Inculturation is a relatively new term for something with long roots in Christian history - even though that "something" is lived with a different urgency and with more complex awareness in our day. St Paul, for instance, underwent a significant conversion in attitude in Athens, and took a sympathetic step towards the culture of a city that previously had left him disgusted (Acts 17). Even the very fact that we Christians have four gospels and not one is a powerful symbol of how the very telling of the good news was shaped from the beginning by the needs of different audiences or cultures. Or the fact that the New Testament is written in Greek is itself an indication of a dramatic and painful decision by the early Christians - to reach out beyond Jewish culture to the huge world of the Gentiles. Again, one can point to the extraordinary story of Christian art as an example of faith seeking mediations in tune with many shifts of sensibility through the centuries. Indeed the best chapters of church history constitute a long adventure of seeking to make real, in new languages and cultures, the revelation of God's love in Jesus Christ. This article seeks to ponder some of the main themes in theological reflection on inculturation mainly from a Roman Catholic perspective.
In fact, a famous Roman document of 1659, from the then recently founded Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, offered the following blunt instruction for missionaries going to China:
Do not bring any pressure to bear on these people to change their manners, customs and practices, unless these are obviously contrary to religion and morality. There is nothing more absurd than to want to bring France to China - or to bring Spain or Italy or any part of Europe. Carry none of that but rather faith which neither despises nor destroys the way of life and the customs of any people, when these are not evil things. On the contrary, faith desires that these traditions be conserved and protected.(1)
A changed horizon
Why are we talking so much about inculturation in these last decades if such sensitivity to local culture was already, at least in wise moments, a guiding ideal for evangelization? Because our new horizons of awareness have forced us to take plurality of local cultures much more seriously than in previous ages. Especially with the arrival of historical consciousness as one of the hallmarks of modern thought, it became impossible to think of any one culture or model of life as permanent or perfect. Once we see the extent to which our ways of thinking and acting are products of history and culture, then we are ready to see the relativity of our languages of living.
Moreover, this intellectual insight concerning plurality of cultures has been accompanied by the ending of many colonial regimes as well as by a globalization process in world communications. As a result, the previously unchallenged culture of Europe has begun to see itself as no longer the classical way of "civilization," something to be exported and even imposed on less "advanced" cultures. Without denying the rich heritage of the west, and its unique role in world history during the millennium now ending, we need to confess the scars and blindspots on that history: its colonial arrogance and violence, its assumption of inferiority in different ways of life, and its own internal lopsidedness of development (cultivating the scientific and the organizational, the "masculine" bias in interpreting life). The new awareness of interculturality offers mutual challenges and helps: in the mirror of "difference" the previously complacent western culture can recognize some of its own dehumanizing features, or in more Christian terms, the culture repents its own sinful structures and admits its need of conversion.
It is now widely accepted that older forms of mission to foreign cultures were marred by hidden bias - seeing the home language of Christianity as normality and tending to dismiss the genuinely spiritual aspect of the receiving culture. …