Thursday, April 17, 2008

Steve Hu: Newbigin, Syncretism, and the Emerging Church

Not long ago I was doing some research on the Internet on syncretism in connection with missions and I was fortunate to come across a paper mentioned on the Tall Skinny Kiwi blog by Steve Hu titled "Are We Syncretizing the Gospel: A Reflection Upon Lesslie Newbigin's Definition of Syncretism for the Church's Missionary Encounter with Culture." Steve presented this paper to a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007, and as I read it I thought it was very helpful in reflecting upon the topic of syncretism and the contribution of Newbigin to this timely topic.

I did a little Internet detective work and tracked Steve down. We have had a few email exchanges and have talked by phone, and he consented to discuss his paper here.

Steve graduated from Rutgers University, New Jersey with a dual bachelor’s in English and Journalism. Before entering seminary, he worked as a technical writer and briefly as a newspaper reporter in central New Jersey. He attended Biblical Theological Seminary and completed a dual master of arts in missional theology and Old Testament in May of 2007. He is currently serving in a large Chinese-American church as a pastoral intern. His particular interest and research area include the interplay between culture and Gospel, and also between culture and culture. He notes that the challenge of ministering in an Asian-American context is to discern the underlying and implicit Confucian values that sometimes govern how ministry is done in such a context.

Morehead's Musings: Steve, thanks for agreeing to discuss your interesting paper. Let's begin on a personal note. What is it about the subject matter of the paper that led you to write it? Your appreciation for Lesslie Newbigin's thought, aspects of the emerging church movement, or the timely issue of syncretism in the West?

Steve Hu: When I first came across Lesslie Newbigin’s work, I was dumbstruck with the idea he was articulating, that the church needs to send missionaries to the West. Why would the church needs to engage in missions in the West? Hasn’t the West already been converted or “won” (if you want to use a Western movie motif)? It’s only the non-Western locales that needs the Gospel, not the West. I was completely boggled by this concept. As I delved deeper, I began to see that the missionary encounter which the Gospel has with culture occurs in all locales, at all times – past, present, future.

I was also intrigued with the emerging church movement in that they seriously are taking the challenge and call of embodying and incarnating the Gospel in our post-Christendom context here in the West. It is because the ECM has taken up the call to seriously engage culture and embody the Gospel that it has been criticized of syncretism, or diluting the message of the Gospel. What drew me to this issue is that Newbigin’s ecumenical tone, and the fact that both sides of the emerging debate read and cull Newbigin’s work for insight. Newbigin challenges not only those in the ECM, but those outside of the movement as well. So the lessons we can learn from Newbigin speak broadly to the church as a whole if we are to seriously take up the challenges of embodying a biblical Christianity to this culture.

Morehead's Musings: I found it interesting that you began and concluded your paper with reference to the missionary work of Matteo Ricci in China in the sixteenth century. I found his contextualization work in China most intriguing when I considered it for my intercultural studies courses at seminary. What is it about his work that interests you and how do you make the connection to the subject of the paper?

Steve Hu: I first became interested in Matteo Ricci’s life and work when I attended the “Splendors of Imperial China” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1996. This exhibition featured 350 pieces of art which spanned 4,000 years of Chinese history. Toward the end of that exhibition, I came across several paintings by Jesuit missionaries in China in the 18th century. I was intrigued by this since in this huge collection of Chinese art one would not expect to see works by European artists. I have always thought of China as a monolithic and homogeneous land, a society whose culture was never influenced by the outside world. (After all, China considered itself the “Middle Kingdom”, a country where others revolve around her.) As I soon discovered, throughout her history, China has seen and greeted many outsiders, cultures, and systems of thought. As a student of Chinese history and Christian missions, it is this encounter and interplay of cultures that interest me.

Matteo Ricci’s life and missionary work came closely before Western colonial expansion began in Asia. Ricci is seen by scholars as the precursor of modern Western influence in China. Though Western influence would later encroach forcefully upon Chinese culture in the modern period, Ricci’s work did not exemplify this infringement. He was the first ever European to gain an audience in the late-Ming imperial court and permitted to live in the capital city, Beijing because the scientific and mathematical knowledge he was able to offer to the Ming court. While Ricci’s missionary method is based on Francis Xavier’s contextual engagement with Buddhists in Japan done decades previously, Ricci understood in order for the Gospel to gain foothold in China, he must first become an astute student of Chinese culture. Ricci took on the role of a learner instead of a proselytizer. He did this so to become an “integral part” of Chinese society so to reach the Chinese in their own terms. Since the highly literate Chinese valued philosophy, knowledge, science, Ricci first presented himself as a Buddhist monk to the Chinese. Not realizing Buddhist religious men were not revered in China as they were in Japan, Ricci realized his mistake and in due course became a Confucian literatus so he may present himself as a learned man to the Chinese. To this end Ricci also spent years studying the Chinese language and Confucian classics to prepare for the missionary encounter he would have with the upper echelons of Chinese society. In short, Ricci wanted to understand and speak the language and culture of the Chinese so he may present Christ in Chinese terms to that culture. Ricci’s approach represents an organic and imbedded missionary strategy so he may dialogue and converse with the Chinese literati in their own relevant cultural terms. And since the Chinese literati highly valued literature, Ricci took up writing in Chinese to “sinicizing” Christianity. Ricci did this by interacting with Confucian classics and explaining the concept of the one true God in Confucian terms.

Ricci’s missionary approach was unique for his time. He painstakingly took time to contextualize the Gospel message in Confucian concepts, a system of thought that governed most of Chinese social, familial, and state behavior at the time. This method of appropriating a “foreign God” is what helped the Chinese Ricci was trying to reach make sense of the Gospel. China scholars like Donald Treadgold has termed Ricci’s methods “syncretistic” but it was exactly this approach that garnered early Christian missions great success in China. The criticism of syncretism arose because Ricci allowed new converts to Christianity practice ancestral worship. Since this deep-seated ritual was so central to a culture that highly valued honor and shame, dismantling ancestral worship would bring instability to Chinese society. Ricci also opined that such rituals carried no religious significance, that they were merely symbolic means of expressing filial piety to one’s family. Of course Ricci’s methods were controversial and many viewed him as someone who compromised the Gospel. While opinions differ on the value of Ricci’s approach, most China scholars view this approach as Ricci’s way of engaging the deep-seated Confucian beliefs of the Chinese culture. As John D. Young puts it, Ricci’s method was more a tactical strategy rather than an intellectual compromise of the Gospel.

While Ricci’s scientific knowledge afforded him credibility among the Chinese literati, Ricci knew his first and foremost task is the engagement with the Chinese for the sake of the Gospel. Ricci believed the direct act of proselytizing would not help this cause, that the introduction of a very foreign concept into Chinese thought would be an “assault” on Chinese culture. Ricci adroitly overcame this obstacle by pointing out to the Chinese that the one true God was already present in Confucian classical texts by appropriating the Confucian concepts of “heaven” and “Lord-on-high”. Ricci poured his efforts into this argument, and wrote voluminously in Chinese arguing for the existence of God and saw Confucian philosophy preparing the way to the true God. Furthermore, Ricci would also use Confucianism’s highest virtue, filial piety, to argue for the need to love God and to love one’s neighbor.

With all the talk in toady’s missiology of being “relevant”, I find Ricci as a perfect pioneering example who understood the challenges and the stake involved in contextualizing the Gospel for it to be understand and lived out by its target audience. Ricci was no different from the early church fathers who saw Greek philosophy possessing a kernel of truth which points to Christ. Ricci did the same with Confucianism, and in due time impacted a great deal of Chinese whom he lead to Christ. Not only did Ricci impact these individuals spiritually, he also shaped scientific understanding in China. For this impact, Ricci is still honored today in China as the Christian who brought about scientific advancement and reintroduced ethics to Chinese society.

Morehead's Musings: Your paper addresses the charge of syncretism leveled against the emerging church. What types of allegations are made?

Steve Hu: D.A. Carson, one of the most vocal critics of the emerging church, has pointed out if the ECM continues down the line toward a wholesale adoption of postmodern epistemology, then the ECM will also without doubt become more syncretistic. According to Carson, this is because postmodern epistemology disallows any particular claim to reality or truth. This catering to postmodernism promotes an uncritical tolerance in which all things are accepted as true. On this basis, truth becomes relativized. Carson argues that if postmoderns are to be postmoderns, then they have to disallow claims to any reality thereby increasing the need (and desire) for syncretism. Because our cultural milieu is becoming more and more postmodern, anyone who does not hold a pluralistic worldview would be seen as “old fashioned”. Carson also charges the ECM has desiring to find positives in every “ism” while dismissing modernism.

The allegation of syncretism also comes from other critics of the ECM, from writers and authors like J.P. Moreland, Albert Mohler, Millard Erickson (see Whatever Happened to Truth and Reclaiming the Center, both published by Crossway). The charge these authors bring up is that the problem with postmodernism is its “relativistic understanding of truth and knowledge” as it conceives truth in context of a linguistic community (hence the “linguistic turn”) while rejecting the correspondence view of reality. The allegation of relativizing truth claims logically leads to the charge of syncretism. If truth is relativized, then it’s easier to pick and choose what one perceives as good from each “ism” or worldview.

These are certainly serious issues for the ECM to consider, that the possibility of “catering” to postmodernism would lead one down the road of syncretism. But for critics of the ECM to link wholesale the entire movement to these wide-ranging allegations is a bit rash. There are still those in the ECM who hold firm to the proposition that Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

Morehead's Musings: Would you identify yourself with the emerging church movement? And simply because you are critiquing the allegations of syncretism in the ECM this does not mean that you necessarily believe that the ECM does not have issues it might be more self-critical in regards to. Is this correct?

Steve Hu: I am not part of the ECM nor was I ever part of an ECM community. I do, however, identify myself with the general tenets of this movement since it provides valuable insight to evangelicalism as it is currently understood and practiced in the West. As some critics of the ECM want to toss out the baby along with the bathwater, I actually find it helpful to think of the ECM as a movement that can offer positive correctives to our current understanding and practice of Christianity. Similarly, in history we see Romanticism grew as a corrective to the overly rationalistic enterprise of the Enlightenment. Movements will never cease to spring up in history, and the challenge for the church is to discern and identify both the positives and negatives of such movements in order to appropriate the Gospel message in such context. There are a number of strengths in this movement (many would quickly cite the positives of the ECM as Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger points out in Emerging Churches). In particular, I see the ECM’s purposeful discernment of culture for the intentional engagement with culture and its desire to be on mission with God as strengths of this movement. The ECM’s intentional desire to incarnate the Gospel in the world seeks to bridge the divide between the public and private spheres, an artificial dichotomy modernism has created. This is another positive I see in the ECM.

Despite these positives, caution is still needed when appropriating Gospel in our growing postmodern context. This is where I think there is room within the ECM can be more cautious and self-critical, particularly in its assessment of modernism. I generally agree with Carson’s critique of the ECM’s reductionistic understanding of modernism. Like its critics, the ECM also wants to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater by completely jettisoning modern epistemology. But if postmoderns truly believe that no one has the whole picture and that we need one another to help ourselves to fill in the blanks, then why is there such outright rejection of modernism? Perhaps the new way of understanding the world is found in both the linguistic turn and a correspondence theory of truth. To synthesize these two, the church would thereby practice syncretism par excellence.

In some ways, the ECM sees itself as the panacea to the woes and ills of the modern, Western church. Despite this view, the ECM is still mostly confined to the WASPy demographic of this country. I have yet seen the ECM make inroads in the African-American, Hispanic, or Asian churches in this country. Why? Perhaps these issues are not even pertinent in ethnic churches. Perhaps such issue like the dichotomy between public and private is only inherent in Western constructs. So for the ECM to garner all the attention and for it to say that their approach is the way forward is a bit premature.

Morehead's Musings: In your paper you interact with the writings of Lesslie Newbigin. How have you found him helpful in this context?

Steve Hu: Newbigin is a tremendous figure in missiology and his writings provide profound insight on the church’s missionary encounter with Western culture. Born in England, Newbigin served as a bishop in Madras, India for a number of years before returning to the West. As he settled in England, Newbigin began to analyze the interplay between the Gospel, Western culture, and the church. Newbigin came to realize the Western church had lost its missionary vocation by co-opting the Gospel. Surprisingly, the West also syncretizes the Good News by dressing the Gospel in Western forms, styles, and epistemology. Newbigin would not have been able to notice this if he had not spent time in a non-Western context. It was through serving and working with his fellow Indian brothers and sisters that he began to see his own conception and practice of Christianity as syncretism since it is couched in a layer of Western assumptions. The problem Newbigin faced is how to discern the “contextualized character” of the Gospel in the West because at first he considered Western forms of worship and theology as “normative”. As Carlos Carodoza-Orlandi puts it, if this consideration is taken without critical reflection, then the Western church would be “blind to the interplay between the gospel and their culture(s), the ways in which their faith shapes and is shaped by the context where they live.”

Newbigin’s analysis demonstrates syncretism is not just an obstacle missionaries face in non-Western locales, but it is quite a real and live issue in the West as well. How exactly does the church in the West syncretize the Gospel? The Gospel is accommodated when the church latches Christianity onto modernism. Newbigin argues further this is seen in the artificial dichotomy between faith and reason, values and facts, public and private. The most obvious symptom of this malaise is the ineffectiveness of the church in the public arena as the church has accepted being relegated to the private sphere. In this manner, Newbigin forcefully asserts the church is practicing nothing more than a dualistic, gnostic religion, a religion much like that of Hinduism than a biblical Christianity.

Within today’s evangelical circles, Newbigin’s writing is gaining popularity since they offer an accurate diagnosis of the symptoms of syncretism in the church. A prime example of the relegation of the Western church to the private sphere can be seen in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy at the beginning of the 20th century in which the church retreated back into her walls of safety. Newbigin’s writings are incredibly piercing, and he helped me see how my own understanding and practice of Christianity may be accommodated or diluted. I’ve also come to realized that my own conception of the Gospel is couched in Western forms, styles, and epistemology. I find it quite helpful that in being aware of this co-option, my conception of the Gospel is not all that “normative”. This awareness also helps me cultivate a constant self-examination of my own understanding and practice of Christianity so that I don’t thrust up my understanding of the Gospel as the one true orthodoxy.

Morehead's Musings: Let's talk a little about syncretism. This is perhaps one of the key issues facing the church in the 21st century in both theology and missiology. The word "syncretism" is almost always considered a negative term but you remind us that it has a long history with both positive and negative connotations. Can you comment on this?

Steve Hu: Syncretism, like the word “postmodernism”, has really gotten a bad rap over the years. When was the last time you associated something positive with the term “postmodernism”? In the popular evangelical mind, postmodernism represents a flippant disregard for truth, relativistic, an “if it makes you happy, I’m happy” approach to life. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, then you better stay away from the bogey man of postmodernism since he’s out to get you.

Syncretism has the same bum rap. When this term was first used by Plutarch in the 2nd century A.D., syncretism meant the coming together of two allies to battle a common enemy. (Plutarch used this term to describe the Cretans who banded together against a mutual enemy.) The Dutch humanist Erasmus also used syncretism in such positive light. It wasn’t until the Reformation that this term began to take on a negative tone. In the 17th century when the Reformation was in full swing and many Protestant sects branched out, George Calixtus, a German theologian, sought to unify and harmonize the different doctrines of these sects. Calixtus used the term syncretism to exhort Protestant sects to reconcile their doctrinal differences. Instead, critics of Calixtus labeled this as an “unprincipled jumbling together of religions”.

By the Protestant missionary movement in the 18th century, syncretism became a pejorative term since it was used by missionaries to describe the dilution of the Gospel as it came in contact with indigenous cultures. According to one missiologist, Western missionaries associated this term with the idea of decline and loss and many of them warned against accommodating the Gospel to local rituals and religions by labeling such acts as syncretistic.

Morehead's Musings: You reference "syncretism" as a power word. What do you mean by this?

Steve Hu: In light syncretism’s etymology and historical usage, one can see how early missionaries applied this term to cross-cultural contexts they encountered overseas. This term has been used by missionaries to determine what conforms to Christian orthodoxy. For the Western missionary entering into a non-Western context, the only basis on which he can delineate Christian orthodoxy is his own Western Christianity. In such cases, converts were asked to adopt Western styles of worship, ecclesiology, and understanding of the Gospel. For the In a locale where the missionary determines, delineates, and imposes a Christianity that is overly Western in style and form without considering the local context can certainly be seen as “power” play. The missionary’s task and situation are both further complicated by the close tie perceived between colonialism and missions, in which Western culture and the Gospel were propagated together. Regardless of their best efforts, early Western missionary’s proselytizing and standards of Christian orthodoxy were still couched in Western style, something that is foreign to the local context. To the locals, the missionary is seen as someone who wants to maintain control so that the newly converted would not fall into theological heterodoxy.

Morehead's Musings: How does all of this relate to the issue of "contextual theology"?

Steve Hu: Contextual theology is simply theology that is done in any given context in attempt to understand the Gospel. Stephen Bevans reminds us there is no such thing as pure “theology”. The question the missionary should ask is “Whose orthodoxy is normative?” Contextual theology takes into account that our own experiences and context may not be normative. Our approach to theology cannot be contextless or else we assume truth can most clearly be seen from our own context. A contextual theology must take into consideration the past which is recorded in Scripture and seen practiced in tradition that is faithfully passed down to us. When one practices theology, he must also consider the present or the context of where he resides. This context incorporates four things, as Bevans defines it: personal and communal experience of the local community, culture, social location, and social change. It’s helpful to realize that our theologizing is always guided by our context. Theology is done in context, for a particular context, and by the same context. So the missionary, whether he is speaking with his neighbor next door in suburbia America or in a Tibetan village, must be a student of the local context so he may learn and grasp the nuances of the local culture to appropriate the Gospel in a way that is understandable in that context.

The question that is raised is that if the context is elevated as a focal point for theology, then would not this act relativize the Gospel message? The answer is no. The task of the missionary is to critically engage the local context alongside with the Gospel, allowing the Gospel to challenge the assumptions of culture. Without the Gospel, the missionary would be lost.

Morehead's Musings: Toward the end of your paper you draw upon Robert Schreiter's suggestion that "it is time for the church to redefine syncretism." What do you have in mind here?

Steve Hu: Seeing how the term syncretism has slowly evolved to take up such a pejorative connotation, before we use this term in any way we should at least be aware of the how syncretism came to be associated with the negatives of diluting, co-opting, and accommodating the Gospel to any culture or religion. We should also be aware how this term has been used in Western mission to delineate orthodoxy while Western missionaries failed to apply a self-reflexive examination of their own “normative” understanding and practice of the Gospel. In some sense I am generalizing Western missions as an endeavor that infringed upon native cultures. There are many fine examples of contextualization, missionaries who took the time to learn and understand their local context and embodied the Gospel in such manner that turned many lives toward Christ.

It’s time that we apply the same process to our own understanding and practice of the Gospel to see whether we are co-opting it to Western styles, forms, and epistemology. The redefinition of syncretism is just this: that we quit labeling each other’s approach to appropriating the Gospel as “syncretistic”, and that we begin to examine our own assumptions of how the Gospel can be understood. Only when we engage in serious self-reflection can we come to realize our own tendency to co-opt the Gospel in our own presentation of it. Once we begin to see this, there is an increased potential in the church to move beyond the pejorative labeling. This move would also allow ourselves to seek out one another to point out our own blind spots. This is what a real syncretism is, the coming together of different elements in the church to engage the world, a coming together that would allow the church to faithful live out and embody the Gospel with relevance and without compromise.

Morehead's Musings: To bring this full circle, how do you see all of this applying to the emerging church, and beyond?

Steve Hu: This negative label is often cast upon the ECM and I think if both those inside and outside the ECM can examine their own assumptions, seriously think upon the changing cultural context of the Western world, and meditate upon the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then the church would realize that both sides are working toward the same goal of faithfully presenting and incarnating the Gospel.

The sign of our times point to an ever-increasing diversity in our world, especially in the Western context. The recent Pew report on U.S. religious trends indicates a continuing "browning" of the church here in this country. As growth of Christianity continues to shift toward the Global South, we would do well to engage those in the church who are different from us for the sake of presenting and incarnating a Gospel that is always aware of its context (think of Jesus as a first-century Jewish man). This engagement is needed for our own reflection and for the sake of embodying a vibrant and robust Gospel.This critical examination cannot occur in a one-sided conversation. This dialog takes two partners to talk and think through, and once the church can move beyond the criticism, a genuine partnership can develop in bringing the Gospel to this world.

Morehead's Musings: Steve, thanks again for this discussion and a great paper. I look forward to future discussions and your scholarly contributions to the church.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow. i love it when a plan comes together. sooooo glad you tracked steve down and posted this interview. excellent stuff!