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Toward an African Christianity: Inculturation Applied.

When world's collide, disaster follows. But what if they don't collide? What if, instead, they embrace?

That's the hope of Holy Ghost Fr. Eugene Hillman, who thinks the time is ripe for a reappraisal, in light of Vatican II theology, of missionary approaches to Africa. In Toward an African Christianity, be calls upon, in order of descending frequency, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to argue that Christianity should be open to reshaping by other cultures.

Hillman's position, and the church's stated position, is that no single social schema exists for Christianity. Call it "incarnation" or "inculturation," all cultures, though requiring purgation, have the potential to envision the gospel through their own lenses.

But except for the unique transition from Jewish to Hellenic Christianity in the first century, the gospel has remained stubbornly linked to one particular and vast culture. Thus the example of Africa, which, Hillman mourns, has been evangelized with not just a foreign faith but a foreign culture that has threatened to abolish traditional ways of being African.

Much of the book's first half is spent making the case that Christian missionaries must become culturally sensitive both because it is theologically proper and because African people are being ripped from their own cultural moorings. Later, Hillman explores the religious practices of the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania. His final chapter suggests some possible first steps to be taken if Christianity is to be "incarnated" in the Masai mold, and he proposes the form a Masai Eucharist might take.

Priests and religious engaged in or considering mission work would do well to reflect on the arguments Hillman has assembled here for finding God's grace present always and everywhere in all cultures. Unfortunately, the book fails to become compelling because it neither probes too deeply into African cultures nor goes the distance in exploring the most problematic questions haunting the "inculturation" endeavor.

The relative absence of information on African cultures is the more baffling weakness. Hillman spent a quarter century in Kenya and Tanzania East Africa. Yet not a single incident from those years appears in the book. What details there are seem too few and too remote, as if Hillman never lived among these people.

Theologically, the book means well, attempting a rapprochement between progressive theologians of Vatican II and more conservative current Vatican leaders. Hillman admits that the inculturation rhetoric hasn't yet meant much, though he's hopeful.

But his hope seems reasonable only if current events are ignored. Liberation theology is a perfect example of Christianity evolving under the natural pressures of culture, but it has always been suspect in the halls of the Vatican. Likewise, the church in the United States is under pressure to democratize and feminize both its practices and its theology, developments taken for heresy in Rome.

Perhaps the pope and Cardinal Ratzinger can speak positively of African inculturation because they harbor a view of African cultures as inferior and ultimately harmless. Feminist and antihierarchical cultures are, it would seem, more dangerous.

Hillman dreams that today's church can replicate the feat of the first century church, when Jewish Christianity accommodated itself to Greek modes of thought. But such an analogy ignores historical context.

The belief in Jesus' imminent return was a crucial opponent of early Christianity's spread that cannot now be duplicated. In addition, it was the Greeks, with their faltering secular faith, who opened themselves to the small Christian sect. Christendom today, with its weight of history and hierarchy, would be hardpressed to pass as the descendants of those first believers.

But the book's greatest problem is in its refusal to ask the question, "Why evangelize at all?" Christian self-understanding is integrally connected to Jewish "chosenness." But if God has extended grace equally to all people, can Christian churches continue to spread the story that God's plan for humanity developed through one culture and that God was most fully regaled only once through one male in human history? If we boil dogmatic Christianity down to, arguably, its fundamental message - that God is intimately and generously involved in humanity, calling us always to love of neighbor - why are missionaries busying themselves evangelizing rather than simply being present to other peoples?

Hillman wants missionaries to understand that the pluriformity of human culture and religion is not going away, nor should it. But readers would be better-served by an exploration of the meaning of Christianity in the face of such a realization. And had Hillman also spent more time elaborating on the faith and culture of Africans, missionaries intent on evangelizing might realize that their fundamental question should be "How do we learn from these people?" instead of "What do we do with them?

William Preston is regional editor of The Catholic Sun, the diocesan newspaper of Syracuse., N.Y
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Author:Preston, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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