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THe gospel, language and culture: the theological method in cultural analysis.

A central and obvious fact of the gospel is that we cannot separate it from culture, which means we cannot get at the gospel pure and simple. That is no more possible than getting at the kernel of the onion without the peel. The pure gospel, stripped of all cultural entanglements, would evaporate in a vague abstraction, although if the gospel were without its own intrinsic power it would be nothing more than cultural ideology, congealing into something like "good manners, comely living, and a sense that all was well," the kind of genial, respectable liberalism that turns the gospel into a cultural flag of convenience. If Christianity could be turned into a pure platonic form then it would be religion fit only for the elite, whereas if it were just cultural reverence it would breed commissars of cultural codes and religious adjuncts as their subordinates, of both of which history has only too many unflattering examples. Yet, in spite of the difficulties, the gospel has its own integrity and speaks to us whatever our cultural or personal situation. The real challenge is to identify this intrinsic power without neglecting the necessary cultural factor.(1)

To begin to do that, it is important to call attention to the fundamental character of Christianity as a force for cultural integration. Several paradoxes point to this fact. The first is that Christianity is almost unique among world religions for being peripheral in the place of its origin. Ever since the birth of mission at Pentecost and the Antiochan breakthrough, Christianity has turned its back on Jerusalem and Bethlehem, regarding them as secondary signposts, with the consequence of the religion becoming preponderant in regions once considered outside God's promises. The Christian religious psyche was purged of the "promised land" fixation, so that believers have almost to err to revert to any one centre to the exclusion of others.

The second paradox is that Christians are unique in abandoning the original language of Jesus and instead adopting Greek in its "Koine" and Latin in its "vulgar" as the central media of the church.(2) Except in extremist sectarian groups, Christians never made the language of Jesus a prerequisite for faith or membership in the fellowship. It is this linguistic revolution that accounts for the entire New Testament canon being written in a language other than the one in which Jesus preached.(3) Thus it is that translation, and its attendant cross-cultural implications, came to be built into the historical make-up of Christianity. Another striking paradox is the contention by Christians that God's eternal counsels are compatible with ordinary, everyday speech.(4) This view cuts across the tendency in some parts of early Christianity to cast the religion into an elitist gnostic discourse. Christianity in the mouth of Jesus was the divulging of the secret design of God,(5) and Christian faith the public attestation to that fact. Of course, Jesus did not just turn plain speaking into expressive individualism, but rather made it the vehicle of his teachings.

This view of religious language as belonging to the ordinary, commonplace world of men and women, and even of children,(6) is not necessarily shared by the other religious traditions, which in fact are inclined to make a virtue of elitist secrecy, of a professional cultic language understandable only to the elite, initiated few. The Christian attitude to religious language places right at the heart of things the idea that people, especially ordinary people, should understand,(7) a view with momentous consequences for social and cultural awakening, with people feeling that the social enterprise as such is not discontinuous with God's universal plan.(8) It is one of the great historical truths of our day that otherwise obscure tribes, without a claim to cosmopolitan attainment, should find in indigenous particularity the sole grounds for appeal to international recognition. It is the Christian promotion of this indigenous particularity with the vernacular translations of missions that laid the basis for the modern nationalist phenomenon.

A final paradox, with practical implications for ecumenical relations, is the universal phenomenon of Christians adopting names for themselves without the explicit warrant of the founder of the religion or of the New Testament itself. The proliferation of denominational names and religious orders is the staple of all Christianity, whether from the left and low, or the right and high. This again is in sharp contrast to the other major world religions, and especially with those that have a missionary tradition, such as Islam. The name "Muslim," for example, is shared by all the followers of Islam, whatever the real differences in culture, custom, history, language and nationality, with explicit Qur'anic sanction for the rule.(9) Christians, on the other hand, identify themselves by a variety of religious labels, from Anglican to Zionist, with Methodists, Orthodox, Presbyterians and others making up the middle ranks. Instead of decrying this phenomenon, or applauding it in Islam, it is our duty to understand it within the general context of the translatability of Christianity.

In these factors of paradox lies the central issue concerning the relationship between gospel and culture. In many quarters people assume that gospel and culture would make a right combination in the third world, that is to say, the "inculturation" or otherwise integration of Christian teachings with the culture, would be a healthy thing, while a similar combination of gospel and culture in the west is wrong or harmful. Consequently, western Christian missions have come in for severe criticism because they bring this combination of gospel and culture into the third world where they suppress indigenous expression. A logical position, however, should see that the successful western cultural transformation of Christianity indicates a similar possibility for the third world, and, conversely, that the harmful consequences of the cultural adaptation of Christianity in the west will in time extend to the third world as well.

This symmetrical argument brings us to what it is that makes culture both a natural ally and a natural foe for the gospel. It does not really matter whether we are speaking of culture in the west or in the third world in this regard. In all situations the gospel seems to find its natural congruence within the cultural stream while at the same time encountering there its most serious obstacles. I should like to expound this theme in terms of its religious and theological significance, and in terms of a missiology of linguistic and cultural symbols. My aim here would be to pioneer a methodology, not to produce a comprehensive statement.

Theology and the cultural symbols

In the heated and sophisticated discussion about religion and culture, there is a recurrent idea that religious truth is inseparable from culture, not just in the fortuitous way culture entangles religion but in the drastic sense that the cultural configuration of religion is also its final and essential form. In this view, cultural markers in the religious life signify not just religious reality but in fact constitute the reality itself, forms whose content is no more or less than how that content is symbolized. There is, however, something of a jump, or at any rate awkward transition, at this point, for if it is contended that on the one hand, religious traditions are themselves cultural refractions of God, and, on the other, that such refractions are symbols that do not hold anything independent of themselves, then we would have a reinforced circularity in which God is only a formal point of reference, useful for poetry and linguistic convention, perhaps, but otherwise superfluous as an independent reality. Thus to speak of God in terms exclusively as a form of human cultural encounter would be only an unnecessarily complicated, roundabout way of describing the human enterprise as cultural forms in different modes of apprehension. What is not clear in this procedure is whether "God" is a metaphor for the general principle of unity that cultural symbols signify, or whether the concrete forms of representation themselves undergo a sort of intrinsic mystical transformation at the same time as they refract and in other ways project the idea of God. Either way, material objects would acquire rather inconsistent powers: they would form and shape reality; they would emanate or otherwise reveal reality, and they would generate ideas and theories with which we apprehend, explain and in other important ways sort them out. This would be fetishism and would be clearly absurd: tobacco does not also contain grains that tell us about lighting, smoking or worshipping it, nor do mountains and streams from their mass and dynamism give us logical charts or catechisms about contours and scales. It is only in relation to specific religious ideas and ritual actions that material objects acquire symbolic meaning. Yet a good deal of the discussion of religion and culture is marked by a contradiction pretty close to this logical repetitiveness, and intelligent people have found themselves swept along by the sheer force of repetition. When we in turn strip and materialize cultural forms to construct our categories of the real and the ideal we exploit a procedure incapable of enlightening us about either, for the argument forces us to take as real ideal notions and their cultural configuration, with the result that cultural perceptions become philosophical conceptions, qualitative analogies literal facts, and representation identity. We do not stop to ask ourselves how cultural forms can be both modifiers and subjects, the path and the destination at the same time, how abstract or freely exchangeable forms of representation can also congeal as the incarnate substance and subject of what they represent. This is at the heart of the issue of cultural relativism, including the unwarranted step of inferring epistemological relativism from descriptive or ethnographic relativism.

The great nineteenth century Sankritist and historian of religion, Max Muller, referring to this phenomenon of reducing religion to its cultural forms, once spoke of religion as "a disease of language," a phrase that haunted him in later years. Muller meant by that the tendency of metaphorical language employed in a religious context to harden and obscure the original and concrete experience and its attributes that gave the initial impetus to language. For example, the striking idea that a memorable event once occurred at dawn may come down in metaphorical language as: "Apollo loved Daphne; Daphne fled before him and was changed into a laurel tree." In this account Apollo is a solar deity, and Daphne, the Greek for a laurel tree, was dawn. The story would then reveal itself to be the sun chasing away dawn. It is called the Solar Myth. The process at work here, according to Muller, is the personification of experience and its attributes as deities. Thus nomina become numina. Or, to take another example, the king dying in a western battle may become mythologized as the symbol of the sun setting in the west, while Apollo killing the python would be an allegory of summer driving out winter. Muller believed, therefore, that philology (he was professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford) would be a necessary instrument to remedy the defect, or at any rate the natural tricks, of language. However, this theory sounds unconvincingly as if the disease and its cure are the same,(10) which is another way of saying it is a form of reductionism.

It is not only linguistic philosophers who lose their footing on this issue. In his valuable comments on Ernst Troeltsch, James Luther Adams, his distinguished American interpreter, for example, attempts gallantly to defend Troeltsch against the possible charge of reductionism, saying that Troeltsch maintained "a tension within his mind, asserting on the one hand that 'the divine life is not one but many' and on the other that 'to apprehend the One in the many constitutes the special character of love.' This paradox was for him 'the icon of God.'"(11) But this would appear to be a basic fault of identifying in a literal way the idea of the one God with its many cultural symbols and representations. Even as sensitive a scholar of religious phenomenology as John Oman trips badly on this point when he views particularity as the many tending to obscure and distort the true apprehension of "the unity of an undifferentiated awe of one sacred reality." For Oman particularity casts a dark shadow over the "promise of a shining temple of unity," which has made "religion to appear at times the supreme mother-complex of humanity."(12) It was this kind of procedure that vitiated Enlightenment studies of other cultures and religions, a failing from which we have still not recovered fully, although St Augustine had written cogently and instructively on the intellectual folly of religious reductionism.(13)

To proceed, it seems reasonable to say that cultural formulations of God are possible because God is available in the first place as the prior category, rather than that culture feeds on itself to produce a sacral category, like water and vapour. However we look at it, the mountain can scarcely worship the mouse of its own labour.

G. K. Chesterton, with his penchant for playful, if revealing paradox, says the issue is not how nature, or culture for that matter, gave us our idea of God, but how God gave us our idea of nature and culture. He contends that much of our reductionist hostility to religion in general is fuelled by our prior commitment to deny Christianity in particular, so that with the same unilateral stubbornness we bring other religions and cultures to an equal fate. He writes:

The god was never a symbol or hieroglyph representing the sun. The sun was a hieroglyph representing the god . . . . No human being . . . was ever so unnatural as to worship Nature. No man however indulgent (as I am) to corpulency, ever worshipped a man as round as the sun or a woman as round as the moon. No man, however attracted to an artistic attenuation, ever really believed that the Dryad was as lean and stiff as the tree. We human beings have never worshipped Nature; and indeed, the reason is very simple. It is that all human beings are superhuman beings. We have printed our image upon Nature, as God has printed His image upon us. We have told the enormous sun to stand still; we have fixed him on our shields, caring no more for a star than for a starfish. And when there were powers of Nature we could not for the time control, we have conceived great beings in human shape controlling them. Jupiter does not mean thunder. Thunder means the march and victory of Jupiter. Neptune does not mean the sea; the sea is his, and he made it . . . . Heathen gods mean nothing, and must always mean nothing, to those of us that deny the Christian God.(14)

Religious people may therefore respond that while they employ culture to represent God as transcendent being, the God who is so represented may not be identified with some cultural manifestations to the exclusion of others, so that partial cultural representation does not become the comprehensive criterion of God. Such a Christian position would allow cultural access and utilization without making end and means synonymous.

Consequently, in the detailed and specific responses religious people make, it can be said that God is connected to culture, but, in the general scheme of salvation history, God is connected to culture not in the descriptive sense as a figure of identity but in the normative one where the plan is to bring everything under subjection to Christ.

This may sound at once threatening and inconclusive, threatening because it rejects cultural systems as in any sense definitive of truth, and inconclusive because it perceives culture as inseparable from the truth.

However, we can reply that the truth of God is finally destroyed if it becomes absolutely synonymous with corresponding cultural forms. The fundamental question, then, is whether the truth of God has also to be capable of being conceived beyond - and through - all cultural systems if it is to amount to anything more than ethnocentrism, though if it bypassed culture altogether the truth would be nothing more (or less) than subjective idealism.

This philosophical dilemma is in fact the paradox that made the cross-cultural frontline the source of much creative innovation and religious practice, for in that context cultural forms are upheld in their plural diversity without their being absolutized in their unique particularity. The great historical forms of culture are thus refined and consummated through the milieu of mother tongue translation and set against the background of common ethical accountability. It was in this way that historical forms of culture became more than a multiplicity of disconnected episodes; they became coherent links in the chain all human beings depend on for communication, self-understanding and moral education.

This is the soft instrumental view Christianity in its worldwide expansion has promoted with regard to languages and culture. It grows out of the Christian view of who and what God is and its effect has been to endow the religion with a pluralist ethos at the heart of the gospel.

It is important to spell out what is the particular, peculiar Christian understanding of culture, and to do this from the perspective of the New Testament. The primitive Christians inherited from Judaism the Law and the synagogue as the exclusive standards of religious truth. However, from their subsequent understanding of the life and work of Christ, they came to a fresh view concerning God's impartial activity in all cultures. The watershed for this new understanding was Pentecost as the birth of mission which set a seal on mother tongues as sufficient and necessary channels of access to God,(15) a piece of cultural innovation that enabled the religion to adopt the multiplicity of geographical centres as legitimate destinations for the gospel. Christians continued to cherish their judaic roots in the context of growing pluralism within the church, a pluralism at the core of which is the principle that no culture is the exclusive norm of truth and that, similarly, no culture is inherently unclean in the eyes of God. So Jews, Gentiles, barbarians, Scythians, Cypriots, Arabs, Goths, Ethiopians, Copts, among others, were all to be found rubbing shoulders at prayer, worship and in acts of mutual succour. In time, too, numerous intellectual streams discharged their share into the church, so that Aquinas could speak of the great advantage that accrued to the church from the fact that the fathers and early apologists had been pagans. The Christian movement confidently, if not always consistently, adopted many diverse kinds of materials, including Gnostic sources, placing early Christian thought within a pluralist context, and this kind of eclecticism was the natural outgrowth of the gospel having been translated out of Galilean Aramaic and Hebrew into country (Koine) Greek, so that, as I observed earlier, most of the early converts had no living knowledge of the primary language of the preaching of Jesus. Clearly the early Christians understood that the language issue may be detached from the question of faithfulness to the message of Jesus Christ and that gives us an important clue into culture as an instrumental possibility.

Two major consequences for the religious status of culture may be characterized as, first, the relativization of all cultural arrangements, and, second, the de-stigmatization of all Gentile or taboo cultures. Thus would transcendent truth subsume cultures, and mobilize them at the same time. Taboo cultures, regarded through time and eternity as outside the pale of salvation, came thus to qualify as among the first fruits of God's impartial dealings with humanity. These two consequences became the heritage that opened the way for teeming pluralism and diversity of view in the community, with Christians drawing on a complex assortment of cultural materials to define and undefine themselves, something that has relevance for issues of denominational identity.

In a recently discovered letter written from Nicopolis on the Dalmatian coast to his friend Darius at Rome, for example, Severus draws attention to the character of the fledgling religion. The letter was written sometime in the early third century. Severus and his friend had been in the habit of comparing notes on the Christian movement, a hobby that blossomed into a genial rivalry between them, in which connection the enigmas from Nicopolis would be variations on a theme. "I have a tale to tell you," Severus piques his friend's curiosity, "that will surpass even your most fantastic account of Christians in Rome. Since our common fascination with this new and outlandish religion drew us together and we dedicated ourselves to chronicling the spectacle of these Christians, our competition for news of this curious fellowship has been played largely on a level field. But you must admit, my friend, that my posting to Nicopolis has put me at a decided disadvantage. Yet, despite the odds, I've topped you this time." And then he went on promptly to recount the details of a debate attended by Christians about establishing a new seminary syllabus. He called the Christians "diverse and factious," and the proceedings "such a circus." He continued, "Open dissent had shattered the illusion of conformity, and the steady tone of authority was overwhelmed by buzzing more fierce than a thousand angry hornets. How these people could agree that the sky is blue, my friend, let alone what to teach their leaders, is beyond my powers of understanding . . . . What fun!" he added.(16)

All these materials suggest that in the early centuries the new religion moved forward like an oriental caravanserai, with its complex baggage of exotic teachings, baffling mysteries, colourful sounds and an eclectic ethical code, leaving the authorities to whistle in the dark about the unshakable foundations that have ordered the community, fixed the beliefs and set the common practices. In the jumble and tumble of social encounter, Christians spoke a bewildering variety of languages, with the new experience again and again exciting bursts of separatist fervour. In this respect, at least, Christianity was a major cultural as well as religious revolution whose force has endured into our own time. Its basic outline is extremely simple: from the point of view of God's "plan of salvation," all cultures are equally valid, if equally inadequate vis-a-vis God.

Vernacular languages and cultures under the gospel

With the modern missionary enterprise we come upon spectacular examples of cultural pluralism in the church.(17) To begin with, vernacular translations of the Bible began with the adoption of indigenous terms, concepts, customs and idioms for the central categories of Christianity. Second, vernacular criteria began to determine what is or what is not a successful translation, with indigenous experts rapidly moving to challenge western interpretations of Christianity.(18) Third, the employment of the vernacular led to a proliferation of languages into which the scriptures were translated.(19) Fourth, in numerous significant cases missionary translations were the first attempt to write down the language. Where this was the case Christian translators have had to produce vernacular alphabets, grammars, dictionaries and vocabularies of the language, supplementing these with compilations of proverbs, idioms, axioms, ethnographic materials, and accounts of local religions, customary practice and law, history and political institutions. Such a detailed and scrupulous inventory of the vernacular culture triggered unimaginable consequences in the wider society, resulting almost everywhere in arousing deep loyalties towards the indigenous cause. Often that was the seedbed of nationalism. It is impossible to over-estimate the revolutionary impact of Christian translation on hitherto illiterate societies and their now new encounter with the west. In addition, to bring this list to its final stage, there was a theological truth implicit in all this enterprise, and that concerns God's prevenient grace which preceded the missionary and by which missionaries themselves proceeded to adopt existing forms and usage as if God was their hidden life. Thus could Newbigin say,

In almost all cases where the Bible has been translated into the languages of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the New Testament word Theos has been rendered by the name given by the non-Christian peoples to the one whom they worship as Supreme Being. It is under this name, therefore, that the Christians who now use these languages worship the God and Father of Jesus Christ . . . . The name of the God revealed in Jesus Christ can only be known by using those names for God which have been developed within the non-Christian systems of belief and worship. It is therefore impossible to claim that there is a total discontinuity between the two.(20)

Behind (and before) all that consecrated labour lies the precious jewel of God's impartiality towards all peoples and cultures, a truth that disarms culture by making it our possession instead of our determiner. In this way we resolve the endemic hostility of having a sword drawn between moral truth and culture, with the gap between the two filled with the unattractive alternatives of cultural capitulation or religious antagonism. Cultures inscribed with the idiom of the gospel are cultures made discarnate, de-absolutized, in the incarnate logos, and thus transformed from being our idol or exclusive ally, and our enemy or oppressor, to being our reconciled, rightful possession.

It is clear that missionary translators saw a natural commensurability between indigenous cultures and the gospel, with the diversity and plurality of those cultures justifying commitment to the particularity and specificity of cultural materials. Not only individual languages, but also minute dialectical differences were noted and preserved in translations.(21) Mission seems to press to its logical conclusion the premise of the admissibility of all cultures in the general sweep of God's "plan of salvation," eager to witness to God in the words and names of other people's choosing.

Concerning the role of language, it is important to keep in mind that in traditional societies language and culture are closely intertwined, and that in religion both are promoted in an integrated, dynamic way. Therefore missionary translations appealed to the very roots of these societies, touching the springs of life and imagination in real, enduring ways. It would be appropriate to conclude this section of our discussion with a closer clarification of the vernacular issue in Christian missionary translation, and to do this in two interconnected stages. The first concerns the mildly instrumental view of culture, and, in particular, the question of language and its relationship to religion and culture in traditional societies. The second has to do with the question of the particular and the universal, of the general and the specific, of truth as one and of culture as many in its diverse manifestations and contingencies, and how in the final analysis that impinges on the theme of gospel and culture.

With vernacular translation, missionaries introduced a new level of complexity into Christian usage. In the multilingual setting of tribal societies, concepts of God resonated with ancient usage, with refinements taking place in incidents of ritual observance and customary practice. Often it is not the jealous God of Calvinistic clericalism that translators had adopted, or thought they were adopting, for the vernacular scriptures, but the polyonymous deity of the tribe, resplendent with theophorous titles. Furthermore, the very pluralism in vernacular translation created increased local awareness and forced practical comparisons across tribal boundaries, showing how the "God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ" of apostolic preaching came to be invested with a plurality of names, none of which excludes the others. This theological inclusiveness had its counterpart in the social sphere where in many places inter-ethnic encounter became possible for the first time outside the constraints of tribal blood-feud and fratricidal grudge.(22)

In turning to the second part of our analysis, I should like to recapitulate at the same time the problem of the one and the many, of the particular and the universal. It is clear that in employing vernacular languages for translation, missionaries saw these languages as more than arbitrary devices. On the contrary, they saw them as endowed with divine significance, so that they may substitute completely for the language of revelation. The fact that all languages are, for the purposes of Christian translation, interchangeable, makes them instrumental in a practical sense, so that in their very differences they all serve an identical theoretical purpose. A certain general view came to undergird and persist in the plurality of languages, with the important point that vernacular particularity is commensurate, rather than in conflict, with such a general idea. Languages were seen as the many refractions in which believers testified to the one God, so that particular cultural descriptions of God might convey in concrete terms the truth of God without in any way excluding other cultural descriptions.(23)

The question then arises as to whether what is said in any language totally exhausts the meaning of God, or whether languages, any or some languages, have to be augmented to improve their intrinsic capacity. As an alternative view, it may be maintained that language - indeed all languages - is inherently inadequate and that religious truth ultimately, if not immediately, transcends human words. This view has respectable advocates in many sections of Christianity, although the question for us is its implication for the culture that is thus transcended. Whatever the case, insofar as the history of mission is concerned, such a transcendent view of religious truth does not seem to have induced in missionaries an indifference to culture. In that sense we are back to the question regarding the intrinsic adequacy of language. The missionary view was that all languages may be regarded as complete autonomous systems, and that, where it was possible to determine, purer forms of the language, however puzzling and unfamiliar, served best the purposes of translation. So linguistic investigations were mounted to erect as authentic an indigenous system through which God might be mediated with all the nuances and specificity of cultural originality.

A working principle of language and culture was implied in this procedure. Missionaries were confident that once they made a successful conjunction between a linguistic symbol and what it brings to mind, then the religious process could commence meaningfully, and we can say that much of what has been said against missionaries overlooks this vernacular confidence of theirs.

Three theoretical notions may be identified in their operational view of language and culture. The first is that language furnished elliptical statements that enable people to define instrumental relationships, and in religious language elliptical statements refer to those things in which God reveals Godself, especially as effects. The second is that language enables people to make symbolical statements to the effect that what in itself is not God but represents the idea of God to certain persons is in fact God for those persons in those contexts. That is to say, such language or symbols achieve the end of directing attention to the symbolic character of the idea of God to the exclusion of whatever other qualities language or symbols may possess in another context in relation to God.

Two brief examples may suffice. Kissing the crucifix was considered an act of reverence by early Catholic missionaries, whereas in certain parts of Africa kissing as such was considered an act of defilement, repugnant to the instinct of the people. To take a second example, for a mystical religious group the bat is considered a symbol of initiation and divine wisdom, and occurs as such on the coronation robe of King Roger of Sicily. Yet in the different context of popular western culture the bat is a symbol of ill-omen. The two contexts share in common a recognition of the categories of divine wisdom and ill-omen, but they employ contrasting cultural symbols to signify this.

A third theoretical notion is when language encourages the use of figures of identity so that a close enough relationship is conceived between the thing spoken of with what it is said to be, with the result that virtual metamorphosis, a symbolic mutation, takes place. This clearly happens in most cultures: the sound and tones of Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit, for example, are in their respective religious contexts the embodiment of the divine or ultimate reality, while in certain sections of Christianity the bread and wine of the communion are the transubstantiated body and blood of Jesus Christ. Among the Yoruba of West Africa the orita, the auspicious crossroad, is a symbol of power, while for the Nuer rain, thunder, lightning, sun and moon, as well as consecrated cattle, are not God exactly, but gaat Kwoth, "children of God," and so on. Now it is a different matter to claim that, while God may be in these various things as symbols, these things as representation are themselves God, or else portrayed as such, precisely how cultural relativism elides the descriptive into the nonnative, and how theological demythologizing undercuts scripture by representing it as a stock projection of the religious imagination.

A version of that relativism occurs readily in secular culture. Politicians cultivate a certain media image in the belief that with time image will preponderate and subsume reality. Even if people started out knowing the difference between fictive construction in image and literal facts, the argument goes, in time the construction will prevail and assimilate reality. Presentation or packaging, by trading on fantasy, displaces substance. Thus would occur a literal mutation in which historical facts are sabotaged, or at any rate transcended, through the illusory power of surface construction, allowing virtual reality to assume ascendancy over literal fact. This kind of traffic in image as virtual commodity we regard as Leviathan's due and call political realism, but we would call it fraud in commercial law. It is no less fraudulent in the moral law.

Now even in this crass political sense, although image-making may redefine the idea of the person, it is the reality of the person who gave us, and benefits or suffers, from the idea of image-making as such. An idea, such as political appeal, is fixed on the individual to the exclusion of other ideas about him or her, so that an identity is put to the service of a cause, like a flag of convenience. To make the one the literal representation of the other, however, would be absurd. It is what would be involved if John Smith in general became Commandant Smith in particular. "Or, as the name first came from the function, it is as when the ancestral anvil is forgotten in the name of Smith and the owner is on his way to a peerage."(24) Hollywood might traffic in that kind of counterfeit, but it behooves us not to exchange it for historical realism. Yet in the social analysis of religion we resort to a procedure very similar to that, whereas in actual fact it is religious truth that allows us to drape and hoist material objects as sacred emblems and symbols.

It follows, then, that in the religious sphere, a missionary tradition like Christianity has to face the challenge of embracing numerous material forms and their corresponding symbols in terms meaningful to target audiences, and thus of rejecting literalness. Bread and wine in China or Japan,(25) for example, would have a vastly different understanding, if they have any at all, while the Good Shepherd theme would confound rather than enlighten an Eskimo congregation, or, as Nida and Reyburn have suggested, the pig-keeping communities of Polynesia.(26) Furthermore, a missionary Christianity would have to make room for new cultural symbols, such as the Peace Pipe of the Lakota Indians,(27) the Wisdom Fire of the Cherokee Indians,(28) the communal medicine and riverain oracles of African religions,(29) or the avatars of Hindu religion. Making room for these new cultural materials also requires relativizing them so they do not become new sources of ideology themselves.(30)

It is this incredible complexity that Christianity encountered, and in fact promoted, in its non-western expansion. The specificity of vernacular usage was reflected in indigenous names for God and in idiomatic forms grounded in local life and experience. Missionary translators tried to get at authentic local forms and in the process documented the result of their investigations, giving meticulous accounts of procedures and principles of research that went far beyond the narrow issue of Bible use. Such detailed attention to indigenous particularity fostered unprecedented cultural pluralism within the general scheme of world Christianity. For example, indigenous hymns, prayers and invocations, heavily freighted with older religious attitudes, sentiments and ideas, were now transcribed and incorporated into Christian use where ecumenical interest gave them international range.

It turns out then that missionary translation expanded and enriched the Christian religious repertoire, and it did this by eschewing uniformity as its norm. The operative view of language in Christian translation assumed a close relationship between language and the God spoken of, so that in any cultural representation God can be detached in the mind from the things said to be God, even if these peculiar cultural forms, be they the peace-pipe, the bread and wine, the wisdom fire, the orita, or what have you, cannot in those specific situations be so easily detached from the idea of God as such. This gave culture and language a penultimate character, allowing them to be viewed in their instrumental particularity.(31) In insisting on particularity, for example, Christian missionaries did not wish to imply that God is other than what God is, but that in particular cultural contexts and circumstances God has definite, particular qualities and attributes that do not belong to God in other contexts and circumstances. It is not that these qualities and attributes are incompatible with God generally defined, but that something more, in respect of the pool of qualities and attributes, is added by each particular context.(32) Those qualities and attributes become the modes and individual ways in which God becomes real for particular people in particular situations and circumstances even though those situations and circumstances by their nature do not repeat themselves for everyone anywhere else or to the same degree. The psalmist may declare that God is a shield or a rock, or Luther that God is a mighty fortress and bulwark, or a western existential liberal that God is the God of motivation without any of them excluding other descriptions of God, such as the dewy-nosed One of a cattle-owning culture, the One of the sacred stake of a pig-herding people, the nimble-footed One of the sacred dance, and the long-necked One of a hunting group. Furthermore, this rule makes it possible not only to approach God as the One and the Many, but allows for indefinite polarities in descriptions of God. As such, apparently contradictory things may equally validly be said of God, such as that God gives life and that God takes life, that God creates and that God destroys, guides and leads astray, fills us with abundance and afflicts us with adversity at the same time, brings terrifying judgement upon us and also surrounds us with tender care and love, strikes us blind but also unseals the eyes of understanding, and so on.(33) As such the Nuer speak of God being in the new moon and in the hurricane.(34) In this way the totality and range of human experience can be postulated of God's infinite manifestations, refractions and visitations without courting the awkward rationalist nemesis of admitting God on the explicable but not the inexplicable side of life.

On the cultural level a similar plurality and polarity is possible from this approach. The context of western mission provides as good an example as any. Between Europeans and native populations, on the one hand, and, on the other, among tribal groupings themselves, there are differences on the cultural and linguistic levels. These differences are unique and particular even though all these many groups represent the one idea of humanity. What unites them, however, is more than a question of species but their common relationship in respect to God. For this reason, the cultural signs and symbols that differentiate them in their respective particularities unite them in relation to God. It is God as this third term who thus normatively unites what cultural forms descriptively differentiate. Now it seems to me an important matter not to confuse differentiating and unifying, by treating the first, in terms of cultural autonomy, as the source of the second in terms of theological ideas and principles, which is to say, to boil down "cultural signs and symbols" into a warm, genial construction of the idea of "God." It is this difficulty, I suggested, that Christian realism can help resolve. Consequently Christian commitment to this God has necessarily involved commitment also to cultural forms in their historical instrumental potential.

In conclusion, no discussion of this topic is complete without more than a polite nod in the direction of H. Richard Niebuhr, whose work more than a generation ago set the pace for us.(35) Niebuhr cuts through the liberal cultural transformation of Christianity into an enlightened, humanizing but essentially this-worldly philosophy, with social belief and action replacing human sinfulness, spiritual reality and eternal judgement. In taking up cudgels on behalf of a threatened and waning orthodoxy, Niebuhr was responding to particular cultural pressures in his day and age. Thus neither in his methodology and language nor in his general conclusions did Niebuhr propose something that his contemporaries would not have recognized as natural developments from the stock and branch of western culture, especially the form neo-orthodoxy might take as the analogue of cultural respectability and intellectual sobriety - cool, rational, moderate and eminently affordable. Its songs would be stolid, its hymns intrepid and its prayers hard-nosed. And that made him a powerfully effective voice for his time and circumstance. Nevertheless, Niebuhr was not concerned with the worldwide phenomenon of Christian cultural practices where he would have seen the outlines of fresh permutations and new combinations emerging under explicit Christian aegis. It is reasonable to speculate that such evidence might have affected his work on the western religious crisis in a different way.

Lesslie Newbigin was saying something like that when he paid tribute to Niebuhr for his Christ and Culture, and went on to say that Niebuhr, as well as theologians like him, "had not had the experience of the cultural frontier, of seeking to transmit the gospel from one culture to a radically different one."(36) In other words, even when we think we are free of the constraints of culture, we are still in unsuspecting ways chained down by countless minute links, hooks and clasps, including the terms in which we express our formal autonomy.

At any rate, Niebuhr's concern for not reducing Christ into a mere cultural protagonist is a valid one, although in this paper I have tried to advance different grounds for making the same distinction. The conclusion I have reached, therefore, is a slightly modified version of his own formulations. I am concerned not only to safeguard the authority of Christ but the authenticity of culture as well. The connection between Christ and culture, to stick to the Niebuhrian formulation, is much closer than either what Niebuhr calls the "conversionist" or the "dualist" position, and more susceptible to cultural manipulation than the liberals might think. It is thus pertinent to observe that it is not only religious sensibility that leads Christians to distinguish between Christ and culture, it is sensibility also for what promotes authentic culture. When we conceive the matter in these terms, it is obvious that the one gospel becomes meaningfully mediated through the many refractions of culture and historical contingency, as well through the many and diverse channels that constitute our individual and collective gifts and talents. It would be well to remember that Plato made the many incompatible with his design of the ideal city state in which occupational specialization in terms of "one man one job" would operate to enable "the whole city to be one and not many."(37)

Compared to that, Paul seems to represent a breakthrough, with abiding significance for all projects of multiculturalism. The apostle's view of gospel and culture blunts considerably any sharp dualist notion. The incipient radical pluralism we have identified in Paul helps us to moderate any endemic conflict between gospel and culture. For instance, when he admonishes the believers not to allow the rules of food to destroy the work of God,(38) Paul is not proposing that eating and praying are in conflict, or even that the one is done from a lower motive and the other from a higher one, but that God and food in any exclusivist combination nourish neither spirit nor body. It is the worst form of addiction, and it is not only Christians, but especially Christians, who deserve better. So Christian pluralism in its compromising, rigorous form, is not only a committed state of mind with regard to God's Oneness in sovereignty and power but a committed style of living with respect to the many-sidedness of culture. In that convergence we may find strength for the critical relationship between the gospel and the contending cultural ideologies of our time. The question was raised at the outset about the cultural captivity of the gospel at one end, and, at the other, its cultural emasculation, remains a formidable one for Christianity as a translated and translatable religion.

The following conclusion may be stated as the crux of the issue and would seem to follow from the nature of the evidence: Christianity affects cultures by moving them to a position short of the absolute, and it does this by placing God at the centre. The point of departure for the church in mission, as we saw at the outset, is Pentecost, with Christianity triumphing by relinquishing Jerusalem or any fixed universal centre, be it geographical, linguistic or cultural, and with the result of there being a proliferation of centres, languages and cultures within the church. Christian ecumenism is a pluralism of the periphery with only God at the centre. Consequently all cultural expressions remain at the periphery of truth, all equal in terms of access, but all equally inadequate in terms of what is ultimate and final. Thus while we cannot conceive of the gospel without its requisite cultural expression, we cannot at the same time confine it exclusively to that, for that would involve the unwarranted step of making ends and means synonymous. Such was the double caution missionary translation introduced into the cultural project, though we are in only the early stages of comprehending its full theological significance.

[Ed.'s note: Further details on the topic of this article may be found in two of the writer's books, Translating the Message: the Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991, and the recently published work, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process: The African Dimension. London: Harper Collins Publishers, and Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993.]


1 This is relevant to arguments of Christianity as a subject of western cultural captivity. While the western "translation" of the religion domesticated the gospel, in its subsequent transmission and expansion abroad Christianity breached its western walls.

2 For a scrupulous account of the language issue in the Bible see Matthew Black. "The Biblical Languages," The Cambridge History of the Bible: Vol. I, From the Beginning to Jerome, eds., P. R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, repr. 1988, pp. 129.

3 Edward Gibbon writes, "The authentic histories of the actions of Christ were composed in the Greek language, at a considerable distance from Jerusalem, and after the Gentile converts were grown extremely numerous." Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. i, 432.

4 Martin Luther is quoted as dismissing theologians as irrelevant to Bible translation. Instead the translator must "ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace about this, and look them in the mouth to see how they speak, and afterward to our translating." Cited in Jean Bethke Elshtain, review article, "The American Battlefield," First Things, no. 23, May, 1992, pp. 69-72.

5 Mark 4: 22; Luke 8:17, 11:33; John 7:4; 18:20; W. Pannenberg, ed., Revelation as History. New York: Macmillan, 1969, pp. 141ff.

6 Erasmus wrote defending public and popular access to the scriptures. Erasmus, Christian Humanism and the Reformation, pp. 96-97.

7 Adolf Deismann, a scholar of the New Testament, argued that the old literary style of classical Attic differed markedly from the New Testament style in its elaborate and cultivated refinement, whereas in the New Testament "the underground stream of the people's language springs up powerfully into the daylight . . . Jesus spoke of the light and the candlestick, of the city on the hill, of father and child, bread and fish, egg and scorpion, of asking and giving, of seed and crop, of hunger and thirst. No long sentences, no speculative questions, transparent, pithy, plastic . . . . The linguistic estimation of the New Testament shows us that our Holy Book in its classical, creative period is in close contact with the middle and lower classes and in sharp contrast to the old artificial Atticistic culture which struggled for a new lease of life in the surrounding world." The New Testament in the Light of Modern Research: The Haskell Lectures. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Coran & Co. Inc., 1929, pp. 80, 94.

8 Commenting on the revolutionary implications of the vernacular Bible, the English historian G. R. Elton noted the role it regrettably afforded the common folk. Reformation Europe 1517-1559. Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Histories of Modern Europe, 1964, p. 52.

9 Qur'an 22:77-78.

10 On the general matter of religion as a cultural system, see the chapter by that title in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. On Max Muller see Evans-Pritchard, and his posthumous A History of Anthropological Thought, ed. Andre Singer. New York: Basic Books, 1965, 1981.

11 James Luther Adams, Introduction in Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity. Trans. David Reid. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971, p. 19.

12 John Oman, The Natural and the Supernatural. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931, pp. 386-387.

13 Augustine, City of God, book vi, sections 8 & 9. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, and New York: Penguin Books, 1981, pp. 242ff.

14 G. K. Chesterton "The Priest of Spring." In Stories, Essays and Poems. London: Everyman's Library no. 913, 1935, repr. 1965, p. 163. With characteristic brilliance Chesterton develops the same theme in his book, The Everlasting Man. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925, especially chapter V, "Man and Mythologies," and chapter VI, "The Demons and the Philosophers."

15 Acts 2:6, 8, 11.

16 "Ancient Letter Discovered: The Seminary Crisis at Nicopolis," The Christian Century, 5-12 Feb. 1992, pp. 116-117. 116.

17 In his summary of the cultural and linguistic impact of the Bible, Eric Fenn points out the indigenizing potential of Scriptural translation. Eric Fenn, "The Bible and the Missionary," The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. iii: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. S.L. Greenslade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963, repr. 1988, pp. 383-407.

18 A recent example of this shift of interpretation is given in Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979.

19 In 1984 more than 1,800 languages were involved in some form of Bible translating. In Africa alone some 522 languages were involved, with complete Bibles available in over 100 languages. Scriptures of the World. London, New York & Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1984.

20 Newbigin, The Open Secret, p. 192.

21 In the Chinese translations, for example, some forty seven versions were employed by missionaries, with eight additional ones for Taiwan. Scriptures of the World, map 15. A similar detailed attention was given to Arabic and its local variants.

22 I have described aspects of social and theological inclusiveness in my article, "Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex," The Christian Century, 8 April, 1987.

23 In his Introduction to Troeltsch's The Absoluteness of Christianity, James Luther Adams says of Troeltsch that he maintained "a tension within his mind, asserting on the one hand that 'the divine life is not one but many' and on the other that 'to apprehend the One in the many constitutes the special character of love.' This paradox was for him 'the icon of God.'" Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity, 1971, p. 19. This is not so much a tension in Troeltsch as a lack of analytic consistency, resulting from a tendency to contrast and then to identify the one with the many.

24 Oman, The Natural, p. 390.

25 For a detailed account of this issue in Japan see Masao Takenaka, God is Rice: Asian Culture and Christian Faith. Geneva: World Council of Churches, Risk Book Series, 1986 and for China George Minamiki, S. J., The Chinese Rites Controversy: From Its Beginning to Modern Times. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985.

26 Eugene A. Nida and William D. Reyburn, Meaning Across Cultures. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1981.

27 See Paul B. Steinmetz, S.J., 1980, Pipe, Bible and Peyote among the Ogala Lakota, Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion Stockholm: University of Stockholm, 1980.

28 Dhyani Ywahoo, Voices of Our Ancestors: Cherokee Teachings from the Wisdom Fire. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, 1987.

29 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and magic among the Azende. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937; revised abridged edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

30 Commenting on this matter, Gordon Kaufman affirms: "If indigenization were to mean that the idea of God became so completely adapted to the concepts and norms and practices of a new culture that it no longer could serve as a radical standard of criticism for that culture . . . full indigenization of the idea of God would be its destruction. For the concept of One who is at once truly absolute and truly human is never completely "at home" in the relativities and imperfections . . . . of any culture . . . . "Gordon D. Kaufman, "Theological Method and Indigenzation: Six Theses," in Samuel Amirtham, ed., A Vision for man: Essays on Faith, Theology and Society. Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1978, p. 59.

31 A kindred theme is treated in Aubrey R. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961, pp. 14, 15-16, etc. Johnson is inclined to conceive a dialectical opposition between the One and the Many as between monotheism and polytheism.

32 Something like this idea may offer an escape hatch for Hocking who writes wistfully in this regard about the bewildering religious pluralism in Protestant Christianity. "My own feeling about the multiplicity of sects," he confesses, "is that most of them that have become a factor in contemporary society have had some reason for existence; most 'reforms' have been needed. But that function of reform should be a function provided for within the church, not calling for schism, but for self-searching and reconception, in the persuasion that variety of expression which is not hostile to the essence may contribute to the life of the church." Hocking, World Civilization, p. 134.

33 See, for example, Isaiah, 9:21; Revelations, 2:8; Deuteronomy, 29:1-5.

34 Evans-Pritchard deals with this subject in his book, Nuer Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

35 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1951, repr. 1975. Compare also the same author's Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, the Montgomery Lectures. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, 1967. In Radical Monotheism, Niebuhr argues that the central conflict in western culture is between monotheist faith and henotheism, especially henotheist nationalism. He distinguishes between monotheist faith and henotheism, saying the faith present in religious loyalty is the same as that present in other forms of faith commitment in the secular sphere. The conflict arises between the two types of faith, Niebuhr argues, because henotheism makes a finite society the object of trust and loyalty. In a different connection, but still related to the issue of radical pluralism and religious integrity, Gordon Kaufman has written about the radical effects of the principle of God's absoluteness. "God is the great relativizer of all false absolutes," he writes. Kaufman, "Theological Method and Indigenization," p. 58.

36 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986, p. 1; also the same writer's The Open Secret, p. 164.

37 Plato, 1961, Republic, Book. iv, 423, in The Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books for Bollingen Foundation, p. 665. Also The Laws, Book. viii, 846f., Collected Dialogues, pp. 1410f. Cf. John Smart Mill d. 1873, Essays on Philosophy and Classics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. xi 1978, pp. 94-95. There is more than a hint of Plato's civic ethics in Paul's conception of the ideal fellowship in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12, though Plato's functional exclusivism is undercut by Paul's understanding of one body made real in its many members and their multiple functions.

38 Romans 14:15, 20.

LAMIN SANNEH is D. Willis James professor of Mission and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School and concurrently professor of History at Yale College, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
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Author:Sanneh, Lamin
Publication:International Review of Mission
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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