In earthen vessels

Daily Reading for October 31 • Paul Shinji Sasaki, Bishop of Mid-Japan, and of Tokyo, 1946, and Philip Lindel Tsen, Bishop of Honan, China, 1954

While it is often quite difficult to distinguish or disentangle the “metaculture” (universal elements) from the local variations or indigenous forms, plural cultural expressions can be designated as part of a larger world religion because one can identify “striking continuities over time and space.” These “continuities,” of course, are based on the fact that specific sacred texts record the central experiences and revelatory events that represent salvation for humankind. In the case of Christianity, Andrew Walls suggests that it is possible to identify such common features, as “continuity of thought about the final significance of Jesus, continuity of a certain consciousness about history, continuity in the use of Scriptures, of bread and wine, of water.” The fact that Christians often disagree about the significance and interpretation of these features need not concern us here.

While the category “world religion” is useful for referring to various religious traditions that share certain common features, it must be recognized that it only represents an ideal or abstraction. Religion only exists in the vernacular, or, to adapt a biblical phrase, the “treasure” only exists in “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). There is no such things as a “pure” transcultural expression of Christianity or any other world religion—there are only particular cultural manifestations. . . .

While the missionary “carriers” of a religious tradition certainly contribute to the process of cultural transformation through their translation efforts, indigenization ultimately depends upon the creative efforts of those who belong to the local culture. Independent efforts to create vernacular Christian movements, in fact, are often resisted by the missionary carriers. This is not surprising, as F.F. Bruce explains:

“One important aspect of the fixing, or indeed petrifying, of tradition often appears when a community is transplanted from its former environment to a new and familiar one. It may try to preserve its sense of identity and security by holding tenaciously to its traditions in the form which they had reached at the moment of transplantation. . . . To many it seems safer and more comfortable to stay within familiar and old-established boundaries. The admission of more light may show up inadequacies in cherished traditions—inadequacies that might otherwise have remained hidden.”

From Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements by Mark Mullins (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998).

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