Many years ago, I met a group of Chinese Christians who do not believe in celebrating the Lunar New Year. The festival, in their view, has its roots in a pagan (Chinese) culture and is inextricably bound to the superstitions associated with it.
But does being a Christian mean that one should abandon one’s culture and the customs associated with it? What is the relationship between faith and culture?
In recent decades, some theologians have coined the neologism “inculturation” to explore the long and complex relationship between faith and culture. The former superior general of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, defines this as “the incarnation of the Christian life and of the Christian message in a particular cultural context, in such a way that this experience not only finds expression through elements proper to the culture in question, but becomes the principle that animates, directs and unifies the culture, transforming and remaking it as to bring about a ‘new creation’.”
It is obviously impossible for me to unpack this dense statement in this short article. What I propose to do, instead, is to briefly offer some theological handles that would guide our reflections on the relationship between faith and culture.
Firstly, the foundation for a theology of inculturation is the incarnation of the eternal Word of God. In the Incarnation, we learn that God did not reject the fallen world but has chosen instead to inhabit it so that He might redeem it.
Secondly, Christians of every stripe believe that in this sin-marred world there can still be found traces of the true, the good and the beautiful—however faint. Christians must therefore affirm these aspects of human culture as manifestations of God’s common grace (Phil 4:8).
Thirdly, although Christianity is not tied to a particular culture, it has the capacity to accommodate the cultural forms and sensibilities of the people who embrace it. As the renowned missiologist David Bosch has pointed out: “The Christian faith never exists except as ‘translated into culture’. Scripture itself—and every translation of it—are examples of inculturation.”
And finally, inculturation does not mean that Christians should simply and uncritically assimilate every cultural form, custom or practice to their faith. Some cultural practices obviously must be rejected because they are antithetical to the Word of God (see Deut 18:9). And, as Auppe’s statement makes clear, even the cultural elements that are embraced must be transformed by the Word of God and sanctified by His Holy Spirit.
The theologian Andrew Walls has helpfully suggested that in the process of inculturation, two principles are at work. The “indigenising principle” maintains that the Gospel is at home in every culture and vice versa, while the “pilgrim principle” underscores the fact that the Gospel is in many ways also counter-cultural.
Based on this understanding of inculturation, Chinese Christians need not totally abandon the celebration of the Lunar New Year.
Without embracing or condoning certain elements associated with the festivity such as its astrological and horoscopic aspects as well as the conventions and rituals associated with ancestor worship, Christians can surely celebrate Chinese New Year purely as a cultural event. This would include traditional practices like the reunion dinner, the visitation of family members, and even the giving of hongbao or red packets (not as a way of dispensing good luck, but as a genuine act of mutual gift-giving).
Christians can use this happy occasion to emphasise the importance of family, friends and community, and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. They can take advantage of this celebration to strengthen relationships and ties, and wish each other: “愿耶和华的恩典与平安伴随着你 (May God’s grace and peace be with you through the year).”
Arrupe, Pedro. “On Incultruation, to the Whole Society.” The Portal to Jesuit Studies (1978). https://jesuitportal.bc.edu/research/documents/1978_arrupeinculturationsociety.
Bosch, David. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, MS: Orbis, 2011.
Walls, Andrew. “British Missions.” Missionary Ideologies in the Imperialist Era: 1880-1920. Edited by Torben Christensen and William R. Hutchison. Aarhus: Forlaget Aros, 1982.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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