family concepts and practices and the ideal that is promoted for pastoral care of a Christian family in Africa differs very little from a Christian nuclear family to be found anywhere in the world.
Christianity’s effect on African spirituality in particular of family life has not all been positive and many aspects of marriage in particular are consistently neglected as noted in the 1998 revised edition of African Christian Marriage. Kisembo, et al describe the history of the CROMIA research project into marriage in Africa.
Can a sense of the sacred and possibly even the sacredness of the ordinary be recaptured? A recent study by the SA Institute of Race Relations that has caught the public attention presents a challenging picture of structural disintegration of the family form that has been considered the norm in Western society for some time. The study indicates that In South Africa the nuclear family is not the norm. The single parent family, usually a mother-headed family is the norm. Only a third of children are living with both biological parents and the absence of fathers in the lives of their children contributes to material as well as intellectual, social and emotional impoverishment. While the study is valuable there are also certain lacks. No mention is made of the spiritual dimension, which not only includes a particular religious expression but also a value system and the inherent spirituality in which traditional beliefs and practices continue to be held “sacred.” The structure described is also not the traditional African extended and multi-generational community.
Some searching questions must be asked. Have values moved into the secular social domain or is there naturally a psycho-spiritual basis to the values transmitted within a family from one generation to the next within a particular cultural context? Has religion become a social construct participated in for entertainment value and emotional wellbeing and one that has little bearing on how one’s life is lived? One could even ask whether some religious practises are not akin to secular entertainment?
For the future wellbeing of family life there are serious losses. Lost is the integrated African spirituality of life and lost is the experience of the traditional family as a spiritual reality, a faith community, much as we speak of the family as a little church. Family life universally is under severe strain. Secularisation is one of the main factors blamed for this. The human need for a religious experience is not lacking as can be seen from the growth of churches springing up all over the continent. Is their theology and spirituality rooted in social experience and a search for meaning and healing from the existential pain experienced because of a loss of cultural roots? This situation is very different from most westernised countries where practice of religion is waning on the whole except in more fundamentalist Pentecostal churches. The opposite social phenomenon of secularisation can still contain a search for meaning.
Should an attempt be made for better integration of the three concepts, religious, spiritual and secular in the post-modern world of today? Rowland, (2004) in researching the contribution of the marriage enrichment programme Marriage Encounter to African Spirituality concluded that this programme, has undoubtedly contributed to improving marriage relationships for many of the Zulu couples in the study. The couples gained a deeper understanding of the Christian spirituality of marriage as a sacrament. Their relationship skills, coping with changing gender roles, communication and intimacy were enhanced. This could be seen as the secular side but also as a growing experience of integrated spirituality. Similarly with other family relationships across the board, from parenting to relationships in the wider extended family the various family movements and programmes contribute either a purely spiritual, secular or integrated approach. The African worldview says, “I am a person through and for others.” That may be a secular statement but nevertheless one that describes a spirituality.
Having reflected on the meaning and understanding of the terms sacred and secular and included there the distinction religion and spirituality we have considered the focus areas Church as Family, and family as church. Insights were discussed into the African sense of integrating sacred and secular and African spirituality. From the discussion it is seen that secular is not necessarily bad. The work of family ministry in the Church however needs to go beyond welfare and even direct religious needs to address broader family realities in a more holistic way.
If the tasks of the family as the domestic church of the home presented by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio are taught, promoted, truly lived out and experienced there need not be distinction between sacred and secular.
God, who is love, can and will be found in forming the intimate community of life and love bonded together for life by blood, marriage or adoption that is the definition of a family.
God can and will be found and respected in nurturing and serving life in all its forms.
God will become a partner with a family in building up society through evangelising and living out family values.
The major challenge facing us now is, where is the Church as a whole in making faith moments into family moments and family moments into faith moments? This is taken as the work of family ministry in a broad sense but needs the involvement and support of the whole body. Yes, the Church is teacher, but unless the Church is truly experienced as the Family of God where families find God and a home, family moments could become faith moments not within but without its walls, both figuratively and literally.

Bate, S.C 2002. Human Life is Cultural, Introducing Anthropology. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster.
Benedict XVI 2005. Deus Caritas Est.
Dlungwane, P “The New Testament in the Context of African Spirituality” in 2000. Inculturation in the South African Context. Nairobi: Paulines.
John Paul II 1981. Familiaris Consortio. On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World. Pretoria: SACBC
John Paul II 1995. Ecclesia in Africa. The Church in Africa. Nairobi: Paulines
Mbiti, J.S 1999.(1969) African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
Kisembo, B et al 1998.(1977) African Christian Marriage. Nairobi: Paulines.
Onyango-Ajus, P & Kiura,J (ed) 2003. Families, First School of Christian Life. Nairobi: Paulines.
Rowland, T 2006. Marriage and the Paschal Mystery. Johannesburg: MARFAM
Rowland, (2004) Research paper The Contribution of Marriage Encounter to Enriching the Spirituality of Marriage in Africa. Johannesburg: St Augustine College of SA..
SECAM, Instrumentum Laboris OF Plenary Assembly 1997
Shorter, A “Introduction” to Tangaza Occasional Papers No 3 1997. Theology of the Church as Family of God. Nairobi: Paulines.
Skhakhane, J “African Spirituality” in 2000. Inculturation in the South African Context. Nairobi: Paulines.
Thomas, D.M 1983. Christian Marriage, A Journey Together. Wilmington: Glazier
Wa Lele, B 1982. Family Spirituality in Africa. Spearhead No 70. Kenya: Gaba Publications
Wikipedia accessed 9 July 2011
Wright, W 1994. Sacred Dwelling : A Spirituality of Family Life. Forest of Peace Publishing.

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