Friday, October 13, 2006

Theology in Culture

Missionary works have always been criticized of colonizing in the guise of bringing the gospel to a non-Christian country. This is rightly so because when one will study history, almost always the coming in of religion often results in radical changes in the culture. This is the reason why many Asian countries are so apprehensive of Christian missionaries especially those who come from the west for they know that almost always their culture will be dominated with Western ideas.

This is where Filipino and other Asian missionaries have advantage over western missionaries. Asian people don’t see us as a threat. However, it does not eliminate the idea that Christianity is a threat to nationalism. Usually, affiliation with the predominant religion is important part to national identity. A person who changed his religion is always seen as a traitor to his own country. Although nowadays, on the surface this seems acceptable, deep inside everybody knows that it is not so. This was true, in the Philippines a decade ago, when one become an evangelical Christian or protestant; the people close to you think that something very wrong had happened to you. To be a Filipino is to be a Catholic. However because of enormous growth and sophistication in evangelical Christianity today it is now largely accepted. This is not true in many South East Asian countries like Thailand, here being a Thai is being a Buddhist.

Filipino missionaries may not be guilty of ethnocentrism and may not be accused of cultural colonization, however, we sometimes are guilty of spiritual pride and religious superiority complex. I feel uncomfortable when fellow missionaries rebuke the spirits upon seeing a Buddhist temple and would condemn every act of worship in native religion as evil or demonic. When we as missionaries perceive that every religious and cultural practices are to be judged according to our presuppositions of what Christianity or spirituality should be then I could not imagine how could we effectively communicate to them the Christ of the gospel. We should learn to hold our judgment and take time to listen and learn.

The present challenge for missionaries is dialogue. It is the art of listening to what other religions are saying. It is to learn that other religions have something good to say and they have some kind of truth. They have something to contribute for the good of humanity. All religions have an equal right to be heard. Only through “dialogue” that we will understand their worldview and we can learn how to present the gospel that is acceptable to their culture. Only when we keep this in mind that we can teach the biblical truth that makes sense to them. Having an open mind and open heart is necessary for missionary work.

I may be biased here but theological knowledge plays a critical role in recognizing this interplay between theology and culture, between Christianity and other religions. It may take a lot of efforts and may receive unjustified criticisms of being “compromiser” from other more conservative Christian missionaries, but missionaries should be theologians in the sense that we need to find ways how to preach Christ that is not foreign to their culture perhaps to the extent that we need to use functional equivalents, parallels in culture, spiritual concepts, rituals, religious ideas and practices. Missionaries should consider these cultural elements as vehicle in expressing Christian beliefs and teachings.


Jim said...

Thanks for this- very interesting indeed and an important perspective that many of us don't have at all.

byron said...

Yes, a very thoughtful post. The gospel will be a scandal and an offense; Christ calls for repentence from ways that lead to death - including both nationalism and spiritual pride! Perhaps the task of enculturation you're talking about could be conceived of as learning how to be most appropriately offensive - making sure that Christ causes the offense, not my own pride or arrogance. Only then is his inconvenient and transformative rule truly good news.

Joey said...

Dr. Jim,

Thanks for the encouraging words. If a person found himself in a culture that is so different from his own, one could not help but look at it from different perspective. Sometimes, you have to really study the culture and immerse yourself in it to look at their world as they see it.

Hi Byron,

I was encouraged by your comments and good to know that you have been visiting and reading my posts.

Indeed, Christ should be preached even when we know that it is offensive from within and without. I believe that the gospel of Christ has the power to transform the lives of those who listen to it and accept it by faith. A theologian task is to know that the foundational work of proclaiming the gospel and he or she can do it by learning so much about the culture that she or he can become a participant in it. Believing that even in a strange culture God’s presence is there. And that Christ has not only the power to redeem humanity but also he has the power to redeem the culture so that it can become a channel of his revelation and the means by which his gospel will become understandable to all peoples.

Thanks again.