Liturgical Inculturation and Postmodern Culture

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 1 »Liturgical Inculturation And Postmodern Culture

By Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J. is Director of the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, Chennai, India. He also lectures at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi, India. A well-known international speaker and writer, he writes extensively on issues of mission, liturgy and inculturation, interreligious cooperation, contemplation, and liberation. A former editor of Vidyajyoti, he has also been Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Rome. For many years, he has been a visiting lecturer at the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI), Manila, Philippines.

When we speak of inculturation we often limit ourselves to indigenization. But it is a short-hand term for a complex process of gospel-culture encounter. When the gospel encounters a culture, it involves a call to conversion: a turning to God and as turning away from egoism and pride. Culture is a social product. As such, it shares in the limitations of humans. It is expressive of both the good and the bad in human society. These find expression, not only in strictly cultural structures like language, literature, and art, but also in economic and socio-political structures. These various structures mutually influence each other. It is with all these that the gospel enters into dialogue. The goal of gospel-culture encounter is the transformation of culture through conversion. This can happen only from within. Cultures do not change on their own. People change their cultures. In the process of promoting such a transformation, the gospel becomes incarnate in the culture. Transformation through incarnation is the way of inculturation.

Inter-cultural and Interreligious

The process may look simple if we take only the gospel and a culture into consideration. But unfortunately the process is much more complex in practice. The gospel is not an a-cultural good news. It comes embodied in Jewish culture. The New Testament has four gospels embodying the circumstances, needs, and perspectives of four different communities of Christians. The good news finds further embodiment in Greek and Roman cultures and other dominant cultures in the course of history. Each culture leaves its mark on the self-expression of the gospel. All these cultures are ambiguous: they have good and bad elements. For example all these cultures have been hierarchical and oppressive of women. So the gospel carries a whole baggage of cultural elements. The gospel-culture encounter then is also an inter-cultural encounter. The process of cultural interaction depends on whether the cultures are strong or weak, developed or non-developed, dominant or subaltern. I am not going to explain this process here. I should mention, however, that ideology (or theology) may privilege certain cultures. For example, some insist that the Judaic and Greco-Roman cultures are normative for Christianity. I do not think that this is correct. But this is the opinion of those who are in power today in the Church.

The culture the gospel encounters is not found in a pure state either. Every culture is animated by a religion that seeks to answer ultimate questions of meaning. The religion may be popular or developed, folk or elite. This means that the gospel encountering a culture has to encounter another religion. Inculturation, then, becomes an inter-religious process. The gospel may aim at totally replacing the other religion. It may come to terms with it in various ways. Where some sort of integration does not take place there is a phenomenon of double-religiosity. Once again, I am not going to elaborate on this process. Let me only mention that religions too are ambiguous, with good and bad elements. This is true also of Christianity which is the carrier of the gospel.

The complexity of this inter-cultural and interreligious process is increased when we realize that the Spirit of God is present and active in all the cultures and religions (John Paul II, The Mission of the Redeemer, 28). Any gospel-culture encounter will have to take this pluralism seriously and not easily dismiss creative initiatives as syncretistic.

Indigenization or Transformation

The process of inculturation is not making much headway in the Church today because it is mostly seen as the translation and adaptation of a pre-existent "pure" gospel that has already found privileged and normative expression in Judaic and Greco-Roman cultures. Indigenization itself is a natural process. People who hear the gospel respond to it spontaneously in their commitment, reflection, prayer, celebration, and action. This natural process has not been allowed to happen. Ways of responding and the symbols and gestures to be used are imposed. Spontaneity is smothered by a plethora of regulations. A healthy pluralism of peoples and cultures is not respected under the pretence of preserving unity. Under these circumstances, talking about inculturation as indigenization cannot go beyond accurate translation and the addition of some decorative elements exterior to the rite. Even this process is centrally controlled by people who know nothing of various local cultures and religions. The movement towards indigenization has come to a stand-still. There is no use talking about it. Nothing is going to happen unless there is a radical change of conditions. One of these conditions is whether the Indian Church is going to take seriously its own rights in the matter. That is why I think that it will be more helpful to focus on inculturation as transformation of culture.

Liturgy is not primarily a network of symbols and texts. It is the symbolic action of a community. The basic symbolic action in the Eucharist is the community sharing a meal—eating and drinking together—in memory of Jesus, particularly of his paschal mystery. It has to have food and drink and it has been questioned recently whether it has to be bread and wine. The sharing of food makes memory of what Jesus did. The memory is made in action, not merely in words. There have been Eucharistic prayers in the Syrian tradition, like Addai-Mari, that do not have the narrative of Jesus’ last supper. Doing is obviously more powerful than saying what one is doing. Under these circumstances the way of celebrating the Eucharist may be more important than the materials used and the prayers said. The Corinthians probably observed all the rituals correctly. Still, Paul thought that they were committing a sacrilege because the official ritual was preceded by separate common meals in which the rich groups had an abundance of food while the poor had nothing to eat. In a community where the Dalits are marginalized and oppressed and the women are discriminated against, where the poor go hungry and the powerful dominate the powerless, fidelity to text and ritual may be a counter-witness and counter-productive. In such a situation, promoting justice and equality in the community is more important and urgent than indigenization, though the absence of indigenization may make the ritual not only ineffective, but also irrelevant.

It is in this context that I would like to focus on the challenges of post-modern culture to the liturgical celebration. Let me clarify once again that I am not talking of liturgy as ritual-structure, but as social celebration. I shall focus on four elements of post-modern culture: the growing desire for equality and democracy as against the hierarchical ordering of society; the focus on the horizontal/world rather than vertical/heaven; the tension between individualism and community; and finally, the celebration of pluralism.

Democracy and Hierarchy

Tribal groups must have had, as some of them still have, a democratic system, though the women were probably excluded from the leadership group. Then the kingship emerged. The kings were not only seen as representatives of God but were even divinized. People spoke of the divine right of kings. Later the kings were supported by an oligarchy of princes. So we have the feudal system in which political leadership goes with ownership of property. One of these princes emerged as their leader or coordinator or king. With the French revolution the democratic principle re-emerged as the rule of the people, for the people, and by the people. "Liberty, equality, and fraternity" was the battle cry. In practice, political control was limited to males and land owners in the beginning. It is only in the first part of the 20th century did we have the idea that all humans are equal, whatever their race, financial position, or sex. Everyone has the right to vote. Leaders are elected for their function of leadership by the community. Their term of office is normally limited.

There are occasional democratic voices in the Church. It is immediately countered with the statement that the Church is not a democracy. But then the Church is not an autocracy either. The Church emerged at a time when society was governed by kings, so the community was organized hierarchically following secular models. Following Jewish custom the Church community may have been governed by a group of elders in the beginning. But soon a monarchic episcopate developed. Jesus, by his choice of the Apostles, meant to have leaders in the Church. He saw such leadership as a function of service. The community had a group of elders who played leadership roles. Whether he wanted this leadership to be monarchical, above the community, is doubtful. Whether he meant to have only men in such roles of leadership is hotly disputed today by theologians, especially feminists. The monarchical episcopate and priesthood probably correspond to the prevailing principle of organization in society. This is the influence of society and culture on the structuring of the Christian community.

The reason for my sociological discourse is to show how this affects liturgical practice. The community is gathered in worship. The community selects and authorizes someone to preside over the community and to pray and act in its name. Such authorization can be a prolonged or permanent one. The priest, therefore, prays and acts in the name and on behalf of the community. He gets, through ordination, a special gift, or charism from the Spirit for the purpose. But this does not set the person apart from or above the community. Every charism is for service. Paul made it quite clear to the Corinthians.



Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:4-7).

Paul then goes on to list a variety of gifts. Then he proposes the image of the body, which is one though it has many and different members. He declares: "You are the body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27). Paul goes on to assert that more important than all these gifts is to be able to love (1 Cor 13).

The priest has a role of leadership in the community. However, this does not place him above or apart from the community. But his relationship to the community is interpreted hierarchically by the Christian (Roman Catholic) tradition. He is often seen as representing God and Christ to the community than the community to God. He is given a place between the community and God as a sort of mediator. He becomes another Christ—alter Christus. Recent Roman documents are insistent on this hierarchy. The priest is set apart from and above the community. Any implication that he may be part of the community, though he may have a special role in it, is strongly resisted. The distinction between the "sacred" and the "secular" further helps this separation and hierarchy.

The question is whether this hierarchical vision of the community is part of the gospel or the reflection of the socio-political culture in which the ecclesial and liturgical structures were evolved in the early Church. The hierarchical structure is very much milder in the other churches. This hierarchical structure affects not only liturgical practice, but also church organization and discipline. It is a moot question which of these is more fundamental: liturgical practice or church organization?

In the modern world, the democratic spirit is gaining ground. People are not only aware of their rights. They also want to participate both in Church organization and functioning and in liturgical practice. The Second Vatican Council promoted active participation of the people in the liturgy. The reduction in the number of priests in some parts of the world has increased the participation of people in the liturgy, even in leadership roles. The priests could see themselves as coordinators, animators, facilitators, servants in the community. In official worship they speak on behalf of the community.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola takes for granted that the praying individual is in direct contact with God. He instructs the director or guide to respect this divine-human dialogue, and not to interject himself in between. I wonder whether this should not apply also to the community gathered before God in worship. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26). I am sure that this gift of the Spirit is available, not only to the priests and individuals, but also to the community.

The priest certainly has a role in the community. It is even an indispensable role, so that the community speaks in one voice. He speaks and acts in the name of the community. But he need not set himself apart from and above the community in order to fulfill this role effectively. He should welcome the full participation of the people in worship. He should see himself as a coordinating rather than a dominating leader. He must understand his role in terms of service than of power. We can then move away from a hierarchical vision of the Christian community to a democratic one, more in keeping with modern culture. Democracy is better than hierarchy, not because it is modern, but because it respects the dignity of each individual and his/her vocation by and responsibility before God. It encourages mutuality and fellowship rather than power. It accepts that, before God, all of us are children with the same rights and obligations.

A democratic celebration of the liturgy does not demand any change in basic rituals. But it requires a change in attitudes and in theological justifications. For instance, the idea that the priest acts in persona Christi (as a personal representative of Christ) is a Latin theological interpretation of the relationship between priest and people in the liturgical action that is not found in the Oriental churches. Where in the Latin Church the priest says: "I absolve you" and "I baptize you," the Oriental traditions will say more humbly "May God absolve you" and "May the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit baptize you." The Oriental tradition is much more sensitive to the presence and action of the Spirit in the liturgy than to the power of the priest. The role of the priest in the liturgy is not that of a master but of a servant—servant both of God and of the community. In the Latin liturgy the priest betrays this dimension only once a year, when he washes the feet of twelve people on Holy Thursday. It could become a habitual attitude.

The Sacred and the Secular

Modernity is often seen as leading to secularization. This is the denial of anything beyond what we can see, touch, and measure. God and the sphere of the Sacred, if they are not denied, are not allowed to have any influence on life in the world. Religion is seen as alienating people from this world, setting them other-worldly goals to pursue. People stop practicing religion. Some may become agnostics and atheists. Others may not deny God, but God is not allowed to have any influence on the way they live. The scientific view of the world is seen as objective and normative. Secularization, therefore, seeks to find meaning in life and in the world without God. Religion as an institution loses its central role in society; it becomes a private affair. Other social institutions like economics and politics declare their autonomy from religious control. Looking at the history of Europe one can say that secularization is, at least partly, a reaction against the domination of institutional religion on social life. The religious institution has opposed most new developments in science, human rights, democracy, etc. Therefore, secularization is more a revolt against the institution of religion with its dominant presence and power in society than against God.

We can react to the phenomenon of secularization in many ways. One way is to defend tradition, and fight for the primacy of the institution of religion in public life. This would be the way of the fundamentalists. Another way would be to be resigned to the development and promote the private practice of religion. A third way would be to accept the unjustifiability of the dominant role played by the religious institution in the past; acknowledge the legitimate, though not absolute, autonomy of other dimensions of social life; defend God and the Sacred independently of the religious institution; and see if we can learn from the movement towards secularization.

While all traditional religions acknowledge God as creator on whom we totally depend, they picture God and our relationship to God in different ways. Cosmic religions see God in natural forces. Some meta-cosmic religions see God primarily as transcendent and image our relationship to God in vertical terms. God is up above in heaven. The Sacred is different from the secular. One approaches and gets in touch with the sacred through prayer and special ritual. Sometimes authorized mediators may be necessary. Other meta-cosmic religions see God as also immanent. God is within us. God can be experienced through concentration and meditation. The Sacred is in the secular. Of course the total picture would be that God is both immanent and transcendent. The Sacred is in the secular but transcends it. The movement to God, if we have to picture it, is not only vertically upwards and downwards, but also outwards horizontally in the world and in others. God within, and God in the other, need not be alienating. Such an attitude meets secularism half-way. God is not in another world above. God is with us, but leads us to transcendence and immanence.

We see a movement towards "secularization" already in the life of Jesus. Jesus himself as God-become-human is no longer a God far away and up above. One can see and touch God in him. Jesus goes one step further. In his discourse about the final judgment he indicates that we can actually encounter him, even without being conscious of it, in the poor, the needy, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner, etc.—that is, in any person who needs our love and help (Mt 25:31-45). Jesus tells the Samaritan woman: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming, when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (Jn 4:21, 23). Jesus replaces the sacrifices in the temple with a common meal, washing each other’s feet and sharing food and drink in memory of his own passion, death, and resurrection. The sacraments of the Church are not "religious" rituals, but social rituals like washing with water, sharing food and drink, anointing and imposition of hands, and mutual reconciliation which have a deeper religious meaning in the context of the faith of the community.

In the beginnings of Christianity, the apostles were not called priests. The term priesthood was only used for the whole community (cf. 1 Pet 2:5). Christ was called the High Priest (Heb 7-8). There were no churches; people met in different homes for their worship. Priests and rituals set apart in a sacred sphere is a later development. In the process the vertical is emphasized at the expense of the horizontal and the religious dimension dominates the social dimension of ritual. Though it has a sacrificial significance, the primary symbolic action of the Eucharist is a shared meal, expressive of community as the body of Christ (Acts 2:43-47). It is a meal that is sacrificial, not a sacrifice followed by a meal. But by overemphasizing the sacrificial dimension people can downplay the horizontal dimension of fellowship in community. This happened very early in Christian history, and Paul protested strongly against it (1 Cor 11). The Eucharist, therefore, is a social symbolic action expressive of community in union with Christ.

To rediscover this social dimension of the Eucharist is also to emphasize its secular aspect. The implication of this for inculturation is two-fold. First of all, in a postmodern context, we should downplay the vertical dimension and emphasize the horizontal. These are after all symbolic. We should encourage active participation by the community in the celebration. Secondly, in a community that is divided in the name of caste, and economic and political inequality, the experience and expression of equality, and community in the celebration is more important than oil lamps, bows, aratis, and other elements of Indianization. True indigenization of symbols and texts are very helpful and necessary. But a "socialization" of the celebration is even more necessary and urgent. The liturgy will also be more post-modern in this way: more communitarian, more democratic, and more secular. I may mention in passing that the Oriental tradition emphasizes the vertical dimension, and the sacred character of the liturgy even more than the Latin one.

Individualism or Community

In the last section I stressed the secular dimension of the Eucharist, and in that context, wrote about its social and communitarian aspects. Now, we can look a little more at the social and community aspect of the liturgical celebration in the context of individualism that is promoted by modernity and post-modernity. Modern life is characterized by individualism and competition. There is a lot of stress on individual freedom and rights. Society is seen as the free association of individuals and at their service. The role of government is to offer space for the free expression of individuals. The community provides a context. Any sense of responsibility for the other can become an obstacle to self-development. In the school, in the field of sports, and in the marketplace, individual initiative and competition are appreciated, encouraged, and rewarded. The community is instrumentalized.

Also in the field of religion, the personal relation with God is prized. Prayer and piety become individualistic and emotional. Many forms of mystical prayer encourage the perspective of "alone with the Alone."

On the contrary, liturgy, especially the sacraments, are symbolic actions of the community. At baptism, the community welcomes a new member. Today, the parents and others associate themselves with the celebrant who represents the community. People may become children of God, or receive the gift of the Spirit in many other ways. But they also become members of the Church through baptism. The Eucharist is a celebration of community and equality symbolized by the sharing of food and deepened by becoming the body of Christ. In the early Church, reconciliation used to be an occasion when the community accepted back notorious public sinners who were repentant. At the anointing of the sick the community prays for and with a sick member. The sacrament of Orders is the designation by the community of people who are authorized to speak and act in its name. At marriage a new unit of the community is founded by a man and a woman before all the people. Unfortunately, many of these have been reduced to acts of personal piety in which only the relationship between the individual and God, through the mediation of the priest, was stressed. The Second Vatican Council insisted on the social dimension. But this has been interpreted as the presence of the community, praying and singing, but not actually as its full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy itself as social symbolic action.

Community celebration of the liturgy and its living out in daily life can be a good counter to modern individualism. Here is an example where the gospel will actually be challenging modern culture to conversion. At the same time, traditional social structures based on factors like caste will have to be broken down to rebuild community as children of God and members of the body of Christ.


While modernity was fond of bringing things together and building big unities, postmodernity recognizes existing fragmenta-tion and pluralism. Together with a drive towards globalization exists a respect for diversity and identity. The struggle for identity may even lead to fundamentalism. The pluralism of cultures is acclaimed as a gift of God and as the manifestation of the creativity of humans. At the same time one speaks of the global village. Taking both the centrifugal and centripetal factors into consideration we realize today that unity is not uniformity, but the dynamic convergence of diversity. Even translation is seen as dynamic equivalence.

One of the obstacles to inculturation as indigenization is the fear of losing unity. Therefore, it is sought to be affirmed not only at the level of meaning but also at the level of expression. Literal translations of texts are insisted upon. Foreign cultural symbols are imposed. We tend to forget that it is humans who make meaning. They can also reinterpret old symbols and give them new meanings. What needs to be constant is the faith of the community and its social symbolic actions, not the symbols and words through which they are lived and expressed. The principle of dynamic equivalence can be applied not only at the level of language, but also at the level of symbols and symbolic actions.

When talking about liturgical inculturation, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the power of the Church to change the rituals and symbols except where they are experienced as divinely instituted.1 This power can be extended in two ways. The universal Church is a communion of local churches. One basis of declaring a church local can be its rootedness in a special culture, which often involves a special language. In the situation of the prevailing pluralism, every local church can be responsible for determining what symbols it should use to express its faith. It shares the same faith with the other churches. But no local church need dictate to another what symbols it should use. The existence of many ritual traditions in the Church is a recognition and affirmation of this diversity.

Secondly, divine institution concerns not all the symbols that the sacramental symbolic actions actually use, but what is called the "substance of the sacrament." This "substance" is interpreted as the basic meaning of the symbolic action. For example, the basic ceremony at ordination used to be considered the handing over of the chalice and the paten. Today we think that it is the imposition of hands. The basic meaning of the action—the substance—is the designation by the community through its representative of a person to speak and act in its name. This designation is also recognized by the Spirit of God by a special gift. This basic meaning has been associated with different symbolic actions in the course of history. What makes a symbolic gesture appropriate is simply the option and decision of the Church, though it must also indicate the basic meaning in some way—except where it is clear that Jesus has determined it. This can be said today only about the rite of washing in Baptism and sharing food and drink in the Eucharist. Other rituals have changed over the years.

It is from this point of view that some theologians today suggest that the "substance" of the Eucharist is the community sharing a meal, eating and drinking together, in memory of what Christ did at the Last Supper. The Church may change the materials eaten and drunk in different cultures and situations.2

Pluralism is not new in the world. What is new is the realization that unity does not mean its suppression. It is not negative, but can have a positive significance. Today we recognize and accept difference as positive. This is very relevant to the process of inculturation.


Inculturation in the liturgy is not going to make any headway until there is a widespread realization that the celebrating community is the agent of the liturgical action. Liturgy itself is a symbolic action of the community. The possibility of social transformation is more important in inculturation than tinkering with atmospheric elements like prostrations, dances, and aratis. Post-modernity and liturgy can challenge each other in the process of liturgical inculturation.


1. I have analyzed this problem in my book Do Sacraments Change? Variable and Invariable Elements in Sacramental Rites (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India), 1979.

2. Besides my book referred to in the previous note, see Jaouen 1995.


Jaouen, René

1995 L’Eucharistie du Mil. Langages d’un People, Expressions de la Foi(Paris: Karthala).

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