Over the years in my reading of scholarly literature about Church History, I’ve noticed a major problem with the literature. The whole sweep of Church History published in English, and even a great deal of translated works from other languages, presumes the rightness of the Western viewpoint. If you try to research how Christianity was westernized, you’ll be awash in justifications for it. Even those who admit there were mistakes in the process still tend to offer corrections that keep Christian religion entirely too Western. They describe the original Hebrew brand of Christian religion as if it were far more Westernized than it actually was.
The westernizing of the gospel message is called “inculturation.” It’s a term used to indicate that a universal gospel truth has to be worked into the existing pagan culture of the audience, seeking ways to make the gospel seem less alien and more acceptable. That sounds innocuous enough, but the question is: How far can we go before we have changed the gospel message into something else? What is essential to the teaching of Christ?
The answers vary widely among those who seek to answer that question. Yet the one thing they all seem to have in common is the emphasis on rational content as the root of the question. Everyone is seeking an orthodoxy and an answer that can be expressed in propositional terms. This is the fatal flaw in the whole debate. There can be no right answer because the question is addressed on the wrong level.
The meaning of “Messiah” is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. If you don’t get the Old Testament right, the New means nothing. The New Testament churches considered the Old Testament their Bible until much later, and the Old Testament was good enough to confirm the teachings of Christ. The New Testament documents arose in the context of the Old. Jesus didn’t abrogate the Law of Moses; He fulfilled it in the sense of meeting all its requirements and bringing it to life in human form. Jesus was what Moses was pointing to, the full maturation of it’s ancient intent to reveal the character of a very real and personal God Almighty.
Scholars claim that Acts 15 was the first attempt at inculturation, when the New Testament leadership recognized that Gentiles could not be bound under Hebrew cultural habits enshrined in the Law of Moses. There had to be a way to bring Gentile believers into God’s favor without turning them into Jews, because not everything in Hebrew culture was appropriate for the rest of the world. You didn’t have to be a Jew to follow Jesus; there was something in His teaching that was universal moral truth beyond the cultural packaging. This was behind Paul’s admonition to discern the Old Testament from the higher moral meaning (2 Timothy 2:14-16).
In that letter to Timothy, Paul flatly denies the importance of semantics and legalism. The endeavor did not rest on precise wording of Scripture, but upon seeing beyond the words to the heart of God. This in itself was the core of discerning universal truth outside any culture. This is Mysticism 101; don’t get trapped in the particulars discernible to the intellect alone. If the whole point is stripping away the power of fallen nature, then it means moving the core of conscious awareness farther out of the reach of human sin. That means moving out of the intellect. The single greatest heresy of Western Christianity is that the intellect is not fallen, but can be redeemed and perfected here in this life. They’ve turned spirituality into a cerebral exercise.
Those of us who follow Christ could change the world somewhat. Indeed, our presence as true mystical followers of Christ will provoke some changes; it is inevitable. However, it was never the goal of the gospel to change this fallen world. Rather, it has always been to escape the Curse of the Fall, which means a process of being less and less connected to this world. This world is doomed; the gospel is otherworldly in nature. Not so much leaving the planet as leaving our fallen existence on this planet, we are seeking to reconnect to the divine perspective even as we live here.
The best we can do for society is offer ways to stabilize things, in part by demonstrating the only way it can be stable. We create a covenant fellowship in microcosm and show how it can work against the fallen context. We show not only the powers of our shalom but a changed orientation that makes shalom possible. We have no plans for wholesale conversion of populations via converting cultures. We offer the truth and give God room to draw the people who can be drawn.
So when you read something like this Religion Wiki article on inculturation, you’ll get all kinds of historical data, but the underlying orientation presumes that Christianity was meant to be a culture, instead of something “not of this world.” And this scholarly treatise offers a wealth of research into the details and sources that show how the gospel was modified to appeal to the Germanic hordes invading the remnants of the Roman Empire. It still assumes that the failure — if any — was a matter of orthodox intellectual content. It comes close when it asserts that biblical faith is world-rejecting against the pagan world-accepting outlook, but even there it misses the point. The article assumes a frame of reference about the whole thing that was born after the churches left their ancient Hebrew mystical orientation.
That second linked article assumes “otherworldly” to be an intellectual position. This is false. We as Christian Mystics are deeply involved in the here and now, but we do so from a higher moral perspective. We don’t worry about tomorrow; we eschew the long-term managerial viewpoint of Western Christians. We seek to experience the living joy of our Creator in the here and now and strive to keep that alive for as long as our flesh retains our souls. We know that this is how we take care of all our tomorrows.
We don’t view the afterlife as a radical departure from the whole of our current existence, only the part where our fallen nature gets in the way of experiencing what’s actually here. The afterlife will include the same planet, but one that has been freed from domination to the delusion of the Fall. There’s nothing wrong with the natural world, but something deeply wrong with us. The Second Coming will change human nature, not nature. The author draws a distinction based on a false understanding of Christianity.
That false understanding is the common lore of mainstream Christian religion in the West today. It’s the basic assumptions behind almost all of the work in Church History in the West. Christ didn’t tell us to win the world; He told us to go and tell the world the truth. What the world does with that truth is not our problem, not a part of the Great Commission. It’s far more than rolling back the Western missionary habits of evangelizing Western “Christian” culture as if it were the gospel; it’s a whole new image of missions. We simply want people free from the Curse of the Fall. That means we have to recognize how the Curse is manifested in every cultural setting, and dare to demonstrate a life without those manifestations, whatever they may be. We apply the Sword of Truth and rightly divide what matters from what doesn’t.