Inculturation, Theology of

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The term "inculturation," as applied to Christianity, denotes the presentation and re-expression of the Gospel in forms and terms proper to a culture. It results in the creative reinterpretation of both, without being unfaithful to either. Evangelization respects culture as part of the human phenomenon and as a human right. The manipulation or oppression of culture is, therefore, an abuse. Culture is a coherent system of meanings embodied in images and symbols that enables the individual to relate cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally to the world and to communicate this understanding to others. It is the prism through which a human society views the whole of its experience, domestic, political, social, economic, and political. Culture is learned by the human being through socialization and is developed throughout life. It gives identity to a human group and controls its perception of reality. For the purposes of theology, it is at once more positive and more precise than the term "context." Syncretism denotes an anomalous conflict of meaning when, in the process of evangelization, cultures "domesticate" the Gospel and distort its meaning. No culture is deemed to be unfailingly Christian, since inculturation is a constant call to conversion and renewal.

Evangelization must enter into dialogue with cultures if it is to produce any effect on human beings. Cultures are empirically diverse; therefore, evangelization leads to culturally diverse ways of living the Gospel. Inculturation, opposed to uniformity, demands the legitimization of diversity. There can be no monopoly of cultural forms in a truly Catholic communion. This is true in spite of the mutual influence of evangelizing and evangelized cultures ("interculturation") and of the accumulation by the Church of current, but contingent, cultural elements as an inherited patrimony. Until the realization in the 20th century that culture is a plural phenomenon, the Church took it for granted that there was a single, universal culture of humanity, the perfection of which was deemed to be Christianity in its western, Latin form. No allowance was made for factors of cultural diversity in theological controversy, and the Church was unable to accommodate the initiatives of early Jesuit missionaries, such as Mateo ricci, Roberto de nobili, and Pedro Paez, when they tried to evangelize foreign cultures from within. In the 20th century, particularly at the Second vatican coun cil, and in the subsequent assemblies of the synod of bishops, cultural pluralism has been accepted, together with inculturation as a demand of evangelization. However, an influential minority in the Church still claims that western culture possesses a universal significance for evangelization, in spite of its technocratic nature, its secularizing influence, and its tendency to undermine the religious values of indigenous cultures.

Christological Basis for Inculturation. Among the Christological bases for inculturation, the doctrine of the world-seeding logos as God's agent in creation goes back to justin martyr and the second century apologists, typified by clement of alexandria. It has reappeared in the missionary decree of the Second Vatican Council, Ad gentes, and in modern creation theology. The Logos, the Divine Truth or Divine Reason, exists in disseminated form throughout creation, and every human tradition perceives it darkly, before it is enlightened for them by the proclamation of the Word incarnate. This proclamation does not outmode these traditions, but gladly recognizes the elements of truth they contain. Another Christological approach is the analogy with the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the parallel between his cultural education in Palestine and modern missionary evangelization. The parallel demonstrates that Christ is the subject of inculturation and that the incarnation inserted him into the intercultural dynamic of human history. However, it plays down the challenge that Christ offered to his own culture, and suggests that the Gospel, like the divine pre-existence, comes to a culture in a culturally disembodied form. The most fruitful Christological approach is to compare inculturation with the Paschal Mystery, to which it is linked causally as well as analogically. Through his passion, death and resurrection, Christ became universal Lord and made himself available to people of every culture. The Paschal Mystery also offers an analogy for the conversion of culture, which dies and rises under the impact of evangelization, thus becoming more authentic and more faithful to its underlying truth.

Ecclesiological Approaches to Inculturation. Ecclesiological approaches to inculturation include first the logic of the Church's universal mission. That mission is the continuation of the missio Dei, God's loving dialogue with the world, and the fulfilment of the great commandment of universal love that is logically prior to the great commission to teach all nations. This love is a perfect communion of differences and, therefore, liberating. In this area the theology of inculturation encounters the theology of liberation. The second ecclesiological basis of inculturation is the authentic tradition of the Church and the role of the Church's magisterium. The primary reality of the Church is local: the particular church and the socio-cultural region within which its witness takes place. Its primary task is to reconcile local culture to the Church's tradition, which is centered on the interpretation of the Christ event. This interpretation is based on a trajectory of meaning that ascends to the outlooks of the New Testament. Sacred tradition, with its growth of insight, passes organically from culture to culture and from clarity to clarity throughout history. Although the Bible occupies a privileged position in this tradition, together with the sacramental and hierarchical ministry that derives from the actions and commands of Christ witnessed by the New Testament, and although the meaning of faith-statements made by the Church's magisterium is not open to contradiction, all these can only be understood today with reference to their historical and cultural contexts. Reformulation in accordance with the Church's lived cultural plurality is strictly necessary, if they are to be taken seriously.

The concept of inculturation seems to carry certain consequences for the shape of the Church to come, among them the abandonment of a preference for western culture and a greater diversification in Christian life and practice. The fields of inculturation include: theology, catechesis, liturgy, religious life, marriage and family life, health and healing, secondary ecclesial ministries and structures. Inculturation would therefore assume a relative pluralism in all these fields. Since inculturation cannot be imposed, but depends on the experience and initiatives of the local community, the concept seems to envisage ecclesial structures that favor increased participation and collaboration.

Bibliography: m. amaladoss, Beyond Inculturation: Can the Many Be One? (Delhi 1998). d.s. amalorpavadass, "Theological reflections on inculturation" Studia Liturgica 20 (1990) 3654 (Pt. I) and 116136 (Pt. II). g. a. arbuckle, Earthing the Gospel (London 1990). m. dhavamony, Christian Theology of Inculturation (Rome 1997). a. e. shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation (New York 1992); Evangelization and Culture (London 1994). p.c. phan, "Contemporary Theology and Inculturation in the United States," in The Multicultural Church: A New Landscape in U.S. Theologies, ed. w. cenkner (New York 1996) 109130. j.a. scherer & s.b. bevans, eds., New Directions in Mission & Evangelization Vol 3: Faith and Culture (Maryknoll 1999).

[a. e. shorter]