Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Christian Witness and Cultural Plurality

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Christian Witness and Cultural Plurality

Article excerpt


The danger facing any communication process is the sender's preoccupation with his/her message to such an extent that he/she forgets that it is the cultural barriers that are the most formidable. The messenger needs much more than a knowledge of the message he/she is conveying. One needs an increased awareness of one's environment, as well as of the audience, before one can communicate effectively. Communicators need to be liberated from their cultural captivities in order to interact with people of other cultures in a "neutral zone."

The focus of this paper is Christian witness in the plurality of cultures. The importance of the discussions around this topic cannot be overemphasized. A careful analysis of what Christian witness ought to be is no longer simply factual, but it has begun to disturb the dreams that once inspired the missionary movement, and to undermine the traditional view that missionary culture is superior. Criticism is directed more and more against the paternalistic missionary attitude that had solutions for a non-Christian world. Whereas it must be admitted that missionaries did an enormous volume of work among people of other faiths, unfortunately there cannot be any doubt that missionaries have made incalculable mistakes in carrying out their message. For this reason, reorientation for cross-cultural communication should be a priority in future Christian witness in South Africa.

Before developing my arguments further, I would like to provide some working definitions of the terms "culture" and "plurality." These definitions will thus reflect my understanding of the subject under discussion.


Mitchell (1968:47) defines "culture" as a complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, moral, law, custom and any other capabilities acquired by an individual as a member of society. It is a historically-transmitted pattern of meanings transmitted in symbols. Culture is a plan, according to which society adapts itself to its physical, social and ideological environment (cf. Hesselgrave 1978:68). Persons wishing to convey a message to other cultures must learn before they can tell, and listen before they can speak. They need not only to know the exact meaning of the message for their audience, but also to understand the world in which the message must be communicated. Culture is a human-made part of the environment and functions as a total equipment of ideas for survival. No human being or group of human beings can ever be without culture.

The exchange of meanings between cultures on a footing of mutual respect and co-existence is a necessary condition of Christian witness in the plurality of cultures. Conflicts in the communication between cultures will necessarily develop where one party seeks to dominate or suppress the others (Amaladoss 1990:11). The co-existence of cultures, not merely as private properties, but as having a public responsibility in society, becomes possible only when every culture is able to make space for other cultures. This includes a much wider concept than tolerance. It entails acceptance of others as equal participants.

Cultural plurality

Cultural plurality presupposes that there are many different cultures that are equally active in the world (Streng 1986:251). Christian churches have always known that religions were plural and that there were other religions than theirs. This consciousness of plurality has raised a number of problems because the church (in fact, the whole western world) was convinced on a number of grounds that Christianity was the only truly valid religion, the only effective "way." That we now speak of missiological implications of plurality, means that a new assessment of its meaning in Christian witness has emerged. The new understanding includes and adds the concept of the equality of cultures and demands respect for one another's integrity for the elimination of conflicts in the exchange of meaning. …

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