Inculturation as a Missionary/Evangelical Presence in a Religiously Plural Society: Two Examples from Sri Lanka

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1995 »Inculturation As A Missionaryevangelical Presence In A Religiously Plural Society Two Examples From Sri Lanka

Aloysius Pieris, S.J.




Inculturation is the key term, here, provided it is rightly understood.  I would skirt round the word to observe how it looks from five different angles of observation.  Hence the following five aspects must be taken together in assessing the two concrete examples given in the second part of this paper..

  1. From one angle it looks like another word for aggiornamento, that is,  an updating of the language which the church uses for evangelization, in keeping with the language which the Spirit speaks in other religions and secular ideologies that shape the lives of our people.  It amounts to speaking in such way that every one understands the message in his or her native tongue; in short, another Pentecost as Pope John XXXIII understood aggironamento to be.
  2. From another point of view, inculturation is the same as the church becoming proclamational or kerygmatic, that is to say, the church appropriating the liberative core of the other religions and ideologies of the country in such a way as to think, speak, pray and express itself ( in sacraments, life-styles, etc ) in a manner easily recognizable as a re-assuring Word of liberation addressed to the adherents of other faiths and a powerful Word of protest against the rule of Mammon that all religions repudiate.
  3. Still another point of observation would make inculturation appear like the process by which a church becomes so inserted into a religious culture of a people as not to be noticed -- just like salt.  At a meal in which hardly anyone mentions salt because hardly anyone notices its presence or absence, -- at such a meal, the salt has fulfilled its god-given task.  For, salt is irritatingly noticeable only when it makes its presence felt.  Whenever the church makes itself overpoweringly present (projects, buildings, ostentatious ceremonies, massive institutions etc.,) it fails to live its calling to be the salt, for it then attracts its attention to itself.  A church that maintains the liberative flavour of all religions non-triumphalistically and unnoticeably is authentically inculturated.
  4. Or again, inculturation is that which makes the church a lamp on a stand, which illumines the place, so that the believers of all religions can articulate their own liberative aspirations more clearly in its light;  the lamp fails in its mission when it blares in the faces of all, blinding their sight irritatingly.  A light that draws every  bodyÕs attention to itself does not allow things to be seen.  The sun is never to be looked at.  It is that by which we see others.  The focus, in short, should not be on the church but on other religions in terms of their liberative pursuits.  If that happens, there is an inculturated church.
  5. More correctly, inculturation is a process by which the church joins the paschal journey of the poor and acquire the faith, the hope and the love by which the simple folk of all faiths anticipate, in small daily glimpses, the glory that awaits them on the threshold of failure and frustration.  Many a form of youth militancy resorts to violence (this reflects the Òsuccess-modelÓ of the oppressors appropriated by the oppressed); but inculturation which consists of accompanying the victims of organized greed in their paschal journey, affirms the perennial human value of a hope-filled perseverance in the slow, painful but transformative struggle as taught and encouraged in all religions.  A church that is part of this struggle -- a struggle which requires the churchÕs withdrawal from or rejection by the power structures of a country, is truly inculturated.





This is a movement inspired  by  Pubuduwa (the Charismatic movement of Sri Lanka)

Though the Charismatic Movement in Sri Lanka started as an inward looking Spirit-search of like-minded individuals meeting for that purpose in groups, it gradually began (in the 1980s) to perceive the socio-political situation of the country also as the locus where the Spirit had to be invoked in prayer and penance, and where the same SpiritÕs transforming power had to be recognized and supported by human co-operation.  The movement took initiatives in forming a mass movement of Christians campaigning for justice and ecological wholeness.

In that process, it also absorbed the local cultural elements nourished by non-Christian religions.  This is evident in their way of praying, worshipping and living.  The affinity between the Beatitudes of Christ and the Buddhist-Hindu path of detachment as well as IslamÕs community spirit, each of which leads to greedless sharing and religious reverence towards nature, has become a strong motive and basis for their evangelical collaboration with those of the other three religions.

A fuller inculturation gradually led them (in the 1990s) to form the Samagi-Sandhanaya in which like-minded Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have joined them as one force in making a common front against the  [ previous ] RegimeÕs political liquidation of youth, destruction of nature and culture, child-prostitution and the erosion of religious values -- all these being the result of that RegimeÕs economic policies.  They intend to continue this policy in future, too.

This movement is an example of the salt or the light that never attracts attention to itself but serves humbly  in serving the whole society in maintaining the flavour of liberation within all religions and in illuminating the finer aspects of all beliefs so that the whole community of peoples of all faiths may together move towards a more humane, more just, more ecologically wholesome, a more free and liberatively religious world.

2.   The Kitusara Group.

This consists of a group of young priests and young lay persons, male and female, who have opted to live the paschal mystery in day-to-day life.  It is more radical and less visible than Pubuduwa just mentioned.

I use the Sinhala word Kitusara to designate them because it is the name of the monthly paper which they publish.  Tamil translations of some of their major articles reach a section of the Tamil speaking people thanks to the collaboration of certain Tamil priests.  This paper has quite a new theological slant.  Even to run a paper on a monthly basis is difficult here; but, on principle, they refuse any aid from the West as the majority of people have no access to foreign help.  The group is critical of any centres of dialogue, encounter and social action, which run on the basis of projects funded by Christian donor agencies.  They have proved that it is possible to do without foreign aid, by resorting to very hard measures that tap their own creativity and thus find the means to run the paper and to continue their activities.

Theirs is not an immersion into the poor, at least as far as the lay members are concerned; these Christians are poor by birth and destiny, not by option; but it is the priests who have chosen to immerse themselves in the lives of these youngsters.  These priests, as far as I know, witness scrupulously to what they preach and are, therefore, understandably, justified in their prophetic critique of all institutions.

Their struggle for life and the spirituality of sharing which marks that struggle, have allowed these Christians to get absorbed into the cultural expressions of that struggle both among the Sinhala and the Tamil people.  This is often misunderstood as a concession to radical but proscribed movements, though the group has clearly stood by their non-violent paschal mode of action in the midst of a growing impatience which inspires militant movements among the youth.  They have stood their ground in their dialogue with those who have opted for counter-violence.

There was no conscious effort at such inculturation (since all authentic inculturation according to us is a spontaneous acquisition); but inculturation becomes re-defined as the act of joining the paschal journey of the majority poor.  The theology that emerges from their experience has a frighteningly challenging thrust, like that of a double edged sword which pierces the highly clericalist and elitist sectors of the church and also the institutions of other religions.  Kitusara means, inter alia, Christ the Arrow or the Piercing Christ.

But their concern is not one of converting the ÒchurchdomÓ into their way of thinking ( for that is unnecessary and fruitless, according to them) but to resonate with all those Christians and non-Christians who live the paschal mystery and are in that sense (is there any other sense?) the body of Christ, a ÔchurchÕ of an authentic kind.  This sort of evangelical presence is invisibly effective as salt and critically distant as the unseen lamp that lights up all.

Some religious and priests who are challenged by the sincerity and the dedication of this group, show them their solidarity through a secret admiration entertained from a distance rather than by imitation.  The demands made by this group are as ÒimpossibleÓ as those of Jesus in the gospels.

What redeems them of fundamentalism is that they are a paschal people in a non-proselytizing solidarity with the non-Christian body of Christ (by which I mean the victims of the system, who, in our mostly non-Christian country, are not members of the official church).


Like all good things, such movements too can wear away with time or degenerate into self-righteous institutions or disappear into history as so many short-lived manifestations of good-will.  While hoping they may not succumb to this law of decay, one must, nevertheless, rejoice that such noble efforts -- always a mixture of sin and grace -- are making a dent in the church's conscience.