Incarnation, Culture and Context

In a ‘zoom’ lecture on Anglican Mission and Culture for the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies on Tuesday September 29, Bishop Michael Nazir Ali laid biblical foundations for engagement with culture in the incarnation and reviewed various approaches.

“Jesus didn’t just become generally human but assumed a humanity that was gender-, culture- and time-specific”, he said. Culture enables human societies “to adapt to their environment and to adapt their environment to themselves, to discern social and personal meaning in existence and to express world views and values which enable human beings to live together.” Culture can be regarded as God providing us with specific contexts and circumstances which enable us to use and develop our diverse mental, spiritual and physical capacities. If culture is God-given, then it must be possible for the Gospel to resonate with it, to seek to transform it and bring it to an awareness of its own rootedness in God’s good providence.

This underlies St. Paul’s approach to the Jewish people to show how the coming of Jesus Christ is in accordance with the Scripture and the expectation of the Jews (e.g., Acts 13:26-43, 17:1-3, 19:8-11). The appeal to the Gentiles is to any awareness of the divine in their cultural and religious background. Paul points out to the people of Lystra that the one God has not left himself with witness anywhere (Acts 14: 8-17). In Athens, Paul refers to their religious practices as a way of connecting with the good news and also to their poetical literature which witnesses to the creator God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17: 16-34).

The patristic tradition recognized that God speaks to people in specific cultures in ways attuned to their language and cultural forms because in Christ God has identified completely with the human condition. The Gospel brings transformation of persons, families and cultures, from the inside, gradually and with the grain of culture rather than against it. “Thus the Logos or Eternal Word, incarnate in Jesus Christ, enlightens all human beings so that they can, to some extent, anticipate the coming of Christ and are thus prepared to receive the Gospel when it is proclaimed to them, even if popular religion has distorted and obscured their knowledge of the truth.”

Lamin Sanneh writes of the ‘translatability’ of the Gospel into the vernaculars of every people and nation and can be expressed in the idiom and the culture of every human group. This contrasts with Islam whose sacred language Arabic must be used in reciting the scriptures and in ritual prayer. As a result there has been rapid ‘arabisation’ of numerous cultures and peoples in the name of returning to primitive belief and practice.

Because Christian Faith is inherently translatable, it is potentially universal and spread throughout the ancient Roman and Persian Empires, and now has a majority of adherents in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Culture and Context

Those working with the poor and marginalised have sometimes distinguished between culture and context. Culture has to do with the language, the customs and the idiom of a particular group. Context may be a more appropriate term for the social, economic and political circumstances in which people live. Bringing good news in situations of endemic poverty, discrimination and marginalisation has to include how the Church can change the actual condition in which people find themselves. It may be that “theologies of liberation” in Latin America, Asia and Africa, in emphasizing the importance of bringing change to the social and economic condition of the poor, neglected people’s spiritual needs. These are now being met, in some parts of the world, by the exponential growth of Pentecostalism which is also bringing about economic and social change through personal transformation and the promotion of an ethic of work, honesty, family life and temperance.

Oppressed groups, and those working among them, have expressed concern that the Church’s approach to inculturation has often been to engage with major religious traditions, from which the legitimation of their oppression is often drawn, rather than on the spirituality of the oppressed. Indian Christian Theology was written by upper class Christians and addressed the context of classical Hinduism or Islam. Most people, however, come from the lowest castes and a distinct spiritual background where they were often denied access to mainstream religious sources and places.

Inculturation in their context will look very different from engaging with World Religions and their accompanying cultures. The spiritual experience and the religious vocabulary of the excluded masses is different from the religious elite and yet, where Hinduism is concerned, the Church, perhaps unwittingly, largely engaged with the literary and philosophical traditions of that faith. With Islam, similarly, the concern has largely been with the Qur’an and the written sources of the faith rather than with the popular and syncretistic faith of ordinary people.

It is impossible to communicate the Gospel without some familiarity with people’s language, customs, hopes and desires. Their social and economic circumstances are also relevant, if they are to see the Gospel as being not only about acceptance of them as they are but about transformation into the wholeness which God wants. Our proclamation of salvation needs to address both culture and context and must always be accompanied by programmes of counselling, befriending, caring and assisting those in need of education, employment or simply a supportive social environment.

Discursive Dialogue

All attempts at understanding and accommodating to cultures and contexts depend on a profound and continuing dialogue with the people and their traditions, customs, values and world view as a whole. Such dialogue is not limited to religious leaders or academics, but must take place among neighbours, colleagues at work and students. One reason for dialogue is simply to discover “what makes people tick,” their background, beliefs, hopes and fears. When people of different faiths meet, it is natural for them to want to discover what each believes and similarities and differences between them. This is sometimes known as “discursive” dialogue. It requires patient listening to the other, and some ability to give an account of our own faith. This can be done without compromise and without inhibition. The other wants to hear about what we believe, just as we wish to know what they hold dear in their faith.