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INCULTURATION OF AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS VALUES IN CHRISTIANITY - HOW FAR?


1. The Question

The title of this paper is expressed in the form of a question:  "Inculturation of African Traditional Religious Values in Christianity - How Far?" Just over ten years ago I was asked to give a paper in Nairobi at the Goethe Institute and the title was  "How African can African Christianity Be?"  Its sub-title was: "What are the irreducible elements of Christianity, without which African Christianity cannot be
Christian?"  The danger with questions of this kind consists in seeing Christianity and African Culture as two competing quantities that flourish at each other’s expense.  More of one means less of the other.  It is rather like two teams in a rugby match each making ground against the other. The reality is very different indeed. The result of inculturation should be a synthesis in which, as Pope John Paul II has written, "faith becomes culture". This is a demand of faith, as much as of culture. The goal of inculturation, therefore, is a single cultural entity that is at once a culture transformed by faith and a faith that is culturally re-expressed.

Inculturation is an inseparable aspect of evangelisation, which is the establishment of God’s reign on earth, the realization of his project for humanity. Culture is an essential aspect of being human. It refers to the various patterns according to which human beings think, act and feel. Culture is the prism through which people view the whole of their experience. It is, as Geert  Hofstede  calls it, "the software of  the  mind",  the shared mental package that helps to programme our perception  and our  behaviour. To evangelise human individuals and communities inevitably means the evangelisation of culture, as Pope Paul VI was the first to point out in 1975. Otherwise, evangelisation is a purely superficial process.

In a true inculturation, therefore, there are no winners or losers. Inculturation means the presentation and re-expression of the Gospel in forms and terms proper to a culture. This process results in the reinterpretation of both, without being unfaithful to either. Anything less, is not inculturation. In other words, it would be a syncretism and not a synthesis - the juxtaposition of non-communicating meanings.

To say that there should be no winners or losers in inculturation is not to say that the two terms of the process does not each have demands. What I want to do in this paper is to identify the demands of faith on the one hand and of (African) culture on the other, and to show how both are met in a genuine inculturation. The short answer to the question-title of this paper:  "How far?" is simply: "The sky is the limit, as long as the authentic demands of both faith and culture are respected".


2. Inculturation and the Tradition of Faith

A major consequence of inculturation is that a given culture is transformed by faith, and that the culture in question is introduced thereby into the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church. Inculturation is able to do this, because human cultures reflect divine truth.  They are sanctioned by God as part of creation. The world-seeding Logos of God, the rational principle of creation "through whom all things were made" (John 1:3), has planted seeds of divine truth in every human culture. This is a normal consequence of humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God.

But human cultures are also a theatre of God’s saving action, because they are flawed by ignorance, error and sin.  Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is active in human cultures, even before they are explicitly evangelised, and that the Spirit is responsible for Christ’s saving presence in them. It is the duty of inculturation  (evangelisation) to reveal this presence and this activity, to discover and affirm the seeds of truth and to challenge everything in the culture, which impedes the full manifestation of God’s truth and love.

Theologians have different ways of explaining this transformation of culture by faith. One way is to situate the process in what is called the missio Dei, "God’s mission", his loving and saving dialogue with his creation. God loves his creatures in their  "otherness", in their cultural particularity.  The missio Dei reaches its climax in the great commandment of universal love and its practical implementation in the life and sacrifice of Jesus.  "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (Jn.3: 16).

Another approach taken by theologians is to see inculturation as a consequence of the Incarnation. By becoming human, God has identified himself with human culture. Culture was part of the human nature adopted by God the Son.  This identification was completed in the paschal mystery. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus transcended the limitations of an earthly life and identified with each and every human culture that has existed, or will ever exist. This process of identification involves the death and resurrection of each and every culture.  Christians believe, therefore, that their faith is the perfection of every culture.

We have been examining up to now the encounter between faith and culture. It is time now to explore what we mean by "faith".  In writing about "faith", we are writing about a tradition concerning Jesus, a tradition concerning the Gospel or "Good News" of the Reign of God inaugurated by Jesus. In the New Testament, this Gospel is sometimes called the "Word of God" or "the Way". These names have important implications. In the first place, Jesus is both the "Word" and the "Way". So, we are really saying that Jesus himself enters into cultures. This personalized understanding of inculturation is frequently alluded to by Pope John Paul II on his pastoral journeys, when he tells his audiences:  "In you, Christ has become African"; "In you, Christ has become Indian", and so forth.

In the second place, these names imply that the Gospel is a pattern of life. It is a Word that is shared, a Way of life that is lived. In other words, the Gospel is applicable to culture and operates within cultures. When we speak of faith encountering culture, we are always referring to faith in one or another cultural form encountering another culture.  Evangelisation is fundamentally an intercultural process.

We are speaking about a tradition concerning Jesus.  Our Christian religion is a historical religion and Jesus is first and foremost a historical person, who lived in first century Palestine, at that time in a situation of considerable cultural complexity. Jesus lived and responded to the cultures of the New Testament. Everything that he said and did was expressed in the culture of the time.  The New Testament, which is the heir to the Jewish Bible, is our evidence for the tradition concerning Jesus. If we want to understand Jesus and his message, we must read the New Testament culturally; and, in reading and translating Scripture, we have to be utterly faithful to its language, both semantic and cultural. In fact, the only culture that is privileged and indispensable in the Church, the only culture with which the Church can identify, is the culture of Jesus. For example, if we come from Papua New Guinea, where pigs are the most highly prized of animals, we have to get used to a biblical culture in which pigs are despised as unclean. If we come from a forest village in Congo Kinshasa where lambs are unknown, we have to try to understand a culture in which the epithet "Lamb of God" is applied to Jesus.

The tradition concerning Jesus has been called "a trajectory of meaning" that stretches from his lifetime up to the present day.  It is coherent and continuous, but, as Vatican II taught, "it  makes  progress  in the Church". It goes from culture to culture and from history to history. In every age and place the tradition arouses new questions and responses, entering into dialogue with the genius of successive cultures.  The tradition does not change, but it acquires surplus meaning, as new implications are identified and new insights are disclosed. The Church’s teaching authority, or magisterium is frequently obliged to make official faith-statements or definitions. These are couched in the semantic and cultural language of the time, and they need to be reformulated again and again in order to preserve their meaning. However, that meaning cannot be contradicted or rejected.

The trajectory of meaning, which is the Christian tradition of faith, also includes the Church’s own self-understanding, as a visible and hierarchically structured communion.  It includes certain unchanging concepts concerning ministry and Church order, although their secondary forms and functions may vary.

A good example of inculturation is provided by the successive images of Jesus through the centuries, as the tradition of faith passed from Judaism into the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean, thence into the Christian Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Middle Ages of western Europe, the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, the non-western experience of decolonisation and liberation and so on. Jesus was depicted successively as Lord of History, Light of the Gentiles, King of Kings, True Icon of God, the Crucified God, the Bridegroom of the Soul, the Universal Man, the Mirror of Truth, the Prince of Peace, the Poet of the Soul, the Liberator, the Ancestor, Master of Initiation, Healer and many more. All of these images correspond to particular cultures, places and epochs, but all are in the authentic tradition concerning Jesus.  All these images can be indexed back to the outlooks, and sometimes even to the very words, of the New Testament itself. They are an extraordinary example of the  "marriage of meanings" that is the essence of inculturation.

As Pope John Paul II pointed out in Ecclesia in Africa, inculturation applies to every aspect of the Christian’s existence and every aspect of the Church’s, teaching, life and practice. Inculturation is very far from being the specialized work of theologians, liturgists and canonists. It takes place wherever faith encounters life. Culture itself is a shared phenomenon, and inculturation, whatever the contribution of creative individuals, is also basically the work of a community

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