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 Global Perspective

May 6, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 5

global perspective
 
Janina Gomes is a freelance writer and works for chambers of commerce and other business organizations. She also contributes regularly to the "Speaking Tree", a column of philosophy and religion in the national daily, The Times of India.

 
 

 
 
 
 

For me, Hinduism is not another religion. It is part of my own heritage. It is the religion of my ancestors. God has reached out to my ancestors through it. So I do not look at its scriptures, symbols and methods as something foreign to me. I have the right and the liberty to integrate them as part of my spiritual tradition."

Fr. Michael Amaladoss,
an Indian theologian

God cannot be 'imported,' God must be 'incarnated'

By Janina Gomes

MUMBAI, India -- The Second Vatican Council initiated a revolution 40 years ago. Its document Sacrosanctum Concilium recognized that the church had become a world-church characterized by pluralism. The liturgy was opened to different languages and adaptations for different cultures of the world.

Ten years later the term inculturation was applied to this process. According to Fr. Michael Amaladoss, a leading Indian theologian and an expert on inculturation, though the official church in the name of liturgical reform has cleared away accretions that accumulated over history, substantial creativity has not been encouraged apart from some local external decorative elements permitted in India and the Congo.

A 12-point plan for adapting the liturgy with certain elements of Indian worship was put together by experts and the Indian bishops issued guidelines. The points suggested using certain postures during liturgy, such as squatting, anjali hasta (hands folded in prayer) and panchanga pranam (a full prostration with forehead touching the ground), arati as a form of welcome or worship; incorporating different objects, such as shawls, trays, oil lamps, and a simple incense bowl with handles; as well as different gestures, such as touching objects to one's forehead instead of kissing them.

When these Indian adaptations began to be used, reactions ranged from enthusiastic welcome to strong criticism, according to Jesuit Fr. Julian Saldanha, a professor of theology at St. Pius X seminary in Mumbai.

Saldanha said: "There was wider acceptance in the northern dioceses than in the southern ones. The 12 points were more welcome in villages than in urban areas. They were better accepted in institutions or certain groups, e.g., religious houses, than in parishes. It was found that youth take to them more easily than adults. The opposition was greater to those adaptations which more strongly remind the people of non-Christian worship." These included, for example, saffron shawls, squatting during liturgy, and using a samai (oil lamp) instead of candles, according to Saldanha.

Terence Fonn from the Ministry of Gospel Sharing for Small Christian Communities in the Mumbai archdiocese says westernized Catholics fixed in their ways of thinking opposed the changes. "For them the liturgy is often simply a ritual. If they are to change, they need to be re-educated."

Fonn quoted a writer who said that God cannot be "imported"; God must be "incarnated." "We have just imported westernized forms of Christianity," he said. "If Christ had been born in India, maybe he would have called himself "Gopal" or protector of cows [an epithet of Krishna] rather than the Good Shepherd. Real inculturation means transforming a culture with the values of the Gospel," he said.

Joaquim Reis, a lawyer for the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, organizes the Deepen Your Faith Theology courses for the laity in Mumbai. He also emphasizes the importance of re-education. "If the signs and symbols used are Indian and part of our cultural heritage and if they are not opposed to any of our Christian beliefs, if they bring a person closer to God and their faith, we should encourage their use," he said. But he adds that for some Indian Christians already infused with western culture "it is necessary to educate them in the need for inculturation."

He also cautions that the journey to truth must be made with the correct methodology, so that the signs and symbols through which we encounter God fits with the Christian understanding of God. The way Hindus and Muslims understand God may be different, he said.

Inculturation is sometimes identified with mere adaptations to the liturgy, says Thomas Dabre, the bishop of Vasai and chairperson of the inculturation committee of the western regional council of bishops. He calls for a deeper interpretation of inculturation.

Dabre wrote in the Mumbai archdiocesan weekly, The Examiner, "Some have reduced inculturation to some cultural practices like arati, dance, squatting While these things have their symbolic significance, authentic and comprehensive inculturation is as wide as the life of the people around us."

Amaladoss makes a case for a church presence in public festivals and for a more conscious exploration of the possibility of using scriptures and symbols of other religions and interpreting them in the Christian/Catholic faith context. Amaladoss says: "For me, Hinduism is not another religion. It is part of my own heritage. It is the religion of my ancestors. God has reached out to my ancestors through it. So I do not look at its scriptures, symbols and methods as something foreign to me. I have the right and the liberty to integrate them as part of my spiritual tradition."

Divine Word Fr. Sebastian Michael, professor of anthropology at the University in Mumbai and a member on the western bishops' committee for inculturation says: "The intellectual articulation of Christian faith in theology must be expressed emotionally in the Indian culture through well thought out and theologically sound popular devotions, pilgrimages, observances of fasts, processions, parish feasts, bhajan singing [Indian popular devotional songs] and passion plays."

"Christians could also articulate rites of passage without alienation from the Indian context since the most important events in a culture are the rites of passage," he says.

He also argues that in India inculturation should not be Hinduization or Sanskritization of Chrisitan life. The pluralistic culture of India should be the basis of inculturation. The Indian church must recognize, appreciate and empower the regional cultures and symbolic cultural creativity of tribals, dalits, sudras (lower castes), and other minorities as well as upper castes.

While many Catholics, specially in the old centers of Christianity, remain opposed to any changes in the liturgy in the Roman form, many clergy and groups are experimenting with adaptations to the liturgy in more private services.

The term inculturation is also better understood today than before. In a multicultural and pluralistic society like India, clinging to Roman forms of expression in insubstantials makes less sense to a growing number of Catholics.

Those who are opposed to any form of change do feel threatened by inculturation. Many who welcome change, on the other hand, would suggest going beyond the 12-point plan and finding a more Indian way of expressing themselves in Christian worship and in life.

 
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