This is a follow-on of my previous post on the Golden Rule and how it is affected in cross-cultural situations. If you haven’t yet, you can read the post HERE.
An interesting story that points this out is “The Gift of Garigolli” by Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. It can be found in an anthology “Critical Mass,” published in 1977, among other places. It is science fiction, but in doing so it takes to an extreme case a difference of cultures making it (nearly) impossible to apply The Golden Rule, or The Great Commandment, in a way that is teleologically or contextually ethical.
It has been years since I read the story. However, the story is about microscopic aliens that have come to earth for research, I believe. However, part of their protocol is to do more than the National Park Service concept of “Please take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” In their culture, since they benefited from their hosts, they must leave behind a gift. A good cultural value. The problem was, being microscopic, that were unable to communicate with humans, and could not figure out what these giant creatures (us) would appreciate. The aliens understood that a gift was not really a gift unless it was recognized as a boon to the recipient. Early attempts were a failure as humans failed to even notice the attempts of gift-giving. Humans were in fact totally unaware that they were sharing space with extraterrestrials.
Eventually, through some experimenting and a bit of dumb luck, the aliens made something that humans recognized as a wonderful thing. The aliens satisfied the requirements of their culture and they were finally able to leave.
It is still under copyright, I am pretty sure, so I can’t point you to a webpage to read it. Too bad, but I don’t want to spoil the story. It also has an interesting second “parable” of sorts regarding a plastics manufacturing executive and how his ethics and aesthetics are driven by economics. I don’t think his perspective is uncommon.
Anyway, it will be Christmas in three days. It is a time of giving and receiving gifts. It is a time to remember God’s great gift to us. It is also a time, I believe, to remember that a gift has failed to be a gift until it is recognizably a blessing to the recipient.
If Jesus born over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Judea, is a gift for all people, how can we help people understand that it is indeed a gift?
If we are supposed to express God’s love to others, and yet fail to do so in a way that people can recognize and appreciate, have we truly expressed God’s love?
The Golden Rule is the term often used for the command of Jesus in Matthew 7:12:
“Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.”
This positive form is also balanced by what is sometimes called the Silver Rule that says almost the same thing but from a negative sense. It may not be fair to suggest that one is “gold” and the other “silver.” In fact, one version of Jesus’ command is written in the “silver” format. This is found in Didache 1:3:
“Do not do to others, what you yourself would not want done to you.”
This rule, in both of its forms, provides a valuable guide and benchmark for ethical behavior. It would be, in fact, quite an amazing thing to see Christians (of any flavor) make an honest attempt to live according to this rule.
That being said, the rule is not as simple as it first appears when it comes to cross-cultural applications. Let me give a couple of examples.
Example 1. I teach in the Philippines and do in fact enjoy it. I get to learn much from my students who come from many different countries— mostly in Asia. But there are some interesting challenges at times. For example, I have a number of students from Myanmar. In Myanmar, teachers are highly respected (a good thing, I think). In an attempt to demonstrate respect to their teachers, they listen very quietly and never ask questions. After all, to ask questions is to suggest that the teacher did a poor job in his/her instruction.
For me, on the other hand, I like students to ask questions. It makes the class more interesting, and gives me an opportunity to learn and grow, along with the students. Additionally, I feel that asking questions is a sign of respect. In their asking, they are showing that they are paying attention, and care about what I am talking about.
Thus, the Golden (and Silver) Rule is challenged a bit. How I want to be treated is quite different than how another may want to be treated.
Example 2. This is based on an old story that contrasts the Asian and American attitudes regarding hospitality. Consider the figures below (from my book, “Ministry in Diversity,”
The first sketch shows an American staying in a Filipino household.
The second sketch shows a Filipino in an American household.
In both cases, the host is applying the Golden Rule with the guest. However, in both cases, there is a misfire.
These examples are not to suggest that there is an inherent problem with the Rule. However, one does have to take a step inward before going outward. In Example One, both myself as a teacher and one from Myanmar want to be treated with respect. That is the commonality where the Golden Rule applies. However, it must be filtered through culture to identify how such respect would be demonstrated. In the second example, both hosts desire to be hospitable, and both guests desire to be treated with hospitality. However, how such hospitality is carried out so that it is recognized and appreciated, is again mediated by culture.
These are in no sense the only examples of this. If I ask someone to come to a celebration I am holding, I would like the person to think about it, check his schedule, and then tell me definitively whether he can come or not, when he knows for sure. Because of that, I am tempted to do the same thing. However, in some cultures that is highly insulting. Rather, the proper response is to immediately accept the offer, and then only later, regretfully, back out. Again, the Golden Rule applies (I want to be shown honor, and to express honor) but I must understand how this is demonstrated in that culture.
Can think of some other examples??
Consider an implication of this. One can follow the “letter of the law” by knowing oneself. However, to follow it teleologically and contextually (despite what some Christian Ethics books imply, Deontological Ethics is not the same as Christian Ethics), one must understand the other person as well.
I don’t buy a lot of books. The availability of Christian books that I am interested in here in the Philippines is limited. I also have limited resources. So I really feel fortunate when I ordered four books that were delivered a few weeks ago. All four I have found to be very useful. I don’t read cover to cover very often, I am not a reading ‘machine’ as some I know, but it looks like I am on a trajectory to reading all four completely.
- “The Minister as Diagnostician: Personal Problems in Pastoral Perspective” by Paul W. Pruyser (1976). This was my least risky purchase. We have a Pastoral Counseling center here and we train in Clinical Pastoral Education. Pruyser’s book is written from the perspective of a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, but for church ministers. He noted that pastors training in hospital chaplaincy tended to utilize the diagnostic language (and to a limited extent criteria) of psychologists. He suggested that there are diagnostic categories that are more appropriate, and more within the skill set of ministers. The language choices he uses I don’t find particularly intuitive. However, the seven basic categories for diagnosis I believe are quite useful. Some have noted the challenge of applying these categories in practice, but I believe Pruyser’s work is a good starting point. Looking forward to reading the entire, short, book.
- “One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization” by Jackson Wu (2015). This was my second safest choice. I enjoy Wu’s posts, many of which are related to this book, so I was pretty sure it would something I would find valuable. It has proven to be so far. I suppose I am curious about the title which speaks of “Biblical Contextualization” while the body of the book speaks of two types of contextualization– “Exegetical Contextualization” and “Cultural Contextualization.” Perhaps the author is linking Biblical with Exegetical, or the two contextualizations are seen to constitute “Biblical Contextualization.” Or maybe, the publisher chose the title. This is far less than a complaint… simply a comment. Positively, it looks at contextualization from a more Asian perspective. Living here in the Philippines, that is important to me. Additionally, it seeks to move from theoretical models of contextualization to a practical path to contextualization.
- “SCM Studyguide: Theological Reflection” by Judith Thompson and Stephen Pattison (2008). This was more of a leap of faith. In clinical pastoral care, we seek theological reflection in our trainees. Many struggle. Far too often, what is thought of as theological reflection is little more than verse-dropping (“This case reminds me of Psalm 23”). Other times, there is a failure to be truly reflective– simply reiterating what one already believes. This book is well-structured and deals with a number of forms of theological reflection. These methods are thoroughly orthodox in that the book does not advocate a “create your own theology” view. It seeks to connect and relate one’s faith tradition with experience. Already I find it useful, and am incorporating some of the ideas in a chapter on this topic in our upcoming book, “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care”– a sequel to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”
- “SCM Studyguide: Pastoral Theology.” by Margaret Whipp (2015). This book is done by the same publishing house as the previous one, and is a part of the same book series. The series is Anglican, and while the examples used in both books tend to draw from this tradition, they are broadly applicable to other Christians. This book I have only gotten into the earliest chapters, but so far I find it very valuable. The previous book, Theological Reflection, is more structured, and I like structure. However Pastoral Theology as a subject is far less structured than many other categories of theology (systematic, biblical, philosophical, etc.), so I can hardly complain. Again, this book I am already finding inspirational for our training programs here, as well as for our newest book. Looking forward to finishing it.
Paul Hiebert in his article “Critical Contextualization” describes three types of contextualization: Non-contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization.
One can, however, say more. As Jackson Wu states in his book One Gospel for all Nations, “Contextualization is inevitable.” That is, in effect, non-contextualization is still contextualization, just done very poorly.
“David Sills drives home the point clearly when he says, ‘If one does not contextualize, he is doing just that– changing the gospel. He becomes a modern-day Judaizer. He is in effect telling his hearers that they must become like him to be saved.’ I venture to say few missionaries would do this intentionally. However, the implicit message is heard clearly.” (pg. 10)
Dean Fleming highlights a second danger– syncretism. Syncretism emerges whenever the biblical message is made to harmonize so closely with a given culture (or subculture) that the biblical truth is compromised. Syncretistic theology and practices reflect the culture more so than the biblical text. His comments remain among the most important I’ve read on this topic.
‘But could it be that refusing to contextualize the gospel poses an even greater risk of syncretism? Consider the situation today– not unlike that of Colossians– when the gospel meets worldviews that are burdened with fear of unseen powers thought to control practical realities such as crops, health, and family relations. In many cases, the Christian message that has been imported to these contexts from the West has failed to address such issues. As a result, people can easily assume that Jesus is powerless to overcome the forces that influence their daily lives. Like the Colossian syncretists, converts may look for supplements– shamans, amulets, rituals, or occult practices– to protect them from hostile spirits. Ironically, a gospel that neglects such worldview issues may unwittingly end up promoting syncretism instead of preventing it. ‘ (pg 10-11)
So two things one could add to Paul Hiebert’s model:
- Non-contextualization can lead to syncretism, just as over-contextualization. Paul Hiebert’s further teaching on “The Excluded Middle” (as essentially described above by Fleming in terms of the Colossian syncretists) could be in itself seen as Syncretism– a formal high-end (veneer) theology on top of local practices.
- The three categories of contextualization arguably are three categories of interpretation, communication, and application of the gospel. That is, non-contextualization is actually a bit of a misnomer. Non-contextualization is very much a form of contextualization. In saying this, it is more than simply saying that an absence of something is still something (like the absence of color, black, is still a color). Rather, when one is not contextualizing the gospel to the recipient culture, one is contextualizing it to another culture.
But I might add that non-contextualization can have results that are non-intutitive. In the Philippines, Christianity has been normally presented in one of two contexts: Spanish or American. The implicit message is that one or more of these two constitutes where Christianity is properly situated. In so doing, the Philippines is a good place for Christianity as long as Christians there embrace a Spanish or American form. Some Korean missionaries in recent years have done a similar thing but from their own perspective. An interesting twist on that, however, is the growth of “Jewish Culture” Christianity here: Jewish diet, Jewish holidays, learning and idealizing Jewish words and concepts, in some of the church movements in the Philippines.
On a certain level, this reaction makes sense. If Christians here were taught (commonly unintentionally) that a foreign culture is more ideally Christian than Filipino culture, then it is hardly surprising if many Filipinos ask the logical question:
Which is the ideal culture for Christianity–
Ancient Jewish (or 1st century Greek)
American (or Spanish)?
The correct answer is actually that the best cultural soil for Christianity in the Philippines is Filipino. But if local Christians haven’t been helped to understand this, it is hardly surprising if they don’t recognize this.
If you want to read the article by Darrell Whiteman, you can click HERE. But grabbing some excerpts, the first purpose is as follows
Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture.
This function seems at first to be self-evident, but it is clear we have not always done mission in this mode. Why, then, this sudden burst of energy and excitement, at least in the academy, about this notion of contextualization? I believe the answer lies partly in the postcolonial discovery that much of our understanding and practice of faith has been shaped by our own culture and context, and yet we often assumed that our culturally conditioned interpretation of the Gospel was the Gospel. We are now beginning to realize that we have often confused the two and have inadvertently equated our culturally conditioned versions of the Gospel with the kingdom of God.
Now the second function
Another function of contextualization in mission is to offend—but only for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Good contextualization offends people for the right reasons. Bad contextualization, or the lack of it altogether, offends them for the wrong reasons. When the Gospel is presented in word and deed, and the fellowship of believers we call the church is organized along appropriate cultural patterns, then people will more likely be confronted with the offense of the Gospel, exposing their own sinfulness and the tendency toward evil, oppressive structures and behavior patterns within their culture. …
Unfortunately, when Christianity is not contextualized or is contextualized poorly, then people are culturally offended, turned off to inquiring more about who Jesus is, or view missionaries and their small band of converts with suspicion as cultural misfits and aliens. When people are offended for the wrong reason, the garment of Christianity gets stamped with the label “Made in America and Proud of It,” and so it is easily dismissed as a “foreign religion” and hence irrelevant to their culture. When this happens, potential converts never experience the offense of the Gospel because they have first encountered the cultural offense of the missionary or Westernized Christians.
Ant the third function:
A third function of contextualization in mission is to develop contextualized expressions of the Gospel so that the Gospel itself will understood in ways the universal church has neither experienced nor understood before, thus expanding our understanding of the kingdom of God. In this sense contextualization is a form of mission in reverse, where we will learn from other cultures how to be more Christian in our own context.
This is an important function of contextualization in mission because it connects the particular with the universal. The challenge is creating a community that is both Christian and true to its own cultural heritage. Peter Schineller points out in addition that “every local Christian community must maintain its link with other communities in the present around the world, and with communities of the past, through an understanding of Christian tradition.”