Cultural Diversity and Religious Pluralism: The Church's Mission in Asia

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 2 »Cultural Diversity And Religious Pluralism The Churchs Mission In Asia

Peter C. Phan

Peter Phan is Ignacio Ellacuria Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He received his S.T.D. from the Pontifica Universitas Salesiana, Rome and his Ph.D from the University of London. He has authored several books and contributed numerous articles to theological journals. A prolific writer, his most recent publications are In Our Own Tongues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation and Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. Both are published by Orbis Books.


Cultural diversity and religious pluralism are often associated together in theological discourse on the contemporary challenges to the Church’s mission. Conceptually, however, they refer of course to different realities. Cultural diversity connotes the co-existence of many and different cultures in a particular location, whereas religious pluralism refers not only to religious diversity—that is, the simultaneous presence of several, at times mutually exclusive and even mutually hostile, religions in one and the same location—but also, and more importantly, to the heightened consciousness, ever more widespread since modernity, of the necessarily relational and historically embedded character of all exclusive and absolute claims, including religious ones, a feature that seems to render such exclusive and absolute claims problematic if not impossible.

Cultural diversity and religious pluralism do not necessarily go hand in hand. Indeed, whether both are present simultaneously or whether one is present without the other yields four possible scenarios:

● A geographical area may be culturally diverse but not religiously pluralistic. Europe has different cultures within it but is basically Christian, at least in the past, when Christendom prevailed. A great part of the Middle East is culturally diverse but finds religious homogeneity in Islam.

● A country may be culturally homogeneous but religiously pluralistic. China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and many other Asian countries come to mind. Each of these has a largely common culture and several competing religions.

● Some countries are homogeneous both culturally and religiously, such as Thailand (Thai culture and Buddhism) and the United States of America in the recent past (Anglo-Saxon culture and Christianity).

● Today, however, thanks to globalization and immigration, most, if not all, countries are becoming increasingly pluralistic, both culturally and religiously. This is one of the most significant signs of the time that presents enormous challenges to the Church.

In addition, cultural diversity and religious pluralism have grown exponentially within Christianity itself in recent times. One of the most striking religious phenomena in the post-colonial era of the 20th century is the emergence of Christianity as a world religion. Karl Rahner (1904-84) has famously remarked that at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the Roman Catholic Church began to be truly a "world church." The German Catholic theologian’s observation proves no less true of other Christian denominations. What has transpired in Christianity is that while it has ceased to be a dominant religious and socio-political force in the West, and while religious attendance has diminished precipitously there, the number of Christians has grown by leaps and bounds and the vitality of Christianity is extraordinary in other continents. In addition, the Western form of Christianity that had been exported to the so-called Third World since the 16th century has been transformed, sometimes beyond recognition, by the local churches. A new Christianity that may be termed "world Christianity" is aborning. In summary form, the following data about Christianity as a world religion can be observed:

● In world population there has been a demographic explosion in the Third World, whereas there has been a zero or even negative growth in the First World. This demographic explosion in the Third World, where Christianity is expanding rapidly, brings with it a vast number of problems on a global scale, and Christians will have a key role in resolving them.

● In Christianity there has been a demographic shift from the north to the south. In 1950, some 80% of the world’s Christian population lived in the northern hemisphere (Europe and North America). It is projected that by 2025, three-fourths of Christians will live in the southern hemisphere (Asia, Africa, and Latin America). This shift in the center of gravity implies a growing importance of Third World Christians in determining the future direction of Christianity.

● In general, the Third World is economically poor, politically unstable and undemocratic, socially conservative, and religiously diverse. Inevitably, Christians of the Third World will have to practice their faith under these limiting conditions and their faith expressions will inevitably reflect them.

● Christianity, currently estimated at two billion, is the largest and fastest-growing world religion. Its strongest competitor is Islam. But the resurgence of Buddhism and Hinduism also poses a challenge to Christianity. This rivalry, whether pursued or not, will have vast implications in many areas of society.

● Christianity is the most diverse and pluralist religion. This diversity is most visible in the southern hemisphere. Well over 2000 of the world’s languages are used in Bible translation, liturgy, worship, and theology. Moreover, southern Christianity incorporates into its faith expressions elements from the local cultures and customs such as ancestor worship, initiation rites, marriage and funeral practices, popular devotions, music, and dance, which Christians of the First World may find quaint, repugnant, and even superstitious. On the other hand, some practices in the First-world Church such as the episcopal ordination of a practicing gay, the blessing of same-sex marriages, or the ordination of women have met with vociferous condemnations by some Third-world Church leaders.

● The spectacular growth and dynamic presence of Pentecostal Christianity in the Third World represents a severe challenge to mainline churches, with its emphasis on the literalist reading of the Bible, miraculous healing, prophesying, exorcism, glossalia, and ethical rigorism. For good or for ill, this brand of Christianity has found a deep resonance with Third-World people and its success requires a careful study in determining the future shape of Christianity.

● Another significant feature of Christianity as a world religion is the emergence of a great number of Christian independent churches (e.g., African Independent Churches) and new religious movements that are Christian-inspired but are not recognized as such by the Christian mainline churches (e.g., the Unification Church founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon). These churches have attracted a large number of followers and raise challenging questions regarding the nature, the structure, and the leadership style of Christianity.

● Thanks to globalization and widespread migration, the presence of Third-world Christians in the First World is growing rapidly, bringing with them different forms of Christianity. Also, some Christian denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church have imported Third World clergy to remedy the priest shortage. Furthermore, missionaries are coming from southern Christianity to evangelize the West, so that there is talk of a reverse mission.

In sum, both from without and within the Church, cultural diversity and religious pluralism present formidable challenges to the Church’s mission. It is often stated that cultural diversity calls for inculturation, whereas religious pluralism demands interreligious dialogue. But can and should these two activities be carried out apart from one another? Are inculturation and interreligious dialogue distinct, as culture and religion are often taken to be distinct? Indeed, are culture and religion really two distinct human realities, and if so how? If they are not distinct, at least in certain areas, how is the Church’s mission to be carried out? In what follows I will first briefly consider the relationship between culture and religion, with special reference to the Asian context. Next I will present a historical example of inculturation and interreligious dialogue in Asia to illustrate the relationship between culture and religion. In light of this relationship, I will conclude with reflections on the mission of the Church in the multi-cultural and multi-religious context of Asia.

Culture and Religion in the Asian Context

There are as many definitions of culture and religion as there are scholars defining them. For our purposes, it would be helpful to begin with definitions commonly accepted in Western academy, and then show whether or not they are applicable to the Asian context.


In recent anthropology, whether functionalist, structuralist, or symbolic, culture is commonly taken to mean a human construction or convention, universally present but diversified according to social groups, composed of various elements such as language, beliefs and values, social mores and institutions, rituals and symbols, and sundry artifacts into which the members of the group are socialized and according to which they pattern their way of life.

The Anthropological Concept of Culture

This anthropological usage of culture, which emerged in the 1920s and predominated in the US, highlights its socially constructed nature, its group-differentiating function, its holistic character, and its context-dependent development.1 As opposed to what is "nature" and "animal," culture is the product of human creativity and the defining hallmark of being human. At the same time, culture, itself a human convention, forms and shapes the way its creators live and interact with each other and constitutes them into a separate group, distinct from other groups with their own cultures. Thus, culture sets up identity-marking ways of life for the group, characterizing observant members as good citizens and transgressors as deviants. Culture in this sense, as distinct from the social behaviors, is conceived as an integrated and integrating whole. The constituent elements of this whole are seen as functionally interrelated to each other because they are perceived to express an overarching meaning system, to be mutually consistent, to operate according to certain common laws or structures, or to maintain and promote the stability of the social order. Lastly, because culture is a human product, it evolves and changes, but always dependent on the context of the group. To understand a particular cultural practice, then, one must place it in relation with the other elements of culture, even cross-culturally, and analyze all the relevant elements in a synchronic manner.

An important feature of the anthropological approach to culture is its non-evaluative posture. Unlike the proponents of the elitist notion of civilization with its uniform and universally binding ideal, or of Kultur with its claim to intellectual, artistic, and spiritual nobility, or of high culture as the principle of social reform and the standard for individual self-discipline, cultural anthropologists look upon cultures (note the plural!)—including local and popular customs—as self-contained, clearly bounded, internally consistent, and fully functioning systems. Consequently, they successfully eschew ethnocentrism, concentrating on an accurate description of a particular culture, rather than judging it according to some presumed norms of truth, goodness, and beauty.2

The modern anthropological concept of culture has its own advantages. As Robert Schreiter has noted, the concept of culture as an integrated system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms has much to commend it. Among other things, it promotes holism and a sense of coherence and communion in opposition to the fragmentation of mass society; is congenial to the harmonizing, and way of thinking prevalent in oral cultures; and serves as an antidote to the corrosive effects of modernity and capitalism (see Schreiter 1997:49-50).

The Postmodern Critique

In recent years, however, this modern anthropological concept of culture has been subjected to a searing critique.3 The view of culture as a self-contained and clearly bounded whole, as an internally consistent and integrated system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that functions as the ordering principle of a social group and into which its members are socialized, has been shown to be based on unjustified assumptions (see Bourdieu 1977; Clifford 1988; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Beck 1992; Bhabha 1994; Friedman 1994; Featherstone 1995). Against this understanding of culture it has been argued that:

● it focuses exclusively on culture as a finished product and therefore pays insufficient attention to culture as an historical process;

● its view of culture as a consistent whole is dictated more by the anthropologist’s aesthetic need and the demand for synthesis than by the lived reality of culture itself;

● its emphasis on consensus as the process of cultural formation obfuscates the reality of culture as a site of struggle and contention;

● its view of culture as a principle of social order belittles the role of the members of a social group as cultural agents;

● this view of culture privileges the stable elements of culture and does not take into adequate account its innate tendency to change and innovate; and

● its insistence on clear boundaries for cultural identity is no longer necessary since it is widely acknowledged today that change, conflict, and contradiction are resident within culture itself and are not simply caused by outside disruption and dissension.4

Rather than as a sharply demarcated, self-contained, homogeneous, and integrated whole, culture today is seen as "a ground of contest in relations" (the phrase is from Schreiter, 54) and as a historically evolving, fragmented, inconsistent, conflicted, constructed, ever-shifting, and porous social reality. In this contest of relations the role of power in the shaping of cultural identity is of paramount importance, a factor that the modern concept of culture largely ignores. In the past, anthropologists tended to regard culture as an innocent set of conventions rather than a reality of conflict in which the colonizers, the powerful, the wealthy, the victors, the dominant can obliterate the beliefs and values of the colonized, the weak, the poor, the vanquished, the subjugated. This role of power is, as Michel Foucault and other masters of suspicion have argued, central in the formation of knowledge in general (see Foucault 1972, 1975, 1977, 1987, 1988, 1988a, and 1994). In the formation of cultural identity the role of power is even more extensive, since it is constituted by groups of people with conflicting interests, and the winners can dictate their cultural terms to the losers.

This predicament of culture is exacerbated by the process of globalization in which the ideals of modernity and technological reason are extended throughout the world (globalization as extension), aided and abetted by a single economic system (i.e., neoliberal capitalism) and new communication technologies.5 In globalization, geographical boundaries, which at one time helped define cultural identity, have now collapsed . Even our sense of time is largely compressed, with the present predominating and the dividing line between past and future becoming ever more blurred (globalization as compression). In this process of globalization, a homogenized culture is created, consolidated by a "hyperculture" based on consumption, especially of goods exported from the USA, such as clothing (e.g., T-shirts, denim jeans, athletic shoes), food (e.g., McDonald’s and Coca Cola), and entertainment (e.g., films, video, and music).

Such a globalized culture is not, however, accepted by local cultures, hook, line and sinker. Between the global and the local cultures there takes place a continuous struggle, the former for political and economic dominance, the latter for survival and integrity. Because of the powerful attraction of the global culture, especially for the young, local cultures often feel threatened by it, but they are far from powerless. To counteract its influence, they have devised several strategies of resistance, subversion, compromise, and appropriation.6

Like the anthropological concept of culture as a unified whole, the globalized concept of culture as a ground of contest in relations has its own strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, it takes into account features of culture that are left in the shadow by its predecessor. While recognizing that harmony and wholeness remain ideals, it views culture in its lived reality of fragmentation, conflict, and ephemerality. Cultural meanings are not simply discovered ready-made but are constructed and produced in the violent cauldron of asymmetrical power relations. It recognizes the important role of power in the formation of cultural identity. Furthermore, it sees culture as an historical process, intrinsically mutable, but without an a priori, clearly defined telos and a controllable and predictable synthesis. On the debit side, this post-modern concept of culture runs the risk of fomenting fundamentalistic tendencies, cultural and social ghettoization, and romantic retreat to an idealized past.7


Perhaps more than culture, religion has been the subject of endless definitions. It is neither feasible nor necessary to review all of them here. Suffice it to note that today, after the work of Mircea Eliade, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Clifford Geertz, it is safe to say that reductionist approaches to religion such as those of Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud, present religion as simply an economic alienation, a social function of the sacred, or an obsessional neurosis. These are largely rejected today, even though it is acknowledged that religion cannot be fully understood apart from economics, social structures, and individual personality. Furthermore, the goal of arriving at a comprehensive and universally valid theory of religion, as proposed by early anthropologists such as Edward B. Tylor, James Frazer, and Mircea Eliade, has been abandoned as unrealistic. In its place it is suggested that one perform "thick descriptions" of concrete and local cases, à la Evans-Pritchard and Geertz (on various theories of religion, see Pals 1996 and Zeitlin 2004).

For the purposes of this essay, Geertz’s cultural or symbolic interpretation of religion is particularly relevant. According to Geertz’s oft-quoted description, religion as a "cultural system" is:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (1973:90).

By "a system of symbols" Geertz means just anything that conveys an idea to people. For a systematic presentation of religious symbols, Ninian Smart’s categorization is helpful. They may belong to one of the following dimensions, though of course not all religions possess them to the same degree: (1) the practical and ritual, (2) the experiential and emotional, (3) the doctrinal and philosophical, (4) the ethical and legal, (5) the social and institutional, and (7) the material (see Smart 1989:12-21). Geertz himself tends to reduce these symbols to two categories: "moods and motivations" (ethos) and "conceptions of a general order of existence" (world view), though his ethnographic studies of religion paid little attention to the latter.

Finally, what is specific about religion as a cultural system is that, according to Geertz, its symbols, in contrast to other symbols, claim to put its followers in contact with what seems to be "really real." The general conceptions of religion are clothed "with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely real."

Culture and Religion: Theories of Their Relationship

Clifford Geertz’s description of religion as a "system of symbols," albeit of a unique kind, and his interpretation of religion as a "cultural system" already intimate the deep connection between religion and culture. It would be helpful now to spell out the relation between these two realities and examine whether such a relation has been exhibited in Asia, and if so, how.

With the disappearance of Christendom and with the emergence of modernity, many European countries and the United States have adopted the principle of non-establishment of religion. While the intent of this principle is to prevent the establishment of a state religion and to guarantee religious freedom, one of its unintended effects is the privatization of religion and its separation from culture. Separation of church and state is widely taken to mean erecting an impenetrable wall between religion and culture. At worst, religion is tolerated as a private pursuit; at best, it is relegated to being one among many functions of public life though not permitted to influence its economic, political, and moral dimensions.

Two theological reactions to this modern trend have been adopted. Common to both is the rejection of the marginalization of religion from the public square. The first, taken by, e.g., American evangelical Christians, is to reclaim the Christian control of culture and society, especially in the fields of education, the judiciary, and public policies. Culture is to be thoroughly imbued with Christian ideals and norms. In the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, the United States of America is one nation "under God"—God taken to refer to the God of Christianity.

The second approach is not to claim a special province for religion alongside with other areas of human life such as ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics but to argue for its pervasive presence in culture. To rescue religion from irrelevance and to restore its rightful position in culture, the second approach presents religion as the intrinsic dimension of culture. One of the most famous proponents of this approach is Paul Tillich (1886-1965), whose articulation of the relationship between culture and religion is captured in his celebrated dictum: "Religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion" (1959:42). Taking religion to mean being grasped by the ultimate concern, Tillich uses another metaphor, that of "depth" or "ground," to describe its relation to culture: "It (religion) is at home everywhere, namely, in the depth of all functions of man’s spiritual life. Religion is the dimension of depth in all of them. Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit" (1959:7).

Culture and Religion in Asia

How the relationship between culture and religion is understood in Asia is extremely complex and varied, as varied and complex as the political arrangement between religion/church and state in Asian countries. In some, a particular religion is a state religion, e.g., Islam in Pakistan, though religious freedom is recognized. In others, a religion, though not a state establishment, is so prevalent (e.g., Buddhism in Cambodia and Thailand, and Christianity in the Philippines) that it is practically equivalent to it. In others, such as China and Vietnam, religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, though in practice organized religion is barely tolerated and at times even persecuted. In still others, e.g., Indonesia, the constitution explicitly recognizes the belief in God (one of the five principles ofpancasila), but does not establish any religion. Finally, some countries, such as India, adopt an explicitly secular constitution.

While the relation between church and state can be stated in precise legal terms, that between religion and culture is much more fluid and elusive. Linguistically, most Asian languages do not have words formally equivalent to the English word ‘religion.’ Dharma and dao, which often serve as translations of ‘religion,’ are not the formal nor even dynamic equivalents of the Western notion of religion, even in the rather expansive Geertzian description of it as a "system of symbols." Furthermore, while Asian religious traditions possess many, perhaps even all, of the seven dimensions Ninian Smart attributes to religion in general, the fact that they are referred to in the West as isms, e.g., Buddhism and Hinduism, already tilts the balance toward the doctrinal and institutional elements, at the expense of the other dimensions which in fact may hold a more preponderant role than doctrine and organization. Substantively, it has been said, and with reason, that most Asian religions or religious traditions are, not unlike Christianity, ways of life, and in this sense they cannot be distinguished, much less separated, from culture.

Culture means not so much what is humanly constructed as opposed to "nature," as civilization or Kultur or "high culture." Rather culture or, better still, a cultured person, to use the Confucian notion of junzi, often translated as the "superior man," is someone who has not only achieved a notable formal education but also has fulfilled all the moral and religious obligations toward heaven, society, and family.

Thus, in spite of the fact that the political model of separation of church and state has been adopted in many Asian countries, the relation between religion and culture remains one of vital symbiosis and mutual interaction rather than of clear-cut distinction, much less downright opposition.

Religion and Culture in Asia: A Test Case

Perhaps one of the best ways to clarify this type of relationship between religion and culture in Asia is to revisit the so-called "Chinese Rites Controversy" which began in 1645 and ended in 1939. My intention is neither to retell the twists and turns of this three-century long dispute nor to discuss the underlying theological and liturgical issues. Rather I will use this dispute to illumine the relationship between culture and religion and to draw the implications as well as the challenges this kind of relationship poses to the Church’s mission in Asia.

As the participants in the Chinese Rites Controversy saw it, the neuralgic issue was whether the cult of Confucius and the ancestors, with its bodily gestures (e.g., thekowtow) and its rituals (e.g., the offering of foods and flowers; the burning of incense, candles and paper money; the use of funerary tablets; and various funeral practices) was superstitious or theologically neutral acts. In general, the Jesuits (though not all), following Matteo Ricci, viewed the cult of Confucius and the ancestors as theologically unobjectionable and therefore permissible. On the contrary, other missionaries, mostly Dominicans, Franciscans, and the members of the Paris Foreign Mission Society (especially Charles Maigrot) condemned the cult as idolatry and superstition. Popes Clement XI (Ex illa die of 1715) and Benedict XIV (Ex quo singulari of 1742) forbade the practice of the Chinese Rites under pain of excommunication, required all missionaries to China to take an oath of obedience, and prohibited further discussion of the issue.

The language in which the debate concerning the Chinese Rites was couched is that of religious worship. Indeed, the issue was prejudicially settled by the Dominican Juan Baptista Morales, an ardent opponent of the Jesuits’ accommodationist policies, when he used Christian terminology to describe the cult of Confucius and the ancestors in the 17th questions he addressed to thePropaganda Fide in 1643. The religious character of the Chinese Rites was implied in words such as altaresacrificiumgenuflectiotemplum, and sacerdos.

In the decree of 1645, the Holy Office condemned the Chinese Rites as presented by Morales. However, the Holy Office also made an extremely significant distinction in its answer to Morales’s 12th question as to whether it is permissible for "Christians and especially ministers of the Holy Gospel" to "genuflect" and prostrate themselves in front of the "decorated altar" on which the tablet of the deceased was placed and "to carry candles and incense to burn on the altar." The Holy Office states: "This can be tolerated as long as the table is an ordinary piece of furniture and not a true altar, and if the actions performed are within the bounds of political compliance."8 Again, in 1704, the Holy Office declared that its answers were "not opposed to other things being performed in honor of the dead if they are in keeping with the culture of these pagans, if they are not really superstitious, and not look superstitious but are within the limits of civil and political rites."9 The all-important phrase "intra limites obsequii civilis et politici" (within the bounds of political compliance)—which evinces the Holy Office’s awareness of the distinction between religion and culture—would be used again and again as a decisive criterion for determining the acceptability of a particular practice in over 100 documents related to the Chinese Rites in the course of 300 years.

The term ‘political’—used in 1645 for the first time in the ecclesiastical documents concerning the Chinese Rites—describes acts that would normally be considered as belonging to social customs such as the bowing of the head and prostration of the body, though its modern meaning referring to politics and the state would be more frequent in later Church documents. In contemporary parlance, the fundamental criterion for the tolerance or condemnation of the Chinese Rites is whether they belong to ‘culture’ or ‘religion.’ It is to be noted that for both those who permitted and those who condemned the Chinese Rites, the distinction between acts of ‘religion’ and acts that are merely ‘civil and political’ is undisputed. Furthermore, for both groups, the distinction can in principle be made with certainty and perhaps even with ease. The only issue to settle is whether the Chinese Rites are the former or the latter.

How and who can best decide this question? The missionaries, the political authorities, or the ordinary people? Certainly, missionaries did express their opinions, after a study of the Chinese classics and their commentaries, or by means of personal observation of the rites, or through interviews with the Chinese themselves. Their drastically different judgment of the character of the Chinese Rites—theologically neutral customs or superstition and idolatry—was no doubt colored by rivalries among religious orders and political allegiances to the padroado(patronage) system, but it was above all deeply rooted in their theology of non-Christian and even non-Western practices.

Political authorities, too, were consulted and their declarations were taken seriously by Church authorities, particularly in the 1930s, and these official statements did sway Roman authorities toward permitting the Chinese Rites. In 1700 Emperor K’ang Hsi agreed with the statement of four Jesuits of Beijing that "it is not true that he (Confucius) is worshiped in order to seek wisdom or to pray for official rank or salary" and that "performance of the ceremony of the sacrifice to the dead is a means of showing sincere affection for members of the family and thankful devotion to ancestors of the clan" (Minamiki 1985:41). Two hundred and thirty years later, in 1932, after some students of Sophia University in Tokyo refused to bow in front of the Yasukumi Shrine in honor of the dead soldiers, the Ministry of Education, in response to Archbishop Jean Alexis Chambon’s question whether the "inclination of the head has a patriotic and in no way a religious meaning," declared that "the bow has no other purpose than that of manifesting the sentiments of patriotism and loyalty" (Minamiki, 145). Finally, in 1935, as the Japanese Kwantung army was attempting to make Confucianism, called theWangtao (the Royal Way), the basis for the national unity of the puppet state of Manchukuo, and as Chinese Catholics refused to participate in the cult of Confucius, the Ministry of Education stated, once again, in a letter to Archbishop Augustin Ernest Gaspais that "the ceremonies in honor of Confucius have as their sole objective the exterior manifestation of the veneration which we have for him, but they do not have at all any religious character" (Minamiki, 177).

This basic distinction between acts of religious nature and acts of civil and political significance serves as the decisive criterion for the Propaganda Fide’s policy of tolerance of the Chinese Rites with the approval of Pope Pius XII (Plane compertum est of 1939):

It is abundantly clear that in the regions of the Orient some ceremonies, although they may have been involved with pagan rites in ancient times, have—with the changes in customs and thinking over the course of centuries—retained merely the civil significance of piety towards the ancestors or of love of the fatherland or of courtesy towards one’s neighbor (Minamiki, 197).

Cultural Diversity and Religious Pluralism: Challenges to the Mission of the Church in Asia

Given the distinction between culture and religion as a heuristic principle operative in ecclesiastical documents, and given the vast changes in the postmodern concepts of culture and religion, the question naturally arises as to how the Church’s mission is to be carried out in Asia, where, as we have seen above, culture and religion exist in vital symbiosis and mutual interaction. The strategies currently proposed by the Church are inculturation for cultural diversity and interreligious dialogue for religious pluralism. Abundant official Church documents, promulgated by both Roman authorities and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, explain the theological principles of inculturation and interreligious dialogue and recommend practical steps to be taken in these two activities. However, in so doing, very few, if any, official documents have taken into account the challenges posed by the postmodern concept of culture and the lack of a clear distinction, let alone separation, between culture and religion in Asia. As a result, inculturation and interreligious dialogue are often understood to be two distinct activities that can somehow be performed separately. Inculturation without interreligious dialogue lacks depth and runs the risk of elitism and archeological aestheticism. Interreligious dialogue without inculturation suffers from sectarianism and runs the risk of irrelevance. To put it in Tillichian terms, inculturation without interreligious dialogue lacks "substance"; interreligious dialogue without inculturation is deprived of "form." The concluding section of this essay will highlight some of the ways in which inculturation and interreligious dialogue can together and in tandem further the Church’s mission in Asia, in light of what has been said about the ever-growing phenomenon of cultural diversity and religious pluralism, about culture as "a ground of contest in relations," and about the interpenetration between culture and religion.

Firstly, since culture is becoming less an integrated and integrating whole and more an historically evolving, fragmented, conflicted, ever-shifting, and porous social reality, inculturation cannot and must not be undertaken apart from the task of liberation and human development. The same thing must be said about interreligious dialogue. Inculturation and interreligious dialogue without liberation remain mostly an intellectual exercise that perpetuates cultural and religious oppression. In light of this, it has been argued that dialogue with Indian cultures and religions must not be limited to the culture of the upper castes and the scriptures and rituals of Hinduism but must also attend to the marginalized voices and the sufferings of the Dalits and the tribals. Similarly, it has been pointed out that in countries such as China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, interreligious dialogue must be carried out not only with the "great religions" such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism but also with the so-called "minor" religious traditions such as indigenous and traditional religions

Secondly, as has been noted above, thanks to globalization and immigration, many if not all Asian countries, which were at one time homogenous culturally and religiously, are becoming increasingly pluralistic, both culturally and religiously. Obviously, this pluralistic context vastly complicates the dynamics and process of inculturation and interreligious dialogue. A set of issues has gained greater urgency and has come to the forefront of theological discourse. In inculturation, cultural diversity raises the question of which and whose culture has the right to sit at the table of the dialogue. In interreligious dialogue, religious pluralism severely challenges the possibility of making absolute and exclusive claims about a particular savior and/or religious community. While such claims need not be eliminated as an a priori condition of possibility for interreligious dialogue, a new epistemology and hermeneutics for interpreting these claims need to be elaborated and applied so that interreligious dialogue may be fruitful and mutually enriching.

Thirdly, the fact that in Asia culture and religion exist in vital symbiosis and mutual interpenetration, questions the validity and usefulness of the common practice of separating—at least theoretically, and sometimes in practice—the two activities of inculturation and interreligious dialogue. Such separation is predicated upon the distinction between acts of religion and "civil and political acts." Such distinction, it may be recalled, was a useful heuristic device for the Catholic Church to permit the Chinese Rites. However, it is important to note the historical context in which this distinction arose. As mentioned above, the distinction was first made by the Holy Office in its 1645 answer to Juan Baptista Morales’s 12th question. The distinction was also implicit in the Beijing Jesuits’ memorandum to Emperor K’ang Hsi regarding the nature of the rites in honor of Confucius and the ancestors. Again, the distinction was accepted as well in the 1932 and 1935 declarations of the Japanese Ministry of Education that certain gestures and rituals in the cult of Confucius and the ancestors, which had been judged by a group of missionaries in China to possess a religious character, have only a cultural and political significance.

It is essential to note that these two declarations of the Japanese Ministry of Education, which had an enormous impact on the Roman authorities’ decision to change their policy regarding the Chinese Rites, were made with an explicit political aim of providing a basis for national unification. The Meiji government was interested in divesting the religious character of Shintoism to make it acceptable to all Japanese of diverse religious persuasions, and the Japanese Kwantung army was concerned with making Confucianism a common basis for the unity of the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Given the political use of the distinction between culture and religion, it is vital to question its usefulness for the project of inculturation and interreligious dialogue in Asia today. Two points need to be borne in mind in this regard. First, as most Asian countries do not build their political unity on the basis of a common religion, there is no longer the need to void certain rituals of their religious character in order to make them acceptable to those whose religious traditions do not accept them. Secondly, there is a serious temptation (at least for Christians) in inculturation and interreligious dialogue to empty the specifically religious content of the doctrines, moral practices, monastic traditions, and rituals and regard them as merely cultural, theologically neutral artifacts in order to "baptize them" for Christian use. In this way, interreligious dialogue is made much less arduous, since the partners in dialogue would not be forced to confront religious differences in their religious specificity. But the price is unacceptably high. To take the cult of ancestors as an example. If it is made into a "civil and political" act, it is easy for the Church to tolerate it, but the cult is thereby emptied of its innermost meaning for those who still practice it as one of the most sacred acts of their religious traditions. At the same time, an opportunity is lost for Christians to reconsider in the light of this cult their theologies of grace, mediation, communion and veneration of saints, and intercessory prayer, just to mention a few.

Cultural diversity and religious pluralism, which are increasingly becoming the hallmarks of contemporary society, present enormous challenges to the Church’s mission. A postmodern understanding of culture as a "ground of contest in relations" and the blurring of the boundaries between culture and religion and hence the practical impossibility to distinguish with certainty between what is merely cultural and what is strictly religious, make the tasks of inculturation and interreligious dialogue much more complicated than official Church documents and even contemporary theologies make them out to be.




1. For a history of the concept of culture, see Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952). For a brief overview, see Tanner 1997:3-24. Tanner surveys the meaning of "culture" as it was used in France, Germany, and Great Britain before its current usage in anthropology. For a presentation of Vatican II’s understanding of culture and its development, including John Paul II’s notion of culture, see Gallagher 1998:36-55.

2. For development of this concept of culture, see Tanner, 25-37.

3. For the following reflections on the post-modern concept of culture, see Peter C. Phan, "Religion and Culture: Their Places as Academic Disciplines in the University," in Ng 2001:321-53.

4. For detailed articulations of these six objections against the anthropological concept of culture, see Tanner, 40-56.

5. For a discussion of the historical development of globalization, see the works of Wallerstein 1974 and 1980; Giddens 1991 and Robertson 1992. In general, Wallerstein attributes an exclusively economic origin to globalization, while Giddens sees it rooted in four factors, namely, the nation-state system, the world military order, the world capitalist economy, and the international division of labor; Robertson highlights the cultural factors in globalization.

6. For a brief discussion of globalization, see Schreiter, 4-14. Social scientist Arjun Appadurai lists five factors that have contributed to the "deterritorialization" of contemporary culture: "ethnoscape" (the constant flow of persons such as immigrants, refugees, tourists, guest workers, exiles), "technoscape" (mechanical and informational technologies), "finanscape" (flow of money through currency markets, national stock exchanges, commodity speculation), "mediascape" (newspapers, magazines, TV, films), and "ideoscape" (key ideas such as freedom, welfare, human rights, independence, democracy). See 1990:1-24.

7. On these three tendencies or cultural logics dubbed as antiglobalism, ethnification, and primitivism, see Robert Schreiter, 21-25. For a lucid exposition and critique of postmodernism, see Dale T. Irvin, "Christianity in the Modern World: Facing Postmodern Culture and Religious Pluralism," in Ng 2001:253-66. For Irvin, postmodernism is liable to three temptations: facile acceptance of the processes of consumerism and commodification, disdain for tradition and memory, and reduction of the historical past to its Western cultural form.

8. 100 Roman Documents Concerning the Chinese Rites Controversy (1645-1941), Translations by Donald F. St. Sure and edited with Introductions and Summaries by Ray R. Noll (San Francisco: University of San Francisco, 1992), 4(italics added).

9. 100 Roman Documents, 22.




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