I’m knee deep in scholarly papers at the moment as I’m trying to get the sermon into shape for the Feast of Pentecost which we celebrate tomorrow.
In addition to the standard sorts of joys of a congregation’s life on Pentecost (baptisms and special liturgical observances) we’re also celebrating the coming into the Cathedral proper of our Spanish-language congregation. We started this work in February of this year, and last week there were a total of 87 people in the spanish service. Way too many for us to fit in the chapel. So this weekend they’ll moving down the “center ring” of the congregation’s life.
With that in mind, I was very much struck by something that Prof. Lamin Sanneh wrote in Theology Today back in 1988 (a year before I was one of his students at Yale.) It’s a paper entitled “Pluralism and Christian Commitment” and discusses the missionary work of the Christian Church as it interacts with different cultures as it spreads.
It can be argued that such an instrumental view of culture, in making possible the gentile breakthrough, opened the door for the modern missionary expansion of Christianity. Christian missionaries assumed that since all cultures and languages are lawful in God’s eyes, the rendering of God’s word into those languages and cultures is valid and necessary. Even if in practice Christians wished to stop the translation process, claiming their own form of it as final and exclusive, they have not been able to suppress it. At any rate, Christian mission became the most explicit machinery for the cultivation of vernacular particularity as a condition of universal faithfulness to the gospel. In centering on the primacy of God’s word, Christian translators invested the vernacular with consecrated power, lifting obscure tribes to the level of scriptural heritage and into the stream of universal world history. Almost everywhere vernacular participation in the Christian movement led to inter- nal religious and cultural renewal, often with immediate consequences for political nationalism. The Christian view that culture may serve God’s purpose stripped culture of idolatrous liability, emancipating it with the force of translation and usage.
While this quote, out of context, seems a tad triumphalist, the tone of the paper is not at all. It deals quite carefully with the excesses and failures of the Church as it has sought to evangelize people in diverse contexts.
But his main point is quite right. The Church, by warrant of her experience at the first Pentecost, has been sent out to proclaim the Gospel in ways which are sensible to people of different tongues and cultures. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have done this pretty well for the most part when they’ve moved into new places. But I’m wondering if we’re forgetting our need to be willing to invite the cultures we encounter to adapt the Gospel into forms which make sense to them, and especially so when the cultures I’m thinking of are near at hand – like the Hispanic Culture or Native American Cultures are to the Anglo Culture in the Southwest…