Dialogue and Culture: Reflections by a Temporary Sojourner, 328-34

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John M. Prior, S.V.D.

John Mansford Prior, S.V.D. has been working in Indonesia since 1973. He is presently secretary of Candraditya Research Center for the study of Religion and Culture. He has previously published two articles on the 1998 Synod. “A Tale of Two Synods: Observations on the Special Assembly for Asia” (Vidyajyoti 62, 1998), and “Apostles and Martyrs: Consecrated Life at the Bishops’ Synod for Asia” (Review for Religious 58,1999).


This Conference has kindly provided us with a workshop presentation written up for the Seventh General Assembly of the FABC in January 2000.1 In a paper which I presented at this conference I contrasted three cultural frames: organic or cosmic culture often called “pre-modern” scientific culture which claims moral neutrality and is usually called “modern,” and the contemporary whirlpool of collapsing cultural boundaries with the fragmentation of local cultures, called, for want of a more appropriate name, “post-modern.” In this paper I wish to take the FABC presentation a step further. I wish to look more closely at distinct and decisive cultural trends set in motion by the globalization of the economy and social communications.

As the globalizing kaleidoscope moves inexorably round, so a number of cultural patterns have emerged, each absorbing distinctive parts of the “pre-modern,” “modern” and “post-modern” frames. Important for our deliberations is the fact that each trend is based upon, and in turn promotes, its own set of cultural values. For this paper I would like to focus upon four such emerging cultural frames that are shaping religious allegiance. They are, firstly, the globalizing culture itself, the culture of the transnationals, of international trade treaties and of the commercial side of the internet, sometimes called the “McDonaldization” of culture. Secondly, the secular and consumerist culture of the middle classes, those who benefit from the globalizing of the economy and communications. Thirdly, the rise of cultural and religious fanaticism among the losers of the globalizing process, a strong reaction to the marginalization of local culture leading to frantic cultural encapsulation. And fourthly, the birth of open communicative cultural networkspromoting human dignity.

My simple thesis is that as a world church we must guard against mirroring the “McDonaldization” of culture through an increasingly centralized bureaucracy and staid uniformity made possible by electronic communications (frame one). We should also be aware of the seduction of consumerism and be ready to form contrast cultures of sufficiency and joy (frame two). We need to face the rise of religious and cultural extremism (frame three) while consciously creating an open communicative culture in the church itself (frame four). The latter is created by the pilgrims, the probers, the adventurers among us. Because I am convinced that only here can transparent and truthful dialogue take place between religious adherents. I shall speak at length of the pilgrim of dialogue who assists in the creation of openly inter-faith communities-in-dialogue.

The year 2001 was the UN International Year of Dialogue between Cultures, and the theme of last year’s World Day of Prayer on January 1st was Dialogue between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace. “Dialogue” urges us to become pilgrims, to step out and go beyond, while “culture” encourages us to set down roots and feel at home. I wish to probe precisely this tension inherent in the living out of our faith, the tension between broadening horizons and deepening roots. I begin with the cultural “homing principle” and then go on to look at the dialogical “pilgrim principle.”2

Two Picture-Statements

Cultural Symbiosis

It is May 2000. A couple of young men punt their way to the post-office in Agats, a small settlement above the everglades on the southern coast of West Papua (Irian Jaya). After tying up their dug-out they clamber up the wooden walkway. Entering the post office they tap out an email message to friends in Europe. Then they climb down to their canoe and punt back to their long-house home.

That Asmat image of the dugout and the digital remains with me.3 Without the slightest hesitation or trace of doubt, these young Asmats were using material cultures that span at least 20,000 years from dugout-tech to cyber-tech. The canoe is still the most efficient means of transport within Asmat villages while the internet is the fastest communication network worldwide. The local and the global meet in the everyday. Primal-tech and cyber-tech, slow-moving oral cultures and instant-click computer cultures, pre-literate and post-literate, well-tried tradition and a well-advertized consumerist future, small-scale and satellite-scale, the well-known, manageable neighbourhood guarded by ancestral spirits and the seemingly uncontrollable, globalizing outside—the sphere of wild, nature-spirits—are forming cultural whirlpools throughout Asia. And in the depths of silence at the heart of these cultural storms we are called to listen to the still, small voice of the human heart.

Cultural symbiosis occurs peacefully where there is mutual trust and readiness to compromise, where people belong to a number of different and disparate worlds and wish to be excluded from none. Locally rooted the Asmats seem able to bend to the global storm like coconut trees and bamboo clumps. Embracing the local and the global they are bridging human isolation and intimacy. For however “primitive” local Asian cultures were once labelled—and the Asmat people were head-hunting until the 1930s and using stone implements as recently as the 1950s—they are now bridging within themselves and their everyday experience unimaginable cultural gulfs across time and space. And in that bridging they— and we—encounter the heart of what is truly human: goodness and beauty, wonder and joy, civility and justice, truth and unity, love and compassion (cf Col 3:12-15).

Cultural Psychosis

Another image. Same month, same place, almost. The men have gathered in their clan house to sharpen their spears. Struck by independence fever the Asmats polish their traditional weapons while urging each other on for no bullet can harm them, no army defeat them. Protected by ancestral spirit-power and drawn on by the sago-sago cargo cult, independence is assured on 1st December next.4 Here also, we encounter a mix of the pre-modern and the post-modern. The dream of an independent West Papuan State fought for with spears, heroic courage and ancestral magic.5 A few months later some 30,000 weapons were distributed by Indonesian army personnel among the tribes of West Papua. A tragic massacre is in the making. 

Threatened, local cultures tend to close in upon themselves, withdraw from encroaching domination and exploitation from the outside in a vain attempt to avoid control by others. Thus, a cosmic culture of rough equality and fairness transforms itself into a sub-culture of fear, coercion and fanaticism, even petty fascism.

Challenging Frames

This is West Papua in the year 2000; it is also an image of the ebb and flow of cultural change in Asia and the Pacific and in the world at large today.6 The emailing youngsters image acculturation,7 a cultural symbiosis, a merging of the local and the global, of religious and secular cultures. However threatened we might feel by rapid social change, here is a cultural Areopagus of hope.

The second case reminds us that some cannot cope with the clash of cultures and withdraw into a re-constructed past. Threatened, minority groups can become mentally isolated and culturally encapsulated and seem to loose their flexibility and above all their compassionate humanity. That road leads to cultural and religious fanaticism and a frantic scramble to stake a claim in society through status, achievement and possessions. Here we face the storm of despair. Experience shows that the more encapsulated we are by our own group the less transcendent the values by which we live; the more hardened our minds the more brittle the culture. Without a true sense of belonging, cultures hollow out, become empty and pointless. We become hurt and damaged, both personally and as cultural communities. The more fixated our objectives, the more stagnant the culture.

The “Homing Principle”: Rooted in Genuine Cultural Values

“What, then, will people gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting their life? Or what can anyone offer in exchange for his/her life?” (Mt 16:26).

Faith Encounter

Each of the world faiths, born in Asia, has rooted itself in local, cosmic or tribal (primal) cultures. A symbiosis has occurred between the values of the incoming world faith and local, tribal values. This is apparent if we note how differently Buddhism has grown in India, and then re-rooted itself in China and much of Southeast Asia. Or at the contrasting cultures that Islam has created from Pakistan to Indonesia. Local cosmic cultures are imbued with a potent spiritual “infrastructure”—living myths and stories, patterns and paradigms that inspire and urge us on. Cosmic cultures thrive on group processes and have a highly developed cooperative spirit. They are sensitive to the welfare of others having evolved a vibrant civil society at village level. For countless eons they have been successful as small-scale, de-centralized societies. Many cosmic cultures have had a seemingly unlimited ability to adapt to changing exigencies and absorb incoming “cultural creatives” from outside, however discordant to the observer’s ear.8 Thus, Islam, a religion of the book, has become one with syncretistic Javanese culture. Inter-faith dialogue is possible when we are open to what is genuinely human in the other, and where our own culture is open to the transcendent.

Market Encounter

The contrast here is between this ongoing symbiosis between different cultural groups—sometimes occurring over centuries, other times in short, sharp, shocks—and the crass values of the market place.9 For the very cosmic culture in which religions have taken root is being systematically marginalized by the onslaught of neo-liberal globalization. The progressive globalization of the economies of Asia and the Pacific is having a devastating impact upon the religious cultures of the region—upon their daily life and everyday traditions, upon their social role and organization, upon their deepest human values and religious significance, upon their ethos and worldview. A global, materialistic world order is edging out the spiritual, moral and compassionate “composite cultures” of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Christian and primal peoples. An unbridled, global economy is placing consumerist, materialistic values at the center of life. A violently competitive capitalist ideology alien to local cultures is turning people and nature into instruments of the global marketplace.

“This accumulation of power, the characteristic note of the modern economic order, is a natural result of limitless free competition, which permits the survival only of those who are the strongest, which often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience.”10

Neo-liberal capitalism does not believe in human freedom but in the freedom of the market. It believes that millions of selfish, price-driven decisions, when left to market forces, will create the greatest social good. In such an economy, driven by a lust for raw power and an insatiable greed for wealth, there is little room for authentic, religious humanism—for conscience and compassion, for dignity and equity, for solidarity and cooperation, for integrity and sustainability. Our Christian vision of the male and female as images of the Divine (cf. Gn 1:26-27), as children of an all-loving God (cf. Jn 1:13; 1 Jn 3:1), is being sidelined by the pragmatic, mechanistic image of people as marketable commodities. In such a global culture, God is unnecessary. Unsurprisingly, a practical agnosticism holds sway among the stake-holders at the center of power.

Winners’ Values

The neo-liberal global market is generating the fickle values of a self-serving, short-term opportunism. “Advanced” economies are no longer based on human production but on moving money at the click of a computer. As globalization gradually colonizes local and regional economies, the political state has become virtually defenseless and local cultures increasingly uprooted. Asia and Africa are characterized by massive domestic and international migration. The neo-liberal economy has an inbuilt bias against rural peoples. Typically, the rural poor move on to become the urban poor. The unprecedented gap between the few super-rich who control the reigns of political power and the marginalized, powerless majority is an insult to both human dignity and sensibility.

We might contrast elements from these two value systems as follows. Cosmic cultures and genuine faith-traditions place justice and peace, solidarity and love at the heart of human development. In place of these, neo-liberalism places unrestricted economic growth whatever the social cost. Religious humanism works with interdependence and solidarity, while neo-liberalism thrives on competition and the victory of the strongest. Neo-liberalism deifies the “unseen hand” of economic law, while religious teachings and cosmic cultures work within moral norms. Neo-liberalism has commodified nature, work relationships, the products of labor and even human life itself. In faith-traditions and cosmic cultures, nature is sustained in its integrity, work and its fruits are shared; all life is sacred.

The Inter-Faith Challenge: that persons and communities of dialogue root themselves in the vibrant yet defenceless and increasingly marginalized cosmic cultures of the world, while opening themselves up to the rigors of scientific inquiry and the opportunities of global networking.

The Ecclesial Challenge: As a church we need to absorb and give equal weight to each and every genuine, cultural narrative, refrain from cultural hegemony whether national (national culture over against local indigenous cultures), or international (a western tradition over against myriad local traditions). Only a multi-cultural, poly-centric world church is able to dialogue.

The “Pilgrim Principle”: Building up Contrast-Communities of Hope


This Conference was made possible by the globalizing culture and yet we are probably sharply critical of its mind-set: the accumulation of possessions, the reduction of everything and everyone to a market commodity, even to disposable objects.11 In a consumerist society enough is never enough. The mind becomes slow and heavy; the effort to think differently is too demanding, the least stir in that direction already has us out of breath. Our minds are hugely overweight. Hardened, we are no longer able to feel and sense the ever-present sacred way our forebears did. The McDonaldization of culture is erasing all individuality, at least on the surface, and eroding deep-seated human values at the heart of Asian cultures. The instant culture of fast-food and fast-results, of immediate gratification and urgent success is devoid of imagination. The imagination of the Asmat people and other peoples in this region is in crisis as they lose the sense of the natural unevenness and unpredictability of living. Hundreds of millions of migrants have been uprooted from their cultural homes and thrown together in urban sprawls. Thus local cultures have been attacked at their heart by the shallow yet all-enticing values of the global market, separating cultural transmitters from their well-known and understood cultural contexts. Understandably, Asian cultures have become deeply fragmented. On the one hand we see the rise in religious and cultural fanaticism and communal violence. On the other, the hollowing out of human expectations and hopes. 

As the outer cultural shelters fall in ruins, we need to reawaken the depths of belonging in the human mind and soul that will reawaken the unexpected possibilities of the human heart, the ever widening horizon of community hope and joy. Has this not been carried out through the centuries by religious communities? When religious communities ossify, becoming overtly institutionalized or individualized, they play safe in utterly conventional ways, becoming narrow even obsessive, tending to exclude rather than embrace. They become part of the problem, and simply mirror the tepid values of a globalizing market.


The wandering pilgrim of dialogue is not to be found among those drawn into the constant activity and excitement that exposes the vacant heart of the consumerist media; a haunted lonesomeness. The cross-cultural pilgrim is not a rootless nomad wandering from excitement to excitement, sensation to sensation unable to settle anywhere for too long. Chasing after ephemeral images, exhausted, fumbling on without a foothold. Numbed, distracted from memories of a tradition that no longer speaks. Consumerist culture is mean and controlling, unravelling the beautiful unseen and unheeded. Facing the darkness of crass consumerism we are not lonesome for we have reclaimed the stillness of a sunrise across the smoldering crater of Mount Bromo, a splendid sunset behind the silhouette of Tana Lot.12 We need to become still, a silent witness like rock landscape, quietly present at the heart of cultures riven with fracture and fragmentation.

The institution tends to acquire and control. The reverential community can let things be and celebrate presence: natural, personal, divine. The reverential community recognizes and respects the otherness and the beauty of the world and endeavors to transfigure the desire to define oneself through possessions, achievements and power. The reverential community cuts back the undergrowth of banality, sensation and exteriority which leaves us so distracted and overwhelmed. We then form a contrast culture fundamentally unaffected by things, possessions, achievements, stimulants, distractions; unconcerned with the treadmill of percentages, statistics, ephemeral progress. Here, the defenceless flowers of small Christian communities and inter-faith communities—and small groups of religious?—come into their poetic-prophetic best.


We are called to be pilgrims of discovery amidst the crassness of anchor-less urban sub-cultures of the marginalized. Relentless voyagers, empowered by a magnificent, creative restlessness. Pilgrims in dialogue do not limit themselves to one frame of thinking, one language, one culture, one faith tradition. A monolingual propositional Christianity closes out the mystery, hollows out faith hidden behind fixed walls of ideology, rules and conventions. Such cultural ghettoes form “grey fields of quiet desperation.” Inter-faith dialogue in multi-cultural Asia is a call to step outside the comfort barriers of the enclosed Christian circle isolated in the cities or equally alone in the “Christian” village. Cross-cultural inter-faith pilgrims are those who fall in love with the danger of reaching out, going beyond, growing into, uniting with. Discovery enlarges and refines our cultural and religious sensibility. That is how, over the generations, the Christian movement once rooted itself among Germanic bands and Anglo-Saxon hordes. Grounded in trust, transparently open to the transcendent, we discover a real and vital equilibrium, the re-convergence of yin and yang. That is why the pilgrim-in-dialogue lives at the frontier—socially, culturally and religiously.

Only those profoundly at home in their own faith tradition can live at the threshold with integrity and creativity. Truthful and creative, people of both fragility and pathos, we can image rock outcrops that stand firm with the restless ocean breaking all around.

The Culture of Multi-Faith Pilgrims13

Elsewhere I have raised concern about the “culture” of the seminary or faculty of theology, the type of person coming through our formation communities.14 Here I shall simply sketch out the characteristics of the life-long, cross-cultural, multi-faith pilgrim.


Cultures at their most profound are aware that at heart they embrace silence, a silence that echoes in the human heart that opens up to the inner core. Thus rooted, the pilgrim of dialogue is a person of wild longing, of impossible dreams, of adventure and exploration, of tender power and joyful living. 

Free and creative people who inhabit the silent depth within and express it in word and movement, picture and sound, are able to dialogue with followers of other faith traditions. Pilgrims of dialogue are rooted in one culture yet belong to many. Vulnerable inter-faith pilgrims are flexible, open and challenging. Open to the transcendent while enjoying the everyday routine, they liberate each other from cultural falsity and religious obsessions and radiate “cosmic compassion” at the heart of creation. For at the core of all living cultures and religions we encounter a resonant heart, a depth of silence, the Nothing who is All.

People of dialogue face the breakage within and the vulnerability of their cultural and ecclesial group. The contrast here is with self-satisfied cold conviction, with deadly certainty, with the closed circle. It is sacrilege to imprison Buddha, or lock the source of life in a tabernacle. Claims to absolute truth are human arrogance at its most dangerous, the kindling wood that blazes into communal riots, racial hatred, religious violence.15 Pilgrims of dialogue have little need of walls, work freely with word and ritual, thrive on imagination, are at home with their own tradition yet yearning to be at home with the other. A pilgrim is uncluttered and unostentatious; quietly elegant with the subtlety of silence and the simplicity of truth that only a pristine spirit and profound authenticity can gift. 

People of dialogue know themselves to be temporary sojourners on a defenseless planet that belongs to our children’s children. They acknowledge that their grip on reality is tenuous, that their one stay and stand is the Trinity in whom they move and live and have their being.


Asian spiritualities have opened us up to our own Christian tradition that sees life as gift, that all is grace, that joy is in non-possession. This understanding lies in contrast to the globalizing consumerist culture that grasps and accumulates. Depth (rooted in) follows ascetical tranquillity, the freedom to leave aside all that is not necessary, necessities that grow fewer by the year. Dialogue in Asia involves listening to the inner music of the soul, re-engaging the rhythm of nature, yes, in the midst of ecological devastation. Not isolated in walled monasteries, but willing pilgrims with the uprooted poor in the mega-cities—and even there in rhythm with our own nature, in touch with nature’s flow and balance. In the midst of urban fragmentation we allow things to cohere and fit according to their deeper impulse and instinct. Living thus, the eternally transcendent awakens within.

Pilgrims of inter-faith dialogue travel light, and are rarely burdened with detailed programs or packed agendas. Like fire-flies that alight upon the skin without the human host feeling the slightest tickle, yet flash brightly and, in sufficient numbers, create a Bethlehem night-scape, so too, do inter-faith pilgrims radiate new birth, fire new hope, spark with new possibility. The pilgrim is fully at home with the Christian tradition with all its horror and beauty, with its deviations and truth. The trustful inter-faith pilgrim senses truth without feeling the need to grasp and confine it. They enter into truth’s inner reality yet allow truth to remain somehow elusive, for no frontier is too far to reach, no depth too deep to plumb.

For dialogue is undertaken by vulnerable persons and wandering communities of faith. Dialogue between people of different faith traditions takes place between people who dialogue within their own faith community and who are in dialogue with the most vulnerable members of their cultural domains: the poor, the discarded, the unneeded (cf. 1 Cor 1:26-31). And this dialogue—both intra-religious and inter-religious—is about self-worth and self-identity, self-respect and self-acknowledgement. Seeing that no contemporary person belongs to a single culture, a bridge-builder belongs to more than one faith tradition.

Pilgrims of dialogue are subtle outsiders, who discover the ancient rhythms of marginalized cultures and the liberative streams of other faith communities while acknowledging their temporary, “visitor” status. In such “eccentric”—away from the center—people’s insights occur, insights to be shared in community.


Acceptance of diversity in our communities, congregations, neighbourhoods, nations, in the world church itself, mirrors both the complexity of our individual lives and of the multiple cultures in which we are embedded. Acceptance of diversity releases new energy and intensifies our personal presence.

Where is the living Catholic tradition in all this wandering at the edge? The inter-faith cross-cultural pilgrim walks within an incredible intertwining of multiple streams of ancestry, memory, shadow and light. They witness to continuity while reaching out to the future. Neither clinging to a fabled past nor rejecting an unassimilated tradition, they face their fragility, vulnerability and limitations. There is great poignancy and pathos when we re-discover the riches of our faith in the depths of another’s tradition.16

The small, Christian congregations scattered across Asia are warm but cluttered, reassuring yet numbing, homely yet walled in, encouraging yet cut off, prayerful yet somewhat deaf to the surrounding ebb and flow of the majority communities. Poetic-prophets such as Amalorpavadass of India and Mangunwijaya of Indonesia17 indicate how we could integrate imagination and thought, wonder and word, fermentation and clarity. A pilgrim-in-dialogue will awaken the wonder at the heart of each culture, engage fellow faith followers in journeys on which seemingly anything and everything is possible (cf. Lk 1:37). As with the child, all doors are open, all barriers down. Each country has such creative pioneers, plodding a pilgrim way consciously chosen, accepted, renewed. Gently, such paths need to be trodden also by whole Christian movements and communities.

Tension between the prophetic pioneer and the hesitant community of the faithful is inevitable. Here lies an important role for religious congregations: to be cross-cultural bridges of understanding. As in the New Testament, we need many an ecumenical Barnabas bridging the conventional Peter and the pioneering Paul. That being said, it is also clear that both the vision and the activities of Asia’s inter-faith prophets are creating great unease, are disturbing the comfort and complacency of the ritual ghetto. I am hopeful enough to think that our scattered Christian enclaves will never be able to regain the cultural amnesia and religious complacency of colonial days. For, apart from these “troublesome” pilgrims, the tentacles of a globalizing market have already disrupted our unreflective belonging, have already broken down the quiet handing on of faith from this generation to the next. That is why, at this critical juncture we need to raise awkward questions and awaken Christian longing and belonging in place of a false complacency and satisfaction. Mono-religious communities shut in upon themselves are losing their soul to market values and have largely lost any wider significance.

A Challenge: How are base communities and our formation communities seed-bedding such “defenseless flowers”? Where have we managed to build up formation communities and academic communities that are truly inter-cultural in performance, ethos and worldview? Are our formation and academic communities places where members are growing into people of culture, loved across boundaries, who discover their identity in another’s language and so feel able to love across barriers and discover self anew as a person and a community?

From Ghetto to Diaspora

Courageously Embracing

Asia is experiencing a resurgence of tribalism, as well as ethnic and religious fanaticism, where identity is hewed out narrowly and exclusively in terms of land and blood (blud und boden). Others are viewed as competitors, even enemies, targets of hate and violence. Here creeds can become destructive, indeed, poisonous. As we encounter throughout the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and in the most profound strands of the Christian tradition, truth is hospitable to difference. Genuine faith identity emerges from a transparent conversation between self and the other. There is no true Christian self without the embrace of the other.

The uprooting of hundreds of millions of Asians over the past 30 years has forced us to live adjacent to majority faith communities, not simply by chance, but to open ourselves up freely to them in the common cause of creating contrast cultures where human values have a chance to breathe.18

Pilgrims of dialogue discover that there is little demand for exhaustive descriptions, but much to be gained from listening to imaginative suggestions, to artistic images, to poetic statements. In a word, we return to the truth as announced by the Nazarene in awakening miracle, probing parable, questioning word. Multi-faith pilgrims embrace diversity in the wonderful adventure of discovery. The gift of dialogue is not an easy path to follow. Like sailing the ocean there are no fixed points, no certain current, and yet there is a direction and there are stars indicating, beckoning on.

Is such a pilgrim for ever cool, calm and collected? Not at all. Without anger at crass injustice we truncate the gospel. Anger, like a fire, lights up what is wrong (Lk 12:49-53). Anger is a great force for change as it names and confronts injustice (cf Mt 21:12-16; 23: 13-39).

Confidently Pliable

Fanaticism inflames with communal hatred, ghettos numb us into passivity. Meanwhile the open Church lives in “bold humility” (David Bosch); calm yet active, able to smile with dignity like the poor while facing and responding to adversity. The dignity of the poor—and of the open Church—is beauty and wonder. For the open Church is free to view herself with affection, understanding and respect. Her sense of self is not dependent upon the affirmation of the majority community. She recognizes her limits but still embraces her life with affection and graciousness. Thus, she enjoys a growing sense of inner dignity, freer from the affirmation of outer voices and less troubled by the negativity of others. Confident and subtle in her tradition she is not stiff or arrogant or aloof. The open church is immensely pliable and holds her sense of worthiness and honor in a larger horizon of grace and graciousness. The open church, again like the poor, keeps a space of tranquillity, and no amount of communal conflict and persecution can rob the open church from this gracious stance. If as church we do not ourselves dispense with our calm certainty, then no event, situation or person can take it away from us. This is the true alternative to allowing our small, Christian enclaves in Asia from becoming either closed ritual ghettos or fanatic ethnic churches.

The open church, like any living faith community that roots itself in tradition while remaining open to contemporary environments, evolves a series of languages to articulate experience, feelings and life itself. The open church, like Augustine of Hippo, is restless until it rests in the Divine. It is a divine restlessness, a continual longing. And so, the open church is never quite at one with itself and its identity can never be fixed in a reconstructed past. New thoughts and experiences emerge, delight and surprise. Its prophets and poets are wanderers who are always tempted by new horizons. Regular liturgy gives a visible, outer consistency while its inner life, its yearning heart, is nomadic.

We should not demand that the insights of the inter-faith pilgrim be contained in linear concepts, a single symbol or a formal image. When our small Christian communities lose contact with one another and with each one and with their wider environments— natural, cultural, religious—they gradually lose depth and diversity of presence. What remains are conventional rituals and functions handed-down, where no Asian face of the Nazarene is identifiable, where everything tends to flatten into a panel of sameness. There is no system or frame large enough to hold the immensity of Truth. Great theologians from John the Evangelist (Jn 21:25) through to the present day have always acknowledged this.

This new catholicity calls for global networks, open to each other and to the tradition rather than a monolithic centrally managed institution concerned with maintenance, conventionality and conformity. There is a depth of presence in the inculturated church that can never be reduced in order to comply to a surface uni-formity. This should not imply an over-eager “instrumentalizing” of Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu cultures, what Aloysius Pieris calls a “species of theological vandalism” (Pieris 1998: 53-5, 38-40).19 The composite cultural identities that are emerging from multi-cultural and multi-faith encounters are blossoming from a joint understanding of reverential human values: freedom and responsibility, compassion and solidarity, justice and harmony.19Such composite cultural identities—in contrast to the imposed, bland trade-marks of the global market—emerge as a by-product of common action for justice rather than as the planned target of a commission’s inculturation program. Lasting, transparent identities result from prolonged cultural osmosis and this occurs in singularly creative persons and small-scale communities, whether Christian, inter-faith or simply human, as we work to alleviate suffering and witness to a more just, humane and sustainable society.20

Imaginatively Progressing

Faith becomes culture and culture is ensouled by faith in the four dimensions of work, power, imagination and religious practice (Boff 1992:6-7). Perhaps the most important entry point for inter-culturation is the world of work, how, through production and consumption, we relate to each other, to the wider society and to the cosmos. How we finance our religious life, how we contribute to our upkeep, how our communities and institutions survive econo-mically. The way we insert ourselves into the world of work, whether as workers or mendicants, tells us more about how inculturated we are than any amount of external adaptation. Here we face questions of social ethics. Every culture and sub-culture has an economic base, every insertion implies a social ethos.

As individuals, communities and world-wide institutions we are part of the world of power. This involves everything from social access or exclusion to decision-making or domination. Rhetorically we side with the culture of the silenced and enjoy the popular culture of the marginalized. Life is more complicated, practice more ambivalent. How do we inculturate a powerful, centuries-old, structured tradition into the world of the numbed, the silenced, the not needed? Partnership exists between rough equals, domination between the strong and the weak.

If we can muddle through to acceptable compromises in the worlds of work and power, the worlds of economics and politics— and our approaches are often as not essentially pragmatic even opportunistic, focusing upon what seems to work at the moment—then we are free to enjoythe world of the imagination. Here culture is at its most expressive and demonstrative, culture at play but also culture shaping humankind’s deepest hopes and most urgent questions. Here the world of the imagination merges with the world of religion. In symbol and performance we celebrate the world of discovery, insight and meaning. Here we encounter the ultimate meaning of life.

It has been claimed—perhaps rightly so—that the dialogue between faith and culture can take place “successfully” only where both the receiving culture and the incoming faith have established identities (Suess 1999:173). However, the challenge in a globalizing world is that cultural identities are no longer “established.” There seem to be few “clearings” in which the dialogue between faiths and cultures can occur. The world of the poor is built on sand (cf. Mt 7:21-27). It is a profound act of trust and love to claim that, when faith encounters an ephemeral bamboo-shack-of-a-culture buffeted by the global storm of social change, then, precisely in that vulnerability, we discover strength (1 Cor 1:26-28; 2 Cor 12:9-10), and in that ephemerality we enter the Christic heart of the cosmos (Col 1:15-20).

The approach suggested here is not far from Anthony Gittens’ organic progression (2000:28-33). In the ongoing process of inter-faith encounter, the incremental creation of multiple cultural identities occurs through supplementation or continuance. The contrast here is with prescriptive inculturation that is legislated for (enjoined, decreed, imposed or controlled from above);dynamic equivalence, the translation of the western Christian tradition into other cultural forms; and creative assimilation that starts with the behavior of the religious and/or religious other. Whichever approach we find the most helpful for the evangelization of culture in multi-faith contexts.

... culture must never be allowed to compromise or domesticate faith, but faith must never overlook or trivialise culture... though we must be committed to bringing people’s faith and people’s experience into a life-giving engagement, we must not forget that the terminus ad quem is something unknown to us and unknowable by us. We cannot therefore control the process: it is in God’s hands, but we could... muzzle the Holy Spirit, at least for a time. There is sometimes a fine line between irresponsibility and paralysis, or arrogance and timidity, and we must tread it carefully lest we slip and fall from the Way... (The process of inculturation) is an ongoing, never-completed process of conversion... from sin and from self, to grace and to God, for everyone everywhere... ” (2000:37).

Dynamically Transforming

Our reflections today are to lead us on to more practical considerations tomorrow. And so I end with a question about higher education.

It is not unfair to say that many of our educational institutions nurture materialism, consumerism, and other values which, in fact, are antagonistic to the values of Christian humanism. The hidden curriculum is plainly seen in alumni who succeed in business as well as in civil administration and the military. Educational institutions continue to brainwash youth into accepting the neo-liberal economy with all its inherent materialistic values. Success in commodity capitalism, that deifies mammon, produces a practical agnosticism with little need for God.

This is part of a much wider problem in higher education, at least in Southeast Asia. Universities and other institutes of higher education are developing applications to western science with great ingenuity. Western education is translated and applied to the local situation, particularly in the practical sciences. However, it is rare to find first-rate, creative research. As I observe it, and I hope I am not entirely correct, the tradition of academic research has yet to be grafted successfully onto the absorbent cultures of Southeast Asia. There is the study of philosophy but few actually philosophize. There are innumerable surveys but we have yet to develop instruments appropriate to the cultures, ethos and mentality of the peoples surveyed. While universities work with Asian colors and Asian questions are being asked, they are most successful as practitioners. Similarly, theology is studied in faculties and seminaries but who actually theologizes in the myriad contexts of Asia? Crudely put, we have good technical colleges but have yet to develop centers of culture.21

This paper has looked at the question of birthing “contrast cultures of cosmic compassion.” Nurturing church leaders as people of culture is not just a question of formation, whether basic or ongoing. As long as church leaders live and work primarily as administrators servicing the institution, we cannot expect clergy to root themselves culturally and reach out multi-religiously. Priestly and religious life styles, particularly, though not exclusively in the city, are rapidly losing their role as alternative evangelical role models for youth who are either suffocating in materialism or unemployed with little anchor in life or hope. As I observe it, the more creative students in our formation communities leave anyway. That is why we need to turn to the laity for creative pilgrims of dialogue.22

But rather than harp on—yet again! —about the policies, values and world views of our institutes of higher education, including our formation communities, let us listen to our positive experiences in this area:

Where are there encouraging examples of novitiates, formation communities and academic institutions which are truly centers of culture? Educational communities which do not pass on uncritically the ideology of modernization? Where are the academic colleges, formation communities and centers that promote the transforming, counter-cultural dynamic of Christianity?


I began in West Papua. Allow me to end with a short quote from a North American, a sentence that sustains me as I, a guilty bystander, witness the local cultures of Indonesia brutalize while my own life slips quietly by.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good
makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we must be saved by love.” (Reinhold Niebuhr)

All is well; yes, everything is indeed well.



1. “Human Values and the Pursuit of A Full Humanity in Asia,” FABC Papers No.92P. Hongkong: 2000, 26pp.

2. Walls 1996 writes of the “pilgrim principle” and the “indigenizing principle.”

3. Within a month the computer was out of order and a year later is still waiting to be restored. No matter, the point has been made and, with patience, will become routine again.

4 West Papuan leaders proclaimed Independence on 1st December 1961. Subsequently, Indonesia annexed the territory with full UN collaboration and legitimation. The contemporary Independence movement came into the open after the departure of Soeharto in May 1998. The 1st December has become sacred.

5. A similar combination was successful in Java, Indonesia, in the 1930s and 40s. Belief in the coming of the “Ratu Adil” of Javanese myth combined with both civilian and military strategies. As yet, the West Papuans have not been able to accompany their cultural magic with appropriate political stratagems.

6. The West Papuan people are culturally Melanesian and politically Asian (Indonesian).

7. Acculturation: the encounter - contact or clash - between two cultures or cultural subjects.

8. However some cosmic cultures, battered by outside forces, look as though they are reaching a state of advanced decay. Here there can be little dialogue, but simply presence, the willingness to stay and co-suffer in hope.

9. For a schematic contrast in the values of indigenous peoples and the global market see, FABC Paper 92P, p.14.

10. Pius XI’s analysis of European capitalism in Quadragesimo anno (1931) is equally appropriate as a comment on globalizing, commodity capitalism 70 years on.

11. A range of views on global capitalism from Confucian, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and indigenous traditions are found in, Camilleri & Muzaffar, eds., Globalization: 1998.

12. The sulphur crater of Mount Bromo (2392 metres) in East Java is a favorite place for mediation atsubuh; likewise Tana Lot temple on the Southwest coast of Bali is visited by pilgrims - and even more so by tourists- at magrib.

13. Throughout this section I have unashamedly used the language of poet and scholar John O’Donohue, see 1997 and 1998.

14 “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture: Reflections from Eastern Indonesia.” Cultures et Foi/Cultures and Faith/Culturas Y Fe, III-4, 1995:289-291. Republished in Verbum SVD36/4/1995:401-404. Catholic International, 7/3/1996:143-144 and in Dialogue between Faith and Culture, Manila: FABC-OESC, 1998, 249-253.

15. Little need to recall the inter-religious violence in the Moluccas since 1999. Both “ethnic Protestants and ethnic Muslims” have willingly allowed themselves to be manipulated by political and financial interests in Jakarta. For brief description and analysis see, “The Agony of Ambon,” The Tablet, 20 January 2001, pp.75-76.

16. Mahatma Gandhi rediscovered non-violence and social conscience through reading the works of 19th century Christian socialists, while Thomas Merton rediscovered the Desert Hermits through reading Zen Buddhism in the 1950s.

17. Amalor wrote in English and French and much has been published about him. The novelist, architect, mystic and political activist Mangunwijaya is less well-known. See Steenbrink 1998: 17-36. Prior 1998: 85-102 and 2001.

18. Aside from the countless millions of people displaced by political violence and economic hardship, there are some 15 million Asian overseas workers.

19. The approach in this paper is amenable to the holistic mission model of Anto Karokaran. See “Mission: An Alternative Model,” Third Millen-nium, III/1 (2000), 29-44.

20. Endo 1978, presents the Nazarene as 100% biblical and 100% Buddhist. I am firmly convinced that lasting inculturation is “fermented” in Bible Sharing and is also expressed in literature. See also Williams 1999.

21. Another issue is that of finance. The applied sciences are sponsored by business and government. Who is to sponsor creative research in humaniora - in philosophy, theology, the human sciences? What areas are religious orders and congregations investing in? This is not just an Asian problem; in the UK many professorships in the classics are vacant, even in the ancient universities.

22. A research program by the Episcopal Commission for Missionary Activity in Indonesia concluded that while clergy spend 98% of their time with fellow Catholics, the vast majority of laity spend 80% of their time with people of other faith traditions.


Boff, Leonardo

1992 Good News to the Poor. London: Burns & Oates.

Camilleri, Joseph A. and Muzafar, Chandra (eds.)

1998 Globalization: The Perspectives and Experiences of the Religious Traditions of Asia Pacific. Selangor: International Movement for a Just World.

Endo, Shusaku

1978 A Life of Jesus (Eng. trans. New York: Paulist Press).

Gittens, Anthony J. (ed.)

2000 Life and Death Matters: The Practice of Inculturation in Africa. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag.

O’Donohue, John

1997 Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (London).

1998 Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong (London).

Pieris, Aloysius

1998 An Asian Theology of Liberation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Prior, John

2001 “Portraying the Face of the Nazarene in Contemporary Indonesia: Literature as Frontier-Expanding Mission.” Pacifica 14.

1998 “From Ghetto to Diaspora: Challenges Facing the Indonesian Churches at a Time of Unrest,”Mission Studies, XV/2/30.

Steenbrink, Karel

1998 “Y.B. Mangunwijaya’s Blueprint for a Diaspora Church in Indonesia,” Exchange 27/1.

Suess, Paulo

1999 “Evangelization and Inculturation: Concepts, Options, Perspectives.” in James A. Scherer & Stephen Bevans, New Directions in Mission and Evangelization. Vol.3: Faith and Culture. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Walls, Andrew

1996 “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” Chapter 1 of The Missionary Movement in Christian History. New York: Orbis.

Williams, Mark B.

1999 Endo Shusaku: A Literature of Reconciliation. London & New York: Routledge.

* This talk was given at an International Consultation on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Bangkok, Thailand 2001.