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.

Response to Evangelism

In evangelism there is a tendency to see response in the simplest of terms.

      Full acceptance is GOOD. Anything less is BAD.

But there are a wide range of responses, Here are six major options (not necessarily a complete list). I got these from Dr. Dan Russell, my professor in seminary. Not sure of any previous source.

Response #1: Sincere Acceptance. “I accept”

Response #2 Straight-forward Rejection. “I reject”

Response #3 Situational Reformation. “I accept…” but am a bit confused.

Response #4 Syncretistic Incorporation. “I accept…” but am going to intentionally combine my new and old beliefs

Response #5 Studied Protraction. “I need to think about it more”

Response #6 Symbiotic Resignation. “It’s for me, but okay for my family”

Dwight Lyman Moody, founder of the Northfield ...
Dwight L. Moody. Early American Revivalist/ Evangelist. Image via Wikipedia

Some of these sound a bit confusing. I think responses #1, #2, and #5 are pretty easy to understand. Response #3 sounds a lot like Response #4. Situational Reformation is unintentional while Syncretistic In corporation is the intentional combination of the Christian message with the old beliefs. In neither case are we talking about contextualizing faith. We are talking here about the Christian faith being adversely combined with beliefs that are not compatible with Christianity.

Symbiotic Resignation sounds strange but it is pretty common. People are socially entwined in their culture. Their status and habits are secure. Therefore, they are not necessarily willing to give up their place in society. However, they find the Christian message comp

elling. Therefore, their way of dealing with the pull in two directions is to allow or even encourage their family in becoming Christians. Many people have questioned the validity of the conversion experience of the Emperor Constantine (back in 4th century Rome). However, his clear demonstration of faithfulness to God and faithful to various pagan responsibilities and titles seems to make more sense within the context of social symbiosis.

So looking at the six responses, if one sought to push the responses into two categories, they would be:

“I accept” Responses #1, 3, and 4

“I reject… at least for now” Response #2, 5, and 6

It seems to me that fitting all of the responses into two broad categories is not very useful. In my mind, it is helpful to look at the responses on a scale from BEST to WORST

I would like to suggest the following scale below and where various responses fit on the scale. I have asked others to do this… and there is some variation, but the results tend to be quite similar.

Best—————————————————————- Worst

     1                         5     6              2                                 3                     4

I think most would agree that full acceptance (Response #1) is the ideal. I place responses #5 and 6 as the next best. Studied Protraction is a very reasonable and healthy response. Jesus made it clear that “counting the cost” of following Him is important. Response #6 is almost as good, perhaps. They find the Gospel compelling and seek a compromise position that brings Christ into the household. In some ways it is similar to Response #5 since the person is not still thinking about how much he/she is willing to commit.

I place the next best response as Response #2. Straight-forward Rejection is not the worst thing in the world. It is honest, and our call is to be a witness. We cannot guarantee response. And since most people do not respond to the Gospel the first time, it is only bad to receive such a rejection if you are trying to keep statistics for yourself. That is not a healthy attitude.

Responses #3 and #4 are put at the bad end of the spectrum. This is because they feel like they are accepting but are producing something that is not healthy, and may even draw others away from God. After all, an awful lot of Christian-based cults form in this manner. One can even see Islam as the syncretism of Christian, Jewish, and Arab tribal beliefs. I place #4 as worse than #3 since it is intentional. For #3, since it is built from honest confusion, is still set for a healthy clarification and restoration.

If one accepts the spectrum, one would see that the statement “I accept” is at the best and worst ends of the spectrum. The variations on “I reject” are in the middle.

What’s to learn from this? I would say that expression of the Gospel with Good Will, Credibility, and Integrity is important. Getting someone to say “I accept” is not.

Fallacies and Questions Surrounding Redemptive Analogy

The following are some thoughts that I have with regards to Redemptive Analogies. Redemptive Analogies have been popularized by Don Richardson through “Peace Child,” “Eternity in Their Hearts” and more. However, Redemptive Analogies have always been with us. In fact, the Bible is full of them. A few would include:

Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for hi...
Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for his disciples (Quran 5:111-115) John, ch. 6) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Redeemed (slave auction)
  • Ransomed (kidnapping)
  • Adopted (Roman adoption)
  • Justified (courtroom)

Don Richardson brought back the idea that analogies need to be updated and contextualized to be effective. Below are a few thoughts on what I consider to be errors or issues with the idea of Redemptive Analogies.

  1. Redemptive Analogies are created by God. I won’t call this a fallacy, but it is certainly a question. It has been suggested by Don Richardson and others that God creates redemptive analogies and we must discover them. Is that true? Possibly, but it is hard to tell. In some cases, such as the story of the Incan Emperor Pachacuti and the god Viracocha, or the Karen people and the great book, it sounds as if God had stepped into the culture to crack the door open to Christian witness. We do need to be reminded at times that God is at work in all times and all places, and not only in and through Christians and the Church. But to assume that this happens in every culture seems doubtful (to me at least). In general, redemptive analogies are created not disovered, I believe.
  2. Some Cultures do not have redemptive analogies. This is a bit opposite of the first point. For example, Don Richardson, being interviewed by Dick Staub for Christianity Today (February 2003), claims that he has “fully studied the Quran” and found that there are no redemptive analogies in Islam. The reason is that every concept with a Christian connection (heaven, salvation, Jesus) has been distorted. I believe this is a flawed view. The first and obvious problem is that to have studied the Quran (the primary of the two uniquely Islamic holy books) is in no way saying you have studied various Islamic and Islam-influenced cultures. Redemptive analogies are culture-related more than book-related. However, I believe the main problem is a basic misunderstanding of what a redemptive analogy is. A redemptive analogy is a symbol. In semiotics (study of symbols) there are three components, the sign vehicle, the sense, and the referent. Rather than dealing directly with that, let’s simplify that to the idea of a redemptive analogy:

To say that there is no redemptive analogy is to say that there is no story or symbol that exists or can be imagined that could help a person in Culture A to grasp the divine truth of redemption. Our commonality as humans (hope for the future, a desire for the truth and the divine, a need for relationship and love, recognition of our failure for perfection, and our own frailty) pretty much guarantees that there are things in our individual and societal experiences that are resonant with divine truth.

  1. Redemptive Analogies have to be perfect to be beneficial. This is not normally said, but does appear to be commonly felt. So it must be emphasized that ALL ANALOGIES BREAK DOWN AT SOME LEVEL. Analogies help us to bridge the concrete and the abstract, the human and the divine. Take the most well-known extrabilical redemptive analogy… the Peace Child. The peace child was human, not divine. The peace child was not permanent but was limited to the lifespan of the peace child. While Jesus was killed by the people He was given to (and thus made the sacrifice complete), the peace child must not be killed by the recipient to complete the peace. Clearly, this redemptive analogy has limitations. One of the most well-known redemptive analogies in the Bible is Jesus as the ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45). Yet the idea of a ransom implies a literal kidnapper. But who would that kidnapper be? Is it God, is it Satan, is it someone else? Or are we trying to take an analogy too far? Those who feel that certain cultures do not have redemptive analogies believe (in my opinion) that they must find a perfect analogy. Perfect analogies simply do not exist… in any culture.

4. Redemptive Analogies leads to syncretism or relativism. This assumes that redemptive analogies must involve a moral judgment about the culture. For example, Hinduism has the concept of Moksha. Moksha refers to the release from the suffering involved in living in this world. To use the concept of Moksha to help Hindus understand the Christian concept of redemption does not mean that we are accepting the full understanding of Moksha (as it is tied to reincarnation, for example). Likewise, Taoism seeks harmony between the divine, humanity, and nature. Linking that to grand narrative of the Bible (with harmony between God, Man, and Creation in Genesis 1 and a restoration of that harmony, through Christ, in Revelation 21) in no way necessitates a pluralistic relativism of belief. Clearly, poorly explained analogies can lead to confusion. For example linking Jesus in some way to the concept of the “avatar” can be enlightening or misleading depending on how it is used. But let’s face it, propositional doctrine is just about as prone  to distortion and confusion if there is inadequate commentary/explanation. I believe Christian missions is enhanced by the use of redemptive analogies, storying, and parables. However, a misunderstanding of their characters and limitations can take something useful and destroy it or discount it. <Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture“.>