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The Mythical Link between Contextualization & Syncretism: Lausanne Theology Discussion (7 of 7)

Author: Cody C. Lorance
Date: 07.10.2010
Category: World Faiths, Integrity and Anti-Corruption

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Originally Posted in English

Question #7 – Upon what evidential basis does the LTWG feel it necessary to warn about syncretism in the same sentence as it mentions contextualization?  Doesn’t this sentence only serve to affirm an unfair prejudice against contextualization by repeating the unproven notion that contextualization and syncretism are especially and intrinsically linked?

Are you still there?  Here we are at the end of my 7-part series of reflections on the Lausanne Theology Working Group’s excellent and important paper "The Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World." I love what they’ve done in providing the Church with a fuller definition of these three "wholes." I strongly commend their paper to you.  If you’ve still not had a chance to read it, follow the following link or download the attached PDF:

"The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World: Reflections of the Lausanne Theology Working Group" (condensed version)

Regarding the Whole World (continued)

And last (but not least), I want to share a word of appreciation for what is said in this paper regarding world religions and the issue of contextualization.  In particular, may the whole Church latch on strongly to this statement:

“We need to repent of approaches to people of other faiths that reject or denounce their existing religion as wholly evil or satanic, with no effort to understand, critique and learn, and to discern through genuine encounter, friendship and patient dialogue where there may be bridges for the gospel” (p. 28, full version).

Let me say directly that I am personally counting very much upon the Nepalese, Indian and Bhutanese delegations to take this statement back to their contexts.  As one who has endured much grief as a direct result of just such a prejudice while working in the Hindu context, I need my South Asian brothers to sound this call to the South Asian Church. 

Related to that though is my continued concern that while the LTWG paper affirms those who are pursuing contextualization, it still does so in a way that lends credence to the myth that there is some kind of an inherent link between contextualization and syncretism.  I reject the notion that such a link exists and would suggest that no evidence can be shown to demonstrate that those theologically orthodox Christians who intentionally pursue contextualization are in any greater danger of syncretism than Christians who do not.  On the contrary, I believe that honest and balanced analysis will find even more syncretism (if we are defining this term as a sinful conformity to “pattern of this world”) in local churches that haven’t made any intentional effort to contextualize the Christ-life in their context.  The reality is not as the C1-5 scale suggests, that continued pursuit of contextualization inevitably leads to syncretism.  Rather, I would contend that, providing the contextualizer begins on theologically solid ground (an unwavering commitment to uphold the Bible), that the pursuit of contextualization actually serves to produce a much more thoughtful and theologically rich expression of Christian faith and practice than otherwise.   But alas, I cannot go any further into this right now.

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Keywords: contextualization, South Asia, hinduism

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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Mere_B (4)  
United States

Cody,

Thank you for this! As a person who pursues contextualization in my own ministry with Mslms, I am always frustrated when those who are suspicious of contextualization fail to acknowledge our own tendency to syncretize within our local churches and contexts! From Christmas celebrations (an ancient contextualization to the very vulgar Roman festival Saturnalia) to the very word "God," (based on the Germanic "Gott" who was an ancient Norse god I believe) to the prosperity Gospel (is this nothing more than contextualizing Jesus into the "American Dream"?) Western Christianity is full of cases of contextualization that can be deemed as syncretism. I am not the type to force anyone to take a particular approach that they may be uncomfortable with. But I do hope that those who are uncomfortable with contextualization as an approach would choose to pray for and listen to those of us who practice it - rather than judging or accusing!


13.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Alex_Araujo (4)
United States
@ Mere_B:

Dear Mere B,


I appreciate your sentiments on the topic of contextualization. Your last statement suggests you have had bad experiences with people who have concerns about contextualization. If that is the case I am sorry for you.


Yet, for those of us who have seen up close the damage that synchretism has done to our witness in certain places, we also need to be understood if we are more cautious than you are.


As I suggest in my previous comment, synchretism is really bad, and it tends to look very similar to contextualization beyond a certain degree. Our experience, humby offerd, might be something useful to you and others who walk the difficulty line between the one and the other.


Desiring to serve,


Alex Araujo


14.10.2010
PhContributeBy
Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Cody_Lorance (13)   
United States
@ Mere_B:

Thanks, Mere. I sense that you are agreeing with me.  However, I feel the need to be clearer that I believe the connection between contextualization and syncretism is unfounded.  This is because they are built upon (if you will) totally different foundations. Contextualization is built upon communication, incarnation, and an a priori commitment to Biblical orthodoxy.  Syncretism is built upon things like pluralism, theological ignorance and/or unorthodoxy.  They are not brothers, cousins, or anything like that.  They are just random strangers that sometimes end up in the same room together.  


So, when I read your comments, I want to increase the distance between the terms contextualization and syncretism because I feel that you nearly use them interchangeably.  Do you follow what I mean?


14.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Cody_Lorance (13)   
United States
@ Alex_Araujo:

Alex, allow me to repeat a comment that I made earlier that I think is relevant to your point:


"Concerning those who are not careful to be faithful to the Scripture, I would suggest that this is a problem that doesn’t really have anything to do with contextualization.  That is, such a thing would be problematic whether or not they were seeking to contextualize. Contextualization simply serves to highlight an already existing deficiency in their minds and hearts pertaining to the authority of Scripture."


Also, I would suggest that your use of the phrase "beyond a certain point" reflects an unfounded presupposition that is also inherent in the famous C1-5 scale. That presupposition is that you can go too far. However, I believe this is wrong. If we understand contextualization to be a matter of pursuing and imitation the incarnation of Christ, then how far is too far? How incarnate is too incarnate? How far did Jesus go? How human did He become? How Jewish? How 1st century? How indigenous? How insider?


So, I’m really trying to push for a total rethinking about this whole issue.  There are a lot of old frameworks that must be discarded. Not that I’m sure mine are the ones to be taken up.  No, I recognize my youth and inexperience and my need to learn so very much. It is just that I see so much damage that has been done.  Great walls that have been built by what are none other than false gospels.  It is disheartening to see it on a daily basis.


Well, I could go on. I look forward to continuing the conversation.  Thanks so much for your thoughts.


Blessings!


14.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Buck_Waters (0)  
Portugal

I believe the person delivering the gospel needs to contextualized. This process will be through the Spirit sensitizing the individual to cultural keys, , bridges areas of common ground that will allow the Gospel to resonate with the listener. The Gospel was divinely written through God for all mankind through all ages. the short-comings are our not the Word of God. Christ is the Message and also the Model for how to relate through love and humility enabling us to share His Word to all cultures.


09.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Cody_Lorance (13)   
United States
@ Buck_Waters:

Buck, I’m not certain that I’m understanding you fully. But it sounds like you are saying that the messenger but not the message needs to be contextualized? Is that correct?


If that is what you are saying, I’m hearing that your concern is that contextualizing the message is the same as changing the inherent meaning or contents of the message.  If I am correctly understanding you, I offer the following:


The message of the Gospel absolutely must be contextualized in every setting, culture, people, etc.  A non-contextualized gospel is a non-gospel because it does not have the capacity of being perceived by its hearers as "good news." This was clearly Paul’s conviction as he contextualized especially the message in his evangelistic sermons to Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Lystra (Acts 14), and Athens (Acts 17). 


That is also the assumption that lied behind one of the major thrusts of the Reformation -- vernacular Bible translation. What is translation after all but a form of contextualization.  And no light form either, as the term "heart language" reveals our conviction that language is a very deep thing indeed.  


And just yesterday I was advising a young cross-cultural worker on how to handle a situation of demonic activity with a South Asian. One of the things I spoke to him about was regarding how to share the gospel in that situation.  I said to him that emphasizing the concept of guilt and forgiveness in that situation would not sound like good news to the one being afflicted by evil spirits.  I encouraged him that the gospel also speaks about deliverance and victory over Satan and evil spirits.  To hear the gospel as good news, his friend needed to hear that Jesus had overcome the powers of darkness.


This, of course, is contextualizing the message.  And it isn’t the same thing as changing the content.  The Lausanne Theology Working Group has done us a great favor in reminding us of the great breadth of the message of the Gospel. We are reminded that no single "presentation" of the gospel is complete in itself.  It is always a condensation, a summary.  There is no single, approved way to summarize that message (as Paul’s sermons illustrate). Rather it is incumbent upon us to make careful decisions about how best to contextualize the message to our immediate hearers so that they can understand it. 


If we can keep this in our minds, we can easily see how a statement as simple as "Jesus died for you" has already been fully contextualized.  It has been translated, it has been structured and worded to have a particular appeal to one from an individualistic (’you’) and low-power-distance (’Jesus’ and not ’the Lord Jesus Christ’) culture, decisions have been made about what theological/historical points to emphasize (a somewhat anthroprocentric conception of the death of Christ - ’for you’ and not ’for the joy set before him’ or ’for the glory of the Father’).


But this is a good thing to do. It is an essential thing that we must do.  It is an unavoidable thing that we cannot NOT do.  What I strongly advocate then is the intentional pursuit of contextualization. There will always be contextualization in our evangelism.  The question is only whether or not that contextualization is fitting, appropriate, intentional.  Our presentation is always contextualized to something.  The question is only, to what?  And if my presentation is contextualized to a particular segment of American culture but I am speaking to Nepalis, well, that seems to be a pretty clear mistake. 


I know that this probably isn’t fully clear.  We must keep talking about this for some time I suppose. Let me make one more statement in closing.  There is a difference between debating the question, "Should we intentionally pursue contextualization?" and debating the particular forms utilized and decisions made in that process.  It is unhelpful to confuse or merge these two distinct debates into one.  


Blessings! 


12.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Cody_Lorance (13)   
United States

The Manila Manifesto contains a statement of repentance that the Church as a whole hasn’t been faithfully living out.  "In the past we have sometimes been guilty of adopting towards adherents of other faiths attitudes of ignorance, arrogance, disrespect, and even hostility.  We repent of this." The fact that the new LTWG paper contains very similar statement is evidence that this repentance hasn’t actually taken place.  We must examine such statements of repentance in the Manifesto (and the Lausanne Covenant as well, as Chris Wright has pointed out) and consider how we must actually go about repenting.


08.10.2010
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Reply Flag 1 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Alex_Araujo (4)
United States
@ Cody_Lorance:

Hi Cody


I agree that contextualization and synchretism are diffrent things. I also think that contextualzation ans synchretism are similar in form, and often difficult to distinguish by the untrained eye, which may explain why some people think they are related. I believe that the apostle Pul was speaking to that in Romans 12:2 when he said, "Do not be conformed to the spirit of this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds..."


I agree with you that we tend to see synchrism more easily in cultures that are not secular like ours, because we see obviously religious traces in the culture. We don’t see so well the synchrtism in our secular society, but it is there just as strongly if not more so. John Fischer’s book, "Fearless Faith" is an excellent expose of this reality in the US.


Finally, I don’t think that people who see the danger of synchretism in much contextualization are necessarily disrespectful concerning other faiths. I personally am cautious about contextualization efforts in some settings not because I disrespect other faiths, but because I am not sure those contextualizers are as careful as you are concerning faithfulness to Scripture.


Blessings.


Alex Araujo


08.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Cody_Lorance (13)   
United States
@ Alex_Araujo:

Thank you for your encouraging affirmations, Alex. I always appreciate hearing them, especially on this issue.  Concerning those who are not careful to be faithful to the Scripture, I would suggest that this is a problem that doesn’t really have anything to do with contextualization.  That is, such a thing would be problematic whether or not they were seeking to contextualize. Contextualization simply serves to highlight an already existing deficiency in their minds and hearts pertaining to the authority of Scripture.


So you see, I suppose it is becoming clearer the more I write, that I’m seeking to totally reframe the issue of contextualization.  To move away from the "contextualization vis a vis syncretism" conception to understanding it more in terms of spiritual discipline related to the imitation of Christ’s incarnation.


Thanks so much for you input. Blessings.


08.10.2010
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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Pete_Houston (7)
South Africa

Have you written anything about those hard experiences?  As one who "has endured much grief as a direct result of just such a prejudice while working in the Hindu context..." How has it shaped your ministry and mission? This is probably not the forum, but there is much to learn from encounters of the heart, not just the head.  Although you have a fine mind too!


08.10.2010
PhContributeBy
Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Cody_Lorance (13)   
United States
@ Pete_Houston:

I’ve not written too much specifically about that just yet -- except for in private reports and emails. It isn’t far enough behind me yet to really share much in the way of specifics. I’m still hoping and praying for the best on these things. But I totally agree with you. I’m learning a lot about God, about myself, about the Church, the Spirit, love and hate, and much more. The past 2 years have been the most difficult in my life for just this reason. Thank you for the exhortation, brother. I commit to writing something sometime in the future that allows me to go through the necessary process of reflection as well as to share for the benefit of others.


Blessings to you.


08.10.2010

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