GOSPEL, COMMUNITY AND IDENTITY

by Feliciano V. Cariņo

 

I. Introduction

I must confess that I feel a bit of unease about making this presentation. I have not really given much attention to the "Gospel and Culture" theme. I thought after it was first enunciated after the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches that it was going over very old and well-trodden ground. I am aware of the immediate circumstances and controversy that gave rise to the study and the new attention that is now being given to it. Still, I could not get excited about it. What is there that we could say now about "Gospel" and "culture" that has not been said before? Why should we bother if there are some who get disturbed by a theological presentation that was made through cultural media and perceptions that are other than their own? Of course we should care about each other's burdens and disturbances, but would a study of so abstract and general a theme as "Gospel and Culture" really deal with whatever it was or is that bothers some people about what was presented in Canberra?

The abstraction and general character of the theme, in other words, was another thing that did not attract me to it. It seemed too encompassing. Everything in the life of the human in relation to God and the historical context in society in which human beings live could be placed under this theme. In trying to draw attention to everything, are we not in fact going to be talking about nothing or at best talking only little about everything and certain things? The theme, in short, did not seem to have a focus, and given the areas of interest in which I have been and am still involved in, I found myself not having any concrete handles with which to deal with it. I am aware of the more concrete and specific issues that have emerged out of the study process. e.g., the issues of identity and community, of plurality, of the plight of indigenous peoples, of women, of migration and, behold, the issue of globalization. These issues, however, are broad in themselves and in fact cut across disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Why do we have to deal with them under the more general rubric of "Gospel and Culture?" Does it really help in understanding these issues to have done this, or could we not, as the study guide anticipates, get stuck in the interminable task of finding acceptable definitions of "Gospel" and "Culture?" This task, as we must all know, has been undertaken before, and yet, after H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, and the studies that have gone before and after it, we are back to talk again about "Gospel and Culture." Where do we go from where we have been?

II. Culture and Human Life

Even with some uneasiness and with having to revert to some theoretical generalities and abstractions, let me try to start where I think the whole thing should start, and where I also think the crux of the matter lies. I mean here the dialectic -- the dynamic relationship -- between culture and human life, or as we might want to put it more succinctly, between "culture and the human." Gospel and culture becomes a problem, or a critical issue precisely because the subject, the human recipient, of the Gospel is not only bound by or lives with the Gospel, but is also bound by and ensconced in, lives and interacts with culture. We can not in this sense deal with or understand fully the issue of "Gospel and culture" without going through the intermediate issue of understanding more fully the relationship between "culture and the human." This is the significance of the line that is quoted from the Bangkok Assembly of the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism in the description of the "Gospel and Culture Study Process": "Culture shapes the human voice that answers the voice of Christ"(underscoring mine). How true! But is it enough to say that culture shapes the human? Isn't it also true that the human shapes culture, and in fact relates with culture in a variety of other ways or dimensions than simply being shaped by it?

There is, in other words, a precedent anthropological issue that must be addressed if we are to deal creatively, and in regard to the future, with the issue of "Gospel and Culture." The relationship of "culture and the human" is not unilinear. It is multi-linear and trans-linear. It is for this reason that I use the terms "dialectic" and "dynamic relationship" between "culture and the human." Let me note two main points in this regard.

A. That we human beings are "culture-made," or to use the softer term of Bangkok, "culture-shaped" should not be in question at all. It is a basic character of our humanity, of our mortality, or of our historicity that we are "culture-made." From the moment we enter existence on this earth to the moment we leave it, we are "culture-made." Our basic means of existence, e.g., food, is very much culture-made and culture shaped. We eat what is fed us by the cultural norms that we are born into, and we begin to like what we are fed. As we all must know, food is not just the good things that we should eat; it is what we like to eat. Our taste of the basic necessity of our existence is "culture-made." Our basic means of communication, e.g., language, is nearly totally "culture-made" and culture-dictated. We do not choose our means of communication at the moment in which we are born. We receive it, we are born into it, and we "naturally" live and commune with others through it. We are shaped by its range of meanings, its values, its norms.

As such, we are born into a community, live and communicate within it, and become identified with it, with what we eat in it and with what means of communication we relate with each other in it. Our patterns of relationship, of authority and obligations, of freedom and respect, of levities and restrictions, of disregard and adoration, even of what or who to hate and to love are very much originally culture-made. Materially and relationally, in short, we are "culture-made."

Beyond these, we are also "culture-made" epistemoligally. We "know" culturally. We encounter and interpret reality culturally. We worship culturally. We come to know and experience reality -- including the reality of God -- culturally. The whole debate on indigenization and enculturation has been based on this presupposition that materially, relationally and therefore communally, and epistemologically, we are "culture-made" or "culture-shaped." Thus we have to be very sensitive to and respectful of culture or of cultures, of ours as well as those of others. We can not fully and authentically understand, we can not fully and authentically relate, we could hardly survive without our culture, and we must recognize that this is so with other people as well. Theologically and missiologically, we can not avoid culture because we can not avoid our humanity.

B. But we are not just "culture-made" or "culture-shaped." We are also culture-making and culture-shaping. And we are culture-transforming and culture-transcending. Cultures in this sense are not divinely-ordained, neither are they ultimately sacrosanct, neither finally are they eternal and timeless. They are human-made, human-bound, and therefore time-bound. Cultures are bound with our humanity at the same time that our humanity is bound culturally. This is what M. M. Thomas was noting when he spoke very recently about the Asian situation in terms of a "pattern of modernization" that includes "the scientific and technological revolution which has changed the old relation between humanity and nature from dependence to domination"; the awakening of oppressed groups "in traditional and modern sectors of society" in such a manner that "calls in question the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of social relations"; and a process of secularization that is breaking up the "medieval theocracies and the ideas on which they are based, namely, that the institutional integration of state and society (are to be placed) under the control of the authority of an established religion." We could just as well placed the word "culture" in place of "religion" at the end of Thomas' lines.

It is part, indeed a very important part, of the freedom and creativity of our humanity that we make and remake cultures, transform and transcend them. We are in fact never satisfied with what we receive or what we have been born into. It is, for example, part of the history of the human enterprise that we define and redefine the communities into which we are born, reshape its boundaries, integrate into it new constituencies, and reinvent and imagine the new forms and foundations, the ideas, values and meanings by which they are founded and expressed. The idea of the nation-state, for example, is the result of a human effort at redefining a larger and more inclusive political community that could incorporate within it a plurality of cultures and cultural communities, or of religions and religious communities within the "secular" concept of a creative mutual coexistence of all for the sake of a larger common good. That it is being threatened in our time and in various places is part of the focal area of attention and creative thought that we need to examine in understanding and imagining a new sense of community and identity in our time.

III. Community and Identity

It is important to bear this dialectical and dynamic relationship between culture and the human, and impliedly between Gospel, culture and the human, because we are so obviously amidst one of the more monumental "turning points" in the life of the human and of human societies. Eric Hobsbawm, the eminent British historian, has noted the monumental character of the changes that are occurring in our time by graphically pointing out that the 20th century was an abbreviated century. It started, he said, with the First World War and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We are now, in short, in the next century, in fact in the new millennium and therefore in a new era. In Asia, unprecedented economic growth, stunning technological innovations, a new ideological and political climate, emerging new innovations in the definition of political community, and the dynamism of religious life have led to a situation where a new cultural renaissance or new manifestations of cultural conflict are projected as great possibilities.

It would be disastrous, in my view, where in such a situation we look at "Gospel" and "culture" statically, and where we begin to assume that we are only in the process of preserving "communities" and "identities." We are, on the contrary, in the process of major cultural transformations, where cultures are ever more in constant and massive interaction with each other, where the plurality of cultures more starkly and proximately stare us in the face, and where previous cultural boundaries and therefore also boundaries of communities and identities are being opened up and becoming borderless in a way we have not experienced before. The incredible technology of communication that has developed in our time, to give but one example, has broken down previously impregnable cultural, political, economic and ideological borders and has placed us within the range of our cultural biases and hatreds, or of our cultural creativity and openness to each other.

Without presuming to be exhaustive either in the listing of the issues or in dealing with them, and bearing in mind the Asian context in which I live and work, let me note in this situation of cultural transition and transformation a number of clusters of issues that are important for us to consider:

A. The ideological drift, if not ideological vacuum, that has emerged as a result of the end of the "Cold War" and the collapse of the Socialist societies in various parts of the world has led to prognostications and pronouncements that have placed the cultural question into greater but also more critical prominence. Already, for example, discussions of the "end of history" have been projected, proposing that the task of making and imagining the economic, social, political and cultural community have basically come to a conclusion. What we need now are only technological adjustments that are geared toward the material improvements of human existence. Already, too, suggestions of a "clash of civilizations" have been made in the light of the demise of other ideological alternatives so that the inevitable clash of cultures and of religious traditions will be the primary determinants of our collective futures.

What is at stake here is not only the meaning of the cultural task, and of the task of cultural and social imagination that is inherent in the affirmation, making, remaking and re-envisioning of community and identity. What is at stake is also the task of creatively accepting the plurality and multiplicity of cultures, and what it takes for us to make and to keep viable and lively human communities and identities in the midst of the plurality of cultures and religions. Isn't this projection of a "clash of civilizations" a self-fulfilling prophecy that is meant to project another expression of cultural imperialism, asked a group of Singaporean academics. Why, they continued to ask, do we speak of "clash and conflict" and not of complimentary and mutuality and not look instead for areas of common affirmation and common work? Some have noted these projections as too cavalier and self-serving to be taken seriously. In many parts of Asia, however, -- and I assume in other parts of the world as well -- they have in fact began to be used as premises for national policies of international relations and security, as for example, in the identification of terrorism and terrorists and in the identification of high security areas of military strategy. We need, as I see it, to deal with this issue more seriously instead of being prone to avoid or ignore it.

B. The stunning technological innovations in our time, including the innovations in communication and information technology, bring back to our attention the challenge of modernity or modernization. "If a definition is necessary," wrote Cyril Black not too long ago, "modernization may be defined as the process by which historically evolved institutions are adapted to rapidly changing functions that reflect the unprecedented increase in man's knowledge, permitting control over the environment, that accompanied the scientific revolution."

Understood in this broad and historical manner, the challenge of modernization to human community and identity may be described along a number of basic lines. The first is the increased pace and breadth of human knowledge and know-how especially as these are generated by the scientific and technological revolutions of our time. The second is the functional adaptation that is needed to accommodate this knowledge and know-how in various communities and societies. The third is the impact which these would have in the institutions, social, economic, political and cultural, of any given social, political and cultural order.

The challenge of modernization, in this light, is undergirded by pressures that are indelibly contemporary, e.g., the pressures for innovation, for mobility and adaptability, for accessibility and communicability, and for rationalization. These pressures in turn open up and expand the possibilities and varieties of choices. In this sense, the culture of modernization is more clearly participant; it is also more clearly geared towards the use of modern technology and therefore requires a much greater pace of decision-making. In all Asian countries today, a response to the challenge of modernization is considered a priority, and is therefore looked upon as a major component of national development.

C. The current state of technological innovation and the process of modernization this has entailed has brought to reality the process and challenge of globalization in a way we have not fully anticipated and given attention to before. I said not anticipated and given attention to before because globalization is not new. As a reality and as a historical process, it has in fact been going on for centuries affecting if not encompassing various aspects of individual and collective life. Christianity and other religious movements and bodies, especially those with a missionary character, have been and are agents and vehicles of globalization. The Christian missionary movement, for example, is rooted in the command to make disciples of all nations and reach all of the "regions beyond." The ecumenical movement is, as its name implies, about the "whole inhabited world." By its very nature, it is global. Churches speak of global ministries and build global structures of work. Other religious movements have been instruments of and have been accompaniments to the globalization of economic and political activities. The Islamization of Southeast Asia, for example, has in large measure come about as a part of the transnationalization and globalization of Islamic trade and commerce much before the coming of Christianity in this part of the world.

What seems to have taken us by surprise and what seems to dismay many of us so much is the fact that it is in the area of economic life, an area in which we have been relatively ignorant or relatively uninvolved or lacking in control, that this process has taken on major leaps of incursion. What politicians and economic practitioners call "the borderless world of economic activity" and the "magic of the open markets," with their infrastructures of transnational financial institutions and instruments, transnational lines of communication, global products and marketplaces, and even a global work force have come upon us in a manner which we largely did not expect or want. It is a reality and a process however which may have in fact created a drastically new world of human hope and human vulnerability and which could possibly outstrip in its possibilities and effects our most expansive visions or our most deep-seated fears of human destruction.

Globalization is however more than an economic phenomenon. It is also a cultural phenomenon. As Richard Barnett has pointed out, one of its "webs" is that of a "global cultural bazaar" where with its network of communication and media it spreads a global set of values and products. One of its results, for example, is what Lois Turner and Michel Hodges note as the "increasing homogenization (and transnationalization) of taste" that leads to the constant search for products that can be peddled globally with minimum modifications.

Globalization as reality and process is now far advanced. I do not think it is reversible. It has brought about enormous new possibilities and new hopes. It can be empowering and liberating. But as all new developments in human energy and creativity, it has also brought enormous new problems. It can be and has already been dis-empowering, and it has had its effect already in a cultural denudation the devastating effects of which are only beginning to set in. It is, as I see it, the new and most challenging locus for dealing with the issue of "Gospel and Culture" in our time. Is there an "evangelical and cultural" task that we need to do here other than to demonize it and condemn it as the harbinger of human decadence?

D. All of these finally lead to the question more directly of the cultural and political community we seek. Ninan Koshy has noted that in the new era in which we live which has been shaped by the end of the "Cold War" and the emergence of a global economy, a crisis has emerged in our perception of the political community that revolves around the crisis of the nation-state. "The nation-state in many parts of the world," writes Koshy, "is under threat internally and externally." Internally, it is threatened by claims for the definition of human community in terms of "ethnicity" or "religious or cultural identity." Talks of a Muslim state or society in many parts of the world, or even more recently of a Hindu state in parts of India are examples of this tendency. Externally, it is under threat by the open space that has been created for the free market and the policies and activities of economic growth that are already in operation and which transcend national and state boundaries.

This conceptual crisis about the territorial state and nation has led to an open and new discussion of some of the basic ingredients of human community, e.g., of human rights, political, civil, cultural or economic; of cultural identity and citizenship; of sovereignty, legitimacy and recognition; and of property rights and ancestral communal domains. The question of community and identity, in short, faces two seemingly countervailing pressures. On the one hand, the pressure for a greater degree of "fragmentation" by which people seek community and identity often as a means of protection from the onslaught of global homogenization. On the other hand, the broadening and expansion of community and identity that will bring into consideration the forces of globalization, of global governance and of a wider and more inclusive, pluralistic and encompassing human constituency.

IV. Towards a Christian Contribution

What of the Christian task in this cultural situation? How do we give shape to the Gospel, to the hope that is within us, in this context? I am not a missiologist. I have little to say therefore on the implications or consequences which this cultural situation brings on the responsibility of mission and evangelism of the Church. I am more devoted to the area of "social ethics," although I am one of those who thinks that ethics has in fact a missionary context. Bearing these in mind, I note two points which I consider important as part of the Christian task, and with which I conclude:

A. The first has to do with giving shape to a creative Christian existence and witness in a culturally and religiously plural world. This involves many things. It has something to do with what it means for us to affirm the specificity of the Christian message and the Christian life, and of our being Christian in a plural world. It has something to do with what it means to give respect for the cultural and religious traditions of others. It has something to do with saying that our being Christian is our way of being human, and therefore of our way of seeking a common human community where the creative edges of our religious traditions are allowed to interplay with each other for the common good of all. It has something to do with restating, perhaps even redefining the meaning of religious liberty and freedom in a religiously and culturally pluralistic society so that while we affirm the "right" to practice and propagate the Christian message we do so without the expressions of Christian aggression that has been destructive and disrespectful of other people's cultures and traditions. It has something to do with helping to build a common social ethos where in the affirmation and profession of what we are and what we believe, we are attentive to and give recognition for the creative expressions of the faiths of others so that together we can build a common human future. It has something to do with seeking to imbibe again that sense of "social and cultural imagination" by which we dare to seek and build a "city" that is "better" and that is "still to come."

B. The second is related to the first. It has to do with what I have referred to, in my attempt to develop an ecumenical agenda for Asia, as the Christian task in helping to build and imagine a "convivial world." The economic, social, political and cultural conditions of our time call urgently for such a task, and it is a task which I consider as one of the primary cultural tasks of the Christian community. I also consider it as one of the significant ways by which we can give a historical shape to the meaning of the Gospel in our time.

Toshiki Mogami of Japan, in his Niles Memorial lecture to the Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Manila, outlined the ingredients of such a convivial world. "Until recently," he noted, "the task assigned to us in this turbulent world was 'surviving together.' The rapid changes we have witnessed in the last few years, he continued, have turned the task of one of 'living together.' "In place of the negative goal of outliving the insanity that was driving us to fraternicide, we are at last assigned the more positive task of creating a space in which we can bless each other for what it takes to live together."The essence of the 'end of the Cold War,' if we are to take this seriously," he went on, "is the transition from the destructive to the constructive, from the homicidal to the amicable, from the confrontational to the conciliatory, from the indifferent to the compassionate."

In so many ways, the 20th century which is our century started with great hopes and commitments that in this century such a convivial and peaceful world would be achieved. As the century unfolded however such a hope never materialized. Instead the politics of terror and of conflict and dispute reduced our task to trying to "survive together."

As the 20th century comes to a close, it hands over to the next the dream and the task of building this "convivial world." The ingredients of such a task are clear. It is to build from our differences, even from our previous enmities, from our varied locations in economic, social and political life, from the pluralities of our cultures, ethnic background, religious and ideological traditions a common framework in which we can live together and deal with our differences, even our hurts, without annihilating each other. This is a political task. It is also a cultural one.

I consider this task as embodying not only the ecumenical hope but also something of the meaning of the Gospel in our time. In this world of stunningly great possibilities but also of incredibly great dangers, it is an urgent and critical task. To undertake it, the Church, the ecumenical fellowship, we ourselves must be a convivial ecumenical fellowship where we can learn to live and believe together amidst even our very deep-seated differences. To help build the culture of such a convivial world is the primary cultural task of Christians and of the Church, and a primary expression of the cultural significance of the proclamation and affirmation of the Christian Gospel.