[Note: I posted the entirety of this post at Covenant as it regards an ongoing discussion going on there.]
I once had a very odd dream wherein I found myself in the side balcony of a large church. Unlike normal balconies, this one was divided in the middle and rather than having the pews facing the nave, half faced the front of the church and half the rear. At each end there was an altar. The strangeness of the dream came from the fact that there was a service going on at the time and I found myself in the balcony pews that faced the rear altar where a priest was celebrating–and yet not. The thing was, somehow (it was a dream after all) I knew the priest at the rear altar was merely miming the priest at the front altar and yet I could not turn around. At the same time I knew that even if I turned toward the front I would not be in the true service, for that was taking place in the nave.
Sometimes I feel like our approaches to ecumenism and inter-faith relations are a bit like this dream: we find ourselves going through the motions without the substance, mimicking each other in things that are already less than authentic while the real work of the Church goes on elsewhere.
This issue was recently brought back to the forefront of my mind by the reports of a “Hindu Rite Mass” celebrated in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. This was not the first I’ve heard of such a service. In fact, the first time I heard of a service that blended elements of Christianity and Hinduism in a way that seemed to me to be syncretistic, I was a seminarian at the University of the South (Sewanee) where I had the opportunity to hear Roman Catholic theologian Elisabeth Johnson (author of She who is) describe a Roman Catholic service in India where the Bhagavad Gita was read in the place of the Old Testament reading. There were some additional similarities between the two services–I seem to recall the use of flowers–but I cannot recall Dr. Johnson’s descriptions well enough to comment beyond the general chord of similarity the Los Angeles Times story struck.
These examples raise very important questions about the appropriate boundaries of inculturation verses syncretism–indeed, is syncretism even a possibility? And they also serve to demonstrate the fact that these issues must be dealt with by all Christians who want to engage our world in a meaningful way–just as sexuality issues cannot be ignored because our society is so awash in them.
There is an additional question raised by the written statement of Bishop Jon Bruno of the Diocese of Los Angeles which was said to be “a statement of apology to the Hindu religious community for centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them.” The story continues by quoting from Bishop Bruno’s statement:
“I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,” (you can read the whole story here).
Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with that portion of his statement–not having seen the rest, I hesitate to comment on it, other than to say that apologies for past abuses should also come hand in hand with acknowledgment of and repentance for current abuses (Hindu nationalism anyone?), especially given the irritating tendency of some stripes of liberals toward a sort of non-constructive chastised worldview.
But the real question is whether Christians ought to apologize for “proselytism”, which for the purposes of this post, we’ll refer to by the less loaded term evangelism. I would argue that while Christians might apologize for the manner in which evangelism has been pursued in some cases, we cannot and dare not apologize or regret evangelism itself. It even seems appropriate to say that a Church that does not evangelize can no loger claim to be faithful. In The Open Secret Leslie Newbigin puts into words something that has been the heart of much Christian activity in history, namely that “a church that is not ‘the church in mission’ is no church at all.” (Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2) This statement is not so much condemnation as observation; that it is possible for us to hear it as condemnatory speaks volumes about our particular shortcomings as contemporary Christians.
Below are the books referenced in this post. I was critical of Elizondo, but he does make some good points, even if I believe he goes too far.