A Primer on Missional Theology §3.5: Cultural Translation

3.5. Ecclesiology: mission as translation

In this important subsection, I will highlight the influence of a post-Christendom perspective upon ecclesiology. I noted above how the history of the church is marked by the “ecclesiasticization of salvation” and the corresponding institutionalization of the church. Part of this legacy involves what we now refer to as cultural imperialism: the replacement of one culture by another through the use of force. This occurred in Christendom because of the mistaken notion that the church itself is a culture. As a result of the Constantinian lack of separation—or, positively articulated, symbiotic union—between church and state, the institutional Catholic church grew to understand itself as a particular culture: the culture of those in power. To be “Christian” meant to act and live in a particular way, defined by whatever socio-cultural power the church had aligned itself with, whether Roman or German or French or American. The practices of the church became manifestations of a general “Christian culture.” Hence the uniform use of the Latin language in liturgy and Scripture, to take just one example. In the American evangelicalism within which I was raised, there was a similar union between Protestant Christianity and conservative politics made in the late 1970s. This is another form of Constantinianism, in that it weds the gospel to a particular culture, whether British imperialism, German fascism, or American conservatism. The result is an ideological pseudo-gospel, one that turns God into an object for our use, an object which we can control and exploit to justify our own practices and enforce those practices upon others. In this context, mission becomes what Lamin Sanneh calls “diffusion”: the spread of a cultural institution which imposes the imperial culture upon the receiving culture. Diffusion begins with a cultural norm and then subsumes all other cultures within its structure as it spreads.

By contrast, at the center of missional theology stands what Andrew Walls calls the “translation principle.” According to Walls, the uniqueness of Christianity is found in the fact that “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity. Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation: ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.’ . . . Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language” (Missionary Movement, 26-27). Central to the “translation principle” is that in any translation, we move from particularity to particularity. We move from one specific language to another specific language, from dialect to dialect. As Walls notes, “no one speaks generalized ‘language’; it is necessary to speak a particular language” (27). We see this most clearly and profoundly in the event of the incarnation itself: God “became a person in a particular locality and in a particular ethnic group, at a particular time and place” (ibid.). If we then allow the incarnation to define for us the essence of any theological form of translation, we must conclude that translation is always “culture-specific.”

This primal act of translation is fundamentally basic and paradigmatic for all other translations within the Christian narrative. Any further examples of translation will be concrete and culture-specific. The effect of this is most clearly seen in the church’s mission of evangelism and witness to Jesus Christ. Within Christendom, mission took the form of institutional expansion, which effectively meant that cultural particularities were dissolved into the universal imperial culture of the church. The concrete details of language, custom, dress, and rituals, among other things, were all swept away to make room for the one “correct” culture, the ecclesiastical culture which was the bearer of salvation. Against this, missional theology conceives of mission as cultural translation: the church translates the good news of Jesus Christ into a form that communicates to particular people in particular times and places. The mission of the church thus exists in concrete correspondence to the mission of God in Jesus Christ. And because the church serves a missionary God, we have to reorder the relationship between God, church, and mission: it is not that God gives the church a mission in the world; on the contrary, the God of mission has a church in the world. Mission is primarily what God realizes in the history of Jesus Christ, and the church participates in this mission through its faithful and contextual witness.

Andrew Walls clarifies the nature of mission as translation through a dialectical pair of terms: (1) the “indigenizing principle” and (2) the “pilgrim principle.” According to the “indigenizing principle,” God accepts us “as we are,” which includes the fact that “we are conditioned by a particular time and place, by our family and group and society, by ‘culture’ in fact” (Missionary Movement, 7). Mission thus affirms the unique cultural particularities of each person. We see this confirmed in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In contradistinction to the Judaizers of the early church, the leaders of the council decided that Christianity is self-indigenizing: the gospel indigenizes itself in specific cultural communities. Consequently, “no group of Christians has therefore any right to impose in the name of Christ upon another group of Christians a set of assumptions about life determined by another time and place” (ibid., 8). This has radical implications for how we conceive conversion. Missional theology destigmatizes the foreign concepts and practices of other cultures, recognizing that the gospel is infinitely translatable. Christianity does not conduct a Borg-like assimilation of other cultures; rather, the church engages in the process of translating the gospel in ways that affirm the unique particularities of other people groups.

Standing in a necessary dialectical tension with the “indigenizing principle” is the “pilgrim principle.” If the gospel indigenizes itself in other cultural communities, the gospel also enters these communities as a disruptive and apocalyptic presence, calling them outside themselves (extra nos) and into the kingdom of God. The gospel of Jesus Christ makes every person a pilgrim. It interrupts us with a new telos—a new divinely ordained end—one that leads out of our sinful incurved existence (homo incurvatus in se) toward the eschatological reign of Christ. The word of God comes to us as both affirmation and negation, both a No and a Yes. It says Yes to our concrete particularities, while saying No to the human impulse to remain safe and comfortable, to refuse the radical call of discipleship which invariably involves death and resurrection. The gospel seeks both affirmation and transformation, both indigenization and pilgrimization. According to Walls, the pilgrim dimension of the gospel “whispers to [the Christian] that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system” (ibid.). The word of Jesus Christ is an incarnation which is also an in-breaking, a translation which is also a transformation. In other words, where the indigenizing principle emphasizes particularity, the pilgrim principle emphasizes universality; the former acknowledges our embodied identity, while the latter acknowledges that our identity is redefined by our participation in the covenant people of God, the universal body of Christ. As Christians, we are given a “common inheritance,” welcomed into the one kingdom of God, and yet we are welcomed as culturally distinct individuals shaped by our families, groups, and societies. Both principles must be held together in a necessary tension; they cannot be sublimated into some higher synthesis.

Lamin Sanneh adds two further principles under the notion of translation. He begins by noting that Christianity is “polycentric,” meaning that in the process of translation, the church does not move from one central cultural norm to other cultures that are, in themselves, alien to the gospel. Rather, the church moves from one center to another center, in that the gospel finds a home in every culture. From this he derives two important principles or ideas: (1) destigmatization and (2) relativization. First, according to Sanneh, the gospel destigmatizes those cultures which may have been identified as “pagan,” “profane,” or somehow excluded from the mission of the church. Every culture can be a witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; no culture is precluded or disbarred from the proclamation of the gospel. Second, the gospel relativizes all cultures, so that no one language or culture becomes the sole bearer of revelation. Sanneh writes:

The fact of Christianity being a translated, and translating, religion places God at the center of the universe of cultures, implying free coequality among cultures and a necessary relativizing of languages vis-à-vis the truth of God. No culture is so advanced and so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal or inferior that it can be excluded. All have merit; none is indispensable. (Whose Religion, 105-06)

According to Sanneh, no culture or language can be absolutized as the normative vehicle for the Christian message. While each culture presents the gospel in its own unique way, the divine word of revelation relatives these concrete forms of Christian faith. No culture is divinized, including the Jewish culture assumed by the Son in the incarnation. No culture is closed to radical interruption and transformation; a translatable gospel is antithetical to any fossilization of culture. Instead, the gospel calls for the continuous conversion of all cultures to the reign of Jesus Christ. Finally, all cultures are both friends and foes of the gospel. As Walls notes, the Christian gospel says both Yes and No. Translation always involves this dialectical relationship with language, culture, and the world.

[Series introduction and outline]