Tom Wirght talks about the gospel.
I have doing some research on inculturation. One of the main confusions people have – be they Roman Catholics or Protestants – is whether the ‘gospel’ interacts with ‘culture’ or actually the church, the Christian faith or Christ Himself does so.
Of course I have my own conclusion after some massive revamp of my own previous dissertation. Anyway, one of the key issues in the study is the definition of ‘gospel’. So after listening to N.T. Wirght’s short definition of the gospel, do you think that the gospel interacts and dialogues with culture(s)?
I cannot help but share this. Also do note how many times Wright refers to some sort of contextualisation in this video:
There is a post at the Read the Spirit site entitled ‘Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!‘ Many have thought that the new pope, Francis I, brings a refreshing aura with him into the office. So it would be natural for one to look back curiously for past popes with similar ‘aura of change’. John XXIII was one of them. He was the pope whom brought the Roman Catholic Church and the world a revolutionary change through the initiative of Vatican II.
Excerpt from the above post:
MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICSaround the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations.
Also, a book on John XXIII is also introduced in the post. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church–The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II (Kindle version) costs only $3.99.
Students of mission studies will no doubt remember documents which are the results of the Council. For example, Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes. Through these documents and other efforts, the council set the pace for inculturation of worship to happen in the global church and contextualisation to take place for evangelisation.
And, in his own words,
In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations. Pope John XXIII: Opening Speech at the Council, October 11, 1962
Engaging yet not compromising. A mission-minded pope indeed.
I wrote about the challenge of the church in the postmodern age. One of the key changes in the postmodern age is the increase of interest in spirituality and the reluctance to be limited by organised religion.
Other reports have confirmed this:
Over one-third of churchgoers attend services in more than one church. One in four attends services in different faiths, according to another Pew survey. More than one in five Christians believe in astrology, reincarnation, and spiritual energy in trees and nature. Seventeen percent believe in in the “evil eye” (casting curses on others). Over the last twenty years, rising numbers of Americans say they have felt like they were in touch with someone who was dead, according to Gallup data discussed in the Pew report. A rising number also say that they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost.
By referring the phenomena above as the Americans’ eclectic taste for spirituality, it is asked if ‘rising eclecticism’ could ‘erode the religious foundation of the church’. This is especially pressing considering the context of the U.S., where there is a ‘mix of peoples and beliefs’. The bottom line, is whether organized religion able to ‘co-exist with the mix-and-match tendencies of the American people.’
I believe the reason people are going to more than one churches is due to their consumerist habit. They are used to exercise their right to choose. Their move is also often utilitarian in nature, picking whatever that suits their needs at various places. They downside of this is the lack of commitment and discipleship. The quality of fellowship and sense of belonging in a community will then be eroded. So to a certain extent, the assembly – the gathering or the church – is eroded.
Of course the church, as an organisation, needs to take a hard look at herself. Again I believe the church, especially the evangelical churches are still largely too ‘modern’, hence losing touch with the postmodern people of today.
So further questions remain – ‘how can the church reach out to those who are eclectic?’ In what way can we engage with them? Can we still expect them to find their answers in the ‘modern’ church? We may think that our churches do have the answers but can we expect them to be responsive to the ‘modern’ way of doing church or ‘teaching’? How would the church deal with a member who believes in astrology? Do we attend to her needs, form a genuine relationship and dialogue with her or do we just teach her and command her to stop? There is no clear answer as each case is unique, but the question remains – as the church, how do we surf and soar in this wave of increased interest of spirituality?
An Atheist Church – Atheistic Culture Coming of Age
I heard about this new Atheist Church in Britain a few days ago and wondered how would a Christian feel when attending the assembly. My questions are answered by this post, which is an actual account of a person experiencing it on one Sunday.
There are two things mentioned in the post which strike me. First, the talk by a physicist, which reminds me of how my little venture into science years ago actually brought me closer to God. So if the report of the above blog post is accurate, the talk by the atheist church has strengthened my faith for God! This brings us to further questions. Why is it, that I am not experiencing such awe when listening to an ordinary preaching in an ordinary Christian church? I suspect this is due to the way I am wired. I think I am scientific in my thinking, and I am naturally a skeptic So the scientific method of inquiry suits me. However this method is normally not employed in the Christian church. This in turns, also shows how narrow a Christian experience can be at this age. A typical evangelical, for example, has been accustomed to only a certain ways of thinking. A book which I reviewed, ‘Pagan Christianity’ has much to say about how this come by. Again a study into how modern evangelicalism come into being will also help. With the understanding that the way we worship can actually be richer than what we have experienced so far, the church will be able to look into various ways to redeem the meaning of a Christian gathering and the various creative ways we could worship the Creator.
The other thing which strikes me is how far a certain atheist culture has formed. The video above specifically mentions the cross – the symbol of Christianity, which in the atheist church can only be observed at the first aid box. (Of course the very reason why the cross ended up at the first aid box will again bring us to its Christian root) But one could only be sensitive (read ‘hostile’) to another symbol when one feels that his culture is under threat. It is common knowledge that atheism has been active in Britain in recent years, and as some atheists imply, the movement has become a religion itself. Apparently an atheist wrote to the leader of the atheist church, relating their assembly in a church is akin to Jews in the concentration camp! Thus, this is a clear statement, that here we have a meta-narrative, a set of symbols (or lack of it), a certain ritual and worldview – all summing up to form an emerging (or rather, to some, already matured) culture. So when an assembly like this takes place, it shows how a certain philosophy has finally move out of the arena of ‘thinking’, into the arena of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and ‘doing it together’. The ‘atheistic culture’ has come of age.
The standard explanation for the meaning of inculturation is from the REDEMPTORIS MISSIO:
Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture
52. As she carries out missionary activity among the nations, the Church encounters different cultures and becomes involved in the process of inculturation. The need for such involvement has marked the Church’s pilgrimage throughout her history, but today it is particularly urgent.
The process of the Church’s insertion into peoples’ cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation “means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”85 The process is thus a profound and all-embracing one, which involves the Christian message and also the Church’s reflection and practice. But at the same time it is a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith.
Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.86 She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within.87 Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission.
Thanks to this action within the local churches, the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology and charitable works. She comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal. During my pastoral visits to the young churches I have repeatedly dealt with these themes, which are present in the Council and the subsequent Magisterium.88
Inculturation is a slow journey which accompanies the whole of missionary life. It involves those working in the Church’s mission ad gentes, the Christian communities as they develop, and the bishops, who have the task of providing discernment and encouragement for its implementation.89
53. Missionaries, who come from other churches and countries, must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery (cf. Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:5) in a credible and fruitful way. It is not of course a matter of missionaries renouncing their own cultural identity, but of understanding, appreciating, fostering and evangelizing the culture of the environment in which they are working, and therefore of equipping themselves to communicate effectively with it, adopting a manner of living which is a sign of gospel witness and of solidarity with the people.
Developing ecclesial communities, inspired by the Gospel, will gradually be able to express their Christian experience in original ways and forms that are consonant with their own cultural traditions, provided that those traditions are in harmony with the objective requirements of the faith itself. To this end, especially in the more delicate areas of inculturation, particular churches of the same region should work in communion with each other90 and with the whole Church, convinced that only through attention both to the universal Church and to the particular churches will they be capable of translating the treasure of faith into a legitimate variety of expressions.91 Groups which have been evangelized will thus provide the elements for a “translation” of the gospel message,92 keeping in mind the positive elements acquired down the centuries from Christianity’s contact with different cultures and not forgetting the dangers of alterations which have sometimes occurred.93
54. In this regard, certain guidelines remain basic. Properly applied, inculturation must be guided by two principles: “compatibility with the gospel and communion with the universal Church.”94 Bishops, as guardians of the “deposit of faith,” will take care to ensure fidelity and, in particular, to provide discernment,95 for which a deeply balanced approach is required. In fact there is a risk of passing uncritically from a form of alienation from culture to an overestimation of culture. Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be “healed, ennobled and perfected.”96
This kind of process needs to take place gradually, in such a way that it really is an expression of the community’s Christian experience. As Pope Paul VI said in Kampala: “It will require an incubation of the Christian ‘mystery’ in the genius of your people in order that its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised harmoniously in the chorus of other voices in the universal Church.”97 In effect, inculturation must involve the whole people of God, and not just a few experts, since the people reflect the authentic sensus fidei which must never be lost sight of Inculturation needs to be guided and encouraged, but not forced, lest it give rise to negative reactions among Christians. It must be an expression of the community’s life, one which must mature within the community itself, and not be exclusively the result of erudite research. The safeguarding of traditional values is the work of a mature faith.
Evangelical’s Definition of Inculturation
Statements from the Edinburgh 2010, in general representing worldwide Evangelical voices, also refers to the above definition, while including other Protestant and Evangelical Conferences’ reports. This is summarised in the section titled ‘Contextualization, inculturation and dialogue of worldviews‘ under the Transversal Topics of the Conference.
My own observation informs me that the main difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant’s understanding of inculturation is in the belief of St. Justin Martyr’s theory of spermatic Logos and the Paschal Mystery. Spermatic Logos means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures since creation, and Paschal Mystery means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures after His resurrection through the Holy Spirit. These are the areas where most Protestants disagree with. Apart from that latest Protestant and Evangelical scholarship in general recognises the importance of inculturation.
I have finally come to understand why some Muslim in Malaysia are so against the use of ‘Allah’ by other religions, especially the Christians. One of the reasons, of course, has to do with theology. The Islamic faith has no notion of incarnation and hence, no idea of contextualisation or inculturation. The expansion of the Islamic faith is a socio-political-cultural expansion, and has always been geographical. Wherever it spreads to it brings along a set of cultural practices which is more or less fixed – the way of life, worship and rituals. On the other hand, the Christian faith has always been expanding via an interaction between faith and culture, allowing a spectrum of cultural expressions according to the local context. Instead of using a single ‘sacred’ language, the Christian faith has seen the translation of the Bible into all major languages. The Christian faith has spread via translation. For instance, one of the major contextualisation exercise in history is the Reformation, which saw the Bible ended up in various languages contextualised to the needs and suitability for various people groups.
So it is not surprising to see the comment, ‘Allah is the name of god not a translation’ (See Comments area of the linked webpage), as Muslim, with their theology has ended up regarding ‘Allah’ a proper noun. Dr. Ng Kam Weng has an article here, refuting this from the grammatical perspective. I would like to point out though, that this issue is more than a dispute about a proper noun.
According to the various comments made, it is clear that Muslim scholars know about the various name of God used in the history of the Christian faith – YHWH, elohim, etc. They are also well aware of the fact that the Arabic (and others) Christians were using ‘Allah’ to refer to God prior to the existence of Islam. However, according to their arguments, once Islam came to the scene the word ‘Allah’ became a proper noun specifically referring to the god of the Muslim. It is ‘his name’. So if Christians want to use a Malay word to refer to their god, they are asked to use a ‘translation’ (i.e., ‘Tuhan’), instead of the proper noun or the name of the personal god of the Muslim.
Hence, any talk about who used this word for how many years since when will not work (with this group of people). This word, ‘Allah’, has been assimilated as part of the cultural heritage of the Islamic faith among Muslim in Malaysia – a part of that great socio-political-cultural-geographical expansion. If you like, a part of the ‘spoil’. This is understandably a typical Malaysia situation as in the context of Malaysia, there exists a need for certain cultural group to find its identity.
Therefore, I am also not sure if in the context of Malaysia any talk about ‘rights’ would help. Of course constitutional rights is to be upheld, but whether it is the best link for dialogue or basis for debate is questionable. Perhaps national unity and other concepts are more appropriate?
As for Sabah and Sarawak,it is the same story, albeit the other way round.1 The natives here have adopted the word ‘Allah’ just like the Muslim when they first ‘discovered’ him and they will not like to let go of the ‘name’ of their God. So the Sabahans and Sarawakians will likely fight for the right to keep using the word.
So where does this bring us? I see the heart of the matter is the clash between two parties – between those who advocate Islamic rule (technically called ‘rule of law’ – the Islamic way) and those who insist on constitutional rule. Obviously non-Muslims belong to the second group. The question now is, how many percentage of Muslims in Malaysia stands with them?1 Sabah and Sarawak are two states at Borneo which form the Federation of Malaysia with the rest of the states in the Peninsular Malaysia. The Borneo natives have been using ‘Allah’ in their Malay Bible for decades.
Translating and closely analysing contemporary Chinese material, Gernet show that it was not merely clerical squabbles, doctrines, rituals or customs which separated missionary and potential convert. The twain were unable to meet because their respective world-pictures differed radically: the Chinese mind-set, for instance, rooted in concepts from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, found literally inconceivable Christian ideas evolved from the Graeco-Roman- Judaic-Scholastic mental world. And vice versa. The literati, by and large untroubled by metaphysical anxieties, showed keen interest in Ricci’s technology, moral tracts and memory exercises (see History Today, December, 1985) but laid aside with contumely his religion and his Tridentine ‘Ptolemaic’ theology.
Would love to read this book. The above shows that there is an area which students of inculturation should look into – the definition of ‘mind-set’, its relation with language (and vice versa) and how these affect evangelism. If China is having a revival today – how are the barriers of ‘mind-set’ and language overcome? Perhaps inculturation doesn’t work at all if worldview (mind set and language included, philosophy) is to be separated from culture (behaviour)?
Traditionally people ‘blame this first ‘Failure in the Far East’ upon the Jesuits’ ‘narrow-minded’ co-workers, the friars, whose machinations, we read, misled nine successive popes into denouncing, and finally prohibiting the Jesuits’ ‘China Strategy’, thereby destroying the plan to convert Asia.’ But the review highlighted how the author of this book opined that the mistake was Ricci’s as he failed to notice that the key barrier is not cultural (hence Confucianism) but philosophical (Taoism). A more scholarly review from The Journal of Asian Studies summarises the author’s view succinctly: ‘He doubts that many of the early seventeenth-century literati-converts were “really” Christians, because they were so insistent on reconciling Christianity with Neo-Confucian notions; they were attracted to the Jesuits’ behavior and moral rigor, not to Christian doctrine.’ (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. by Jacques Gernet; Janet Lloyd, Review by: Daniel H. Bays, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 114-116)
I will try to find a copy of this book!
‘A private truth for a limited circle of believers is no truth at all. Even the most devout faith will sooner or later falter and fail unless those who hold it are willing to bring it into public debate and to test it against experience in every area of life. If the Christian faith about the source and goal of human life is to be denied access to the human realm, where decisions are made on the great issues of the common life, then it cannot in the long run survive even as an option for a minority.’
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, 117.
‘The church could have escaped persecution by the Roman Empire if it had been content to be treated as a cultus privatus—one of the many forms of personal religion. But it was not. Its affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” implied a public, universal claim that was bound eventually to clash with the cultus publicus of the empire. The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all.’
Lesslie Newbigin, , The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, 16–17.
Newbigin’s criticisms above were directed towards the Western society at his time where faith is driven into everyone’s private space from the public arena. Today the situation might be slightly different. People are happy to share what they think about truth and faith, but the tendency now is to form unofficial or casual groups, often even driven by common felt-needs where similar understanding of ‘truth’ or ‘faith’ are expressed and lived. As a result, we have now various groups adhering to their own version of Christian faith, forming their own subculture, satisfied with their own little ‘private space’, and find no time nor necessity to engage with the wider world. So ‘the private faith/truth’ which Newbigin mentioned is today expressed in a typical postmodern form – diversified ‘believers’ groups’ meeting together instead of individualistic, private believers attending a state church or a denominational church, as in the ‘modern’ church. Splinter groups were common in history, but never in such intensity, in such a big number and with so much self-justified confidence as today. Postmodern consumeristic tendency means that people who shares common ideas about ‘truth’ or ‘faith’ tend to form a group themselves to serve their own needs.’
Thus, the issue we will encounter, in regards to the first quote above, is the fact that people may not find it necessary to ‘test’ the truth of their respective subcultural groups. In the context of the church, it means that believers are not interested to engage meaningfully with the people outside of their realm. It is too troublesome. As a result there is a lack of evangelism and mission. Otherwise when evangelism is done, there will be very little or no effort at all to engage meaningfully with the various subcultures encountered. In short, for mission and evamgelism to happen in a church, a certain amount of cultural clash is to be expected.
According to the second quote above, cultural clash, or in the context of this post – venturing out of our comfort zone and getting in touch with the ‘real world’ or other groups – becomes inevitably the very mark of authentic Christianity. If Jesus is Lord at all, he has to be the Lord of our ‘group’ and the Lord of others, and Christians are to make sure this is the mission and the reason for the existence of their group/church. A missional church will engage with the outside world even with the expense of clashing with the dominant culture of the day.