A Darwinian Gospel?
In part 1, We asked the question, “who gets to decide what needs to be affirmed or what needs to be critiqued in a given culture?” This question is needed because the Gospel both critiques and affirms every culture it encounters, but we aren’t always sure how. So how does it critique and affirm?
The answer: The Bible – not a cultural reading of the Bible – just the Bible.
That doesn’t mean cultural readings (because all interpretations are cultural) aren’t supposed to be helpful, but when a specific cultural reading is assumed to have the same authority as the Bible itself, we have a problem. The funny thing is the Western reading of the Bible doesn’t believe itself to be equal with the authority of Scripture. Instead, the Western reading tends to assume that their reading is the best…and many times the most comprehensive over and against other cultural settings or traditions. As a result, the West tends to believe that their reading is more authoritative than any other cultural readings of the Bible – meaning that their culture is the most appropriate setting for the Gospel to be understood and submitted to.
So, what happens when a non-western culture, who is set to embrace the Gospel, is unable to engage Scripture as it is because the Gospel they’ve been given is too overshadowed by the West’s superimposed cultural reading of the Bible? Here’s what happens – the prophetic nature of the Text is clouded behind the culturally bound critiques of the the culture that initially preaches the Gospel.
For the Text to be prophetic, it cannot be culturally absolutized by the culture who delivers it. Otherwise, the positive cultural aspects of the receptor culture will be replaced, demonized or infantilized (more on that later) instead of being affirmed. This also circumvents the ability of the Gospel to prophetically critique the unhealthy aspects of a culture. The net result of religious imperialism is that the positive aspects of a culture are critiqued and/or replaced and the “actual” negative aspects are ignored – two things the Gospel is designed NOT to do.
Critique & Affirmation of the Gospel?
The positive aspects of a culture (to be discovered by the Gospel) are too often replaced by the first cultures’ values – the culture that delivered the Gospel. This sabotages the Gospel’s ability to move beyond affirmation to critique – i.e. The Gospel cannot critique a culture without first affirming it. Without the ability to affirm and critique, development is arrested, the process of fruitful Gospel reception is stunted or prolonged and the Gospel’s growth is inhibited. We have seen this happen all too often throughout history.
So what should the church do? The church needs to acquire a culturally sensitive “green thumb,” understanding that the Gospel grows through its ongoing cultural encounters. We need to discontinue holding other cultures under our culturally-absolutized imperial thumb. The problem is that cultural imperialism is not recognized. Yet it remains deeply embedded in not our only our lack of contextualization and the ignorance of our own syncretism, but also in our historic doctrines, creeds, theology and ecclesiology. Particularly in the West we assume too much of our tradition and its supposed benefits for the rest of the world. In the West, the Gospel apparently has achieved equilibrium and as such we believe it has been finally defined for the rest of the world for their benefit.
“Yeah yeah, we need to hear from them, but not at the big table, not with the big doctrines (snarky tone). They need to let the adults figure that out for them.”
So all too often, Gospel reception operates with a social darwinian approach.
In the West, we presume that our reading of the Bible is:
1. sufficient (finished with only a few tweaks needed)
2. unassailable (no need to touch the major doctrines)
3. only benevolent (others should be thankful and unquestioned in their acceptance of it)
4. acultural (unaffected by our own cultural values and untouched by syncretism)
The Western formulation of the Gospel is rarely, if ever, questioned according to its own cultural captivity – e.g.
“Hey – its the Gospel, there can’t be any syncretism involved. Only cultures can be syncretized. The definition of the historic Gospel is not a syncretized message. That’s impossible.”
It’s not only viewed as sufficient, unassailable, benevolent and cultural – it also isn’t a problem for the Gospel to be formulated primarily or only by white western male voices. The perennial issue of how women are wholly uninvolved with doctrinal formulations, both present and historic, is one of the greatest detriments in historic theological formulations. I’ve also been in, and heard of, conversations in which a western theologian is asked why a non-western theologian is not sitting in on a theological decision making colloquium. The response is usually “there just aren’t any” or “there weren’t any available.” This just simply isn’t true. These answers among others, reflect a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” posture, rather than an “every tribe, tongue and nation” posture. We see this same attitude in the way that Rudyard Kiplings’ “White Man’s Burden” operated in his day.
Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
Half-Devil & Half-Child?
All too often, cultures have been demonized and infantilized in order to justify our “beneficent role.” Too often benevolence is offered when justice is required. We in the West have colonized others with our definition of a contextually formulated Gospel, believing, like Kipling, and like the Judaizers of Paul’s day, that it is for the benefit of the “other.’” These “others” are apparently too infantile to understand the Gospel from within their own cultural worldview. Too often their cultural categories are demonized because culture and religion are not perceived to be as distinct as they are in the West. To demonize a religion, or even to oppose it as false, means that good cultural aspects are also being rejected, demeaned or even demonized. At that point, they can be dismissed and then replaced with Western categories that are culturally sanitized and religiously purified. Very little of this is done with malcontent, but is rather practiced out of a cultural superiority that feigns itself as religious rightness – more from second nature rather than a conscious attitude.
Our own paternal insecurities can flare up whenever we are told that just and equal partnerships are preferred over and against our benevolently packaged Gospel formulations. We would rather have them demure to our missiological advances than expect a theological partnership. If we become okay with partnerships, we still demand they be equal – demanding equality for us on their contextual soil – an arrogance rarely questioned. We definitely don’t expect that our partnerships will mean questioning the long-standing theological formulations of the Western tradition. For us, those are set. Let’s just partner based on missiological outreach, redemptive analogies, etc. – not theological formulations. This leads us to reject true partnerships in Gospel formulation. Instead we gladly engage half-hearted partnerships that regale our Western theological domination, but end up diminishing non-western contextual concerns that transcend missiology and go to the heart of the Western theological traditions – our doctrines.
Cross-Cultural Gospel Formulations
What would it look like to have a real cross-cultural partnership for the benefit of the Gospel? That question begins, and has to begin every time, with how the Gospel itself is formulated. Real Gospel partnerships have to begin with 3 things:
1) Discontinuing the demonization and infantilization of the “other’s” cultural and religious aspects – understanding that religion and culture are not as distinct as they are in the West.
2) Coming to terms with the implications of our own cultural blind spots and cultural syncretism that directly effects our theological formulations.
3) Humbly requesting partnerships that require more submission on our part, not theirs.
Once we have come to terms with where to begin, we can humbly submit our contextual reading of Scripture to other cultures, allowing it to speak affirmatively and prophetically to the new culture, yet with its limitations. By undressing the Gospel of our own unnecessary cultural clothing, we can redress the mistakes of the past, allowing us to embed the Gospel, with contextual concern, into the new context.
The question we are left with is this: When we “contend for the Gospel,” are we instead contending for a contextually formulated version of the Gospel, rather than the Gospel itself? The Gospel both engages and transcends culture and its formulation doesn’t belong to any one culture or tradition – not the Western tradition and not even Israel’s tradition. So how do we account for the differences? We account for the differences in the fact that the Gospel grows as it encounters new cultural contexts and contextual challenges.
Part 3 will ask the question, “How does the dynamic of the Gospel work…How does it grow?”