The following is a slightly edited version of an essay I originally posted here.
Rather than attempting to build Christianity upon the natural virtues of Inca religion in the Andes, the Jesuits in Juli had come to see Andean customs and beliefs as a serious hinderance to the faith of Christ. The sixteenth-century emphasis on the interior experience of Christianity, which created much higher standards for native converts than had existed in preceding centuries, meant that the Jesuit’s disillusionment with the native potential for Christian evangelization would be experienced throughout the Peruvian church. Eventually, the conviction that they native peoples were not truly “Christian” would lead to episcopal campaigns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to extirpate idolatry, as well as to modern notions that Andean peoples are “cryptopagans” even when they profess a belief in Christ.
Dr. Sabine Hyland wrote a book a few years back entitled, The Jesuit and the Incas, on one of the first mestizo clergy in Peru, Fr. Blas Valera. A son of one of the conquistadores and an Inca noblewoman, he was one of the first scholars to do a comparison of ancient Incan civilization with the European classical world, and created a world view quite favorable to the conquered empire. It was Fr. Valera’s contention that Inca religion was quite close to Christianity, down to an almost Christian idea of an incarnate God named Viracocha, and an absolute creator god named Illa Tecce. Valera wanted the Spanish clergy to begin to use these names for the Christian God and Jesus Christ, but to no avail. In the end, Fr. Valera was framed on charges of fornication and imprisoned by the Jesuit order for four years. Scholars now believe that he was really imprisoned for syncretic heresy. Only through the intervention of some influential Jesuits was he finally freed and sent to Spain, where he died in a pirate assault on Cadiz in 1597.
Besides being a student of Latin American history and culture, the story of this Jesuit compels me for other theological reasons. It comes down to the now classical division in Christian thought between what belongs to the world and what belongs to the Gospel. For “world optimists”, such as St. Clement of Alexandria and the Jesuits of the “Chinese rites” controversy, all cultural and intellectual forms can be preparations for the Gospel: there is a natural piety and intellectual striving that prepares the way for the Good News of Jesus Christ, and it too can be incorporated into the Christian life. For those more pessimistic about our fallen human state, from Tertullian to the Protestant Reformers, culture is more a hinderance to the pure Gospel rather than an aide. Not only does Athens have nothing to do with Jerusalem, but Jerusalem has nothing to do with any place else.
Since the latter view is rarely taken to the severe extremes of people like Ulrich Zwingli who didn’t even allow hymns in his services, what usually occurs in the process of propagating the Gospel in many cases is an idealization of what the New Testament religion should resemble. In some places, as in countries of the radical Reformation, it takes the form of a dull imagining of what the worship of the ancient synagogue and early Church must have looked like. In others, such as the Americas, relations of power also came into play. Christianity was taught to the conquered peoples, but it was the Christianity of the conquerer. This was the case in the times of Fr. Valera in Peru, where the Spanish conquerors insisted that the indigenous peoples use the Spanish word to refer to the Christian God (“Dios”) rather than the Quechua word. Christianity was imposed as a white man’s religion for a white god.
Valera, taught Quechua by his mother, is one of the few voices who objected to this cultural imposition. He insisted that Inca civilization was not barbaric, but rather had many of the same features of the foundational cultures of Greece and Rome. Quechua itself for Valera served the same role in the Inca Empire as Latin did in Europe; it was considered a complex lanuage of the court that united the vast Andean empire. The Jesuit priest also insisted that the Inca were fundamentally monotheistic in their religion and unlike their cousins in North America, they did not practice human sacrifice. Even such classical institutions of the West as monks and vestal virgins had their parallels in classical Incan culture. Fr. Valera felt that Christianity would come as naturally to the natives of Peru as it did to the pagans of Europe. Unfortunately, this opinion branded Valera as a heretic and led to his years of incarceration.
Posthumously, of course, our mestizo Jesuit is the victor in terms of what has happened in history. Especially with the Second Vatican Council, inculturation is encouraged in many parts of the world that are newer to the Christian message. In many places, the cultures of the places where missionaries arrive are no longer denigrated but respected. We can argue the merits of this point of view, but what does this have to do with us who who live in historically Christian societies?
I have unfortunately been involved in many milieu where there was only one acceptable idea of how the Gospel could be incarnate in society. With the Society of St. Pius X, the Gospel reached its perfect avatar either in the High Middle Ages, or in France in the right-wing movements leading up to the suppression of the Action Française. With the Orthodox, the Christian imagination will always be stuck before the fall of Constantinople. Even in many mainline Catholic circles, culture can only advance by going backwards, either in music, literature, or the plastic arts. If there is a real crisis of Christian praxis, it is the crisis of the Christian imagination. Christians must always attempt see the beauty of Christ in the world in which they live, not in a world that has long passed into memory.