Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1994 »Inculturation In The Fabc Documents

Ladislav Nemet, S.V.D.

This study will attempt to present the notion of  inculturation in the documents of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences.  In the first part of the study the theological foundations of inculturation will be examined.

The reflection in the second part of this article will start with the description of the holistic approach to the complex Asian reality of religions, cultures and life-situations, especially to the poor and poverty.  In the next step, the reflection will attempt to present the method of inculturation in Asia.  Finally, the goal of inculturation in Asia as it is understood in the documents of FABC will be explained.





Analyzing the various documents of FABC and those of the different offices of the Federation, there is a certain consistency in the use and meaning of the term local church.  It is an analogous term applied to different forms of Christian communities which on different levels and to varying degrees, are realizing in their lives the requirements of becoming an ecclesial community.

In the documents there are three analogous forms of ecclesial communities called local churches: diocese, parish and Small or Basic Christian Communities.  From the context of pronouncements it can be established what kind of local church the text is talking about.

According to the documents the adjective local has a  theological significance.  History and geography, are intrinsic elements of creation and of God's economy  of action.  Thus the idea of local, although belonging to the categories of socio-cultural realities, takes up an importance in the theological field as well.

The term local church seems to be the fundamental ecclesiological concept of FABC which serves as a unifying basis for all ecclesiological models used in different documents,  These models are different from one another but all of them are expressions, whether functional or ontological, of the one reality of local churches.

The term particular church, although rarely used in FABC documents, always describe a diocese, organized around a bishop.  This use of the term is in accordance with the new Code of Canon Law, published in 1987.


The FABC in its first General Assembly in 1974, in Taipei, stated that "the primary focus of our task of evangelization then, at this time in our history, is the building up of a truly local church."  This statement has been one of the guiding principles of all the documents of Asian Bishops,  thus making ecclesiology one of the most important fields of theological reflection and the basis for any effort of inculturation.

Why is the building up of such a church the primary task in Asia in the present time?  And furthermore, how is such a church built up?

Analyzing the nature and structures of local churches we can discover two sources from which the elements that are decisive for building up the local church originate.  These two origins of ecclesiogenetic elements can be summarized as: "Ecclesia ex Trinitate"  and  "Ecclesia ex hominibus."

It is the Triune God who in a totally free and gratuitous act of love calls men and women to become parts of his eternal plan of salvation.  This plan takes concrete forms when the Gospel is proclaimed in the power of the Spirit in a concrete historical moment to people of different races, cultures and origins.  The Gospel awakens a response of faith which, brings the believers into a community of worshiping persons.  A group of people, invited and touched by the experience of the Divine, recognizing the same values, having the same ideals, becomes a community of believers, united by bonds of love, service and communion.

The tracing of the origins of every ecclesial community from the Trinity remains one-side if it is not counterbalanced by the second source of ecclesiality: every local church has its origin in a concrete historical and socio-cultural reality.  It is important to underline that we do not speak here only about individuals, but about groups which organize themselves according to the local culture and customs.  This fact derives from the social nature of men and women.

It is when the response to God's initiative through the Gospel is explicitly expressed by hearers of the Word, that the process of the birth of a local church begins.

The encounter between different ecclesiogenetic elements, coming from two different sources, becomes a constant process, a constant salvific dialogue between God with men and women of history.  This encounter is not a static moment of the history, once and for all;  it happens every time that God calls men and women to salvation, and every time that someone answers this call.  Thus "the building up of a local church" is a never-ending process of "becoming a local church."

The idea of "becoming a local church" in most cases does not mean starting from absolute zero.  There are already many well-formed local churches, and even the Gospel itself, when it comes into contact with a concrete person or group of persons, is already formed according to certain previous cultural incarnations.  Being a process constantly in realization, "becoming a local church" means that the Gospel is meeting a living group of people in every moment of history.

A privileged form of ecclesial community is the Basic Christian or Ecclesial Community.  The significance and importance of Basic Christian or Ecclesial Communities lies in the fact that all the members of such a community are involved in building the church, realizing it in their concrete life-situations.


The mystery of the Trinity is intrinsically connected with the birth and development of local churches.  If the mystery of the Trinity is so important for the being and  acting of a local church, the question should be put: what are the specific roles of the divine Persons in this encounter between the Gospel and cultures?

It seems that there are no indications for a clear and elaborated idea of the role of the Father in the theology of inculturation in the documents of FABC.  However, the christology of the documents of FABC, can be summarized in one idea: Christ has a universal meaning for the whole of creation and for all people, whether they know Him or not.

The universal meaning of Jesus Christ is based on the totality of the Christ-event.  This totality requires the development of a christology in which the cosmic christology of Paul, the Logos of John's Prologue and the letter to the Hebrews have the same importance and centrality as the events of the  historical Jesus:  his Incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

Especially those latter elements of the Christ-event are of great importance in Asia:  in a continent marked by the poverty, suffering and great expectations of millions, the example of Jesus, his way of accepting suffering and death, his fight for the total liberation of all the marginalized, abandoned and poor and his resurrection, mean the dawning of a new hope for Asia:   a  new life of peace, justice and love.

The documents of FABC clearly acknowledge the role and centrality of Jesus in Asia, because of the salvation of the whole of creation through Him, in Him and towards Him.  In this theological approach inculturation means appreciation of the whole creation and salvation present in the Church and in the world in some mysterious way "unknown to us,"  because they all have their origin in the Christ-event.


The concept of inculturation supposes a mutual interaction of the Gospel and culture, an interaction that leads towards a new creation.  This new creation is made possible by and is the fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit who "calls each people and each culture to its own fresh and creative response to the Gospel."  All creativity, whether in the Church or in the world, that leads toward the realization of the process of inculturation has its beginning in the Holy Spirit.

The presence and the action of the Spirit in and for the process of inculturation manifests itself differently according to this double localization: in the Church and in the world.

The Holy Spirit is the force that unites the ecclesiogenetic elements in an ecclesial community.  He is the inspiring strength that moves men and women, touched by the Word of God, to form a community, to become a group of disciples of the Lord.  The Spirit urges everyone to express their faith through means and symbols proper to their mentality, with new forms of leadership and a sense of mission.

The action of the Spirit is not limited only to the moment of creation of an ecclesial community.  The continuous encounter between the Gospel and cultures in the process of inculturation requires a local church to carry out a prudent discernment of the values involved in this process, of the signs of the times, of the human attitudes in the Church and outside of it, of realities that are of  benefit for the Church or not.

The gift  of discernment is present in the whole community of believers, when they live their faith as an ecclesial community.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in a community together with the living Word of the Risen Lord makes the community the principle agent of theologizing, fully realizing the sense of the old convictionabout sensus fidei fidelium.   Sensus fidei fidelium is an important  manifestation of the Spirit which leads toward a constructive discernment, but only when the faithful are united with their pastors.  The pastors, whether bishops or other ordained ministers, are called to interpret the activity of the Spirit in the world and in the Church, to help the members of their ecclesial communities to understand the challenges of the present time and to listen attentively to the voice of the same Spirit, active in the faithful.

The attitude of listening and being with the community is  very much needed in a Church understood as a communion where all members are called to participation and co-responsibility.  It does not mean that the final responsibility for a decision is not in the hands of the pastors, especially the bishops; but it does mean that these decisions are the fruits of common concerns and deliberations and are not an arbitrary exercise of power on the part of ordained ministers.

The Spirit has been present in the world from the beginning of creation.  More specifically, in the same manner the Spirit had been present in cultures, peoples, religions even before the Gospel was proclaimed in a given environment.  The Spirit is manifested in the "seeds of the Word," in the traces of truth, which are present in every culture and religion of the world.

These manifestations of the Spirit in the world on the one hand, and the action of the same Spirit in local churches on the other, bring about the realization of the true Catholicity of the Church, the integration of noble elements of the world in a new synthesis of the Gospel leading towards a new creation in a local  church.


A fundamental datum of the reality in Asia is the omnipresent diversity and pluralism: pluralism of religious and cultures, languages and traditions.

The FABC documents take a positive approach to pluralism in Asia, and consequently in the world.  Pluralism is a gift of the self-manifesting love of the Father, who is the Creator of everything and wants to share his fullness of life with all his creation.  It is an original characteristic of the creative act of God the Father, a fact partially affected by the original sin, but not destroyed fully.

Pluralism and diversity do not deny another fundamental truth that all creatures, human or not, although different in races, languages, cultures, are called to a common destiny and unity by the Father to his Kingdom.  The Father, through his Son and in the power of the Spirit, calls the whole of creation to salvation and promises integral liberation to the whole creation.

This is a universal call.  It means that the call cannot be reduced only to individual salvation, knowing the Asian mentality and values of togetherness, the sense of a holistic approach to reality, the community and the family.  And, on the other hand, plurality of religions in this context means that every religion is more than a natural and human way to God.

Creation, understood as a variety, diversity and pluralism of all created things, has a fundamentally positive value because everything is created by the Father.  This fact relativizes the role of the so-called "Christian culture" as a certain form of higher culture.  Christian culture becomes one of the possible ways of expressing the perennial search of humanity to organize life as an expression of the human spirit.



Inculturation in Asia, has to start from the actual Asian reality.  And this reality is characterized by different elements which can be defined according to the First General Assembly of FABC as "the living traditions, the cultures, the religions... all the life-realities of the people in whose midst it (the local church) has sunk its roots deeply and whose history and life it (the local church) gladly makes its own."

This complex reality of Asia is, nevertheless, operative as one in every moment of history.  If there is any attempt to specify, divide and analyze the three different elements of the Asian reality as seperate entities, it is inspired and justified more by an effort to clarify the different elements than to affirm their seperate existence in the real-life situations.  It means that, if it aspires to be authentic and Asian in its deepest nature, inculturation should take the Asian reality holistically.

But the holistic approach has another meaning as well: it  is not only a characteristic of the Asian reality, it is a characteristic of the mentality of Asians.  It means that man is always part of the totality of the universe:  of the cosmos and of the earth, involved in all the aspects of life, in its full complexity.


The great religious traditions have a privileged place in the process of inculturation.  The understanding of the role of great religions and how the Church is supposed to relate to them has been in constant development in the various documents.  There are two starting points:  firstly, the great religions are expressions of God's salvific will, as well as man's free response to God's invitation.  This idea is constant in all documents of FABC.  Secondly, in all the religions the presence of the seeds of the Word is acknowledged while stressing the task of the Church to recognize these seeds and bring them into the Church in order to enrich the local churches, and through the local churches the universal Church.  This implies that, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in these religions, they are an authentic way of life leading their followers towards God, and in interaction and dialogue with them,  Christians can discover new expressions and insights into their own faith.

Explicitly, this perception leads to a "receptive pluralism:  that is to say, the many ways of responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit must be continually in conversation with one another."   Here, there is a shifting of the accent from collecting the seeds of the Word in religions and inserting them into the local church, to constructive collaboration and dialogue that can lead to the recognition of the deepest values and aspirations of Asian people, the clarification of meanings and symbols, and the ability to work hand-in-hand in realizing the common destiny of all the nations and people on the  continent.  This perception leads slowly to a realization that all the religions are complementary in "the historically and culturally conditioned ways in which people in a pilgrim state have experienced and expressed their relation to and the significance-to-life of the Absolute."

The principal criterion in this interaction and collaboration is orthopraxis --  the authenticity of the participants to serve all the members of the community in achieving a better, more human society and fullness of life.

Inculturation in such understanding does not mean extracting selected elements from different religions, whether purely philosophical notions or religious values, and the subsequent incorporation of these elements into Christianity; but it is a dialogical process of collaboration and critical interaction for the realization of the fullness of life in Asia.


The documents of FABC do not provide a definition of culture.  This is understandable knowing that these documents are of pastoral orientation and not doctrinal treatises.  However,  from various pronouncements an idea of culture emerges, understood in a holistic sense, as a set of meanings and values that shape human consciousness, which are expressed in the thought-patterns, artistry, language and aspirations of a given group or nation.   Culture is a reality in a constant process, formed by generations of ancestors, transmitted as traditions, customs, that are changing under the impact of various influences in time and space.  Even inside the very compact culture of one nation or one ethnic group there are many sub-cultures that are conditioned by different life situations and the smaller groups which constitute and shape the larger entity.  Thus,  one can find in the limits of a national culture, subcultures as such as youth, urban workers, the poor, peasants, middle class, tribal or ethnic minority groups, and many others.

Rapid modernization  and technologization pose new questions for the announcement of the Gospel in Asia,  challenging the inculturation efforts of the Church to find an adequate solution to these problems.    And as a result of these changes in Asian societies, the Church is called to work on the creation of a  new self-identity for Asian Christians --  an identity that includes the elements of the ancient traditions, a response to the questions of modernity and a constant adjustment to the norms of the Gospel.

Although accepted with respect and openness, cultures are submitted to a critical approach:  the documents recommend the examination of them in the light of the Gospel to find out what might be negative in them and not compatible with the Christian message and life-style.   In addition, social sciences and modern scientific tools are also put to the service of this critical approach, leading to a more detailed understanding of the cultural phenomena.   This critical approach presupposes an attitude of "listening to cultures,"   On the one hand, it is a fundamental attitude of a local church and its members that the local community has to decide what is good for her in the given socio-cultural and historical moment and context.

At the same time, cultures are used as hermeneutical criteria in understanding the Gospel as it has been and is preached, liberating it --  as far as possible  --  from its previous historical and cultural embodiments and putting it into practice.   In this process, the role of local churches, and especially the Basic Ecclesial Communities, is very important.  In the concrete realization of lives and faith-experiences of the members of these Basic Ecclesial Communities, culture and the Gospel come into a decisive contact, leading to a new understanding of both realities.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this section of our study that there is no official definition of culture in FABC documents.  Obviously, a clearer idea of culture could be useful for  the process of inculturation.


Apart from cultures and religions as constituent elements of the Asian reality, there is another factor that characterizes and decisively influences the local churches and their inculturation efforts on this continent: poverty and the phenomenon of the poor.  Half of the population of this enormous continent live in poverty.  Back in 1970 the Asian Bishops' Meeting in Manila took up this problem.  Since that meeting the question of poverty and the poor have been occupying a very important position in the documents of FABC.  Generally, poverty stems from two main reasons in Asia: it can be voluntary (as it is practiced and highly appreciated in great religions) and it can be structural: "Our people are poor in this sense:.. they are 'deprived' deliberately. "

Because of this two-fold understanding of poverty local churches should make different answers to the challenges posed by poverty.  The critical approaches to cultures and religions cannot be limited only to a scientific analysis of the situation.  Structural poverty  --  often the result of greed and injustice  --  should be fought with all the means of the Church.

On the other hand, the local churches should enter into a  dialogue of life with the poor, in order to listen to the aspirations and needs of these groups, to be able to proclaim the Gospel to them according to their expectations.  A better  understanding of the poor and of poverty through direct contact with them is necessary for all who represent the Church:  ministers, missionaries, religious,  priests,  bishops.  In such life-contacts and experiences the poor can teach the Church humility, solidarity, and detachment from material wealth.  If a local church really wants to become inculturated, truly indigenous, it has to become a church of the poor, with the poor, among the poor and not only for the poor.

At the end we can ask: how far can a culture or cultures influence the Gospel in the process of a new hermeneutics in a new context?  Unfortunately, the documents of FABC do not give a clear answer to this question.


The basic methodology of inculturation, according to the documents of FABC is a dialogical encounter of all the elements of  the inculturation process.   Inculturation is a dialogue between the Gospel, lived individually or in a community of believers as a local church on the one hand, and of the Asian reality on the other.

A  dialogical process of inculturation happens in communities where people live their common-life-situations in the  midst of the Asian reality.  The process of inculturation starts at the grassroots level, in a constant dialogue of life with religions, cultures, and the poor.  It should then be filtered -- with the help of experts -- through the theological, ethnological, anthropological sciences, to find out the compatibility of the process and end results with the living Tradition of the Church.  In this way the final result will not lead to a "dubious syncretism (which we all rightly reject), but to an integration -- profound and organic in character -- of all that is best in our traditional ways ... into the treasury of our Christian heritage."

How can a dialogical process lead towards inculturation? What happens with the values and meaning embodied in the Gospel and in cultures/religions involved in a dialogical process?

Dialogue happens in an encounter between individuals or groups where communication between the different sides of the encounter plays an essential role.  In this way dialogue and a dialogical process can be understood as a communication problem between  two or more individuals or communities.    Dialogue as communication can be realized on different levels:  on a first level, it can be a simple argumentative discourse, a presentation of two different points of views which can then lead to a second level: a deeper encounter of ideas, meanings and the different realities of the partners in the dialogue.  However, this dialogue serves to draw the lines between the two partners, clarifying the limits and self-understanding.  On the third level, dialogue is an interaction of partners who force themselves to enter into the world of meanings and symbols of the other.  They try to find common symbols and meanings which can be understood in both partners' world of symbols, leading thus to a possibility of interaction, exchange and mutual enrichment.

A meaningful inculturation happens on the third level of dialogue, perceived as an understanding of the two different systems of values and meanings involved in the process of inculturation, finding common symbols which can then serve as the  basis for a new creation.

With regard to the theological foundations of dialogue and the dialogical process of inculturation, the documents of the FABC see them in the inner-trinitarian dialogical life reality of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit which leads to mutual enrichment of the divine Persons.

A dialogical process of inculturation presupposes certain human attitudes,  practiced in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual respect, knowledge of both the Gospel with its implications and of the local cultures, religions and life-situations.  This is the  reason why the real agents of inculturation should be the members of local origin, who know of the local cultural and the religious backgrounds necessary to find common meanings and values in them which are later used in the process of inculturation.


It seems that in the first documents of FABC the dominating idea regarding the goal of inculturation was Church-centered:  the main goal was to build up a truly local church.

Around the middle of the Seventies a new notion began to emerge in the documents of the FABC: the idea of the Kingdom of God.  In the official documents of FABC the Kingdom of God becomes a goal to be achieved and spread in the world through the evangelizing work of local churches.    The Kingdom is present in the world, even outside the visible Church's boundaries.  The Kingdom is a creation of the Father, presented and realized in the  preaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom is present in the whole world and in every man and woman on earth and is vivified by the Spirit.   The presence of the Kingdom is discovered in the "seeds of the Kingdom"   which are operating in the whole world,  independently of the boundaries of the Church.

Kingdom values or seeds of the Kingdom are expressed in human longings, aspirations and actions on behalf of justice, peace, solidarity with the poor, non-violence.   These values or seeds are the heritage of all people of goodwill, whether religious, atheist, Christian or non-Christian.   Their presence in the world does not mean that people do not have to work on their full realization.  People have to fight for it, to realize it in their lives and their societies, groups and nations.

Thus the presence of the Kingdom, operating in the world, far from putting aside the mission of the Church in Asia, challenges the Church to find a new role for itself and for its efforts of inculturation in Asia. The Church in this new situation has to put itself into the service of the Kingdom, towards realizing the Father's Kingdom and its values together with the whole of humankind.  This work consists of building up a "new human community,"  together with all the people of good-will and it  "involves necessarily the process of inculturation in which  religions become incarnate in a culture and transform it from within by challenging it with a new value system."

The process of inculturation is no longer a question of a search for external adaptation to Asian reality and way of living, but a question of an existential nature:  being and living in Asia and with Asians, becoming involved in all the aspects of life, collaborating with all the forces which are working actively to build up the Kingdom.  An inculturated local church in the service of the Kingdom is finally the sacrament of the same Kingdom.


It can be said that the notion of inculturation in the documents of FABC has undergone many changes in its long development, starting from the first documents up until the current documents.

The word inculturation was used first in the Final Statement of the Asian Bishops' Meeting in Manila in 1970.  Since then it has been used frequently in Asia and in the FABC documents, although it is not accepted unanimously.  After analyzing the complex reality of Asia the reason of this distrust seems clear.  As F. X. Clark states it   "it is important to recognize that the term (inculturation) is derived from European languages, it flows from a certain implied metaphor, a particular way of interpreting reality."   Inculturation implies an interaction between the Gospel or Christian faith and culture, but in Asia this can be taken as a simplification of the whole problem.  The FABC documents clearly state that inculturation is a more complex encounter between the Gospel and a local church in the whole Asian reality, made up of religions, cultures, poverty and the poor.  There is a need to replace the word with another, more appropriate term that can avoid this misunderstanding.

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