Inculturation is a term that one hears often when speaking about religion and culture. It is a term most often used in Catholic mission circles to refer to an attempt to make the church intimately connected to the local culture so that the religion would not be perceived as something foreign or imported as it often is the case in many cultures. In Thailand for example, Christianity is essentially seen as a “farang” religion, meaning it is a Western religion. Being a Thai, on the other hand, is almost being synonymous with being Buddhist, even though Buddhism itself originated in India. In this paper, I aim to explore the theological concept of inculturation and show why inculturation is necessary for the mission of the Catholic Church in the world, in particular in Asia, where Christianity only makes up a miniscule percentage of the population. By understanding inculturation and the need for carrying it out actively, the Church may have hope to be firmly rooted in the local culture.
The Basis for the Task of Inculturation in Vatican II Documents
In the decades since Vatican II, the concept of inculturation went from being an implicit notion in Church documents to being a theology that could not be left out of any discussion about mission work or mission theology. In this section, I will present the elements of Vatican II documents that made it possible for inculturation to be deveopled into the modus operandi for the Catholic Church as it attempts to root itself in different cultures.
Though not always the case in practice, in the past more often than not, the Catholic Church has presented itself as a church than was basically connected to the southern-European culture which any people who accepted Christianity had to adopt as part of its own. To accept Christianity was equivalent with giving up one’s cultural heritage in order to adopt a foreign culture, specifically European culture and lifestyle. This undoubtedly caused great pains for countless people who, though were attracted to the Christian message, felt that they had to sacrifice part of their cultural heritage in order to be accepted into the Church. However, the Catholic Church would eventually realize that the policy of imposition would exert too much toll on the local churches and needed to change the way it viewed itself in relationship to other cultures. It must be said that cultural adaptation as an intuitive process had been carried out since the early days of the Church as Christianity moved out of Jerusalem and into other parts of Asia and the Roman empire (Bevans, 2002, p. 8); and in Catholic theological circles, as early as 1930s, Henri de Lubac had already identified cultural adaptation as a key element of Catholicism, asserting that Christian salvation had a close relationship with human destinies and connected to human societies (Doyle, 2012, p. 2). However, it was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Church took a serious and systematic look at the issue of culture.
Vatican II issued 16 documents, including four Constitutions, three Declarations, and nine Decrees. However, the four major documents that most paved the way for the work of inculturation are Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), Nostra Aetate (Declaration on Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) and Ad Gentes (Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church). These documents represent the Church’s effort to engage the world and undergo the process of aggiornamento, or updating so that the Christian faith can find contemporary expressions with more penetrating impact (Doyle, 2012, p.3). In so doing, it begins by recognizing the positive relationship between the Gospel and “whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples” (LG 17). Gaudium et Spes looks at culture in a positive light and defines it in the following manner:
Culture is first defined as a universally human phenomenon in a way that is prior to a consideration of a variety of diverse cultures: The word “culture” in its general sense indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities; he strives by his knowledge and his labor, to bring the world itself under his control. He renders social life more human both in the family and the civic community, through improvement of customs and institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses, communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family.
Thence it follows that human culture has necessarily a historical and social aspect and the word “culture” also often assumes a sociological and ethnological sense. According to this sense we speak of a plurality of cultures. Different styles of life and multiple scales of values arise from the diverse manner of using things, of laboring, of expressing oneself, of practicing religion, of forming customs, of establishing laws and juridic institutions, of cultivating the sciences, the arts and beauty. Thus the customs handed down to it form the patrimony proper to each human community. It is also in this way that there is formed the definite, historical milieu which enfolds the man of every nation and age and from which he draws the values which permit him to promote civilization. (53)
Thus, in this understanding, while culture is a universal process by which human beings employ to promote progress, there is a plurality of cultures that results due to different lifestyles, values, and habits. The role of the Gospel of Christ, then is to enter into the culture in order to purify and renew the morals and values of all people and to make fruitful their spiritual qualities and conditions (Doyle, 2012, p.4).
In Nostra Aetate, the Church also affirms the value of various religions and their goal to seek for the ultimate. The Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” at the same time tries to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men” (2). Lumen Gentium likewise affirms the universality of salvation in different religions, declaring “whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (16). The Word of God does not place itself in an antagonistic relationship but “purifies, strengthens, elevates and ennobles” those cultural elements (13). Thus, living out Christian life does not mean rejecting one’s own culture for a Christian culture. Rather, as Ad Gentes assures, “Christian life will be accommodated to the genius and the dispositions of each culture. Particular traditions, together with the peculiar patrimony of each family of nations, illumined by the light of the Gospel, can then be taken up into Catholic unity ” (22).
From these documents, we see the basis for formulating the theological concept called “inculturation” that affects the faith life of the people on both the individual and the collective level. As stated in AG, “The congregation of the faithful must be supported by its own culture, and all kinds of associations and groups should be organized in order to affect the whole society, since mission works should never belong only to a personal level, but a communal one” (15). Thus, inculturation is to take place in liturgy renewal, in social participation such as education, art, science, economic life, social justice, social relief, as well as in political life (GS 61-86).
Inculturation is a key concept in the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church. However, before delving further into the meaning and aims of inculturation, it is beneficial to examine some other terms that may have aspects related to inculturation as well as terms that have been proposed instead of inculturation in order to have a broader view of the matter at hand.
It must be said that there is no lack of terms employed in the writings of church documents, theologians and missiologists to refer to a process of introducing Christian faith and worship into a particular culture. These include translation, accommodation, adaptation, localization, indigenization, contextualization, incarnation, acculturation, inculturation, and interculturation (Phan, 2003, p. 4). Some of them have now been deemed as outdated, for example, the terms “adaptation” and “accommodation”; but a few continue to warrant due consideration for their merits. However, in the process of arriving to a terminological consensus, no doubt the presence of such a wide array of terms with divergent understandings could cause much confusion. The confusion is even greater when the same term is used by different writers to mean different things. For example, in reflecting on missionary work in Africa in its historical reality, Steven Kaplan (1986) nominated six “modes of adaptation” that could be observed (p. 166-186):
1. Tolerance. This is the act of accepting certain cultural traditions even though they were seen as incompatible with Christian belief. Tolerance was defended on the thinking that to prohibit such practices would create negative effects in the people at that time. The hope was that eventually, those practices would eventually die out on their own.
2.Translation. This is not merely translating content from one language to another, such as translating the Scripture or liturgical rites for local usage. By translation, Kaplan means the creative attempt to communicate the Christian message in indigenous idiom, finding analogies and comparisons that are familiar to the local people, at the same time accurately reflect the Christian belief.
3. Assimilation. This is the act of introducing certain non-Christian practices into Christian rituals as a way to make these rituals more familiar and comprehensible to the local people. Assimilation takes place when there is understanding of the positive aspects of the traditional practices and how they can effectively communicate the Christian message when used in the new setting.
4. Christianization. This is the act of taking non-Christian rites and practices and “purifying” them of any “un-Christian” qualities, then proceed to use them as essentially Christian rituals. This is a process whereby local traditions are affirmed of their value, and when such rites and practices are adopted into the Christian life, they are lifted to a level of something akin to sacramental status.
5. Acculturation. This is the act whereby the local rites and practices are seen to be valuable to the development of Christian spirituality that there is an active attempt to preserve them for the local people. This is a much more positive attitude since there is a shift away from cultural superiority on the part of foreign missionaries who now are able to recognize the value of the local culture.
6. Incorporation. This is the act of incorporating local elements into “normative” Christianity as a whole. For Kaplan, this goes beyond strict adaptation since it entails allowing the local church to affect the universal church as a whole, changing the institutional church in ways beyond the local context.
Kaplan’s typology is an example of how certain terms may be used by different writers to describe different phenomena. For example, Kaplan employed the term “acculturation” to describe a positive mode of missionary adaptation, which is quite different from the usual usage of this term do denote a sociological concept. In the sociological sense, acculturation denotes the process of cultural and psychological change that takes place on both the individual and collective level when one culture encounters another, or when there is an encounter of cultures (Sam and Berry, 2010, p. 472). However, because acculturation has elements that are closely connected to inculturation, which is a theological concept, some writers seem to confuse between the two and sometimes even use these two terms interchangeably (Shorter, 1999, p. 6).
Terms such as “accommodation” and “adaptation” were commonly used before Vatican II but fell out of favor with the shift in perspective as the Church moved out from a Eurocentric world view and into one that recognized the the reality and value of a plurality of cultures and religions. As theological concepts, they became inadequate because they only expressed superficial efforts on the part of the “older” Western Church to make concessions to the “younger” churches to include certain local elements that were deemed as either good or neutral into faith expressions. However, these were simply the “husks” of the faith that could be changed, while the “kernel” of Western theology had to remain untouched (Phan, 2003, p. 26).
Another concept that gained attention until it too fell out of favor is “indigenization.” This term was first used by an Indian theologian D. S. Amalorpavadass who advocated revising the liturgy in such a way that it would be native to the local community (Angrosino, 1994, p. 825). Indigenization seems to stress the proactive role of the people on the receiving end of the Gospel, making it appropriate for the local perspective. However, according to K.P. Aleaz (2011), the word indigenous is a nature metaphor conjuring the image of the soil. The use of this concept may present limitations since it seems past oriented and do not reflect the dynamic nature of culture (p. 232). Vatican itself though generally supportive of the intent of indigenization, has not favored use of the word because of its rather patronizing tone (Angrosino, p. 825). A.P. Nirmal cited by Aleaz, has been especially critical of the term “indigenization.” According to Nirmal, this is a contradiction in terms because something is either indigenous or it is not. Any attempt to “indigenize” is simply artificial. Moreover, theologically it implies that God is a “foreigner,” which is contrary to the basic Christian belief that God is the creator of the entire universe. Thus, "'indigenization' really means first of all the branding of God as a 'foreigner' in his own home and then having branded him a 'foreigner,' seeking to make him 'indigenous' in our own country, nation, culture and so on" (Aleaz, p. 240).
Another term that continues to pull its weight in modern mission theology is “contextualization.” This term came into popularity among liberation theologians who saw it as a word that communicates making the life and mission of the church relevant to contemporary situations of the people. In the 1980’s Robert Schreiter developed what he called an approach to “contextual theologies” that gave more consideration to local contributions in a more basic and dynamic way, at the same time keeping the integrity of the Gospel intact (Doyle, 2012b, p. 9). According to Aleaz, the term “contextualization” is able to communicate all that is contained in the term “indigenization” while also conveys a future-oriented outlook and open to change in accordance with the time (2011, p.232). For Stephen Bevans (2002), contextualization helps us to understand culture not in a limited sense, but is broadened to also include social, political, and economic spheres, all of which constitute the contemorary human reality with its phenomena of secularization, technological progress, globalization, cultural change, and so on (p. 26).
From the part of the church as well as theologians in general, the term “inculturation” has gained acceptance, albeit not absolute consensus, as a concept that adequately expresses the process of adaptation that would ultimately lead to Christianity being able to incarnate in new cultural settings (Angrosino, 1994, p. 825). Inculturation has its origins in the sociological term “enculturation” coined by Herskovits (1948) which denotes a process by which one becomes competent in his culture through the learning experience that enables him to adapt to his socio-cultural environment (Giersewski, 1989, p. 122). In missiological circles, however, the term “inculturation” would eventually be introduced as a theological notion that describes how the Gospel message is inserted into a particular culture (Amaladoss, para 2). Inculturation as a concept began finding popular usage in the 1970s with various nuances and emphases. However, the definition that received great acceptance was that of Fr. Pedro Arrupe in a letter to the Jesuits (1978), of whom he was their General Superior at the time. In this letter, Fr. Arrupe defined inculturation as “the incarnation of Christian life and of the Christian message in a particular cultural context…transforming it and remaking it so as to bring about a ‘new creation’” (p. 172). At the highest level of the church, however, the term inculturation was used for the first time in the papal document Catechesi Tradendate of Pope John Paul II. In this apostolic exhortation, Pope John Paul II writes that despite inculturation being a neologism, in terms of the work of evangelization, it is a powerful concept because it effectively expresses “one factor of the great mystery of the Incarnation” and helps to “bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures” (53). In Slavorum apostoli (1985) Pope John Paul II expressed his understanding of inculturation in the following manner: “Inculturation is the incarnation of the Gospel in local cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures in the life of the Church” (21). One can see that for Pope John Paul II, inculturation which entails the Gospel message being enfleshed in a given culture is a concept that is theologically analogous to the Incarnation. As the enfleshment takes places, the Gospel retains its integrity and unadulteratedness as reflected in the Church’s thinking in which the Gospel always takes precedent over culture (Doyle, 2012b, p. 8).
While the incarnation is certainly an important model for inculturation, Shorter (1999) argues that the incarnation alone is not enough. The incarnation model has merits in that it expresses the enculturation of Christ, the Son of God who adopted human flesh and culture, and was educated as a first century Jew from Galilee. This implies that Jesus is the subject of inculturation. As Jesus became a Jew in his incarnation, Christ can also become an African or an Asian in the process of inculturation. In addition, the model expresses that culture was an essential part of Christ’s life and ministry since Jesus employed cultural concepts, symbols, and behaviors in his teachings. Finally, as a result of being enculturated as a Jew, Jesus had to also accept intercultural processes that would take place in encounters with other cultures, for example the Roman culture or the Samaritan sub-culture. Despite these merits, Shorter argues that the analogy of the incarnation alone is not enough because the emphasis on the enculturation of Christ as a one time event in a specific culture may result in focusing on the first insertion of the Gospel into a culture while overlooking the on-going dialogue taking place between the Gospel and culture. Moreover, the incarnation model expresses a Christology “from above” that may result in seeing inculturation as being one-way. Finally, the focus on the enculturation of Christ and his acceptance of a particular culture, while not paying attention to how Christ challenged his culture may result in culturalism (pp. 80-82).
For Shorter, the better analogy to use for the inculturation process is that of the Paschal Mystery, which necessarily begins with the incarnation, but also includes the death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven of Christ. Shorter writes:
The Resurrection enabled Christ to transcend the physical limitation of an earthly life bounded by time, space and, of course, culture. The intercultural contacts of the earthly Jesus were necessarily limited. After the Resurrection, Christ belonged to every culture at once. The Resurrection made it possible for him to identify explicity with the cultures of every time and place, through the proclamation of the Gospel to every nation.” (p. 83)
Thus, the Paschal Mystery is an analogy that adequately expresses the dynamic nature of the inculturation process. It is not limited to any time or place. Cultures are continually invited to enter into dialogue with the Gospel of Christ, and be challenged and renewed by the Risen Christ who is present in the socio-cultural sphere through the presence of the Holy Spirit (p. 84).
Inculturation in Asia
As already mentioned, inculturation is essential to the task of evangelization. This is no more truer than in Asia, the place where Jesus was born, yet Christianity is still considered a foreign religion, essentially making Jesus a foreigner in his own home. In his exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (1999), John Paul II made inculturation one of the primary points of his presentation. Recognizing that although Christianity had its beginning in Asia and made advances in various territories of this continent, due to various reasons including the the lack of ability to adapt to local cultures and to encounter other great religions of Asia, by the end of the fourteenth century, the Church in Asia was reduced to a dimunitive entity on this continent (9). During the colonial era, missionaries arrived to Asia, once again making an effort to build up Christianity in this continent. However, the effort to inculturate the Gospel were inadequate (9). In order for Christianity to gain a foothold in Asia, considered to be the cradle of the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Sikhism and Shintoism—Christianity needs to engage in sincere dialogue with other religions (6). In so doing, it is important to recognize the chacteristic traits and values of the Asian people. The document makes the following observation:
The people of Asia take pride in their religious and cultural values, such as love of silence and contemplation, simplicity, harmony, detachment, non-violence, the spirit of hard work, discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical enquiry. They hold dear the values of respect for life, compassion for all beings, closeness to nature, filial piety towards parents, elders and ancestors, and a highly developed sense of community. In particular, they hold the family to be a vital source of strength, a closely knit community with a powerful sense of solidarity. Asian peoples are known for their spirit of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Without denying the existence of bitter tensions and violent conflicts, it can still be said that Asia has often demonstrated a remarkable capacity for accommodation and a natural openness to the mutual enrichment of peoples in the midst of a plurality of religions and cultures. (6)
In the face of tremendous cultural and religious diversity in Asia coupled with complex socio-economic-political situations, Pope John Paul II calls for proclaiming the “Good News with loving respect and esteem for her listeners” using available linguistic, philosophical and cultural resources (20). While he reminds that the Gospel and evangelization is not identical with culture, it remains that “the Kingdom of God comes to people who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building of the Kingdom cannot avoid borrowing elements from human cultures” (21). Thus, the act of evangelization is an interplay of the Church transforming the particular culture it encounters by imparting its truths and values , at the same time taking positive elements from the culture to present the Christian faith in such a way that it can become a part of the people’s cultural heritage. This task is especially urgent in the Asian context due to “the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural situation of Asia, where Christianity is still too often seen as foreign” (21). The task of inculturation, says the Pope, must be gradual and “guided by respect for the sensibilities of Christians”. In the end, “the test of true inculturation is whether people become more committed to their Christian faith because they perceive it more clearly with the eyes of their own culture” (22).
FABC and inculturation
It is not only at the ponfitifical level that the issue of inculturation holds significance. In some ways, inculturation is even more of an immediate and urgent matter at the local church level since it is here that the tensions are most profoundly experienced. In Asia, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) has paid attention to the matter of inculturation early on and has continued to give it due weight until the present time. Established in 1970, FABC is a transnational body comprised of 19 Bishops’ Conferences and 9 Associate Members from countries throughout the continent. Since its first Plenary Assembly in Taipei in 1974, there has been a total of 10 such gatherings, the latest taking place in Vietnam in 2012, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the official founding of the FABC in 1972.
While the existence of a body such as FABC is meant to serve a variety of purposes, the issue of inculturation in the Asian church is undoubtedly one of the priorities in its agenda. Review of FABC materials show that it had used the term inculturation in its official documents quite early, since 1970, when it was stated in the Final Statement of the Asian Bishops’ Meeting:
In the inculturation of the life and message of the Gospel in Asia, there have ben hesitations and mistakes in the past, but we are more than ever convinced that dialogue with our fellow Asians whose comitment to other faiths is increasingly important. We also urge on all a deep respect for the culture and traditions of our peoples, and express the hope that the catholicity of the Church, the root of our diversity in the oneness of faith, may serve to help Asians remain truly Asian, and yet become fully part of the modern world and the one human family (ABM, 24).
In this statement, the Asian Bishops had already displayed awareness of the need for dialogue as an integral part of inculturation, and acknowledgement of Asia’s diversity as contexts that must be paid attention to. Rather than recoiling at the prospect of such a challenge, the Asian Bishops have shown enthusiasm and determination towards inculturation in the Asian milieu (Kroeger, 2010, p. 7). Their vision for inculturation was expressed in the statement of the First Plenary Assembly asserting that “the decisive new phenomenon for Christianity in Asia will be the emergence of genuine Christian communities in Asia—Asian in their way of thinking, praying, living, communicating their own Christ-experience to others…. If the Asian Churches do not discover their own identity, they will have no future” (FAPA I, 70).
In surveying the tremendous body of documents issued by the FABC, James Kroeger has identified various characteristic themes related to the concept of inculturation as understood by the Asian Bishops. Some of the most important themes expounded by Kroger include inculturation as an urgent imperative, as a task linked to interfaith dialogue, and as a task carried out actively by the local Asian churches themselves.
According to Kroeger, culture and inculturation are not concepts that had a fixed meaning for the Asian Bishops. Documents show that there is an evolution of understanding as ongoing reflections took place among the bishops. In the early FABC documents, terms like “adaptation,” “incarnation,” “acculturation,” “indigenization,” and “inculturation” were often used interchangeably, thus leading to different interpretations of the inculturation process (p. 9-10). As time went on, more concrete understanding of inculturation began to take shape. As a result of a 1979 mission conference workshop in Manila devoted to inculturation, it was concluded that:Inculturation is not mere adaptation of a ready-made Christianity into a given situation, but rather a creative embodiment of the Word in the local church. This is the basic and fundamental process of inculturation…. In this process of inculturation a people receives the Word, makes it the principle of their life, values, attitudes and aspirations. In this way they become the Body of Christ in this particular time and place—a local church…. The community discovers a new identity, losing nothing of its cultural riches, but integrating them in a new whole and becoming the sacrament of God’s liberating love active among men. (FAPA I, 138)
As their understanding matured, inculturation was less taken to be a uni-directional method (faith into culture) and more as a process of dialogue, mutuality and reciprocity. For the FABC, an acculturated Church “comes into existence and is built up through a deep and mutually enriching encounter between the Gospel and a people with its particular culture and tradition.... Inculturation consists not only in the expression of the Gospel and the Christian faith through the cultural medium, but includes, as well, experiencing, understanding and appropriating them through the cultural resources of a people. As a result, the concrete shape of the local church will be, on the one hand, conditioned by the culture, and, on the other hand, the culture will be evangelized by the life and witness of the local Church” (FABC Papers 60, 18).
Despite its evolving understanding of culture and inculturation, the FABC has always seen inculturation as an urgent imperative. This is reflected in the constant refrain in FABC literature expressing the desire for “intensifying our efforts, especially in the area of inculturation” (FAPA III, 215). The reason this is so strongly felt is because
As a social institution the Church is perceived as a foreign body in its colonial origins while other world religions are not. The lingering colonial image survives…. The Church is even sometimes seen as an obstacle or threat to national integration and religious and cultural identity…. The Church remains foreign in its lifestyle, in its institutional structure, in its worship, in its western trained leadership and in its theology. Christian rituals often remain formal, neither spontaneous nor particularly Asian…. Seminary formation often alienates the seminarian from the people. Biblical, systematic and historical theology as taught are often unpastoral and unAsian. (FAPA II, 195-196)
For the FABC, in order for inculturation to take place, the local church has to be the primary subject as stated in the final statement of the Fifth Plenary Assembly in 1990 in Indonesia: “The renewal of our sense of mission will mean…that the acting subject of mission is the local Church living and acting in communion with the universal Church. It is the local Churches and communities which can discern and work out (in dialogue with each other and with other persons of goodwill) the way the Gospel is best proclaimed, the Church set up, the values of God’s Kingdom realized in their own place and time” (FAPA I, 281). In numerous instances, the FABC stresses the role of the local Church in the inculturation process, emphasizing that “more and more the local Churches in Asia must see themselves as responsible agents for the self-realization of the Church…. We grasp something of the significance of local Church and inculturation in this context; those who cannot understand this fail to resonate with the signs of our time, and the heartbeat of our peoples” (FABC Papers 60, 52).
As already embedded in the above statement, while the local Church is the primary actor, dialogue will be the primary vehicle through which inculturation is carried out. This has been asserted numerous times in FABC documents. “Dialogue is a primary means and way for inculturation” (FAPA I, 142). “We perceive dialogue as a necessary condition and instrument for inculturation” (FAPA I, 249). “The local Churches of Asia will proclaim Jesus Christ to their fellow humans in a dialogical manner” (FAPA I, 346). Indeed, the FABC recognizes that in the extreme cultural, linguistic, religious milieu of Asia, dialogue is the only possible avenue for the task of inculturation (Kroeger, p.12). For example, while Christianity make up less than three percent of the total Asian population, eighty five percent of people who adhere to other living faiths come from Asia (Kroeger, p. 16). The Muslim population in Asia exceeds that of Christians by seven times. Thus, dialogue is imperative in the mission work of the church. FABC has identified three distinct but inter-related aspects, that of dialogue between the Church and Asia’s people, especially the poor, Asia’s cultures, and Asia’s religion. This “triple dialogue” paradigm, then is a dynamic process in which not only the Church influences Asia’s people, cultures, and religion, but the Church itself is transformed by these realities (p.13).
In assessing the FABC’s understanding of inculturation, Jonathan Y. Tan (2011) asserts that from the get go, the Asians Bishops had been conscious that inculturation is not merely external adaptations of Christian beliefs, practices, and structures to the Asian milieu, but rather a “dialogical encounter” between the Gospel and the local church on the one hand, and the Asian reality with all of its religious, cultural, and social diversity as an integrated whole on the other (p. 99). In this encounter, the enrichment is not one-sided, but rather both sides come to be transformed by the other. According to Tan, “the FABC’s integrative approach to inculturation enables it to respond credibly and effectively to the ‘signs of the times’ – the multifaceted cultural, social, religious, political and economic dimensions of Asian societies” (p. 100). In so doing, Tan concludes that this will facilitate in bringing about the “Asian-ness” of the Christianity in this continent in which the local Church and the faith communities become immersed in the Asian mosaic of cultures, religion, social situations, and is able to stand in solidarity with the Asian peoples (p. 100).
This vision of a renewed and inculturated Asian Church is perhaps most succintly presented in the eight movements in the Final Statement of the Seventh Plenary Assembly (Samphran, Thailand, January 3–12, 2000), with the general theme of “A Renewed Church in Asia: A Mission of Love and Service.” The points are presented in full as follows:
1. A movement toward a Church of the Poor and a Church of the Young. “If we are to place ourselves at the side of the multitudes in our continent, we must in our way of life share something of their poverty,” “speak out for the rights of the disadvantaged and powerless, against all forms of injustice.” In this continent of the young, we must become “in them and for them, the Church of the young” (Meeting of Asian Bishops, Manila, Philippines, 1970).
2. A movement toward a “truly local Church,” toward a Church “incarnate in a people, a Church indigenous and inculturated” (2 FABC Plenary Assembly, Calcutta, 1978).
3. A movement toward deep interiority so that the Church becomes a “deeply praying community whose contemplation is inserted in the context of our time and the cultures of our peoples today. Integrated into everyday life, “authentic prayer has to engender in Christians a clear witness of service and love” (2 FABC Plenary Assembly, Calcutta, 1978).
4. A movement toward an authentic community of faith. Fully rooted in the life of the Trinity, the Church in Asia has to be a communion of communities of authentic participation and co-responsibility, one with its pastors, and linked “to other communities of faith and to the one and universal communion” of the holy Church of the Lord. The movement in Asia toward Basic Ecclesial Communities express the deep desire to be such a community of faith, love and service and to be truly a “community of communities” and open to building up Basic Human Communities (3 FABC Plenary Assembly, Bangkok, 1982).
5. A movement toward active integral evangelization, toward a new sense of mission (5 FABC Plenary Assembly, Bandung, Indonesia, 1990). We evangelize because we believe Jesus is the Lord and Savior, “the goal of human history...the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations” (GS, 45). In this mission, the Church has to be a compassionate companion and partner of all Asians, a servant of the Lord and of all Asian peoples in the journey toward full life in God’s Kingdom.
6. A movement toward empowerment of men and women. We must evolve participative church structures in order to use the personal talents and skills of lay women and men. Empowered by the Spirit and through the sacraments, lay men and women should be involved in the life and mission of the Church by bringing the Good News of Jesus to bear upon the fields of business and politics, of education and health, of mass media and the world of work. This requires a spirituality of discipleship enabling both the clergy and laity to work together in their own specific roles in the common mission of the Church (4 FABC Plenary Assembly, Tokyo, 1986). The Church cannot be a sign of the Kingdom and of the eschatological community if the fruits of the Spirit to women are not given due recognition, and if women do not share in the “freedom of the children of God” (4 FABC Plenary Assembly, Tokyo, 1986).
7. A movement toward active involvement in generating and serving life. The Church has to respond to the death-dealing forces in Asia. By authentic discipleship, it has to share its vision of full life as promised by Jesus. It is a vision of life with integrity and dignity, with compassion and sensitive care of the earth; a vision of participation and mutuality, with a reverential sense of the sacred, of peace, harmony, and solidarity (6 FABC Plenary Assembly, Manila, Philippines, 1995).
8. A movement toward the triple dialogue with other faiths, with the poor and with the cultures, a Church “in dialogue with the great religious traditions of our peoples,” in fact, a dialogue with all people, especially the poor. (FAPA III, p. 3-4)
According to Peter Phan (2011), these movements points to the desire of the FABC to transform the Catholic Church from simply being just the Church in Asia but rather the Church of Asia (p. 258). Phan also agrees that in order for this to be realized, inculturation needs to take place with the triple dialogue as the operative paradigm that “can offer useful directions for building up a vigorous Asian Christianity in its mission of bearing witness to the reign of God” (p. 259). Indeed, this vision of church is so important that it was reiterated in a more abbreviated manner in the Final Statement of the 2012 Plenary Assembly in Xuan Loc, Vietnam (FABC Final Statement, 11).
To conclude the discussion on the meaning and aims of inculturation, I would like to rephrase the summary of Peter Phan (2003) to help us gain a concise understanding of the concept:
1. Inculturation is inextricably tied with the evangelizing mission of the church.
2. Inculturation is a two-way process of the Gospel being introduced into the local culture, which in turns also exerts its influence on the Gospel. This results in the culture being renewed within by the Gospel, and the Gospel being enriched by the culture with its new way of living and understanding the Gospel message.
3. Inculturation goes hand in hand with interculturation since the Gospel comes to a particular culture already dressed in another culture. Thus, discernment of the Gospel independent of its outer coverings is important in the effort to re-express the Gospel in the new culture.
4. Inculturation is integrally related to interreligious dialogue since religion with its beliefs, values and practices is very much tied to culture.
5. Inculturation can be understood using the analogy of the mysteries of the incarnation, death, resurrection of Jesus, and the ongoing presence of Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
6. Inculturation has the local church, not the experts or the central authorities as its primary agent. Thus, theology of the local church must be promoted to advance this process.
7. Inculturation is a comprehensive effort that delves into all aspects of church life, especially not ignoring the liberative dimension with respect to the poor, the marginalized, and the colonialized.
8. Inculturation promotes acceptance of plurarity not at the cost of destroying the unity of the universal church. Both diversity and unity must go hand in hand. (pp. 5-10)
Through this eight-point definition, we see that inculturation is an open-minded, comprehensive, and constructive approach to the mission of evangelization.
In conclusion, it can be stated that even though there is not total concensus on inculturation as the best term to express the goals and purpose of the church in respect to the relationship between religion and culture, I believe it is the best possible term at this time. Moreover, it has been sufficiently developed by the official church as well as credible theologians to warrant application in specific local contexts, especially in Asia where the church continues to be seen as a foreign entity. Inculturation needs to be actively carried out in Asia where the Christian population is small and risks marginalized if it fails to root itself in the local culture. Unfortunately, while inculturation as a theological concept has been thoroughly discussed, in practice, this has not always been implemented, which may explain why Christianity continues to be a tiny minority on the vast continent of Asia.
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