You are welcome to look back on Part 1 if you want. However, that was more of a critique of a podcast and where I was inspired by the ‘not-so-correct’ English term “Enoughness.”
For me, I would like to think of “Enoughness” as a characteristic of commonality of humans. None of us are identical with anyone, or anything, else. In fact, we are all unique.
- We have different experiences. I cannot say to someone else “I know exactly how you feel.” I cannot do this because I don’t know exactly. We have had different experiences, and different ways of emotionally coping.
- We have different social connections. Some people thrive under stress, while others crumble. We may think it is about “strength of character,” but often it is because of network of support and history of support that each of us (uniquely) have.
- We share cultural and language similarities with some and not with others. This cultural and language uniqueness draws us to some and pushes us from others.
But this uniqueness is balanced by a certain “enoughness” of similarities that we have with all. I don’t want to draw out this point since I am looking at it more from a missiological perspective. However, even though there are thousands of human languages, all human languages share many common features. The similarity is so strong that all of them are generally translatable… or translatable enough. For humans, there is certainly a language barrier, but that barrier is quite porous. Two people with the same language, culture, and even family brought up together will never be able to communicate fully with no limits or errors. On the other hand, two people from wildly different settings (I am ignoring here the question of one or more people suffering from a severe mental or neurological malfunctions) can come to the point of pretty good mutual understanding with some effort and time.
There are enough similarities in humans such that human languages are mutually translatable with each other. You may think that all languages no matter the source would be translatable. However, that is pretty uncertain. We are struggling to decide if other animal species have something akin to language. Some appear to, but we are not able to understand their communication beyond the most surface-level. Some animals are able to understand and respond to human language on a rudimentary level. However, if some animal species do have language as we do, there does not appear to be enough similarities for mutual comprehensibility. We are able to communicate with computers but we designed computers and their language interfaces. But if an alien intelligent species came and landed on our planet, would we be able to communicate? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
There are certainly cultural barriers… but the barriers are also porous. We can never completely change cultures. However, the similarities among humans does carry across to cultures, where even the strangest cultural habits can generally be explained in such a way as to be understood through comparable traits in another culture. Even if one found something completely incomprehensible in another culture, the vast majority of traits would make sense because of common human needs and social drives.
When we take these areas of “enoughness” into account (and I am only taking a couple of examples for our purposes here), I think a couple of things are worth considering.
#1. There has been a lot of discussion about the “supracultural” quality of the gospel of Christ. In some ways this could be thought of as about the commonalities of culture… but ultimately it comes from the enoughness of similarity of human needs. However, sometimes this has led people to think that there is no need to contextualize the gospel. I think that is a mistake.
#2. The same cultural needs are present in all cultures but not in equal amounts. So all cultures have social motivators of seeking honor in one’s social grouping, meeting ethical standards, living without fear, and achieving personal pleasure or mastery of one’s environment, but they are not equally important.
Because of this, when one says that the gospel must be radically contextualized/localized to make it intelligible in another culture, it is not really true. They can understand (at least potentially) that the gospel meets needs that they have. However, often when people speak of the supracultural aspect of the gospel, what they are saying is that the emphases that they resonate to in the gospel are the ones others should be resonant to as well. That certainly is in error.
The gospel of Christ provides:
- Recognition of being ‘guilt-free’ before God.
- Honored member of God’s family.
- Ultimate peace and power over fear.
- Meaning and purpose in life.
- Communion with Christ.
- Ability to endure in the face of pain and suffering.
- Having a right relationship with God.
- Achieving harmony with God and creation.
- <Add more if you wish>
- Free from the “Second Death.”
Not all of these are equal. I feel strong connection with peace and endurance. Many Evangelicals focus on the guilt-free aspect of the gospel. I understand its importance from that perspective, but (truthfully) it is not one the resonates with me. So if one shared the gospel with me from the perspective of being guilt-free or avoiding the second death, I would be likely to understand the message as well as its relevance. However, it would likely not resonate with my primary concerns.
So where does that lead us. One does not need to wait to have the perfect contextual presentation of the message of God before entering a culture. Jonah certainly did not know how to enter Ninevah with a nuanced contextual presentation. Perhaps it was the miraculous act of God that caused the people of the city to respond. Still, they had lived through plagues and famines and wars to connect these with a message of divine judgment. There is likely to be some who will respond to most any linguistically intelligible presentation of the gospel. However, caring nothing of the differences can make the gospel (filtered through the priorities of the missionary’s culture) seem relatively uninteresting or unimportant.