Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the third of a three-part series on contextualization. Here are the first and the second parts of that series.
As the Church carries on its mission in a multi-cultural world, it is critical to understand what it has learned from its engagement with the Word about that world.
In the Bible human history begins with a generic human, Adam. This human is first separated into male and female, and then over endless generations into families, clans, tribes, and ethnic nations. Thousands of new peoples and cultures come into being, and notably God is with each, guiding its history. (Amos 9:7)
Part of the story of the generic human is the introduction of sin into human life. As a result, the story isn’t just about a happily growing diversity of cultures spreading away from Eden. It is also about how humans move further and further from what God intends for them.
What the story doesn’t tell us is how the sin which entered Adam’s life (Genesis 3) is perpetuated in the lives of Adam’s descendants. All we know is that is it ubiquitous, reappearing in every people and culture and manifesting itself in behavior characterized as “unrighteous.” So one thing we know about the world we inhabit is that it is a realm in which sin is present.
The Bible also tells a story about differentiation and diversity. God’s fundamental command to Adam, reiterated to Noah, is “be fruitful and multiply and cover the face of the earth.” As humans are fruitful they quickly diversify, stopping only once (at Babel) to try consolidate themselves before God blows that plan apart and essentially forces them to spread and thus diversify.
After the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 the Old Testament increasingly focuses on the life of Israel as a community knowing God, beginning with Abraham and moving forward in narrowing circles to the original tribes from which the ethnic nation of Israel traced its descent. This focus on Israel is hardly surprising since the Israelites wrote the Old Testament. Naturally it is all about them and their special covenant with God.
But the story offers plenty of evidence that it isn’t the only story about God accompanying humanity, with Amos 9 being notable as well as Isaiah 19:19-23. Psalm 87:5 and many passages in Isaiah create a fascinating narrative arch, in which Zion becomes not only the final destination of all human nations but also somehow retrospectively their birthplace as well, the urquelle of their peoplehood. There are many human communities that know God, because despite sin (which in any case is found in both Israel and the Church) God is involved in every human society.
This story of finding God’s self-revelation among the nations, and indeed righteousness among the nations is continued in the story of Jesus, whom the gospels depict as continually coming into contact with God’s work outside of Israel. And this is ratified by Peter’s vision in Acts and the subsequent conversion of the gentiles to Christ. Those visions in Isaiah and the Psalms suddenly become much less eschatological dreams and far more a historical movement of discovery of God among the nations embodied in the Church.
Unfortunately, and I’ve documented much of this in my The Gospel Among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation, the Church, imbued with the Roman exceptionalism that was part of its earliest cultural context, struggled to see God at work among the “barbarians” and “heathen” encountered on the edges of the empire. It was a struggle that continues to this day, now articulated in terms of the newly invented word “culture.” The concept of culture gives us the ability to talk about “inculturation” as a way of doing mission (a term which I and other missiologists have tended to use anachronistically.) It also gives us the ability to dismiss non-Christian cultures as lazy, ignorant, sinful, totalitarian, and so on. And unfortunately it can mislead us into believing that there is some divine “text” that can be separated from its cultural context, and that this cultural context can somehow be differentiated from its human community; a true distinction without a difference.
The concept of culture can become particularly problematic when we speak of “the gospel and culture." We mistakenly assume, as I suggest in Part 1, that these are two distinct things; the first needing to be expressed in terms comprehensible to the second. It is far more accurate to understand that the Church in its ongoing life in mission with God’s Word continually enters into dialogue with other bodies of human beings who have likewise been engaged in a life with God. The Church engaged with the Word enters into dialogue with others whose societies are also engaged with God in different ways. And this means that each has the possibility of learning things about God that it did not know. And of course each has the responsibility of questioning and rejecting so-called knowledge of God contradictory to its own ongoing encounter with the Divine.
Put in other words, “inculturation” isn’t planting the gospel in another culture, nor is it clothing the gospel in another culture. Inculturation is the emergence of new expressions of the Church's engagement with the Word arising out of the ongoing life of the church in mission.
One should not imagine that these new expressions are limited to matters of music, dress, language, and so on found in worship. They may be, as we find in Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement, a new way of speaking about Christ’s work on the Cross that couldn’t be conceptualized within the limitations of Greek and Roman culture.
Or they may be, as found in modern political theologies and the understanding of the equality of men and women, new ways of knowing what it means to be a human in society that couldn’t be conceptualized in the pre-modern culture of European Christendom. The United Methodist Social Principles Creed, for example, arises of the Methodist church engaged with God’s word in ongoing dialogue within modern societies, and it reaches conclusions impossible in European and American Christianity only a few hundred years earlier.
What makes this process of dialogue between the Church and the societies (and thus cultures) it encounters in mission both challenging and troubling is that our inner life of encounter with God’s Word can never give us complete confidence in our grasp of who God is and what God wants of us. At the same time God’s life with societies outside the church means we can never dismiss out of hand their insights into God’s righteousness. We may not always be right, and they may know things we don’t know. Thus, our only confidence, given the limits of our humanity and the ubiquity of sin, is confidence in God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ.
That is why we begin our worship with confession, placing ourselves in the context of our limited grasp of God’s righteousness and our ability to enact it. It is only after confession and absolution that we can meaningfully speak the words, “And now with the confidence of children of God. . .”
For many Christians, faced with the assaults of a contemporary society that denies God and worships its own self-sufficiency, engaging in dialogue within this sometimes-hostile culture is psychologically impossible. Being the Church engaged with the knowing of God outside the church is too difficult, too threatening, too complex. They are not prepared to open themselves to the possibilities that even an apparently hostile culture is a realm in which God’s Word is at work.
And that is okay. CS Lewis in his letters to Malcom on prayer noted that we are not all called to the front lines. There is a place for the keepers of the flame just as there is a place for those who bear it into the tempest to seek out the lost. There is a place for those who keep a warm hearth and welcome the refugees from modernity, as there is a place for those looking for new outcroppings of solid rock on which to build new houses of God. And for all there is the Word of God, abiding outside our doors even when we cannot recognize it.
Which means, and this is good news, that it is also abides within the Church even when we cannot see it within ourselves.