Theology is supposed to talk about God who is unconditionally present to all people at
all times and in all places, yet theology as formulated by Church-people throughout the
ages and from many countries is conditioned by the traditions and cultures of the
countries from which theology has been formulated. A cursory study of the Bible will
immediately show the truth of this statement. See, for example, the way John used the Logos
concept to explain the Incarnation, and one has to admit that the formulation of theology
is affected by the traditions and cultures of the countries the theologians come from.(1)
Christ in Cultures attempts to look into the discussion where one wishes to
attest to two affirmations, viz., if God is unconditionally present to all people at all
times and in all places, and furthermore if at the same time the formulation of this
belief is influenced by the traditions and cultures of the countries in which the
formulation takes place, then can we not say that Christ is present in cultures? To help
us to do our job better we need to define "cultures".
The word "culture" comes from cultura, colere which means to till,
cultivate. It has the following meanings:
(a) Cultivation, tillage.
(b) Act of development by education, discipline, training, etc.
(c) The cultivation or rearing of a particular product or crop; as, oyster culture.
(d) The enlightenment and refinement of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.
(e) A particular stage of advancement in civilization or the characteristic features of such a stage or state; as primitive culture, or Chinese culture.
(f) In biology, cultivation or micro-organisms, as bacteria, or tissues, fungi, etc.,
in prepared nutrient media (culture media); also, an instance or product of such
cultivation. (Taken from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.)
In short, "culture" has to do with cultivating, tilling and tending, and
speaks of a quality, study, or way of life. Physically, it speaks of tending, and mentally
it aims at training, education, reverence, and refinement. So, it is the root word of
"cult" (as a system of religious worship) and "cultivation" (of the
soil). It speaks of the development and improvement of a person's whole being through
training and discipline (and care), and thus stands for a person's skills and arts. The
"cultor" is the person cultivating the soil; she is also the one who develops
Culture is that which holds life together, i.e., it is the patterned manner in and
through which people do things together and live as a community. So, through spoken or
unspoken agreement which ensures common life and corporate action, members of a community
go about doing many things acceptable to the community. In doing that members of the
community find themselves being held together over a span of time, and that is culture in
action. So, culture covers everything in life (human) and is learnt afresh by each
generation through community activities, i.e., one "absorbs" culture by one's
participation in the social activities (home or village gatherings, initiation rites,
etc.) Let us now turn to the Bible to see what happens to culture.
Genesis 2:15 speaks of God taking a person and putting that person in the garden of
Eden to till it and keep (tend, care for) it. Thus, that person was commissioned to
cultivate the land, i.e., commended to "work out" culture. Unfortunately, things
did not work the way they were meant to. Adam sinned and became corrupted.(3)
His first born, Cain, killed his brother, Abel. Cain refused to be his brother's
"keeper", i.e., he refused to care for his brother.(4)
Cain, the tiller of the soil, separated the tilling of the soil from the caring of the
soil. What was once beautiful is now ugly. Yet God did not forsake Adam, Cain, and all who
come after them. God is still with them and in their cultures, i.e. insofar as God has
created people in God's own image (having given them rational, moral, social, creative,
and spiritual faculties) and has commanded them to multiply and fill and subdue the earth,
God has made it possible for people to "create" culture.(5)
Thus, in culture we find people's control of nature and development of forms of social
organization to hold society together to give it shape and content. Insofar as people use
their creative powers to obey God, their culture enables them to live a meaningful life.
But Scriptures also say that people are fallen.(6)
Thus, their culture is tainted and imperfect. Faced with this dilemma one is very much
tempted to deny that Christ is present in cultures, yet I am not prepared to do that.
Insofar as people are made in the image of God, Christ is present in their cultures,
both to judge the bad elements in cultures and to affirm that which is good in cultures.
In the past, not a few Church people for various reasons were all too ready to condemn
"non-Christian" cultures, over-emphasizing the bad elements in cultures at the
expense and to the detriment of the good elements. So, they put sole emphasis on the
divine likeness in people that has been distorted by sin, forgetting that in spite of
their sin God is still with them and if so, then Christ cannot be absent totally from any
culture.(7) I would like to affirm that Christ is present
in cultures, else we have no business talking of a person's stewardship of all that is on
our planet. Neither do we have any right to say anything about God's grace enabling people
to be creative, resourceful, and inventive if we refuse to acknowledge Christ's presence
in cultures. When we look at Adam, Cain, and his descendants we can see that Genesis 3
speaks of Adam's fall; Genesis 4 records Cain's murder of Abel; but it is Cain's
descendants who are the tillers of the soil, builders of cities, breeders of livestock,
and makers of musical instruments and metal tools!(8) So,
no Christians can afford to be negative towards cultures, unless they are prepared to deny
all that people have created with God's grace.(9) This does
not mean that we have forgotten a person's fallenness and sinfulness, but we do wish to
say that in spite of a person's sin, because God loves her, God is still present in her
language, folk tales, and various art forms. God is present in that which holds life
together, and since culture does just that it is irrational to deny Christ's presence in
The Bible gives us numerous clues of human cultures as seen in the
People-Land-History-Religion specificity of the Old Testament, i.e., the Old Testament
speaks of the People of God, living in the Promised Land, with a History
peculiarly of their own, and a Religion given by Yahweh. The Old Testament cannot
be properly understood without an in-depth investigation of the
People-Land-History-Religion specificity. From Genesis to Malachi it speaks of these four
items which form the Old Testament culture. The ethnic, territorial, historical dimensions
are reflected in the economic, ecological, social and artistic forms of the Life and
People of Israel. These then give rise to forms of production, wealth, and well being of
Israel, and out of this matrix Judaism emerges. So God was present in all these aspects of
life (touching on beliefs, dress, work, play, worship, government, law courts, prisons,
marriage, family, etc.), and it was from all these aspects of human existence that God
revealed Godself. If God had used these as a medium in and through which to reveal Godself
then God cannot be absent from cultures. If that is true then in some way Christ cannot be
absent from cultures. Let us turn to the Bible to see if our statement is Biblical.
When I read the Old Testament I am impressed by the way the story of the Bible turns
around cultural crises. Each crisis seems to bring in its wake traces of culture shock.
Man sins and is driven from the Garden of Eden, almost immediately followed by the first
murder in history. Then Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold into slavery. The Exodus took
place - imagine a nation wandering in the wilderness for forty years! - followed by a
period of settlement and nation-building undertaken by David and Solomon. Several hundred
years later, God's People who had been living in the Promised Land,
practicing their Religion as events unfold in History (hence the
People-Land-Religion-History specificity) found themselves exiled to Assyria and Babylonia
(they did not have Boney M singing "Rivers of Babylon" then!). They could only
return from Babylonia because of Cyrus the Great's edict. Re-building Jerusalem took
place, and for the next few centuries they had to encounter the Persian, Greek, and Roman
cultures till Jerusalem was destroyed in C.E. 70. It is against all these cultural crises
that Israel worked out its religion and theology. When Christianity was born it followed a
similar pattern in the sense that it first had to "conquer" the Roman Empire
before it was accepted as a State Religion. Then, it spread to the four corners of the
earth. Therefore, to speak of God acting in history is to affirm that God is present in
cultures. If God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Godself, then Christ must surely
be present in cultures, given the above understanding.(11)
God's Revelation in the Bible was recorded faithfully by the Biblical writers who used
whatever cultural materials that were at their disposal.(12)
As mentioned earlier, St. John used the Logos concept to explain the Christian
experience and understanding of the Incarnation. St. Paul did not hesitate to press into
service both Jewish and Greek cultural heritage to hammer home his Christian conviction,
believing that the Holy Spirit would use what is noble in the Jewish and Greek heritage as
a vehicle of communication. The Old Testament writers, too, made full use of non-Jewish
cultural heritage to express their understanding and convictions of God's presence in
history, e.g., God's "covenant" with God's people reminds us of the ancient
Hittite Suzerain's "treaty" with his subjects. This example points to a
commonsensical truth, viz., the types of literary forms in the Bible are borrowed from the
contexts the writers came from. This makes sense, as the most logical way to communicate
with people is to use well known forms of literary communication familiar to them. So, it
does not come as a surprise if and when we find that in addition to the creation Story in
Genesis there were other similar Semitic stories of creation. Then, when God's People got
mixed up with the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans they were asked to
preserve their own identity and traditions pure, but equally certainly they were
influenced by and also benefitted from the influx of all these cultures. So, it was not a
surprise that God's Revelation was clothed in a cultural garb prevalent at that time.(13) This does show that if we took Christ seriously we
cannot afford to deny His presence in cultures. How else can He show Himself to us as
God's Anointed (see how I am already influenced by Jewish thinking here by my reference to
the word "Anointed") if He is not present in cultures?(14)
The next logical question to ask is: why are some Christians afraid to affirm that Christ
is present in cultures? Actually, the answers are simple.
(a) The first fear is their fear of "tainting" Christ, i.e., if Christ is
present in cultures then will He not be polluted by what is bad in cultures? The natural
answer is "Yes". Because the answer is "Yes", some sincere Christians
feel that they must uphold Christ's honor by way of denying His presence in cultures. The
sad thing in this way of thinking is the fact that by denying His presence in cultures one
is excluding Christ from purifying that which is bad in humanity. Surely, the Incarnation
shows that God moves in history by making Godself Incarnate. If God had feared pollution
God would never have disclosed Godself by becoming human, but by becoming human God was
able to purify that which is bad in humanity.(15) Surely,
this should be a lesson to those who fear (wrongly to be sure) that Christ would be
"tainted" by being present in cultures. His very Incarnation took place in a
Jewish culture, but no Christian would agree that in His Incarnation He was polluted by
Jewish culture. The same point can be seen in the celebration of Christmas. The Romans had
a holiday that lasted for a week, beginning the nineteenth of December. Originally, it was
a religious festival; it revolved around the sun and seasons and the planting of the
wheat. However, this degenerated into a week of rioting and merriment, feasting and
present-giving. It was called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of vegetation. In
the year 336, the Christians chose for the first time to celebrate the birth of the Son of
God on this Roman holiday. The early Church did not feel "polluted" in turning
Saturnalia into Christmas.
(b) The second fear has to do with syncretism.(16)
Perhaps, this fear hits Christians most painfully when they themselves are not too sure
of their Christian convictions. I have not come across any committed Christians who are
afraid of this fear, just for the simple reason that they know the full meaning of their
undivided loyalty to Jesus Christ. However, there are Christians who have to face up to
the fear of syncretism exactly at the place where they try to express their Christian
beliefs in local cultural forms, because they face the problem of cultural traces
(elements) which are either evil, or have evil connotations. This is natural as most
converts have to face three stages of development in their religious-cultural growth.
Initially, they tend to "reject" their identity, i.e., they see themselves as
"new" persons in Christ and reject everything in their past. So strong is this
tendency that many of them take on "new" names and call themselves Peter John
Tan or Mary Eva Lim. In due time they begin to suffer from an identity crisis because they
are neither (in Asia) Asian nor Western (because they got Western and Christian cultures
all mixed up. So, they got westernized but not Christianized.) The second stage sees a
moving away from rejection to accommodation, i.e., this is the time when they have
re-discovered their ethnic and cultural heritage (finding their roots!) and with it a
great temptation to compromise the new found faith with their cultural heritage. This is
the time when they play loose with their Christian Faith and are tempted to mix up
Christianity with their culture, leading to syncretism. Many Christians have moved away
from this syncretistic stage to where they can affirm their identity and self-awareness in
Christ and in their culture. This is the place where and when one can affirm
Christ's presence in cultures maturely, without fear of syncretism.
The above point can be very simply illustrated by way of observing church architecture.
Because of the type of weather in Holland, churches were built to keep away the cold
winds. When the Dutch Christians built a church in Jakarta they literally imported the
Dutch model from Amsterdam to Jakarta, and the last time I worshiped in that building in
Jakarta I thought I was having a sauna bath - not that God was that "hot" to me!
If only God was "hot" during that hour of worship I would not have minded! When,
in due course, the Indonesian Christians came of age they were able to build churches that
reflect their Indonesian heritage, without compromising their Christian Faith. This is
seen in the way Balinese Christians have expressed their belief in the Holy Trinity by
using a Balinese-style three-tiered roof for their church buildings. In this way, they
have been able to express their identity and self-awareness in Christ and in their
culture.(17) Syncretism? Who wants it?
(c) The third fear has to do with the idea that (in Asia) our cultures are inferior to
western cultures. To be a convert is to give up all our cultural heritage because it is
not good enough for Christ. This is to put across the erroneous idea in a strong way. Sad
to say, not a few Third World Christians still subscribe to this idea. No wonder converts
are de-culturised, e.g., the way Indian converts used to be forbidden to use drums in
church service because drums were connected with Hindu worship. It took the Indian
churches a while to do away with that misconception.
I must now end by affirming briefly why I believe that Christ is present in cultures,
having made brief statements on the definition of culture, the way the Bible has been
recorded in cultural terms prevalent at the time of writing, and the fear of criticism. If
my above statements have been true to the Bible then I see no reason why we should not
affirm Christ's presence in cultures. Christ went about doing His redemptive work in the
cultures He found Himself in. In and through His work in those cultures He brought about
salvation for one and all, whether in the purely Jewish culture, or in the Samaritan
culture, or even in the Hellenistic culture. By virtue of His victory over sin and death
on the Cross He judged that which is bad and evil in cultures and in the same breath
affirmed that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious in cultures. To
deny this is to practice cultural imperialism. How could Christ have carried out His work
if He had been ignorant of cultural factors in His time? So, he was aware (I am pretty
sure of that!) of features in every culture that are compatible with His lordship and
which need not be discarded but rather preserved and "baptized", as He was aware
of features in every culture that are incompatible with his lordship and must therefore be
done away with. I think of the Samaritan Woman, the Good Samaritan (see how Samaria
figures in Jesus' teaching), and the way God loves the world (John 3:16) which will
naturally include all the cultures in the world, and I wish to affirm Christ's presence in
Central to the heart of the Gospel and of the Ministry of Jesus is the belief that God
is our Creator, Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior through his Crucifixion and
Resurrection, the universality of sin which is overcome when we experience God's
forgiveness, the work and power of the Holy Spirit, the life and witness of Christ's Body
which is His church, and Christ's Return. All these take place in our history (hence
cultures). That is to say, Christ's redemptive work does not take place in a vacuum.
Rather, it is carried out in cultures. Thus, no once can make a theological statement that
can claim to be culture-free. Christ's presence in cultures then judges that which is bad
in cultures and affirms that which is good and noble in cultures.(18)
Christ's presence in cultures makes His Cross "a stumbling block to the Jews and
folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the
power of God and the wisdom of God".(19) This is
Christ's way of dialoguing with people by way of thinking their thoughts, understanding
their world views and cultural heritage, and being at one with them, yet not tainted by
their sin but purifying all that is in them. Thus His glorious work of salvation has taken
place and is taking place in our cultures, redeeming the fallen and affirming the
glorious, God-given and God-inspired elements in our cultures that, in the first place,
could only have prospered because of what God has given to people.(20)
To back away from this affirmation is to do injustice to the image of God in people,
though no one will deny that this image is blurred by sin. After all, we find that
cultural factors are present not only in God's Self-disclosure in the Bible (or as
recorded in the Bible) but also in our understanding and interpretation of those cultural
factors. We see that God spoke or addressed God's Word to a particular people, in a
particular context, and at a particular time, hence the cultures prevalent then coloured
the way God's Word was received. So, right now if we wish to understand the Bible properly
we need to take seriously the cultural contexts of the Biblical texts and those of ours,(21) acknowledging that a dialogue between the two must
somehow emerge for us to understand God's Word properly. This is but another way of saying
that we need to take Christ's presence in cultures seriously. If and when this is done,
then in our Bible reading we experience the Bible addressing itself to us as we read the
Bible. In that process we find Christ's presence in cultures challenging our
culturally-conditioned presuppositions and correcting (and redeeming) them. How else can
Christ function in our lives?
We will do well to look at two incidents in the New Testament when the Early Church had
no choice but to face up to the issue of Christ's presence in cultures. The first has to
do with the Ethiopian eunuch.(22) According to Acts, the
Ethiopian eunuch who was reading a passage from his position as a minister of Candace, the
queen of the Ethiopians, (so, he was in charge of her treasure) asked "About who,
pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?" Then Philip
told him the good news of Jesus, resulting in the Ethiopian eunuch getting baptized.
In many ways the Ethiopian eunuch reminds us of new converts who, before their
conversion, did not know Jesus Christ. After their baptism they came to profess Jesus
Christ as their Lord and Savior. The question is: what was Jesus in the person of the Holy
Spirit doing in their lives before their conversion? Can one say that He was absent in
their lives (hence absent in their cultures)? Obviously, no one can say that Jesus Christ
in the person of the Holy Spirit was not active before the converts' conversion. Thus, one
has to admit that Jesus Christ was indeed present in their cultures though they may not be
aware of it.
The second incident (again from Acts)(23) is even more
starling. It has to do with Peter and Cornelius (a centurion of the Italian cohort) and
the way the Holy Spirit was given to him even before his baptism. The same story is
re-told in Acts 11, suggesting that it was quite a culture shock to the Early Church to
realize that Gentiles were not only to be accepted but that eventually they would take
over the Church. In the Cornelius incident we see the normal procedure of baptism and
reception of the Holy Spirit absolutely reversed, i.e., in his case Cornelius first
received the Holy Spirit and only then was he baptized. Needless to say, this was a
mind-blowing event for the Early Church, and it took "ages" for the new insights
to sink in. The glories and greatness of God's love and impartiality(24)
were found in and experienced by Cornelius and in his pre-Christian life to boot, and
therefore it can be said that Christ was present in his pre-conversion culture even before
he knew it. To put the same sentiment in Biblical terms: Gentiles have become the heirs to
the covenants of promise and are now part of God's People.(25)
This becoming part of God's People (incorporation) is not only an "addition" to
creation, but a NEW creation, and a Gentile in Christ is thus a new anthropos
(person) and not just aner (man, in terms of being a male).
When I was last in Jerusalem I saw men waiting for work during my walk from the New to
the Old City, and they reminded me of the parable of a householder hiring laborers to work
in his vineyard.(26) Those hired about he eleventh hour
received a denarius like those hired earlier on. Naturally, the latter complained:
"These last worked only for one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have
borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat."(27)
Translated into religious terms one can say that those who have been exposed to Jesus
Christ, whether for one hour or more, are all equal in His sight. If God had chosen to be
generous ("Or do you begrudge my generosity?")(28)
to those who come later, then it is logical to believe that God has not forsaken them.
"But He did not leave Himself without any witness."(29)
This belief is seen in the way Jesus appreciated peoples of other races and cultures,
e.g., the Good Samaritan(30) and the Centurion.(31)
In short one can say that Christ is present in cultures precisely because of God's
sovereignty. To affirm Christ's presence in cultures is to affirm God's sovereignty as God
cannot be absent from all that God has created. To affirm Christ's presence in cultures is
to affirm the Eternal Christ (pre-existent Christ) who, when He "became flesh and
dwelt among us",(32) used the Jewish culture to
reveal His Father.
You are called to follow Jesus closely,
With Him you will take the road to Jerusalem,
the city of suffering and glorification.
With Him you will give everything
that the Kingdom may come.
On this road you are called
to be least of all and not master;
to carry other men's burdens
and not lay your own on them;
to give freedom instead of taking it;
to grow poor in order to make others rich;
to take the cross upon yourself
thus bringing joy to other men;
to die in order that others may live.
This is the mystery of the gospel.
It will be true and genuine
only if you practice it.
So keep Jesus Christ before your eyes.
Don't hesitate to go anywhere He leads you;
don't stay where you are and don't look back,
but look forward with eagerness to what lies ahead.(33)
If Christ is in cultures, then He is seen to be working in cultures. This statement is
no different than from the statement that if God is sovereign then God must be seen to be
operating in all peoples. Or to state it in yet another way: if people are made in the
imago Dei then all people have this imago Dei in them.
I am not sure how different cultures is from civilizations. I assume there must be many
overlapping areas. If so, then it is interesting to use Professor Samuel P. Huntington's
highly arresting article entitled "The Clash of Civilizations?" as a way of
seeing how such an article will appear from a perspective that affirms Christ is present
At a time when Rwanda refugees are dying like flies I cannot run away from the painful
awareness that as African nations become increasingly adolescent and their infrastructure
are falling apart, countries in the developed West are becoming increasingly geriatric,
yet can easily access to the planet's wealth and technology. In this real-life scenario,
the poor countries are getting over-populated, whilst some of the rich nations' population
is in absolute decline. Apparently, this great demographic divide makes Thomas Malthuis
(the over-population prophet) more relevant than Adam Smith (the champion of the free
To aggravate matters, the planet's wealth, the world's money that shapes the "good
life", scientists, universities, research and development programmes are basically
found in the demographically slow-growing or stagnant nations. In contrast, countries that
need such assets face uphill challenges. The anarchic collapse of Rwanda and Somalia is,
perhaps, a proleptic foretaste of what is to come if we do not take care of this great
demographic-technological faultline. The mention of faultlines brings me to the great
debate currently going on in our planet.
I specifically refer to Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations? which
appeared in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72:3 (Summer 1993). Parenthetically, I also note that
Benjamin R. Barber has written "Jihad Vs McWorld" where he spoke of the
"two axial principles of our age - tribalism and globalism - clash at every point
except one: they may both be threatening to democracy". Not to be forgotten, Johann
B. Metz has penned "The 'One World': A Challenge to Western Christianity".
Samuel P. Huntington premised his paper with the hypothesis that the fundamental source
of conflict in our world today will be cultural, rather than ideological or economic.
"The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The faultlines between
civilizations will be the battle lines of the future". p 22. To support his thesis,
he cited factors which make the clash inevitable: a) cultural characteristics are
difficult to compromise, b) interactions among peoples of different civilizations are on
the increase negatively, c) modernization is aggravating religious fundamentalism, d)
non-Western elite is getting to be more indigenized, and e) economic regionalism is
gaining momentum through culture and religion.
Samuel Huntington seemed to have overlooked the fact that religion and culture (also
religious-cultural symbols and elements) viewed as "civilization identities" are
not too seldom manipulated to camouflage the selfish pursuit of wealth and/or power. For
example, the Holy Crusades have often been perceived as attempts to crush Moorish (Muslim)
power and to regain control over Jerusalem, without any reference to the desire to acquire
the great wealth of the Arab world. Samuel Huntington seemed far too eager to stress the
civilizational factor that he seemed to have ignored the complex web of causes which
inevitably and invariably influences any conflict.
To Samuel Huntington, Bosnia is a religious war among Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roman
Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosnians supported by their respective co-religionists in
other parts of the world. p 33. A very significant factor has been overlooked, viz.,
unjust power structures associated with the demised Yugoslavia. The Serbs dominated
politics and the armed forces. The economic, industrial and scientific strength came from
Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Resultingly, this created resentment and antagonism among
the non-Serb communists who saw themselves as 2nd class citizens. To exacerbate
matters, Serbian chauvinism aggravated the situation. It was a combination of such factors
and others that caused the bloody flare up. Not just the simplistic Orthodox, Catholic,
and Muslim civilizational matrix.
Should such a flare-up ever happen in Singapore or Malaysia it would not be merely a
case of a clash between the Muslims (Malays), Buddhists (Chinese), and Hindus (Indians).
The flare-up would be caused by a complex web of factors. But to the elite in the West, it
will invariably be reported as a civilizational clash. In such ways, the western media
will continue to misunderstand events taking place in the Third World, and in the process
to mislead their readers and listeners. I cite two examples to buttress my statement
before continuing my critique on Samuel Huntington's essay.
I admit listening to the BBC World Service regularly - in my car, when I get to my
office, and even when I return home. So, it came as a disappointment that in an interview
on the recent Elections in Sabah, Malaysia, no attempt was made to correct a claim that
the National Front had suffered a defeat. Yes, the National Front lost the Election by a
very narrow margin, but it did increase its number of seats considerably. Unless one knew
this datum one would have believed the claim made during the interview that the National
Front had been rejected by the electorate which was the impression that came over the
waves. Secondly, when the Parliament in Singapore was debating the Maintenance of Parents
Bill just a few weeks ago, the BBC correspondent reported the debate in such wise that I
thought she was making a report emanating from Timbaktu. I rely on BBC World Service for
credible reporting. It is not unreasonable to expect it to maintain its credibility and
reliability. Any reporting, admittedly, has its "slant", but even the most
biased "slant" must reflect truth as people see it. With this in mind, I hasten
to continue to critique Samuel Huntington's paper.
We know for a fact that different civilizations are not inherently prone to conflict.
Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Taoism, to
mention several world religions, do share sentiments like the relationship between people
and their environment, the integrity of the community, the significance of the family, the
importance of moral leadership, and the meaning and direction of life in common.
Civilizations are also capable of forging and advancing mutual interests and aspirations.
More than that but unfortunately not mentioned by the learned professor from Harvard,
civilizations are capable of forging nations into a viable entity. I specifically refer to
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional bloc embracing at least
four "civilization identities" - Buddhist (Thailand), Christian (the
Philippines), Confucian (Singapore), and Muslim (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei). ASEAN
is a success story of regional co-operation made possible in spite of different
civilization identities. After 25 years of evolving an identity, ASEAN looks set to
consider application for membership from other countries. Hence at its last meeting held
in July, 1994 in Bangkok, Vietnam was seriously considering applying for membership.
Present as observers were also China, Russia, and Australia. This testifies to ASEAN's
success in regional co-operation, different civilization identities notwithstanding. This
alone pulls down the tent as far as Samuel Huntington's hypothesis goes.
In different civilization identities can co-operate with each other, similar
civilization identities have had their own version and experience of the Jupiter clash.
Germany and France share the same civilization, more or less, but have they not clashed
before? Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea share many civilizational identities, but they
have been battling with each other since time immemorial. And have not Muslim countries
gone to war with each other? Different civilizations need not end up on a collision
course. They can cologne. They need not collide. Most probably, they will collide if they
did not cologne.
Arguably, it is conceivable that Japan, China, and South Korea could catch up with the
West in scientific development. If the Muslims countries could do likewise, then far from
clashing with each other, they may prefer to co-operate with each other since any other
course of action might possibly spell destruction for many. If there is no co-operation
and no attempt made a nation-bonding, then most probably, the tragedies of the past may be
repeated. That is to say, if the fast-improving Muslim countries cannot get along with the
developed West, then possibly the former may clash with the Protestant countries or the
Catholic countries. If that happened, then it would repeat the clashes that dated back to
the time of religious conflicts in Jerusalem.
Personally, I am convinced that Samuel Huntington's hypothesis misses the gravy train
because he, like far too many intellectuals in the West, has refused to see that it is not
a clash of civilizations. On the contrary, it is all about western domination. In their
relationship to the rest of the world, the US and the West understandably wish to continue
to dominate and control. So, if a perceived "Confucian-Islamic connection that has
emerged to challenge Western interests, values and power", p 45, then there is a
clash of civilizations. It is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash of power,
unequal as it may be at the moment. Samuel Huntington should not be allowed to divert
attention and energy from the implication of such a clash of power. It makes sense to call
a spade, a spade.
One corollary of the clash of domination or power is the penchant for "enemy"
making. Previously, it was the Cold War that provided the fodder for imaging the "bad
guys". The Commies (note the derogatory language) were the evil ones perceived as
threatening the safety and stability of the "free world" (note the
Now that the Berlin Wall has disappeared, new "enemies" are needed to
generate sufficient animosity to keep the war machinery and power game going. Saddam
Hussein came in handy a few monsoons ago. North Korea looks like the next fall guy. Cuba
is on the list. Green Power is seen as a real threat. Samuel Huntington had not said it,
but he seemed to echo what not a few western intellectuals have penned: "radical
Islam, which relies on violence to extend Koranic power, has struck terror into the heart
of the West". Brown Power is threatening the domination of the West since Japan and
the Four Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong, and Singapore) are emerging as industrial
powers. Hot on their heels are Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Philippines looks set to
join the club. To boot, it is conceivable that China could become the biggest economic
power by 2030. If China continued to sustain an annual growth rate of 6%, its GNP could by
2030 equal that of USA, Canada, and Mexico put together. So, "a Confucian-Islamic
connection has emerged to challenge Western interests, values and power". Why
Confucian-Islamic, I ask?
The fallacy behind the western tendency in "enemy" imaging and making is the
assumption that Western power is the right one. All others are naturally the bad guy. I
cite three examples further to stress my point.
By now, all over the world (no thanks to the western media), Singapore is known as a
country that does to the behind of vandals what the vandals do to the front of your
One also knows what President Clinton has said on this matter. In his visit to Oxford
University recently, he could not resist the temptation to write on a poster that carried
a protest to his meddling in another country's internal affairs a propos the caning meted
out to Michael Fay. Bill Clinton wrote that it was a matter of the severity of caning that
he was protesting.
Someone remembered a winning line of his success in his being elected as the President
of USA: Its the economy, stupid, So, he wrote: Its the cultures, stupid.
It is well known that, rightly or wrongly, Asian cultures accept caning as a form of
punishment. It is also known that, rightly or wrongly, American culture does not accept
caning as a form of punishment.
The glaring arrogance in the Michael Fay episode is the way the American view
insensitively imposed itself on the Asian view. Americans (not all to be sure) assumed
that they were right and then proceeded to impose their view on Singapore. What blatant
use of power! A clash of civilizations? Not very likely. Once again, it is the West using
its might to declare it is right. Might is right, period. What about another incident as
food for thought?
A Singapore family was vacationing in California. The little daughter was throwing one
tantrum after another in a public place. Out of utter frustration the mother gave her a
slap on her cheek. An American woman saw it and started loudly to reprimand the mother for
slapping her daughter. Using her index finger to tap the mother's temple, she accused her
of child abuse. "You are not fit to be a mother..." To complete the public
humiliation, the security guards added: "you may do what you think is right in your
country, but in this country you need to respect the law or we will hand you over to the
police." The American woman's public reprimanding did not distinguish between
disciplining (Asian practice) and child abuse (American law). The words of the security
guards were specially jarring. What they demanded of the Singapore woman (respect American
laws) they would possibly be the ones to demand that the Michael Fayes were at liberty to
do what they like in any country in the world (who cares about other countries laws
anyway?) If such were just isolated incidents one would happily dismiss them as
"unfortunate, isolated incidents that could happen any time". However, we all
know better, don't we?
There is also a trace of hypocrisy in the Michael Faye episode.
A few months after Michael Faye's behind was caned in Singapore, a 17 year old woman
called Sorrelhorse (member of the Warm Springs Indian group in Oregon), was whipped in
front of her anguished mother by a tribal whipman. She was flogged with a leather whip
five times in a tribal ritual that predated the arrival of white people in America. Before
every lash, the whipman would announce the young woman's crime: "This is for running
away." The leather cracked five times. The whole ritual took 45 minutes. The young
woman was never charged by police, accused in front of a normal court of law, enjoyed the
service of a Queen's Counsel (crème de la crème British barristers), or found guilty of
any crime. Her crime? Ran away from home, smoked grass, drank alcohol, and hung around
with reservation gangs.
The young woman's mother, named Ms Cheryl Sorrelhorse, is a teacher on the Warm Springs
reservation. She does not subscribe to tribal beliefs. In spite of her strong protests,
her daughter was punished according to a tribal custom.
The almost total sound of silence on the part of Americans was telling. There were
explosions of rage in the Michael Faye episode on the part of the liberal US press, TV and
radio stations, many US politicians and commentators. None in Sorrelhorse's case
seemingly. If there were they were muted. And President Bill Clinton? Yes, what about
President Bill Clinton? "If Mr. Clinton is so eager to impose his opinions on the
methods used by a sovereign nation to ensure its own internal stability, he should also be
concerned that young people in his country are being whipped without even the benefit of
the legal process." Kevin Sinclair, South China Morning Post.
The contrast between the Michael Faye episode and the Sorrelhorse case is mind
boggling. In the former, the might of the White House was used to help a convicted
criminal facing a legal punishment meted out by a law court in a foreign country, after
the skilled defense by his Queen's Counsel brought into Singapore from Britain to defend
him. In the latter, I did not hear President Clinton express his shock and anguish that a
kangaroo court in his own country should whip a young woman. Incidentally, women are not
caned in Singapore, and normally the exception also applies to older men.
Fortunately, there are some Western writers who do have the insight to discern truth.
"In the controversy about the caning of a young man from Ohio, somehow it does not
occur to American executives, journalists and politicians that Asians will ask why they
close their eyes, mouths and hearts when the same canes scar the flesh of Asians,"
wrote AM Rosenthal in The Herald Tribune, April 16-17, 1994, p 6. He went on to pen:
"But let's also try, real hard, to grasp what Asians understand: from America the big
human rights message is 'flog Asians only'." AM Rosenthal hit the nail on the head
when he concluded that "Asians are not too doltish to know that Americans did not
seem to give one solitary damn about (Asians caned to the blood - Asian skin, pain and
liberties) ... before the sentence against Mr. Faye, and since."
Unfortunately, there are some home-grown liberals who may find it difficult to escape
from the niggling accusation that they, too, like their Western counterparts do not
"seem to give one solitary damn" about bloodying Asian blood till one white kid
was caned. Where were they when in the past five years 14 people were caned for vandalism
and 1,208 Singaporeans and other Asians were caned to the blood in 1987-1988 alone for
other offences? Why their sound of silence till the Michael Faye episode? It will not
surprise the wise that most probably a few of these homegrown intellectuals will even
endeavor to make a buck or two by writing on this incident. Parenthetically, let me say
that at least during the Vietnam War one Sri Lankan theologian, the late Dr. DT Niles, was
sensible enough to ask: Is Vietnamese blood cheap? Asking that telling question when very
few people seemed to care that so many Vietnamese were being killed. The western media
only gave space to the number of Americans killed, but they did not "give one
solitary damn" about Vietnamese killed in their own country by Americans except for
the infamous headcounts.
We note the irony in the fact that last century the USA and Europe prised open the
trading door from a reluctant China and a hermit-like Japan, as recently mentioned by
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. They were two Oriental countries happy to be self-sufficient
and to keep out the outside world at arm's length and then some. Forced to trade with the
West they had not choice but to do so. Lo and behold, guess who is now bellyaching against
Japan's trade surpluses and putting up protectionism? Now, it is the Japanese and Chinese
who come knocking at America's door to get in to trade and being told they are not really
Naturally and for very good reasons, we wish to access ourselves to the latest
technological advancement and with its the numerous attendant advantages. At the same
time, we do well to correct views given by the West if such views do not stand up to
scrutiny. In this sense, we do ourselves a great favor by distilling what filters across
to us from the West. We pick and choose - pick and choose what is best for ourselves. We
need not repeat mistakes made by others. We can learn from mistakes- theirs and ours - and
make our country a better place to live in and bring up our children and our children's
children. There is much wisdom in a popular Asian proverb which I quote:
When the clouds fall apart
the moon will appear
When cultures are viewed from a 'Christ in Cultures' perspective, 'the moon will
appear'. That is to say, we take the imago Dei in people seriously, because ontologically
speaking all people regardless of their race or culture have God's image in them. If so,
then logically speaking it makes sense to see how Christ can be and is present in all
cultures, both to affirm 'whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if
there is anything worthy of praise', (Phil 4:8) in all cultures and simultaneously to
judge what is bad in cultures, e.g. oppression of women and youth.
Samuel Huntington's position is both too simplistic and enemy-image making. Needless to
say, it cannot be said that he was writing a theological paper. Nevertheless, if no one
endeavored to make a counter point then possibly the clash of civilizations may take
place. The 'Christ in cultures' perspective forces us to delve into the necessity to
explore ways and means whereby people of all religions and cultures do share things in
common. If there is a clash brought about by different opinions and inability to work
amicably with each other, it will not be a simplistic clash between the Confucian-Islamic
and Judaeo-Christian cultures. Neither will any one culture claim absolute supremacy
because of its unmitigated military-industrial might.
1. Choan-Seng Song, Christian Mission In Reconstruction: An Asian Attempt (Mysore: TCLS, 1975), pp. 32-33 where Song very appropriately placed the Incarnation "far back to the very beginning of time," yet the Incarnation was explained by using concepts available at that time in contexts John the Evangelist found himself in. So contextualized theology which one hears so much of these days has a point when it calls us to be "faithful to the Text" (Christ-Event) and "relevant to the contexts".
2. A person is the cultivator of the soil and developer of cities precisely because "of the cultural dynamic of God's creation from which man's creative power is derived. Culture as a whole is none other than the manifestation of God's creative power translated into actual forms and events. Thus, creation may be regard as God's culture in its totality.' C.S. Song, Christian Mission, pp. 24-25.
3. Genesis 3.
4. Genesis 4.
5. It is pertinent to note that people still continue to "create" culture. Emerging nations in the world inevitably have to "create" cultures to hold themselves together. It is a sine qua non in life.
6. An eloquent testimony to this conviction is seen in the stirring words from Bishop KH Ting (Ding Guangxun) of China in his sermon on September 9, 1979 in the Riverside Church, New York City. "I've met and have been moved by many revolutionaries, men and women of high moral calibre, who have for 30 or 40 or 50 year forsaken everything in dedicating themselves to the cause of making China a more livable place for their people ... yet, it is these admirable souls who would readily agree with Saint Paul that the good they want to do they somehow fall short of, and the evil they don't want to do they somehow do in spite of themselves." According to Bishop KH Ting, this goes to suggest that man is a sinner "standing in need of Christ's salvation". Information Letter, No. 26, October, 1979 put out by LWF, Department of Studies, p. 18.
7. Tony Chi, Questions People Ask at Wesley, (Singapore: Wesley Church, 1978), pp. 19-20 where he wrote: "If Christianity is unique and distinctive are all religions wrong? Not necessarily. Our creator God who revealed Himself in Christ has not left Himself without witness in the world. Every good thought, every gleam of light, every trace of truth in another religion is part of God's self-disclosure. Truth is truth wherever it may be found. We cannot deny that other faiths also have some things that are true and worthy, moral and good." By this Chi had shown that though ultimately all good things find their completion in Christ, yet before that happens Christ is already present in them. Thus, Christ cannot be absent from cultures.
8. Genesis 4:17-22.
9. It was reported that though Hsu Po Ch'ien became a Christian, yet
he did not turn his back on Confucianism because he felt that the two could be
"combined". That is to say, he thought that the two would could be complimentary
to each other. "I came to the conclusion that the two systems might well reinforce
one another, and therefore I retained my Confucianism when I identified myself with
organized Christianity." Quoted by Ng Lee Ming in his "Hsu Po Ch'ien - A
Christian Model of Unification of Knowledge and Practice" found in Ching Feng,
Volume XXI, No. 1, 1978. The point here is clear: Hsu Po Ch'ien saw something of God's
work in Confucianism and thought he could be a Christian without denying that which is
good in Confucianism. Naturally, he would have to judge that which is bad in Confucianism
Among five basic issues in the Asian Church, Bong Rin Ro had this to say about contextualisation: "the gospel must be expressed in the local context and not be transplanted from the West, if Christianity is to be truly Asian." Asia Theological News, 4:2, May, 1978. Such a statement makes sense because it affirms, among other things, God's presence in that which holds life together (in this case in Asia). The local context in the arena where God is working out God's purpose, and for this reason, if for no other reason, it makes sense to affirm God's presence in cultures.
10. Cf. "... theology must be concerned with culture because it is not merely concerned with some isolated event but with the historical event of Jesus Christ. A Christian theology is a theology of creation as much as a theology of redemption. Therefore one of its main tasks is the illumination of the presence of Jesus Christ in the history of the world... if we are able to argue that there is a continued presence of the Triune God in His world then culture can equally be criticized by appeal to this norm. The confession that we have the mind of Christ is not only the revelation of the world's sacramental quality: it is the stimulus to a prophetic judgement." "The Problem of Defining a Theology of Culture with Reference to the Theology of Paul Tillich/ by JH Thomas as found in Creation Christ and Culture, ed. RWA McKinney, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1976), p. 287.
11. 2 Corinthians 5:19.
12. Even today Bible translators find themselves in similar situations, leading the Revd. Elkanah T. Suwito, a proficient Bible translator based in Malacca (Malaysia) to say that "one reason that many people do not understand the Bible is because the customs and culture of the biblical setting often differ from the customs and culture of present day readers". "Translating the New Testament," as found in Theology and Ministry in S.E. Asia, ed. Yeow Choo Lak, (Singapore: Stamford College Press, 1978, p. 103.)
13. More and more Third World Christians are beginning to realize that theology must take their cultures and historical traditions seriously. If not, then Biblical theology would be done without any reference to the cultural heritage Christians come from. Dr. Yap Kim Hao, General Secretary to the Christian Conference of Asia correctly pointed out that "our theological task must surely include the explication of our cultural context and the relating of the Gospel to it." He quoted another Asian theologian, Dr. Kim Chung Choon's now famous statement: "Before formulating an Asian theology, it is absolutely necessary to have a proper study of the cultural heritages of each nation. We have to study the raw materials of our culture without having Christian presuppositions: it means that we should read and interpret the traditional heritages of culture and religion from our own indigenous or national viewpoint, not from the Christian viewpoint." Christian Conference of Asia: Sixth Assembly, pp. 44-45. The point made is valid, viz., we cannot run away from the fact that God's Revelation in Christ was clothed in the cultural garb prevalent at that time. An implication of this statement is: theology cannot ignore cultures.
14. Dr. Andrew Hsiao, former President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong, in his address to his fellow Lutherans, affirmed that the proclamation of the Gospel is effective when it is done contextually. Referring to the way Christ was present in His culture Dr Hsiao said: "Jesus came into the world at a specific point in human history. The language he spoke, the clothes he wore, the food he ate, the customs he observed were all in line with the culture of that time so that people could better understand what he said, and more easily accept him. If the Gospel is to be understood properly and accepted easily (I would like to add "naturally"), it is important that it be proclaimed in accord with the needs of the culture of the area." Third All Asia Lutheran Conference, Singapore, 1976, p. 72.
15. I still remember how moved we all were when Mother M Theresa shared with us her experiences of her work with the orphans and the poor in Calcutta. Here is a lady who calls the blind, the lame, sick and dying destitute, the lonely and unwanted children "her people". She and her fellow workers can work with "her people" only because they have learnt that "to be able to do this work of love, and peace, the young sisters have dedicated their lives totally to the service of giving, of serving. To be able to understand the poor we must know who the poor are." Like Jesus, Mother M. Teresa is "redeeming" that which is "lost" in society yet without getting polluted. "We Need Love and Compassion Not Bombs And Bun" as found in Peace Through Religion, (Singapore: The Asian Conference on Religion and Peace, 1976), pp. 112-117.
16. It is a well known fact that people engaged in interfaith
dialogues are very sensitive to charges to syncretism. Conversations in Nairobi mentioned
two dangers. I quote them at some length as I would prefer the spokespeople to speak for
themselves. "The First danger is that in attempting to 'translate' the Christian
message for a cultural setting or in approach to faiths and ideologies with which we are
in dialogue partnership, we may go too far and compromise the authenticity of Christian
faith and life. We have the bible to guide us but there is always risk in seeking to
express the Gospel in a new setting.
A second danger is that of interpreting a living faith not in its own terms but in terms of another faith or ideology. This is illegitimate on the principles of both scholarship and dialogue. In this way we may 'syncretize' Christianity by seeing it as only a variant of some other approach to God, or we may wrongly 'syncretize' another faith by seeing it only as a partial understanding of what we Christians believe that we know in full." Faith in the midst of faiths, ed. S.J. Samartha, (Switzerland: Corbaz S.A. Montreux, 1977), pp. 147-149. From the above quotations it is obvious that syncretism is not everyman's cup of tea. Many avoid it like a plague!
17. Dr. C.S. Song also used architecture to drive home two points involved in "Christian mission as a theological task related to the search of truth in cultures (which) is thus entrusted with a two-fold responsibility." On the one hand it must bring to light how God's love for people and the world is misapprehended, distorted and even corrupted in cultures, and on the other to fathom how this same love of God is reflected in the life and work of people who live in different contexts of culture and ethos. "To use the analogy of architecture again, Christian mission in the non-Western lands, especially in Asia, should not emulate the defiant spirit of Gothic architecture with emphasis on contradiction and incompatibility. Christian mission should be more like Asian architecture which seeks to express the spiritual yearning for harmony in the midst of agony and pain." Christian Mission, p. 29.
18. An example of this is seen in the way American Christians once enslaved Africans. American culture which is very much influenced by Christianity shows both the good and bad elements in a culture. As such, Christ is present in American culture both to judge that which is evil and to affirm that which is noble. It is then not surprising that a Black theologian like James H. Cone could say that "the history of 'Christianity' at least from the time of Constantine, is a history of human enslavement: and even today, white 'Christians' see little contradiction between wealth ad the Christian gospel." James H. Cone, Liberation: A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia & New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1970), p. 208.
19. 1 Corinthians 1:18.
20. Burma with its rich culture can be taken as an example of our belief that God has caused cultures to prosper. Any visitor to Burma will gladly testify to the beauty she sees in that beautiful country. So, it comes as no surprise to read "it (Traveller's Guide to Burma) goes a long way in spotlighting some aspects of our culture and historical heritage and some special endowments of natural beauty that our country possess." Quoted from Traveller's Guide to Burma, Foreword written by the late Mr. William Welworth Lay, former general Secretary of Y.M.C.A. Here I would like to pay a special tribute to the late Mr. William Welworth Lay for his excellent work in the Y.M.C.A., Rangoon. He was truly a Christian gentleperson.
21. When asked if the holy world is more real than this world,
Annie Dillard had this to say: "But this world merited the Incarnation. If everything
is a symbol of spiritual reality, then earth's beauty means something. The classical
orthodox definition of beauty is that beauty is the splendor of truth. Beauty and goodness
and truth are a triad. The beauty of this world can't be brushed away. It is true there is
sin and pain and suffering, but to call the earth a blot in the universe is evasive. If
you carry that through to its conclusion, then God should never have created the world; it
was all some horrible mistake." "A Face Aflame: An Interview With Annie
Dilliard," Christianity Today, May 5, 1978, p. 18.
Such a statement could only have been made because the writer was aware of the fact
that to understand the Bible properly we need to hold in balance the cultural contexts of
the texts and our own cultural contexts. If not one can come up with some mind blowing
The above point was given consideration at a Workshop held in Jerusalem (June 1977) where the delegates considered in depth the theme on "The Jewish setting of the Early Church in relation to Trends toward Indigenization in the Third World Churches". Among other things, the delegates considered "the problem of the western dress of the Christian church (may I add that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the western dress per se!) In the midst of an indigenous cultural context". Of course, this is not a new problem. The Early Church faced it and came out with an answer - they "baptized" the particular religio-cultural contexts they found themselves in. "There was never a pure, a naked form of the Gospel before it was dressed in a Jewish, then a Greek, then again a Roman dress, and so on." The Jewish Jesus and the Universal Christ, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah, (Madurai: Palace Printers, 1977), p. 3. This must be an obvious statement so we do well to follow up on the consequences.
22. Acts 8:26-40.
23. Acts 10:1-48.
24. Acts 10:34.
25. Ephesians 2:11-12.
26. Matthew 20:1-16.
27. Matthew 20:12.
28. Matthew 20:15.
29. Acts 14:17.
30. Luke 10:29-37.
31. "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from East and West and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven." Matthew 8:10-11.
32. John 1:14.
33. Taken from Colleagues In Development, No. 27, January, 1981.