Essay on Inculturation

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Fred O’Brien EOHSJ



The magic that changes moods is not in any mechanism; It is critical vision alone which can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic. Marshall McLuhan  ( page87)


Today, as the Gospel gradually comes into contact with cultural worlds which once lay beyond Christian influence, there are new tasks of inculturation, which mean that our generation faces problems not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries. (Fides et Ratio: 72)


The church “is not tied exclusively or indissolubly to any race or nation, to any set of customs, ancient or modern” and in its universal mission should “enter into communion with different forms of culture, thereby enriching both itself and the cultures themselves” ((Gaudium et spes: 58).  Inculturation is the principle of incarnating the good news of God’s reign for the people receiving it such that it will be rooted firmly and indigenously.  It includes accommodation, adaptation and contextualization.  Jesus himself, the image of the invisible God, was born and grew up within a Jewish culture.  He lived during a well-defined era and, by his attitude towards non-Jews (Cananites, Samaritans, and Romans), shows us the values of other cultures and the limits of our own.  His teaching is that the good news of the Gospel must be inculturated, divested of all unnecessary elements, and spread into the whole world.  It must become accessible to all cultures.  There is no evangelization without inculturation.  St. Paul understood this.  He pleaded that the rituals of Judaism not be imposed on the Gentiles and, when he brought the good news to the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17: 16-34), following his own advice to be all things to all people, familiarized himself with their religious customs and practices, and affirmed the inhabitants with his attitude and words   “I perceive that in every way you are a very religious people” (Acts 17:22).


The history of the mission of Christian evangelization of the whole world is a marvelous story of the great witness of ‘earthen vessels’ (2 Cor 4:7) establishing God’s reign.  Perhaps St. Paul is the example par excellence of the meaning of Christ’s teaching of dying and rising, and of how a lived death-to-self and life-in-Christ practice bears great fruit in incarnating the good news to diverse cultures. What was the transformation that graced him to be both a faithful Jew and the great apostle to the gentiles?  His conversion experience, which took deep root over time, sees him: receive revelations; go into isolation; meet Peter for only fifteen days and then avoid him, the other apostles and Jerusalem entirely for a long period; brought him through great tribulation; had him spend three years in Arabia; spend time in the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and after some fourteen years or so sees him return and confront Peter “to his face’ (Gal 2:11) at Antioch about a matter close to his heart.   By the disclosure of the great wonders wrought by God among the Gentiles, he convinced the Church at Jerusalem that God shows no partiality to person or nation, and that insistence on circumcision and other Hebrew customs is not a prerequisite for membership of the Body of Christ.

The great witness of St. Patrick in the fifth century sees the Irish people, steeped in their traditional spiritual practices, come to accept Christ and have their festivals and seasonal celebrations transmuted into a Christian liturgy.  They were not swamped entirely by a subsequent ‘Romanization’ of their Church and continued to retain a strong Celtic cultural identity in their faith experience and practice.  Similar to St. Paul, Patrick had experienced a long, ardous and painful journey and, in his latter years found voice to write his witness down in his Confession.  Was the ‘thorn’ (2 Cor 12:7) that afflicted Paul similar to the fearsome challenge (cf C. 8) facing Patrick).  Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (NJBC 828:55) suggests that the indicated weakness for Paul was “an external personal source of affliction.”  In Patrick’s case, in deciding to do “in my old age what I failed to do as a young man” (C.10), he explains his former reticence in writing as arising from many concerns about his human condition. He speaks of his lack of a thorough grounding in theology and law, his inability to express himself in an appropriate language, the risk of inviting ridicule and rejection from relatives and friends, and other reasons. (C. 5-10).  Relying on the power of God he quotes Isaiah: “the stuttering tongues will quickly learn the language of peace” (C.11); he refers to 2 Corinthians 3: in striving to be “a saving letter of Christ to the ends of the earth”, and finally advises that his “letter may not be elegant but it is most assuredly written in your hearts, not with ink but with the spirit of the living God.” (C. 11)


Efforts to inculturate the faith in Asia were terminated by order of Pope Benedict XIV in the middle of the eighteenth century and since then “although the principle has always been given official lip service, the customs, laws, myths, symbols, practices, styles, gestures, conceptualizations and formulations of European Christians have been treated as normative for all the other Christian communities in the much larger world outside of Europe” (NDT p.511).  The failure to acknowledge and affirm a culture is a very serious offence to human dignity.  Where this is done over a continuous period of time with the added insult of seeming to offer a way of doing things that implies some kind of ideal best way, the insult can be devastating.  What can be implied in such messages is that the traditional way of life is rubbish and not worthy of special attention.  Token reference to ‘traditional knowledge’ without appreciating its very real worth can be destructive of a people.  Quoting research out of Africa, Anne O’Hara Graff, advises that “a ‘colonized’ personality’ is the result of social and cultural assault on the self, yielding grave damage, crippling a person’s authentic relation to self, others, and his or her own heritage and culture.” (p.127)  There appears to be a stultifying pummeling pressure pressing on the “colonized personality” impeding effort to secure recognition and acknowledgement in a dominant culture.  Additionally, those seeking to voice the cause of a dominated culture are hard pressed to coherently give witness and satisfactorily explain that with “the richness of the salvation wrought by Christ, the walls separating the different cultures collapsed.”  (Fides et Ratio: 70) 


The affection, commitment and effectiveness of St. Patrick for the Irish people arose out of his own transformation in Christ, a transformation born in suffering and allowing him to present Christ as the human face of God and understandable to his adopted culture.  Before I had to suffer I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall.  I must therefore speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts, gifts for the present and for eternity which the human mind cannot measure.” (C. 12)  

Patrick changed his “medium of speech” (C.9) and Christ was revealed “in our own language.” (Acts 2:11)


Respect for the Different Cultures

You’ll never hit the jack pot unless you first become a slug for a machine

Marshall McLuhan


For the breezes blowing o’er the seas from Ireland
are perfumed by the heather as they blow
and the women in the uplands digging praties
speak a language that the strangers do not know.

For the strangers came and tried to teach us their way
they scorned us just for being what we are
sure they might as well go chasing after moonbeams
or light a penny candle from a star.                        From the song Galway Bay


John Paul II, in his World Day of Peace message for 1989, gave a strong appeal for respect for the different cultures, laying down two firm principles. The first being the inalienable dignity of every person: all find their true identity in relationship with other persons or groups and their collective identity must be protected.  The second principle is the unity of the whole human race and their unity has its origin in God the Creator.  He refers to certain minorities exerting no influence and not fully enjoying their rights, “but rather find themselves in situations of suffering and distress”, experiencing “separation and exclusion” and confronted by “barriers that keep them apart from the rest of society.  John Paul argues that differences “should be used to strengthen unity, rather than serve as a cause of division” and that all bear a responsibility to “eliminate attitudes of prejudice which hinder healthy social relations.”


According to the Pattern God Has Made


He set before me the book of nature; I understood how all the flowers He has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the Lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy.  I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wild flowers.     St Thérése of Lisieux


St, Thérése refers to the “book of nature” wherein she discovered Jesus’ garden, the world of souls.  She speaks of people as of different flowers – roses, lilies, violets, and daisies.  Each is special to God and no difference in worth or status is implied in her designations.  She refers to those who have “nothing but the natural law” as guide as those “wild flowers” on whom “God manifests His infinite grandeur”. She tells us “It is to their hearts that God deigns to lower Himself.” Referring to God’s love, she tells us that “Our Lord is occupied particularly with each soul as though there were no others like it.  And just as in nature all the seasons are arranged in such a way as to make the humblest daisy bloom on a set day, in the same way, everything works out for the good of each soul”  (p.14-15).


Pope John XXIII highlighted the fact that “both in living things and in the forces of nature, an astonishing order reigns” (Pacem in Terris:2). Having contrasted the turmoil that exists among human beings with the astonishing order of the universe! (3) he writes as follows:

Therefore, amongst the most urgent issues facing serious thinkers today is that of working out a new pattern of human relationships based on truth, justice, love and freedom: relationships between person and person, between citizen and state, between one country and another and, finally, between individuals, families, intermediate bodies and states on the one hand, and, on the other, the community of the whole family of mankind.  There is none, surely, who will not esteem this as a service of the highest order; for it is that which will render possible the building up of true peace according to the pattern which God has made. (163)


Marshall McLuhan held the view that ever since the invention of movable type humankind has received a great proportion of its information from print and, accordingly, has become eye orientated, and distorted in its perception of reality.  Nature tends to be viewed as linear and sequential, as made up of separate parts, as fragmented and mechanical.  According to McLuhan, were we more ear orientated our apprehensive faculties would be more true to nature and we would perceive reality as orchestrated and ecological.  Modern science attests to the importance of building bridges between scientific specialties if scientific truth is to be attained.  A recent example, which, by analogy, can point to the importance of treasuring the diversity of cultures, is found in the area of mathematics, considered by Singh as the “language of nature” (foreword p.x).  The story provides a powerful testament to the significance of genuine dialogue among the various mathematical disciplines in the pursuit of scientific truth. It also points to the importance of “consideration and esteem for others, and understanding and kindness” (Ecclesiam Suam: 9) as key to meaningful dialogue.  Truly the “earthly and the heavenly city penetrate one another” (Gaudium et Spes: 40). 


Unity in Pluriformity

In his bestseller book, ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’, Simon Singh gives an account of the origin of a theorem, which, we are told, was proposed and proved by Pierre de Ferma, in the 17th century.  It had its origin in Pythagoras’ theorem and proposed that there are no whole number solutions to the equasion xn + yn =zn for values of n greater than 2.  The proof of the theorem was lost and, despite great efforts by the most brilliant of mathematicians over some 358 years, and the fact that large amounts of money were offered as prize, it remained unsolved until Andrew Wiles came up with a solution in 1994.  His successful proof was made possible by the discovery that previously considered unrelated branches of mathematics are in fact related, connected and mutually dependent; and that apparently insoluble problems in one area of mathematics can be tackled by transforming them into analogous problems in other areas, where a whole new arsenal of techniques can be brought to bear on them.


“The value of mathematical bridges is enormous.  They enable communities of mathematicians who have been living on separate islands to exchange ideas and explore each other’s creations.  Mathematics consists of islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance.  For example, there is the island occupied by geometers who study shape and form, and then there is the island of probability where mathematicians discuss risk and chance.  There are dozens of such islands, each one with its own unique language, incomprehensible to the inhabitants of other islands.  The language of geometry is quite different to the language of probability, and the slang of calculus is meaningless to those who only speak statistics.” (Singh, p 212)



Proving Fermat’s theorem was very beneficial to mathematicians who were thereby enabled, by bringing differing mathematical areas together, to solve their most esoteric and intractable problems.  Additionally, the applied sciences and engineering worlds benefited with newly discovered short cuts to solving real-world challenges.  A prerequisite for this progress, however, was that the giftedness, value and contribution of the differing disciplines be recognized and affirmed in the process, such that communication and cooperation could occur and generous sharing result.


Respect and esteem are at the root of inculturation.  Jesus, meeting the woman at the well, reached out beyond his cultural roots to the astonishment of his disciples – “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  Paul affirmed the Athenians –  “I perceive that in every way you are a very religious people” (Acts 17:22).  If we do not affirm and support our brothers and sisters in their co-natured Godliness we have rejected Christ himself, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Mark 12:10).




Works Cited


Brown, R.E., Fitzmyer, J.A., Murphy, R.E. Eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, New York: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995.


Duffy, Joseph, Patrick in His Own Words. .Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1985.


Flannery, Austin, Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents, Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1996.


John Paul II. Ecclesiam Suam


John Paul II, Fides et Ratio: Encyclical Letter on the Relationship Between Faith and Reason. Rome 1998


John Paul II, To Build Peace, Respect Minorities: World Day of Peace Message, Rome: 1989


Komonchak, J.A., Collins, M, Lane, D, The New Dictionary of Theology, Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier Inc.


McLuhan. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Toronto: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


O’Hara Graff, Ann. Strategies for Life, in In the Embrace of God, ed.O’Hara Graff, Ann,  Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995


Singh, Simon. Fermat’s Last Theorem: The story of a riddle that confounded the world’s greatest minds for 358 years. London: Fourth Estate, 1997.


St. Thérése of Lisieux. Story of a Soul. ICS Publications. Washington, 1972

Vatican Council II – Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations: Gen Ed. Flannery, Austin. Dublin:

Dominican Publications, 1996