Gospel and Culture

Paulos Mar Gregorios

  • Mistaken views of culture
  • A wider view of culture
  • Conclusion

Mistaken views of culture

In the circles of the World Council of Churches, one often hears about the need to study in depth the relation between gospel and culture. This is the usual Protestant temptation, to take two abstract realities like Gospel and Culture and try to relate them in a theological-sloganistic way. Prof. Richard Niebuhr, one of my revered mentors, once wrote a book about Christ and Culture. The defect of the book is that Christ is always seen as an abstract entity, and so one can readily speak of Christ over Culture, Christ against Culture and all that. What we should talk about, I feel, is the community of Christians (or the church, if you please) on the one hand, and the community of human beings in which Christians participate on an equal footing with others who are not Christians, and how the two are culturally related to each other. 

The second temptation is to get into that other bug-bear of the western church planted amidst non-western cultures -- what people call indigenization. Literally it means making something native or born inside the country, which is actually foreign or exogenous (born outside). So people take up some particular aspect of the local culture, and make it a garment for what remains basically Protestant evangelicalism or Roman Catholic Papism.

In a country like India, this has been tried at different times by different people. The classical paradigm is Roberto de Nobili, an Italian aristocrat disguised as an Indian Brahmin, to win the Brahmins, from 1606 to1656. He may not have made much of a positive impact on the Brahmins whom he wanted to convert, but he is certainly remembered by some Indian Christians. Abhishiktananda, the French Roman Catholic priest, a generation ago took formal Sannyas to be a missionary to the Hindus; so does the contemporary Benedictine English priest, Bede Griffiths in Santhivanam near Tiruchirappally. Such people make a great impression on some Western Christians associated with them; but Hindus in general are neither moved nor attracted. In fact many Hindus look upon these as part of the typical machination of western Christianity with its compulsive manipulativeness and deceptivity in the service of its mission. 

On the theological side there have been efforts by Brahmabhandav Upadhyaya, Chenchiah and Chakkarai to clothe western Catholic or Protestant theology in terminology borrowed from Hinduism in the hope that this will appeal to Hindus. The results have been rather disappointing to the purveyors of these suspect stratagems. Indians resent the kind of paternalism behind these stratagems. They see western missionaries or their Indian surrogates underestimating Indian intelligence. They feel that if Indians can understand western medicine, science/technology, art and music without being disguised in Indian forms they can also understand what the Church has to say about its faith without such patronizing attempts to bring it down to the “Indian” level.

The new stratagem of inter-religious dialogue is also on that ground suspect among the followers of the major religions of the world. Those among them who participate in dialogue have been able both to learn from Christians and also to correct them on some of their pet prejudices and stereotypes. But the dialogue movement has more meaning as a symbol than as a recognition of the principle of the equality of all religions in status and prestige, and as a necessary step towards the unity of humanity which is so desperately needed today. 

A wider view of culture

The question of culture is the question of how human beings give expression to certain qualities in their relationship to each other and to the rest of the created order. These values are not artificially added to the process of organized human productivity; they underlie both dimensions: human beings dealing with each other in their social relations, and human beings in interacting with the rest of the created order and create symbols, values, rituals and forms in that process of interaction. But there is a third level which interpenetrates the social and the scientific-technological-- the dimension of meanings, value connotations, truth perceptions and expressions which point to a transcendent dimension. 

The Church must learn to look at all three levels of culture:

  1. The four layered productive level of Agriculture, Industry, Services, and Information;

  2. The social level of political economy or power relations among human beings;

  3. The level of value/meaning, connotation, and indication.

Quite often culture is seen as limited to the third area alone. 

Our concern as a Christian church should be about Culture at all three levels and the values embodied in science/technology/production, political economy/human relations and cultural creativity/criticism at the meaning/value level. Christians cannot manipulate or dominate culture. They can do two things:

  1. manifest the weaknesses and strengths of current practice of culture at all three levels; and

  2. create new patterns at all three levels which embody values and meanings which they regard as higher on a genuinely but modestly Christian Scale of assessment.


The issue if tackled as that between gospel and culture at the level of evangelisation, it will lead inevitably into the manipulative deceptive structures endemic to western Christendom in its inbuilt drive for expansion and domination. On the other hand, if Culture is seen as the meaning/value dimension at all three levels, Christians may be able to make a genuine contribution, which need not be labeled as Christian, to the sum-total of human existence.