East Vs West: Is Western Christianity or Eastern Christianity best suited for evanglising those in Eastern Religion?
Posted by Gabriel (G²) on November 21, 2010
Concerning why I was writing this, its been heavy on my heart for awhile to see the trends in culture/ where the church stands…..and to me, its odd to see how much focus has been brought up in regards to Eastern Thought in our current times…placing them out there for entertainment.
Many shows come to mind, one of which is entitled ” “Avatar” : The Last Airbender”. A movie was made recently, based off the T.V show that’s very based in Mystical thought. One of the groups discussed in the show are known as the Air Nomads, a monastic order of men and women practicing Airbending — the mystical art of aerokinesis. They were pacifists and highly respected nature and creation….as well as ones into practices of deep spirituality (i.e meditation, restraint, etc). Many hints suggest that the Air Nomads are based on Chinese Shaolin monks and Tibetan culture due to their peaceful nature, monk-ruled society, and geographical isolation due to elevation.
Avatar has literally captured the minds/hearts of many
With the Air Nomads from the T.V Show “Avatar”, as well as many other groups in the show, I’ve noticed an exceptionally large amount of youths (including Young adults) —both in the world and the church—that seem to give much focus on the subject of Monasticism/Mysticism in other religions …assuming that the Church isn’t as mysterious/captivating on the issue…and yet, sad to see how others are often unaware of how much the subject took center stage in the Church when it came to the issue of Monasticism/Mysticism of others in the Early Church.
A Good article for review:
On the issue, I’m not certain if it could be said that the church has nothing to offer those who are going to Eastern Religions ( includes Caodaism, Chen Tao, Chondogyo, Confucianism, Jeungism, Shinto, Taoism, I-Kuan Tao and elements of Mahayana Buddhism. ). I’m constantly reminded of others such as the Desert Fathers… the desert monks of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the fourth to sixth century. At the heart of Christianity’s monastic, contemplative, and mystical traditions lives the spirit of the Desert Fathers. ..as they were essentially spiritual zealots who lived outside the boundaries of society, pursuing spiritual purification through the renunciation of all worldly distraction. They dwelt in small isolated communities for the purpose of devoting their lives completely to God without distraction.
For more extensive info on them, one can go to the following:
Seeing how they sought to live their lives in a fasted lifestyle and continual holiness with prayer/self-inspection and other practices common in monasticism/mysticism, it was beautiful to behold…and something I wish was discussed more.
I didn’t always know of who the Desert Fathers were..until I was able to come across a certain book on the issue, as seen here:
Had it recommended to me by one of my friends/older brothers in the Lord….as he’s a Messianic Jewish Rabbi I work with–alongside one who used to be a Former Eastern Orthodox priest previously…..and thus very passionate for studying the Ancient Faith/History of the Church. He can be found at Congregation Mishkan David. He’s very passionate on issues of Monasticism, especially as it concerns New Monasticism occurring today amongst others who have hearts for both social justice, the community and the kind of fasting that Isaiah 58 describes.
With the book on the Desert Fathers, the book was indeed a blessing to read, regarding what is a translation of the most complete version of the Apophthegmata Patrum, a compilation of sayings from the desert monks of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the fourth to sixth century. Seeing how they sought to live their lives in a fasted lifestyle and continual holiness with prayer/self-inspection and other practices common in monasticism, it was beautiful to behold. It was also highly informative in regards to Eastern Christianity and how different life was for them—as well as just how much more REAL it was as well in comparision to what we see here in the West so many times. The book was such a blessing since it shed so much light on the issue and gave extensive coverage that others thought was lost for our times. The other book on the Desert Mothers was one that I had to keep in mind as well—though I gave that one away to another…
Before going further, I think it’d be appropiate to take a bit of a side note and discuss how specific actions by the Desert Fathers are intriguing if considering that many think the Desert Fathers/their monasticism (alongside mysticism) were intimately connected with other groups central in the Jewish culture Yeshua may’ve grown up with… such as the Essenes.
For more info, consider investigating the minstry of “Follow the Rabbi: Essenes”—and for more as it concerns even the aspects of Christian Mysticism and Jewish ideology, one can investigate:
- Discover the roots of Coptic Christianity & Monasticism: A guide by Didaskalex “Eusebius Alexandrinus”
As the Desert Fathers fled the corruption they saw, so it was with the Essenses…for in an effort to avoid corruption, the Essenses fled the “politics”/went into the desert of Quarman…much like the Desert Fathers did in their own choice for monasticism and fasting in the sense that they saw it. Similar to the Pharisees, the Essenes saw themselves as God’s elect in whom He was secretly working/will vindicate when He finally cleanses the Temple, fulfilling His promises & restoring true worship while also putting back the right people in power and bringing redemption to unredeemed Israel. However, they had differing views on socio-political actions.
For whereas the Sadducees believed in seizing/maintaining political power for themselves…while the Pharisees were somewhat similar, the Esscenes lived very simple/communal lifestyles………proclaiming by their actions that, though they longed for the liberation of Israel, they were simply going to wait and allow the Lord to bring it to pass in His own time.
They felt God will act in His own ways and was, in fact, already acting secretly through them and their quiet devotional practices rather than as other parties acted. When the resurrection happened, the Essenes—seeing themselves as the recipients of God’s future eschatological benefits, naturally believed that having shown their faithfulness to God during the exile/not engaging in either hatred of others or violence, they would be reestablished as the true Israel.
While the Roman war appealed to men of action such as the Zealots, men of a more peaceful and visionary nature seemed to become Essenes….and many others believe the Essene camp was what Christianity was birthed out of. For more information, one can go online/look up “The Essenes and Messianic Expectations. A Historical Study of the Sects and Ideas during the Second Jewish Commonwealth”( )
Many are for the mindset that John the Baptist was Himself a Levite and more than likely an Essene..with that being apart of the reason why he was considered a threat to both the Sadducees and the Pharisees …and the theory of John being a Levite has many powerful implications—one of which is the reality of how he fled to the wilderness to live growing up—just as many of the priests apart of the Essene camp did in the desert of Quarman—and the teachings/concepts taught to John’s disciples…already prepared to go to Jesus in John 1:19-40 and John 3:22-31 when his own disciples complained on Jesus gaining more followers…to which John made clear He was already aware of it/knew it was to be like that since He was a forerunner to Christ preparing the Way ( Luke 7:26-28 /Luke 3:1-5 /Luke 3:15-35 Luke 3 /Matthew 3:1-17 )–before Christ was revealed on the scene. With many of the teachings of Christ/John being very similar (if not the same), one has to naturally wonder if perhaps the Essene teachings were also involved/crossed over.
As it stands, both John and the Essenes used Isaiah 40:3 to describe themselves as the voice in the wilderness…so its interesting to consider. However, whereas the Essenes hid themselves away from society in the wilderness, John lived there for a season….but later became a very public figure. Also, John preached Jesus as the Messiah–while sadly, the Essenes did not recognize Jesus as Messiah..though they thought that the Teacher of Righteousness would arise from within their group. But it does seem at times as if the group with the closest resemblance to John was the Essenes…and For more information, one can go online and look up an article under the name of “Apples of Gold: John the Baptist”
But I digress…
As was said before, when it comes to studying other groups within the early church who were very much into monasticism and mysticism, I’m surprised to see others such as the ones already mentioned rarely mentioned during evangelism. For there have already been examples of others who fled corruption as much as they could and desired to live set apart. The Desert Fathers are truly one of the greatest examples of such.
And of course, there’s always the dynamic of those who were Christian Mystics in the early church.
Of course, there can be a danger in studying from the past as it concerns the East/Mysticism. And the only reason I bring this up is because it seems that there’s often a lack of caution when it comes to studying the saints/much of Eastern Christianity/the early church.
For as it seems in many places, the presence of Eastern religious movements in the West, especially in the past decade or two, has really been influential in much of the church..and for others who either study the saints incorrectly or fail to be aware of them/their practices, many have consequently chosen to either proclaim the equality of Christian religious experiences and the experience of Zen Buddhism/ other pagan religions as equal if seeing the ways Eastern Christianity is mystical…or they choose to dismiss Eastern Christianity altogether when seeing similarities in things discussed there with other Eastern Religions. This has often been the case in many PROTESTANT Camps that exalt intellectualism and rationalism above mystery.
Nevertheless, much of the history of the early church in Eastern Christianity (especially Catholic )–as it concerns Mysticism/Monasticism–could be what those in Eastern Thought could find valuable if/when it came to what it is they thought could only be found within Eastern Religions.
On a side note, some may think when speaking of Western Christianity that I’m also including Roman Catholicism—-and in the event that they may think that, I wanted to qualify where I was coming from…as there are also many branches of Catholicism that qualify for Eastern Christianity. For when considering the 5 Eastern Catholic Churches, there’s the reality that even in the Catholic circles there’s not a “one size fits all” since within the theological framework of Catholicism, there’re battles going on..as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church/Eastern Catholics is radically different from Roman Catholicism in their ideologies when it comes to practices such as married clergy, the election of bishops by the Church as a whole, collegial government and many other features that’re unknown to Roman Catholics.
For others wishing to have more info on Eastern Catholics:
- The Role & Position of the Eastern Catholic Churh within the Catholic Church
- The Other Catholics: A Short Guide to the Eastern Catholic Churches
Moving on, within this thread subject, the history of Eastern Catholic Monasticism / monasticism in the Christian East is something that comes to mind. And of course, some of the commonality between the Eastern Christianities and Western Christianities (as it concerns Catholicism) is universal in its appeal, seeing how many have been steadily going toward the Ancient Faith. Western Christianityand Eastern Christianity differ in many of their theological approaches, which perhaps is simply the result of cultural influences. The Eastern mindset is more inclined toward philosophy, mysticism, and ideology, whereas the Western outlook is guided more by a practical and legal mentality. This can be seen in the subtly different ways that Eastern and Western Christians approach spiritual truth. For Eastern Christians believe that truth must be personally experienced and, as a result, they place less emphasis on its precise definition as would many in the West who place emphasis on systematic theology and formula. There is more of a focus on Orthopraxy rather than Orthodoxy alone as well….with truth/righteousness being seen in right action rather than mental assent alone.
Of course, much of the same mentalities have filtered there way into many camps within the Western World—especially amongst others tired of what they’ve seen in Western Christianity. One of the men of God whom I highly enjoy learning from is by the name of Shane Claiborne…..and Shane is apart of what’s known as New Monasticism. With Monasticism, its interesting to see how revivals in monasticism historically have ocourred in the forgotten places when the church is in real danger of forgetting its meant to be on Gods mission. Monasticis living is something that is truly worth investigating when it comes to fasting you describe. For some good review:
- New Monastic Shane Claiborne Questions The American Dream – 1/2
And on others who have noted the same … as it concerns reference material:
- “Historical Sketch” of Christian Mysticism from Mysticism (1911)
- Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity << Zoecarnate
Other camps, of course, feel they’re more qualified to reach out to the Eastern Religious than others….and in example, I’m remidned of what another individual in Eastern Orthodoxy noted when claiming only Eastern Orthodoxy had what was necessary to reach those in Eastern Religions. As said in their article entitled MYSTAGOGY: Can Orthodox Christianity Speak To Eastern Religions? (for brief excerpt)
I recently had a conversation with a dear Eastern Orthodox priest, whose twenty six year old son had left home the day before to live indefinitely at a Buddhist monastery. He was heart broken. His son was not a stranger to Eastern Orthodoxy or to its monastic tradition, having even spent two months on the holy mountain of Mt. Athos.
His son’s journey is not an isolated event. Eastern religious traditions are a growing and competing force in American religious life. Buddhism is now the fourth-largest religious group in the United States, with 2.5 – 3 million adherents, approximately 800,000 of whom are American western “converts”? There are actually more Buddhists in America today than Eastern Orthodox Christians! The Dalai Lama (the leader of one of the Tibetan Buddhist sects) is one of the most recognized and admired people in the world and far better recognized than any Eastern Orthodox hierarch? Have you looked in the magazine section of Borders or Barnes and Noble lately? There are more publications with names like “Shambala Sun”, “Buddhadharma”, and “What is enlightenment?” on the shelves than Christian publications!
In addition to losing seekers to eastern spiritual traditions (many of them youth), eastern metaphysics has also seeped into our western cultural worldview without much notice. They are doing a better job (sadly) “evangelizing” our culture than we Eastern Orthodox Christians are!
The Lord Himself commands us clearly “that repentance and remission of sins (baptism) should be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Buddhists (of which there are many sects) and Hindus live among us in America in ever-growing numbers, in our college classrooms, on our soccer fields, and in our “health foods” stores – they are right in our own backyards! They are a rich, potential “mission field” for the Eastern Orthodox Church in the United States. Unfortunately with few exceptions, like the writings of Monk Damascene [Christensen] and Kyriakos S. Markides, we are not talking to this group at all.
As a former Hindu and disciple of a well-known guru, or spiritual teacher, I can tell you Orthodox Christianity shares more “common ground” with seekers of non-Christian spiritual traditions of the east than any other Christian confession! The truth is when Evangelical Protestants attempt to evangelize the eastern seeker they often do more harm than good, because their approach is western, rational, and doctrinal, with (generally) little understanding of the paradigms and spiritual language (or yearnings) of the seekers of these eastern faiths.
There are three “fundamental principles” that Buddhists and Hindus generally share in common:
1. A common “supra-natural” reality underlies and pervades the phenomenal world. This Supreme Reality isn’t Personal, but Trans-personal. God or Ultimate Reality in these traditions is ultimately a pure consciousness without attributes.
2. The human soul is of the same essence with this divine reality. All human nature is divine at its core. Accordingly, Christ or Buddha isn’t a savior, but becomes a paradigm of self-realization, the goal of all individuals.
3. Existence is in fundamental unity (monism). Creation isn’t what it appears to the naked eye. It is in essence “illusion” and “unreal”. There is one underlying ground of being (think “quantum field” in physics!) which unifies all beings and out of which and into which everything can be reduced.
What do these metaphysics have in common with our Eastern Orthodox Faith? Not much, on the surface. But in the eastern non-Christian spiritual traditions, knowledge is not primarily about the development of metaphysical doctrine or theology.
This is one of the problems western Christians have communicating with them. Eastern religion is never theoretical or doctrinal. It’s about the struggle for liberation from death and suffering through spiritual experience. This “existential-therapeutic-transformational” ethos is the first connection Eastern Orthodoxy has with these traditions, because Orthodoxy is essentially therapeutic and transformative in emphasis!The second thing we agree on with Buddhists and Hindus is the fallen state of humanity. The goal of the Christian life according to the Church Fathers is to move from the “sub-natural” or “fallen state”, to the “natural” or the “according to nature state” after the Image (of God), and ultimately to the “supra-natural” or “beyond nature” state, after the Likeness. According to the teaching of the holy Fathers the stages of the spiritual life are purification, illumination and deification. While we don’t agree with Buddhists or Hindus on what “illumination” or “deification” means (because our metaphysics are different) we agree on the basic diagnosis of the fallen human condition. As I once said to a practicing Tibetan Buddhist: “We agree on the sickness (of the human condition). Where we disagree is on the cure”.Eastern Orthodoxy – especially the hesychasm (contemplative) tradition – teaches that true “spiritual knowledge” presupposes a “purified” and “awakened” nous (Greek), which is the “Inner ‘I’” of the soul. The true Eastern Orthodox theologian isn’t one who simply knows doctrine, but one “who knows God, or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. ” As a well-known Orthodox theologian explains, “When the nous is illuminated, it means that it is receiving the energy of God which illuminates it…” This idea resonates with eastern seekers who struggle to experience – through non-Christian ascesis and/or through occult methods – spiritual illumination. They just don’t know this opportunity exists within a Christian context.As part of their spiritual ascesis, Buddhist and Hindu dhamma (practice) emphasizes cessation of desire, which is necessary to quench the passions. Holy Tradition teaches apatheia, or detachment as a means of combating the fallen passions. Hindu and Buddhist meditation methods teach “stillness”. The word hesychia in Holy Tradition – the root of the word for hesychasm – means “stillness”! We don’t meditate using a mantra, but we pray the “Jesus Prayer”. Buddhism, especially, teaches “mindfulness”.Holy Tradition teaches “watchfulness” so we do not fall into temptation! Hindus and Buddhists understand it is not wise to live for the present life, but to struggle for the future one. We Orthodox agree! Americans who become Buddhist or Hindu are often fervent spiritual seekers, used to struggling with foreign languages (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Japanese) and cultures and pushing themselves outside of their “comfort zones”.We converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church can relate! Some Buddhist and Hindu sects even have complex forms of “liturgy”, including chant, prostration and veneration of icons! Tibetan Buddhism especially places high value on the lives of (their) ascetics, relics and “saints”.The main difference in spiritual experience is that what the eastern seeker recognizes as “spiritual illumination”, achieved through deep contemplation, Holy Tradition calls “self contemplation”. Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), who was experienced in yoga (which means ‘union’) before becoming a hesychast – monk and disciple of St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain wrote from personal experience, “All contemplation arrived at by this means is self-contemplation, not contemplation of God. In these circumstances we open up for ourselves created beauty, not First Being. And in all this there is no salvation for man.”Clement of Alexandria, two thousand years ago wrote that pre-Christian philosophers were often inspired by God, but he cautioned one to be careful what one took from them!So we acknowledge the eastern seeker through his ascesis or contemplative methodologies may experience deep levels of created beauty, or created being (through self-contemplation), para-normal dimensions, or even the “quantum field” that modern physics has revealed! However, it is only in the Eastern Orthodox Church and through its deifying mysteries that the seeker will be introduced to the province of Uncreated Divine Life. It is only in the Orthodox Church that the eastern seeker will hear there is more to “salvation” than simply forgiveness of sins and justification before God. He will be led to participate in the Uncreated Energies of God, so that they “may be partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). As a member of the Body of Christ he will join in the deifying process, and be increasingly transformed after the Likeness! Thankfully, deification is available to all who enter the Holy Orthodox Church, are baptized (which begins the deifying process) and partake of the holy mysteries. Deification is not just for monks, ascetics and the spiritual athletes on Mount Athos!Eastern Orthodoxy has much to share with eastern spiritual seekers. Life and death hangs in the balance in this life, not the millions of lives eastern seekers think they have! As the Apostle Paul soberly reminds us, ” … it is appointed for men to die once but after this the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27).
May God give us the vision to begin to share the “true light” of the Holy Orthodox Faith with seekers of the eastern spiritual traditions.
For other places that the article can be found, one can go to There are more Buddhists in America today than Eastern Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Way of Life: Can Orthodox Christianity Speak To Eastern …
On the article itself, its Interesting to consider (IMHO). …especially in light of how the author was a former Hindu himself and shared his background elsewhere on how Eastern Christianity ministered to him in the Eastern religion he was in. And for more info on much of what the man has to say, one can go to the following:
- Discerning the Spirit in Creation: Orthodox Christianity and Environmentalism
He can also be found at “Ancient Faith” radio, as he’s also the co-host of the Internet radio program “The Illumined Heart” which is broadcast weekly on Ancient Faith Radio..and as one of the hosts there, he’s very insightful. For some samples:
Again, I thought the critique was excellent—as it concerns the ways in which he described how Eastern Christian thought could easily be something of a bridge for those in Eastern Religions if certain things were emphasized.
Again, I pray that what I’m saying doesn’t come off the wrong way. But in all honesty, even though I’m not 100% for all things in Eastern Christianity, I’ve come to appreciate many of the things that they’ve noted…and think the church can indeed learn well if/when it concerns evangelism. Some of this has occurred before if studying history…and in example, I’m reminded of how the Gospel was contexualized in other cultures of Asia such as in Chineese culture and other places when it came to Christianity spreading. There was a book I was able to come across a couple years ago about the first Christian missionaries to China (in the 6th century, I think) – for they were Nestorian Christians from the Middle East. It was really cool to see how they “contextualized” the gospel into terms and images that resonated with the local Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian cultures. ..
A book I was informed of awhile ago is entitled “The Jesus Sutras” by Martin Palmer.
It is an historical account of the first Christian mission to China (led by the monk Alouben) in 635, a piecing together of various strands of evidence: a long-lost Christian monastery now used as a Buddhist temple (with Christian statues in the eighth-century pagoda), a sutra (holy writing) of stone in a stone library, and “The Jesus Sutras,” a collection of scrolls found hidden in a secret library that was sealed around 1005.
From these fragments, the author pieces together a framework for what these early Christians believed, how they acted and interacted with the myriad of cultures and religions around them. The result is a fascinating depiction of a Christianity that is adaptive, hospitable, and relevant.
These early Chinese Christians drew upon imagery from their understanding of the Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism and Shamanism of Tang Dynasty China, which allowed them to present a radical image of Christ as the Dharma King, sending “your raft of salvation to save us from the burning streams” – even saving us from karma and reincarnation.
Here’s one of the sutras:
Beyond knowing, beyond words
You are the truth, steadfast for all time.
Compassionate Father, Radiant Son,
Pure Wind King – three in one…
Supreme King, Will of Ages,
Compassionate Joyous Lamb
Loving all who suffer
Fearless as You strive for us
Free us of the karma of our lives,
Bring us back to our original nature
Delivered from all danger.
Sutra of Praise to the Three Powers, A.D. ca. 780-790
Others have noted the same kind of dynamic in differing ways. In example, “Ancient Faith Radio” did a series on the issue of how in some cultures, it seems that they were already being prepared for the presentation of the Gospel…with it being established that GOD was at work in all cultures and therefore it need not be the case that all aspects of a culture must change in order for the Gospel to be understood properly.
The radio brodcast was on a book entitled “Christ the Eternal Tao”…and one can go here for some reviews
As it stands, it was interesting to see from an Eastern perspective how the Tao Te Ching is presented as an imperfect, incomplete foreshadowing of what would later be revealed by Christ—and how in many ways Christ was interpreted from an Eastern /Asian perspective.
As it concerns the issue of contexualization and presenting Christ in differing cultures, as was said best by another in an article entitled Contextualization: Can a Muslim or a Hindu be a Christian …:
For non-Westerners, the physical and spiritual worlds are not separate; everything in life has a spiritual aspect to it. Westerners separate the two, and can therefore make a distinction between culture and religion, but for most non-Westerners, the two are inseparable. If we understand this, is the only option for a person in India to cease being a Hindu or a Muslim (Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, etc.) and become a Christian? Or can a person be a Hindu or a Muslim who follows Christ and serves the one true God alone? Before jumping to any conclusions, let’s consider the matter. Our host in Chandigarh, who oversees several house fellowships, is contextualizing his work in the local Hindu and Sikh cultures. In other words, elements of Hinduism or Sikhism find expression in the lives of these churches. In saying this, I do NOT mean the people worship false gods–the elements of culture present among them are part of their commitment to Christ, rather than compromising it. This leader is sometimes criticized by ministers from more traditional churches, who would like to see him completely break away from anything having an appearance of Hinduism or Sikhism.An example of this contextualization is the name by which the believers call their fellowship. They call their community a satsang, which is a Hindu word for a gathering seeking truth. Some say it is wrong to use this Hindu term, arguing that it is a pagan concept. The brothers and sisters we met, though, believe the use of the word helps those of a Hindu background draw near to God. Another example is the use of a coconut for the Lord’s Supper. Coconuts are often incorporated into Hindu worship; therefore, Hindu-background believers break them open and take the flesh and the milk to represent the body and blood of Christ. Something really neat we learned is that, for Hindus, a coconut means fullness of life. So Christ’s body was broken, and through him comes fullness of life It can be easy to criticize such contextualization of the gospel in other cultures, and those practicing contextualization have faced their share of attacks. I’m not sure it’s right to criticize, though, until we have had the opportunity to live for an extended period of time in the culture in question, gaining a good understand of the practices and worldview of the people. How else can we understand whether a cultural expression is pagan or not? In our short time with our brothers and sisters in Chandigarh, as far as we could tell we found them to be full of the love of God and committed to Christ and the work of the kingdom.
For others who may question the logic behind what others have noted, One would do well to remember what with Paul in /Acts 17:3 ., where Paul identifies the altar “to an unknown god” as a groping after God, and says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (vs. 23). Paul goes on to cite several Greek poets as pointers to the truth found in the gospel. Of course, Paul never suggested that the religious perspectives he found in Athens were sufficient to bring about the true and complete knowledge of God. They are pointers to the truth, not the truth itself. Their value for Paul lies in their capacity to point people to the gospel of Christ. Yet in this capacity, they have real value. Paul’s sermon illustrates a broad theme found throughout Scripture. Melchizedek and Jethro, the father of Moses, stand outside the covenant community and yet are channels through whom God instructs his people. Much of the wisdom in Proverbs 22:17 to 24:34 bears close affinities to Egyptian wisdom documented from other sources. Isaiah declares that Cyrus of Persia is God’s anointed who has been raised up to do God’s will (Isa. 45:1).
The same understanding has repeated itself frequently in the history of the church. Many of our cherished Christian practices were originally borrowed and adapted from non-Christian religions. Christmas trees find their origin in northern European pagan practice. Even the date of Christmas coincides closely with a pagan Roman festival devoted to the sun god. Rather than denying any truth or value in such practices, the church saw them as early pointers to the gospel and incorporated them under the banner of the lordship of Christ, always making sure that they pointed clearly to Christ. Christians don’t deny that there is truth or value in other religions or that God works through other cultures. Rather, Christian faith simply declares that all religions (including the Christian church in a continual way) must respond to what God has done, in sending his Son into the world and in calling all to respond in faith to him
There are other Biblical examples to consider on the issue when it comes to the issue. I’m reminded of how the Jews were in times of Exile—with examples such as Esther and Daniel coming to mind in how they interacted with others for the sake of survival….. and with Esther, she was told to not even alert the king on her Jewish identity.
17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Esther Made Queen
…. Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin[a] king of Judah. 7 Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
8 When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. 9 She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.
10 Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. 11 Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.
Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Esther in Persia/all she had to do when it came to adapting to Persian culture as a Jewish believer stands out among many….…….as many could consider what she did as somewhat “selling out to the culture” she was in—yet for her, it was a matter of adaptation for the sake of survival. It later came in handy for aiding her and her people. Many Jews had the same kind of experience when it came to being in certain cultures and learning how to adopt certain aspects for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
The same thing would go with others prior to her like Joseph. For in the case of Joseph, he married an Egyptian Wife—one who was a Daughter of an EGYPTIAN priest, at that ( Genesis 41:44-46 / ) Often in Jewish culture–if you inter-married with others who were “pagan”, you were no longer considered “Jewish” enough. And as Gen. 41:14 makes clear Joseph shaved before standing in Pharaoh’s presence, there seems to be a huge lesson of interculturation since a beard was highly regarded in Israel ( 2 Samuel 10:3-5 / /Leviticus 19:26-28/ /Leviticus 21:4-6 ) but not in Egyptian Culture. Indeed, this is the reality of cultural concession..for Joseph revealed wisdom by adapting to the culture of his day, yet in a way that did not violate any biblical principle.
The same also seems to be seen in the life of Daniel in Daniel 1:1-20. With Daniel, we find the prophet and his three Hebrew friends taken captive to Babylon. We know these men best in terms of what they refused to do. All refused to partake of the king’s choice food / wine (Dan. 1:8-16), which seemed to be associated with idolatrous worship. (In this case, it would be consistent with the prohibitions of Acts 15:20, 29.) Daniel refused to cease praying (Dan. 6), & his three friends wouldn’t bow to the golden image (Dan. 3).
However, in focusing our attention on what these four men refused to do we sometimes fail to take note of the cultural concession they were willing make. They were submissive to the king’s requirements by becoming educated in the schools of Babylon for three years, and of serving the king as advisors. These men had the God-given wisdom to discern between what was culturally acceptable and what was not. They were able to faithfully serve God and to be witnesses to Him, even in a pagan land, because they could discern the elements of that culture which were an offense to God—and they also sought to not be an offense unless necessary.
Sometimes, trying to show the aspects of Eastern Religion that may’ve been legitimate may’ve gotten lost in the process when it came to Eastern Christianity. One example that comes to mind is is the example of the Chineese Rites controversy. In countries in the American continent, it was often the case that areas were conquered through military force by Spain and Portugal….with evangelization procedding and conversion to an unmodified form of Catholic Christianity. However, European missionaries encountered differing realities in Asia since the people there were unite and literate socities untouched by European influence or national endeavour. China viewed itself as superior in many ways to the rest of the world…….with European concepts seen as barbaric and uncessary.
Consequently, there began argument for the adaption of Christian customs to the societies of Asia. Some of the missionaries from the Jesuits even began to wear the gown of Buddhist monks, before later adopting the more prestigious silk gown of Chinese literati. Some kept Chineese customs which did not go against the principal beliefs of Catholicism, so as to make their missionary activities successful. Sometimes they also adopted Chinese thoughts when explaining their doctrines….as seen whenever some missionaries “contextualized” the gospel into terms and images that resonated with the local Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian cultures. ..
Some felt that things had gone to far, as seen in many of the condemnations given against the Jesuits in China by those in Rome—as they felt that the desire for worshipping ancestors was something that had no basis in Christian thought..even though others felt it was nothing more than honoring those from the past. Those approving of it tried to emphasize the dynamic of veneration of the saints as a means of common ground when trying to reach out to those who were very tied with ancestor worship. The Chineese did not agree with the Western World’s interpretations of Catholic thought when it came to interacting with China. The Pope then gave a ban on missionary endeavor on the issue…and thus, Christianity was stiffled in its growth in China. Because of the ban, there was persecution that arose in China later toward Christians…and this is where the issue of Crypto-Christianity occurred since many Christians took their faith underground and masked it with symbols in the dominant religions which could be used to explain things in the Christian faith without upsetting things greatly.
For more info, one can go to the following:
- The Chinese Rites Controversy: A Long Lasting Controversy in Sino-Western Cultural History
- Of Rites and Wrongs: The Chinese rites controversy of the seventeenth century entangled Jesuits in Europe as well as in China
Again, its interesting to consider what often went down when it came to the reality of how those feeling forced to learn of Asian culture often went to lengths that others today may’ve felt were way too far. …..
Much of what went down could have been avoided if there was wisdom given in being able to show what aspects of the culture one could see the Lord in and that could be apprecaited without taking all aspects into itself.
And thankfully, there are many sound examples of this. St.Francis Xavier comes to mind in the struggles he had to go through
St .Francis Xavier was one of the most influential missionaries in Japan…..converting a significant number of others to Catholicism. The man often was in debate with the Buddhist Bonzes of Japan. Xavier was welcomed by the Shingon monks since he used the word Dainichi for the Christian God, attempting to adapt the concept to local traditions. As Xavier learned more about the religious nuances of the word, he changed to Deusu from the Latin and Portuguese Deus. …though the monks later realized that Xavier was preaching a rival religion and grew more aggressive towards his attempts at conversion. But the more the Bonzes opposed the teachings of Francis, the greater the number of conversion
Sadly, much of his work as well as that of other missionaries was destroyed when Japan decided to exile all other faiths from their culture when they locked themselves off from the outside world. Xavier understood the importance of taking on positive aspects of Japaneese culture when it came to missions, gaining many converts. But due to the government’s changing views toward Outsiders and Christianity, many of those same Christians whom he converted and who had children that became Christians were either persecuted or killed—whereas others who may have left Japan for whatever reason were forbidden to return alongside other Japaneese.
When Xavier was called away alongside other Jesuits, he did not desire to leave…but was forced, only to discover he could never return. Nevertheless, it was amazing to see how his mindset (in regards to Eastern Chrisitianity) when it came to the Far East had such a great impact.
For more info one could consider investigating:
- A History of the Christian Tradition: From the Reformation to the present By Thomas D. McGonigle, Thomas C. McGonigle, James F. Quigley
There are many others besides him that have noted the same. If aware of the work of Paublo Marella, he’s one Catholic that immediately comes to mind on the issue……and IMHO, his example/thoughts are something that are of much benefit (IMHO) when it comes to the issue of contexualization and inculturation of the Gospel. He’d often say to missionaries to the East that it was important to not only learn the language/culture of prospective converts…but to embrance foreign cultures even at the expense of one’s own since only a Gospel stripped to its essence can penetrate an alien culture. And it’d be interesting to see what he’d think if living in the time period we’re currently in. It still seems powerful in light of what he’d often say to missionaries to the East when saying it was important to not only learn the language/culture of prospective converts…but to embrance foreign cultures even at the expense of one’s own since only a Gospel stripped to its essence can penetrate an alien culture. In places such as China, this was made very difficult at some points…such as with what occurred when the acceptance of Christianity was made more difficult by the Rites Controversy and related Eurocentric rulings from Rome that were inflexible in dealing with rites to ancestors and to Confucius. For this produced an untenable situation in which conversion to Christianity forced one to be unfilial to one’s ancestors. …and thankfully, Rome later reversed these rulings in 1939 in a case involving Japanese Shinto
It is also interesting to see how interest in Zen spread among Catholics in certain eras, with many beginning to use methods of Zen meditation in their own prayer life…as dialogue with Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists, developed in many places and led to Oriental-Occidental spiritual exchanges. The one that began first occurred in September 1979, when 51 Buddhist monks experienced a month of monastic life in contemplative Catholic monasteries in Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The second cultural exchange occurred in October 1983 when 17 contemplative European monks, mainly Benedictines and Trappists, came to Japan to spend a month in Zen monasteries. Personally, I’m glad to see such exchanges occur…especially if others in Eastern Religions were able to be exposed to the Biblical practices of the Church.
And as it concerns the general subject of inculturation/contexualization, if interested, here are some very insightful (and scholary reviews)…many of them from a Catholic perspective while some are not:
- “Missio Inter Gentes: Towards a New Paradigm in the Mission Theology of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).”
- “From ‘Missio ad Gentes’ to ‘Missio inter Gentes’: Shaping A New Paradigm for Doing Christian Mission in Asia.”
- “Theologizing at the Service of Life: The Contextual Theological Methodology of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).”
- Towards Asian Liturgical Inculturation: Investigating the Resources in the Documents of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) for Developing an Asian Theology of Liturgical Inculturation.”
- “From Ecclesia In Asia To A Mission Of Love And Service: A Comparative Analysis Of Two Contrasting Approaches To Doing Christian Mission In Asia.”
- A New Way of Being Church in Asia: The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) at the Service of Life in Pluralistic Asia.
Its already interesting to see what has gone down with many of the Catholic churches in Eastern cultures that’ve come under fire for many of the ways they’ve sought to do interculturation…as it concerns the Asian nations. As it concerns the issue of others perhaps missing the Gospel during the translation of what’s within Eastern Cultures/connecting that with Christianity, I’m reminded of what another said best in the article entitled Vulgata: A Humble Expression of my Need for a Cultural Identity. As said there:
Perhaps the area of the world that has done the least work towards inculturating the Gospel is the same one that has the lowest percentage of Christians: Asia. The Federation of Asian Bishop Conferences, along with the Pope, expresses this lack of inculturation in terms of a need to find the “Asian Christ”. Each individual has a personal relationship with Christ and so too does each culture. Different attempts have been made in Asia to find this relationship. Some have advocated a Buddha-like Christ, a Brahmanistic Christ, a Gnostic Christ etc., but these attempts have missed the point on two accounts. Firstly, the project of inculturation is not a project of syncretism. Its not that we have to make Christianity more like Buddhism so that Asians can relate to it, in fact such a project is doomed to failure. Christ and Buddha were two so radically different people who taught such radically different things that if you try to make Christ into Buddha, you just end up with Buddha. Thus the Asian can say “if your Christ is like my Buddha, then I’ll remain a Buddhist and you can remain a Christian.” The second way that these attempts at finding an Asian Christ fail is that they are just that, attempts. Inculturation is not something that can be done by writing a book or publishing an article or developing a theology. It has to be lived by those who actually practice the faith. The Pope in Ecclesia in Asia suggests that the Asian image of Christ will place emphasis on “Jesus Christ as the Teacher of Wisdom, the Healer, the Liberator, the Spiritual Guide, the Enlightened One, the Compassionate Friend of the Poor, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd, the Obedient One.” These seem like good starting points, but the Pope has also been persistent in saying hat the uniqueness of Christ and His sacrifice must also be proclaimed to separate Him from the hundreds of gurus, mystics and enlightened spiritual teachers that populate the Asian religious landscape.