[News] [Addresses] [Carmelite sites]
Secretariat of Missions: ocdmis@pcn.net + FAX ++39 06 85443212

Mangalore (India)

1st Mission Congress
of Asia and Oceania
( 8 )



The Challenges of Gospel-Culture Encounter


Fr. Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Institute of dialogue with cultures and religions, Chennai


 Even though our theological reflection starts from our experience, our interpretation of it is conditioned by the paradigm or root metaphor within which we look at it. This is true of science as much as of theology. Our answer to the question, “What are the challenges faced by the Church today?” will depend on our mental model for the Church: an institution, a community, a movement, a sacrament, a servant, a mystery, etc. I think that the incarnational paradigm embodied in the term inculturation is inadequate to explore the challenges of the encounter between Gospel and culture(s). In a series of projects characterized by implantation, adaptation, and translation, inculturation was a welcome development. It suggested a deeper impregnation of the culture by the Gospel, indicating also its transformation and perfection. Just as the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus in a Jewish cultural context, the Gospel is expected to become incarnate in the various cultures of the world.


 The inadequacy of this paradigm has many reasons. Jesus was the incarnation of a pre-existent Word. The Gospel that is given to us is already mediated to us through four different communities, developed and conditioned by decades of their experience. Incarnation is a process from above and from the outside. The theology of inculturation has largely been developed from the point of view of the missionaries who come from outside the community to proclaim the Gospel. As a matter of fact, in their case, we should speak properly of ‘acculturation’ rather than ‘inculturation’. The Gospel-culture encounter should take place in the heart of the community. Acculturation is a process through which a foreigner adapts her/himself to a new cultural context. S/He can never enter totally into the local culture giving up the early formative influences of her/his culture of origin. Enculturation is the process through which a child grows into the culture of the community. The term ‘inculturation’ is a theological notion and does not describe an anthropological process. The interaction between the Gospel and culture is never a neat and close fit as in an incarnation. There has never been a Christian culture. The relation between religion and culture is always a dialectical one, religion being in turn legitimating and prophetic in relation to culture. A culture may relate to many religions and a religion may cast its roots in many cultures. This pluralism must be respected.


The Agents of Gospel-Culture Encounter


 The relation between the Gospel and culture is best understood when we look closely at what happens when the Gospel encounters a culture. Missionaries bring the Gospel to a new group of people. The Gospel does not encounter a culture directly. It interacts with a people who live a culture. The missionaries try to acculturate themselves and attempt a first translation of the Gospel in the local language so to make it intelligible to the people. When the people hear the Gospel, they respond to it in their way of life, reflection and celebration. This response is expressed in their language and culture.


 It is the people who give a new cultural expression to the Gospel. They are the agents of the process. But what happened in the past was that the missionaries not only proclaimed the Gospel. They also dictated to the people the symbols and even the language (Latin or Syriac) in which they should respond. The fact that today this media may be translated or adapted does not really make a difference. The response remains an imposed, imported one. The people had no choice in the matter at the official level. So they often created their own responses in the non-official, private, popular sphere in ways of life, popular devotions and rituals and seasonal festivals. The total response therefore remains complex, confused and ambiguous. The priests accuse the people of being syncretistic and seek to suppress the practices of the people. The people normally resist and, if necessary, their practices go underground. Enterprising leaders may form independent Churches. We have many cases in India in which either people responded to the Gospel and to Christ, but refused to join the Church with its official response or they adopted an independent way of life even after baptism. People like Keshub Chandra Sen belong to the first group, while others like Brrahmabandab Upadyayaya, Nehemiah Goreh, Manilal Parekh and Panditha Ramabhai belong to the second.


 If the agency in the process of Gospel-culture encounter has to be restored to the people, then the claims of the hierarchy to keep it under their control, aided by “experts”, have to be contested. The early Churches that emerged in many parts of the Roman empire had no such expert guides. We can also foresee a certain free experimentation before there is a convergence and stabilization. The leadership has certainly a role of facilitating or coordinating service, not of control. It is also strange that the creative efforts of the people of God in Asia or Africa should be judged by bureaucrats in the Vatican, who have no experience of the local cultures.


The Process of Gospel-Culture Encounter


 Let us however look at the Gospel-Culture encounter somewhat in the abstract for the purposes of theoretical clarification. The encounter then appears as a hermeneutical, inter-cultural and inter-religious process. Let us consider these different dimensions.


 Hermeneutics or interpretation is an accepted stage in the reading of the Gospel today. Beyond the various forms, manners and contexts of expression we try to reach out to the message of the Gospel. At a second stage we try to interpret it and make it relevant to our contemporary context. There is a double process of interpretation. But what seems permitted at the level of reading the Scriptures is not allowed at the level of ecclesial organization, creedal affirmation or ritual practice. These are considered as divinely sanctioned and therefore untouchable. One also raises in this context the issue of normativity: whether the very first expressions of the Gospel and the peoples’ responses to it are normative for all succeeding generations. The Scriptures communicate to us God’s self revelation, though they do so through the medium of a particular language and culture. This first expression is a privileged one. Translations do not enjoy the same status. We always have to go back to this original expression of revelation. But authority and normativity are attributes of the message revealed, not of the media in which it is transmitted. If it is to be relevant, the message has to be re-expressed in every language and culture that it encounters. This authority and normativity cannot be attributed to the response of the people. Different peoples at different times and places are free to respond to the message in their own way, if it is considered relevant to them. But some theologians think that not only the message of the Gospel, but also its first re-expressions in the Greco-Roman cultures, as well as the responses of the early Christian communities are normative for people every where and at all times. It is in this context that some theologians propose to speak of inter-culturation rather than inculturation. While he makes the valid point that Christian communities today encounter the Gospel message as already inculturated in the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, he goes on to suggest that these early cultural responses are providential in nature and therefore are normative for people everywhere and at all times. Such a process of inter-culturation is wrong and not acceptable. But this is what is being imposed on the peoples in the Catholic Church today. A Vatican Cardinal declared at the African Synod that Christians in Africa must be partly Semitic, partly Greek, fully Roman and authentically African.


 Recent official documents talk a lot about inculturation. They seem to express a positive view of Asian cultures. But the perspective is always one of translation of a pre-packaged Word. Besides, real autonomy and agency is denied to the Asian Christians.


An Inter-cultural Process


 But the Gospel-culture encounter is actually an inter-cultural process, though not in the sense indicated above. The Gospel comes to us in the form of four Gospels, representing the contextual cultural tradition of four early communities. It passes through a multiplicity of other cultures till it reaches the missionary who is the bearer of the Gospel to a particular community. In spite of the best efforts of the missionaries to translate the Gospel in the local language and culture, something of their culture is bound to come through during the encounter. The Gospel-culture encounter is actually the meeting of two peoples with their cultures. Even independently of the Gospel there is an inter-cultural encounter.


Such inter-cultural encounters are not peculiar to this situation. They may also happen through commerce, travel, migration, invasion, colonialism, etc. There may be conflict, mutual adjustment and influence between cultures. This is normal. This will also happen between the cultures of the missionaries and of the people. What is important is to note carefully the conditions of such inter-cultural contact. The cultures may meet as equals or one culture may be more developed or more politically dominant. When the Gospel meets developed cultures as in India and China it does not make a big impact, even when people like Ricci and de Nobili were positive to the local cultures. When it meets less developed or politically weaker cultures then one of the reasons for the acceptance of the Gospel may be the desire to acculturate to the more developed or politically stronger culture. Social and political advantage may encourage the acceptance of the Gospel. In such a context the people may not be interested in responding to the Gospel through the medium of their own cultures. They are too busy acculturating to the missionaries who brought the Gospel to them. In India this may be true of Tribal and Dalit communities. When the expected socio-political advantage does not come, in a post-colonial situation, for example, people may turn back to rediscover and reassert their cultural identity. This is an inter-cultural process that has nothing strictly to do with the Gospel. But this subverts the normal process in which the people respond to the Gospel through the medium of their own culture. It would result in cultural alienation and inauthenticity. The missionaries who are not very keen to allow the local cultures to respond freely to the Gospel profit from this situation to impose their culture. They may even look upon it as a civilizing mission. Experts like Ricci and de Nobili sought to make a distinction between culture and religion. Missionaries with less imagination and intellect may also confuse religion and culture and suggest that converts eventually abandon their cultures together with their religion.


Elite and Subaltern Cultures


Other problems may come from the complexity of the culture which is responding to the Gospel. Even if there is be some sort of underlying unity India is a land of many cultures and peoples. Even within a particular region the cultures of many ethnic or caste groups may coexist. These may be relating among themselves, not as equals, but in a hierarchical manner. In such a situation a subaltern group may embrace, not only the Gospel, but also the culture of the missionary but as social promotion and as an alternative to one’s own oppressed culture. The missionaries who may be positive to local cultures may prefer to interact with the dominant culture with which the Christians from the subaltern groups may not identify. In India some efforts towards indigenization have been branded as brahmanization. Though there have been cultural movements like sanskritization in India the current mood among subaltern groups is socio-cultural self assertion. Similar questions may also arise in the context of an ongoing interaction and even tension between tradition and modernity and/or the local and the global.


In such a context, if a question arises as to which culture must be allowed to respond to the Gospel, the obvious answer is the culture of the Christian community who are the agents of the process. Their culture may actually be living the tensions between the traditional and the modern, the local and global, the subaltern and the dominant. A community would normally make its own adjustments and work out a way of life for itself. They would also know how to respond to the Gospel if they are given their freedom. An outsider may point to elements of alienation or inauthenticity in the process. But finally the community must be allowed to exercise its agency.


 When the community is multi-cultural all the cultures must be respected and the dominant culture must not be allowed to impose itself in the name of unity. In daily practice people do adopt a praxis of a certain unity in pluralism with regard to language, customs, etc. This could be done by the Christian community also.


Indigenization or Christianization


 A deeper question is how do we envisage the goal of Gospel-culture encounter. The traditional view would be that the Church offers through tradition certain symbolic actions like the sacraments which have to be indigenized in the local culture. These actions were specified in terms of matter and form. For example, today marriage is celebrated by the bride and the groom in the presence of an official witness of the Church. This basic ritual could be ‘decorated’ by other local symbols. We could also think of a new approach. In India, each community has a particular way of celebrating a marriage. It involves not merely the bride and the groom but the two families and their relatives. It is a social celebration with many rituals that knit the social group together with mutual obligations. Now one can suggest that when this group becomes Christian, they do not have to abandon their customs or add them on to a new ‘official ritual’. They keep their socio-cultural customs, but add on a prayer or another symbolic action to Christianize it. This will certainly avoid double or parallel religiosity.


An Inter-religious Encounter


 Every culture is related to a religion. While culture seeks to make life meaningful, religion tries to answer ultimate questions and to explain limit situations like the problem of evil in all its dimensions and the mystery of death. An inter-cultural encounter therefore also becomes an inter-religious encounter.


 The official attitude to other religions till few years ago has been very negative. The Fathers of the Church were very positive to Greek philosophy and culture. But they were very negative to the other religions. Roberto de Nobili and his successors in India were also positive to Indian culture and customs. But they considered Indian religions as idolatrous. So their Christian communities were socio-culturally Indian, but religiously foreign. As they crossed the boundaries of the Church they adopted a foreign language and foreign symbols, at least for their official rituals.


 In practice however this policy gave rise to double or parallel religiosity in Asia, Africa and Latin America, not to speak of Europe. People were faithful to the official rituals, often supervised or celebrated by the priests. But away from the eyes of the priests, they continued their rituals Christianizing them in their own way through the addition of a prayer or other symbol like the sign of the cross. This was especially so with regard to life-cycle, seasonal and agricultural rituals.


Aloysius Pieris has distinguished between cosmic and metacosmic religiosity. Cosmic religiosity deals with cosmic powers that influence day to day individual and social life. Metacosmic religiosity deals with powers that transcend the cosmic level. The so called ‘great religions’ are metacosmic. Pieris suggests that a metacosmic religion casts its roots in a particular region and in a particular people through its cosmic religiosity. There may be some mutual adjustments. But it rarely replaces cosmic religiosity fully. The official agents of the Church may tolerate and even encourage cosmic religiosity in popular devotions, festivals, etc., so long as the official rituals are protected. People who tend to be passive in official metacosmic rituals are quite participative in cosmic ones.


Some one who is a practicing member of one metacosmic religion rarely seems to go over to another one, unless there is a passage through a non-practicing period, for whatever reason. But there are people who, while belonging to one religion, are seriously involved in the sadhana of another. A Christian may practice seriously yoga or zen. There are also cases where a person at some stage of his/her life discovers that s/he is heir to two religious traditions feeling that s/he is Hindu-Christian, Buddhist-Christian, etc. They seek to integrate both with more or less success. Such cases are not frequent. So we need not focus on these, except for theoretical reasons. In any case they belong more to the area of inter-religious encounter than Gospel-culture encounter. Since today we are more open to the other religions as fields of activity of the Spirit of God such encounters can be seen in a positive way.




 There are however some problems at the level of Gospel-culture encounter which are inter-religious. One such problem is syncretism. Syncretism refers to a situation where there is an indiscriminate mixture of religious symbols. If Our Lady of Health figures in a list Goddesses or Jesus Christ is classed among the Avatars one can talk of syncretism. If in a ritual Hindu and Christian symbols are mixed up that is supposed to be syncretistic. Can one say that the use of ‘OM’ or the waving of an arati during an Eucharistic celebration is syncretistic?


 Symbols have a specific meaning in a specific context. Hindu rituals use some symbols. When a Hindu becomes a Christian and wishes to respond to the Gospel in his/her cultural media, has he to discover or coin totally new words and symbols or can s/he use symbols with which s/he is familiar, but giving them a new meaning in a new context? Symbols have a double meaning. The word ‘fire’ can denote material fire and connote the ardour of love or the force of anger. Whether it means love or anger depends on the context. A basic meaning (burning) is constant. But it can indicate different situations in different contexts. There may be some religious symbols that are mythologically or historically associated with a particular religion that they are not available for use in other religious contexts. But there are also many symbols that are more cultural than religious in nature, which are used in a particular religious context, but which are available for use in another religious context with a different connotation. To use them in this manner is not being syncretistic. Cultural symbols are not the property of any particular religious group.


 We can go a step further. If we do not consider the other religions as devilish any more, even the religious connotations of cultural symbols can be integrated by another religious group. As I have already indicated, there are symbols that are special to a religion. Their identity must be respected. The cross or the images of the Gods would be examples. But otherwise we should not cry ‘syncretism’ too quickly. It is for the individual or the group to determine whether they are using it in the context of their faith. They have to be careful about the scandal that may be taken by weaker members of the community. But scandal should not be too quickly and frequently invoked to block the legitimate self-expression of a group with a complex identity.


The Criterion


 Another problem that frequently bugs efforts at creative expression is the question “what criterion should we use to determine whether a particular symbol is adequate?” The problem gets complicated when a particular group sitting far away from the field claims to possess the criterion. Once again, the answer was simple when we claimed to possess all the truth, while the others were mere human efforts, if not works of the evil spirit. But today we accept that the Spirit of God is present and active in other cultures and religions. So we cannot set ourselves up as the criterion to judge everybody else. The Spirit of God is free and creative enough not simply to repeat him/herself in every situation. The Gospel is the Word of God as manifested in and through Jesus and as narrated to us in the four Gospels, supplemented by the other writings of the New Testament. This Word is also related to the writings of the Old Testament. But in a multi-religious context, we accept that the Spirit of God is present and active in other religions and cultures. Where the Spirit of God is present, the Word of God is present too. The actions of the Trinity outside itself is common to all the Three Persons, even if they are attributed to one or the other of them. It is the same Word, but it need not say the same thing. Therefore the Word that the people listen and respond to is a complex Word that includes the Gospel and the Word present in their own culture and religion. These two manifestations of the Word could be different and convergent, mutually enriching each other. But this process can happen only in dialogue. This dialogue is internal to the community.


 Sometimes one talks about the norm of Gospel-culture encounter. I think that the only norm is the Gospel itself as interpreted by the Christian community. We should not privilege any one section of the community or any authority in the Church. In this matter the Word of God as entrusted to the community has priority. It is only the sensus fidelium that can authentically interpret it. Any authority in the community can voice the sensus fidelium, not dictate to it. The sensus fidelium may evolve towards a consensus through discussion and even disagreement. But this slow process cannot be short circuited. I have already said that no one cultural expression, however ancient, has a privileged status over others as the norm.


The Transformation of Culture


 So far we have been concentrating on the phenomenon of response as creative self-expression. But the proclamation of the Gospel is always a call to conversion. The life, teaching and praxis of Jesus point to the various manifestations of Satan and Mammon in his time and calls for a change of direction. He looks at the situation from the point of view of the poor and the oppressed and he is prophetically critical of the political domination and exploitation of Herod, the misuse of religious structures by the High Priests and the empty and hypocritical legalism of the Pharisees. Against these he manifests a God who is a boundlessly loving and merciful parent through his various miracles. He gives a new commandment of loving and serving the other. His table-fellowship with the poor and the marginalized of his day offers a new model of community based on sharing. He himself gives the example of being a humble servant whose weapon is non-violent love. He proclaims a Kingdom characterized by freedom and fellowship, justice and peace.


 The Gospel therefore helps the people to look at themselves and their culture in its prophetic light and invites them to a change of heart, of attitudes and of structures. In India we could certainly think of the caste system, the dominating power structures, the discrimination against and oppression of women, the cultural and religious communalisms and conflicts, the pervading corruption in public life, the abuse of children, the lack of a true participative democracy, etc. etc. To these traditional problems we could add the more modern ones of individualism and competition, the growing dichotomy between the secular and the sacred, the alienations of the modern media and the wanton destruction of ecological resources.


 When we speak about the Gospel-culture encounter we do not often attend to this transformative dimension. I think that this is more urgent and important than the expressive one. If in a group there is ongoing caste discrimination and even oppression, the Gospel would demand a serious and sustained effort at promoting equality and community. In such a situation the Eucharist will be more contextual and relevant if it is a celebration of the efforts to build community than if one merely multiplies aratis, pranams and oil lamps and even introduces some Indian décor and dance. I think that in the recent past our priorities in this area have been misplaced.


The Past and the Future


 Is the Church in India Indian? If the RSS calls us ‘foreigners’ we feel slighted and protest our Indianness. We are geographically and ethnically Indian. We are largely Indian culturally too. But we are dependent on foreign centers administratively and financially. In the core of our religious identity – liturgy, spirituality and theology – we are still largely foreign. This is true of St. Thomas Christians also. They seem to be vigorous is rediscovering their Chaldean identity. Roberto de Nobili’s appreciation of Indian culture did not go beyond the socio-cultural context. His Christianity was imported, though he did try to translate it. Missionaries like Beschi and Stephens were models of acculturation. They made excellent use of Indian languages and poetic traditions to convey the Gospel message. We have now entered an era of translation. Though the people have been creative with their responses at the level of popular religiosity, the encounter between the Gospel and culture at the official level is still waiting to happen. But no one at the moment seems to feel its importance or urgency. If the Church does not become Indian at this level it will have no prophetic voice in the country. It can work for cultural transformation only from within.




 I hope that I have made clear that the phrase “inculturation as incarnational living” is an outsider missionary point of view. It might sound theological and inspire a personal spirituality of incarnation. It is unfortunate that kenosis or self-emptying does not seem to be part of such a spirituality. But in any case, it is a wrong paradigm for Gospel-culture encounter. I need not incarnate in a culture that is mine. Besides, culture is not personal. It is always a collective possession.


 Our official failures at responding to the Gospel in our own cultural context should not blind us to the fact that the people have been responding to it in their own way, may be without official approval, but often with official tolerance.


 Any Gospel-culture encounter that starts from below is bound to be pluralistic. But pluralism indicates the richness of the freedom and the creativity of the Spirit and of the humans who interact with it. It is a sign of catholic communion. Sometimes the question arises about a community in which there are group with different cultures: How does one respect the cultural differences and yet preserve unity. I think that it is not for the Church to impose some kind of unity. Since in life-cycle rituals it is the family group that is important, the family’s culture would take priority. In the secular sphere there must be a common language and cultural symbols that are used when the people from different groups come together. The popular media use them. This same language and symbols can also be used for their collective self-expression when the different groups come together. This commonality is something that the people have negotiated together and it must be respected. Besides, in the context of the Church itself such a common culture may emerge through mutual dialogue and adjustment. Such a process must be encouraged as a support to the more important one of building up the community.


 To be oneself is a basic human and social right. This right to one’s identity is never given spontaneously by those who dominate the collectivity. It has to be taken, asserted and celebrated. Such freedom is the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the ultimate guarantor of communion in pluralism. (cf. 1 Cor 12)

 English] [ Italiano] [ Español] [ Français ] [ Deutsch]
[ ] [  ]

Updated 24 nov 2007 by OCD General House
Corso d'Italia, 38 - 00198 Roma - Italia
++39 (06) 854431 FAX ++39 (06) 85350206