Yesterday, as three groups of the House of Bishops went to visit churches, museums and cultural centers around Taiwan, I found myself thinking about the challenges of proclaiming the eternal Gospel to people whose thinking is organized in radically different ways than that of the West.
It’s not a new problem. The early missionaries of the Church struggled with explaining the Hebrew roots of Christianity to people of the Hellenistic culture. Missionaries who traveled East long ago learned to share the good news in ways that were intelligible back then. And now that we, who are formed in Western thought are trying to travel West to share the same Gospel, we are having to revisit that missionary challenge once again.
On Friday, when we had a presentation from the principle of the Theological School in Hong Kong, we talked about the difficulty in explaining the formal relationships of the third person of the Trinity to the first and second persons, in a culture that understands Spirit in a totally different manner. What they’ve discovered in Hong Kong is that, to be effective in educating clergy for the East, they have had to move away from the classical Western Augustinian models of sin and redemption toward a paradigm of companionship and discipleship. Once that happened, there was a rapid change in the ability of the students to synthesize the material they were learning and express it in ways that both surprised and taught their instructors.
On Saturday I had the chance to have lunch with a retired Taiwanese Episcopal priest, who had been trained as a Western philosopher (and had taught at St. John’s University for part of his ministry). We talked at length of the challenges of teaching Western ideas in a completely different semiotic context. As one of the translators of the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin, he was particularly aware of the challenge of communicating nuance to the reader so that the reader would be able to understand and synthesize a deeper understanding in the way that students in Hong Kong recently have managed.
The two conversations have driven home for me the need for all of us who are trying to do missionary work (even among the scientific sorts) to think long and hard about the irreducible minimum concepts that we are trying to express. And how we can do so in a way that allows the hearers in the new and different culture the ability to respond in ways that teach us something about the nature of God. Since it does stand to reason that God is somehow present in their midst and has been whispering the Gospel in their ears all along (in a Rahnerian fashion I guess).
Anyone who has learned from the African, Native American and Latino Christians will know what I mean. Anyone who has learned something of God from the laboratory or the equation will as well I hope.
No answers – perhaps not for a long time, perhaps never. But it’s something to ponder while I wander the streets of a city in a country of a very different culture.