We had an interesting, even if short, discussion in class on whether it is okay to say/believe that Jesus is Kabunian. For those not from a very specific part of the world, this question is meaningless or at least confusing. However, similar questions have come up in many settings. For example, “Must one use the term ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh’ as the God of the Bible?” as some Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Messianic groups suggest? Is it okay to say that the God of the Bible is Allah, or that the God of the Bible can be called Allah?” Perhaps it is easier to discuss this with less emotional baggage (for many Christians at least) with the case study of Kabunian.
Kabunian is the traditional deity (or prime deity) of the peoples of the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon Island (Philippines). While a majority of Cordillerans would identify themselves as Christian, Kabunian still has a strong role in this region. Some argue that early Cordilleran religion was built around spirits and ancestors, and the focus on Kabunian is a fairly late evolution of the faith that post-dates contact with Christianity. As such, Kabunian did not have a strong role in the religion until he was needed as an alternative to the God of Christianity. Truthfully, I am not an expert on Kabunian or of Cordilleran traditional religion. Because of this, I truly don’t know if this is actually true, or is a false reinterpretation of that faith.
<Aside here… sometimes there is a strong temptation to reinterpret a religion through a preferred lens of an outsider rather than through its adherents’ own self-understanding. For example, those who embrace the History of Religions school of thought, believe that traditional faiths are polytheistic (and animistic, and shamanistic) and so a traditional faith that has a strong central deity must have gotten that way through interaction with a ‘more mature faith.’ Additionally, within Evangelical Christian circles, there is the belief of some that God only reveals Himself through Christians. Other religions are traps of Satan, and therefore any other belief system that embraces something that is seen as ‘true’ must have gotten that truth through interaction with Christians. Note here, I am just bringing up two possible reasons for falsely believing that Kabunian as primary deity is a recent innovation. I have not studied the issue enough to know the truth. But one must always be cautious of people who are too quick to say that a group believed “A” centuries ago, when the tradition of that group is that they believed “B.”>
But this gives one POSSIBLE reason for saying that Kabunian can be said to be Jesus. PERHAPS KABUNIAN IS A LOCAL CONTEXTUALIZATION OF JESUS. After all, if Kabunian developed in response to Christianity, couldn’t it be seen as a local expression of Christ? I have issues with this idea. A contextualization is more than simply grabbing a term and linking it to another. The name Kabunian means, essentially, “The one to be prayed to” (in the Kankana-ey language). Kabunian as chief god and the one to be prayed to certainly aligns with Christ. However, the stories of Jesus and the stories of Kabunian don’t really line up. The teachings of Kabunian and Jesus don’t really line up (sometimes). That is also a major issue with linking the God of the Holy Bible and Allah from Al-Qur’an. Although there are historically common roots, and Arab and Aramaic Christians called the God of the Bible Allah before the time of the founding of Islam, many of the characteristics of each do not align. Because of this, lazy conflation can lead to confusion. Confusion can be a problem and lead to syncretism. However, to simply reject everything local and simply bring in an outside term can lead to its own form of syncretism— unhealthy mixing of the Christian faith with an outside, rather than local, culture. So let’s consider further.
On the other hand one could make the argument that Kabunian CANNOT be equated with Jesus because the two names are different. Relatedly, some would say that Kabunian is pagan and so can have no part of Christian theology or terminology. On this I think we have to be a bit cautious. While YHWH appears to be a Hebrew-only term, Elohim appears to have been connected with the Phoenican god El. Does that mean that the two are being equated? Well, Yes and No. Let’s take it further, in the New Testament, the dominant term used is Theos. This term has roots in the Greek culture and religion. The term Theos seems to have a link to the term Zeus, the chief Olympian god of the Greeks. Supposedly, the English term ‘God’ has a similar connection to Odin or Wotan, through the proto-Germanic term “Godan.” Does this mean that we have to throw away all terms for God in Christianity with pagan roots. I would argue that the answer is decidedly NO. If one takes the individual cases above, in the case of Elohim, the term may be linked to El, but is transformed in both its written form, but in its meaning as well. Elohim is above all creation and “gods” much as is the Phoenician god El, but differs as God is NOT the father of Baal and Ashtoreth (among other differences). The choice of term draws people to think of the God of Israel as the god of the heavens but its transformation helps avoid too close of a link. The same could be said in the New Testament. The Bible used the Greek term Theos for god, but did not use Zeus. One could argue that there is too much baggage associated with the character Zeus, but there is value in the more abstract Theos. Likewise, in English, the term Odin has too much pagan baggage, but the more generic/abstract term “God” is open for utilization. In places in Asia, for example, missionaries have often sought to equate the God of the Bible with the local expression of the god of the heavens. Is there problems with this? Sometimes there can be. There can be problematic baggage to deal with in the term. For this reason, sometimes the local term is not used, or it is used but changed somewhat. There is, however, considerable value in helping people understand that the God of the Bible is their God as well. In the Philippines it is more common to use the term “Diyos” which is a Spanish term that ultimately traces back to the Greek Theos. At other times, the term Panginoon is used, which is seen more as a descripter of God rather than a name for God.
I think perhaps a better goal in language is that of “Fulfillment” rather than EQUATE OR EQUIVOCATE. We can talk about this in Part II. To go there direction, you can CLICK HERE.