Why We Don’t Contextualize Our Faith?


Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marbl...
Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are some thoughts. It is not necessarily exhaustive.

  1. Fear of Syncretism and Heresy. It is clear in the Bible that the Christian faith needs to be contextualized. Within the New Testament World, this meant several worlds… Jewish World, Greco-Roman World, and Folk-Pagan World (if not more). Contextualization has its limits. The early disciples worked within the context of Judaism, yet rejected sacrifices and the temple system. Paul and Barnabbas used healing as a manner of getting the attention of local folk-pagans, yet rejected the titles of Zeus and Hermes. Paul, particularly, worked in helping Greeks express their faith without becoming Jews, but Gnostic/docetic syncretism was rejected.

Here in the Philippines, syncretism is very common. That very condition has added to the view of many that one should actively avoid contextualization. However, there is a flaw in this. Some of the more successful groups that have drifted from orthodoxy were founded by individuals who were trained in a non-contextualized manner. Felix Manalo and Apollo Quiboloy were trained up in American-style Protestantism (of one form or another). Both of them created new religions despite being grounded in an “orthodoxy” of sorts. Poor or no contextualization does not prevent syncretism or heresy. As Paul Hiebert would suggest, it might even increase it. Jackson Wu has noted that non-contextualization is likely to lead to syncretism as is over-contetualization.

  1. Religious Monoculturalism. Many missionaries and religious leaders are not used to the idea that one should separate their own culture from religious culture. The music of their own church is the music of God. The religious language, theology, and style of their own church are the language, theology and style of God. A study of Church music through history shows that new styles are rejected by the old. However, old styles are rejected by the new, and newer styles are also rejected by the new.

    In the Philippines we see this. Churches tend to mimic (often rather poorly) the styles, structures, and theologies of the USA, South Korea, or Singapore. The fact that the Philippines is distinctly unlike any of these three countries is often lost on missionaries.

  2. Anticontextual Theology. Beyond simply being afraid of contextualization or being blind to its need, some theology seeks to reject contextualization from the start. Creedalism locks in a theological perspective from a contextual past and refuses to review it in a new cultural setting. Similar to this is Traditionalism that provides a theological justification for inertia. Anti-paganism has been popular in recent years at least as an argument against certain practices. The Jehovah’s Witness religion has argued against Christmas and Birthdays, for example, because they have “pagan roots.” Other groups have jumped on board. However, to remove paganism from Christianity’s roots removes our history. One would actually be hard-pressed to find anything in Judaism or Christianity (or any other major religion) that lacks precursors in paganism. And if one did discover some minor aspect of Christianity that has no connection (chronologically or otherwise) with paganism (Stained glass? Pews? Religious radio? ) that does not make it right or even better than other practices with a more “tarnished” pedigree. Anti-pagan arguments are basically a rejection of contextualization and the idea that God can redeem culture. Related to this is the perspective described by Richard Neibuhr as “Christ against Culture.” Following Christ means rejecting culture. However, since it is impossible for a community to exist without culture (by definition) this view means accepting some other culture that has been “blessed” by others… a return to traditionalism.
  1. Cultural Resistance to Change. The power of culture is habit. Habits are hard to break on an individual basis. Cultures, however, tend to reinforce themselves… justifying the habits with taboos, social norms, and laws. Culture and religion are linked, and religion creates its own culture, with the same tendency towards communal habits reinforced by taboos, norms, and regulations. Contextualization means a change in religious culture. Because the tendency of culture to perpetuate itself, this is difficult, even if the people are theoretically willing.
  1. Inertia. Drawing back to the habit issue, habits are hard to break, even on an individual level. It is easier just to do what has been done before. Innovation is difficult, draining, and risky.
  1. Modeling. We tend to learn by watching others. Therefore, when Christianity develops in a new country, new Christians look to old Christians as the model for how to think and behave. That tends to reduce contextualization.

It is hardly surprising that contextualization of theology is not done or not done well. In fact some resistance to change is good. We are all humans sharing a common history. As Christians we are also guided by God’s revelation. Our humanity, history, and revelation should be “strange attractors” that provide a semblance of order to our chaotic lives.

I recently read a quote attacking tradition. That is equally foolish. Tradition at least shows something that has worked at one time and has become part of our foundational experience and history. That places it on a sounder foundation than something that is untested.

Like most things in life, balance is needed.

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