Good contextualization happens when indigenous symbols are filled with Christian meaning. What happens when contextualization goes wrong? We can discover contextualization gone wrong in Asia Pacific Catholicism.
Catholicism touches every country in Asia Pacific. The Philippines (70%) has the largest Roman Catholic population followed by Vietnam (7%). Other countries with a significant population of Catholics include East Timor (90%), Indonesia (3.5%), and Singapore (4.5%).
More pluralism and sharp divergence exists within Catholicism than usually realized. In Asia Pacific, these differences come in four shades.
There are Cultural Catholics. They reside in most Asia Pacific countries but large populations are found Australia and Singapore. They are Catholics in name only. If asked, they say they are Catholic but when questioned further it becomes obvious that they seldom, if ever, attend mass or practice their faith.
A second shade is Traditional Catholics. Also found in most Asia Pacific countries, they attend mass and practice their faith. They often advocate such issues as social justice, alleviating poverty, peace, etc.
A third shade is Charismatic Catholics. Several Asia Pacific countries house charismatic Catholics. They often belong to the Roman Catholic Charismatic Movement. Their worship uses contemporary Christian songs and conduct mass in the language of the people.
The vast majority of Asia Pacific Catholics belong to the last shade: that being, Syncretistic Catholics. They blend elements of indigenous and animistic worship with Catholic traditions. Traditional Catholics often reject and in some cases condemn these practices.
Instead of replacing animistic religious meaning with Christian meaning, they absorb those meanings, baptizing them as Catholic. These syncretistic meanings revolve around how Catholics view symbols and are manifested in forms of sacred objects, sacred people, and sacred places.
For Catholics, God gave a visible symbol through Jesus Christ. Therefore, using symbols is not a problem because the use of symbols imitates the divine action in representing the Christ event.
Candles are a very intimate part of Catholic culture and have a spiritual meaning. Candles associated with the Easter Vigil, and with baptism mean Christ’s victory over death.
Flowers are used constantly in Catholic devotions. They are a living species and testify to belief in the life of the resurrection. They are also symbols of affection, which simply say, “I love you” or “Thank you” to Christ, Mary or a saint.
Incense signifies prayer. It also signifies respect. Catholics use it to bless the altar, a symbol of Christ, or to bless the Gospels from which they hear the Word of God. They use it to bless the gifts they offer, such as the elements used for the Eucharist. They use incense to bless the faithful because Christ dwells in them by baptism. In essence, incensing is done to acknowledge sacredness or to bless.
For Catholics, processions go back to Jewish roots. The procession is a miniature form of a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were undertaken by Jewish people for many reasons — to recall the Exodus, to maintain contact with the temple. So too Catholics came to develop many processions for special occasions.
Sometimes Catholics carry the saints’ images on processions, asking the saints to be present with them as they travel. Every procession is a physical testimony to their belief in this journey.
They believe that Christ is God’s image; therefore the saints are Christ’s image. They honor them because they desire to imitate them. They pray to them the same as they call upon earthly friends to do a favor for them.
Catholics often go on pilgrimage to sacred places. In some situations a specific Catholic church is the sacred place while in other situations it might be a tree or other designated sacred place.
Most Asia Pacific Catholics revere objects, people, and places, all serving as sacred symbols. In a real sense, an object, person, or place becomes the center of worship and devotion, becoming mediators and replacing Christ as the one and only advocate.
Such practices do not sound much different from the practices of Asian religions. Asian religions also revere objects, people, and places.
Adherents of Buddhism, Shintoism, Chinese religion, and Hinduism all use candles, flowers, incense, and other objects as offerings or ways to ward off bad spirits. Hindus celebrate the Thaipusam festival, a pilgrimage event where pilgrims pierce their body with skewers and fish hooks. Some folk Muslims will prick their finger and let drops of blood drop on the Qu’ran in hope that such a ritual will draw them closer to the sacred. All of these religions have holy men who often hold special power. Asian religions also have sacred sites that adherents revere and often make pilgrimages to. These objects, people, and places are all filled with myth and animistic meaning.
As said, good contextualization happens when indigenous symbols are filled with Christian meaning. The danger in contextualization is that some indigenous symbols are too closely tied to animistic meaning, resulting in Christian meaning not replacing animistic meaning. In syncretistic Catholicism, this is what happens.
Symbols and their meaning are vital to the planting and developing of indigenous churches. Throughout history, God utilized symbols to point to Himself. In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelite people the symbol of a “pillar of cloud” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night to guide them and to point them to His existence and presence. In the books of Kings, God provided the temple as a symbol of His reality.
The Bible declares that “in the fullness of time God sent His son” as the ultimate symbol (Galatians 4:4). The Bible continues proclaiming that God’s present day symbol, His channel and instrument, of revelation consists of the church, the ecclesia, and those who are a part of the church. II Corinthians 5:20 says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” The church is God’s representative so that all people might know Him.
Good contextualization begins with who we are. Because of what Christ has done in our life, we today are God’s symbol. Since all people interpret what we say and do through their own cultural framework, missionaries need to exemplify the Christian life through cultural forms and symbols that are not offensive to their host people. They should consider being “all things to all men” (I Corinthians 9:19-23). As symbols of God’s fullness in Jesus Christ, they should live lives that allow God’s revelation to mediate through them. This requires cultural sensitivity to the things that hinder the host people from relating to the missionary.
The presence of Christ within missionaries enables them to be a symbol that points people to the reality of God’s fullness manifested through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Through their contact, their host people have the opportunity to experience the reality of Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s revelation to mankind. The one and only mediator, who is now the true sacred object, sacred person, and sacred place for devotion and worship. Good contextualization begins with living a life worthy of being God’s symbol.
Article Excerpt from …
Making Meaning “The Indigenous Church”,
Copyright © 2019 by Bryan K. Galloway