Cultural Relativism and Missions

I wrote a textbook for seminary students in the Philippines. I still use the book (“Ministry in Diversity”). However, I stopped selling the book because I wanted to make some changes.

One area I have been struggling with is the use of the term “Cultural Anthropology.” The term is used both by missionaries and (secular) cultural/social anthropologists. However, some firmly believe that the term cultural anthropology has the built-in presumption of cultural relativism. I am not totally convinced of this, but that did bring up the good question of what should missionaries hold to in terms of culture.

Upon reflection, I think there is value in separating between culture and religion. Now before anyone jumps all over me for this, I am only suggesting that there is some value in separating them even if one cannot truly separate the two.

If one pretends that one can separate religion and culture, then one can identify two spectra. One relates to culture ranging from cultural relativism (all cultures are equally valid and cannot be judged by outsiders) to cultural imperialism (all cultures can judged by my own culture and changed to be like my own culture). Religiously, one can see a spectrum from religious pluralism (all religions are equally valid and cannot be judged by outsiders) to religious exclusivism (my own faith/religion is the only one that is completely valid and is to challenge other faiths).4

Simplifying the spectra into two regions each, one can create quadrants. The Green Region I am calling “Civilizing” Missionaries. This goes back to many of the Great Century missionaries. Many were Religious Exclusivists and Cultural Imperialists. This makes me think of David Livingstone’s 3-Cs— Christianity, Civilization, Commerce. Such a model separates between religion and culture but still sees part of the missionary endeavor to change culture (“civilize”).

The Pink and Orange Regions are where there is Cultural Relativism. I am using the term “Presence” Missions here. This hearkens back to the developments especially associated with conciliar missions especially as popularized in the 1960s. Missions in this view was done by missionaries that would focus on a ministry of presence— often with the presumption that God’s work in and through the culture meant that the message of the gospel was unnecessary to be shared. I put out Presence Missions for both categories regarding culture. After all, in some forms of Christian community development, there may be a strong effort to change the culture even if religiously there is little desire to proselytize.

That leaves Transformative Missions in the Yellow region. There is an embracing of an Exclusive view regarding faith. However, the goal is not destroy culture. The hope, at least, is that the Gospel will fulfil or bring out the best in culture.

As I said, it is not realistic to separate culture from religion… but we do in many ways. We do separate Secular from Sacred… Holy from Mundane. Some of the boundaries are artificial, but Acts 15 (among other passages) do suggest the gospel transforms cultures without undermining them.

I need to make changes in the book but must figure out how to wrestle with this issue better.

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