The Communication Director of the Cameroon Bishops’ Conference, Father Humphrey Tatah Mbuy has warned that in the effort at inculturation, Christians in Cameroon could end up indulging in syncretism.
The warning follows a video of what was part of a lectionary procession in one of the Parishes of the Bamenda Archdiocese that went viral on social media.
The video shows Christians in lectionary procession, but their outlook presents all the markings of a cult: men with white and red paintings on their faces, the Holy Bible carried in a bag covered with chicken feathers, and a man carrying a frighteningly looking calabash. All these symbols are common with cults in the English-speaking regions.
It was an attempt at inculturation, but Reverend Father Tatah Mbuy was clearly uncomfortable with the scenes.
“It was …an attempt at inculturation, but a lot of people reacted with great disapproval to what seemed to them as an insensitive and raw display of a cult rather than something Christian.” Father Mbuy said in a series of reflections to better explain what inculturation is, or perhaps, what it is not.
The Cleric started off by revisiting the history of inculturation, noting that it was Pope John Paul II who said that Africans have great cultural values which can be used for bringing the Gospel to the People.
“These can be considered as seeds of the Gospel. The Pope, therefore, called on Africans to become missionaries to themselves and make the people truly Christian and truly African,” the Rev. Father said.
He said the first African Synod also called for inculturation “so that people may feel the presence of Christ in their cultural values.”
But the term inculturation with its perfect theological meaning is usually attributed to the 32nd Congregation of the Society of Jesus-the Jesuits which was held from December 1974 to April 1975. The term was first introduced in the 1977 synod of Bishops on Catechesis by Father Pedro Arrupe, the then Superior General of the Jesuits, and then Pope John Paul II officially adapted it in his 1979 Letter, Catechesis Tradendae.
In 1988, the International Theological Commission published a document on “Faith and Inculturation.”
The document indicated that there can be no true evangelization which is not an inculturation. Pope John Paul II said the same thing in Ecclesia in Africa. He argued that Africa has deep cultural values which are open to the reception of the Gospel. Hence, he called on all religious authorities in Africa to make the people truly African and truly Christian.
Father Tatah Mbuy expressed worry that people tend to understand inculturation from what it isn’t, and so came up with four scenarios that are frequently confused with the concept of inculturation.
“The first error which many people make is to consider Christianity as a culture which encounters other cultures. No. Christianity is the proclamation of God made Man, and therefore, Christianity seeks to get into each culture to purify and upgrade that culture into something more beautiful for God,” he said.
“When we have a culture and we try to adapt some elements from that culture into Christianity, for example, playing the xylophone, or drums and dancing in Church, this is not enculturation, this is just adaptation or accommodation.
“When we use our mother tongue to convey the Word of God and translate the Bible into our different mother tongues, this is excellent, but it is not yet inculturation, it is a translation. Sometimes, we may change the designs on our Mass vestments and put the designs that make meaning to the people, or we baptize children with names from our ethnic groups. Doing this is not yet inculturation. It is an instance of transformation, or indigenization, not inculturation.
“When we bring an indiscriminate display of jujus into Church as in the video that was going around, this is clearly a sign of syncretism, not inculturation.
“Some people are gradually trying to replace some Christian concepts with African ones. This is excellent, but this is not inculturation, it is called a reformulation.
“When two cultures meet, each learns about the accepted values and norms of the other and may tend to follow it, but this is not yet inculturation. This is called enculturation.
“When we proclaim the word of God to a people, we take the context of the people. This is called contextualization, not inculturation,” The Man of God explained.
He noted, therefore, that inculturation is not an adaptation, not accommodation, not a translation, not a transformation, not indigenization, certainly not syncretism, not a reformulation, not enculturation and it is not a contextualization either.
To understand what inculturation is, the cleric referred to the incarnation when Christ took human flesh to dwell among men, to be completely open to the will of God.
“Inculturation presupposes, first, a cultural value which will also perform a similar kenosis, that is, emptying itself in order to allow Jesus Christ to come into that culture, purify it and upgrade it into a means by which the message of God can be given to the people. Unless there is this cultural value and Jesus Christ coming into it, we cannot talk of inculturation,” he explained.
“Inculturation as the Church understands it and as Ecclesia in Africa wants us to understand it is making Jesus Christ speak to the People in and through their culture”, he added.
But the cultural value must be studied by experts to determine how it fits into the relevant aspects and Church theology, and “the right ecclesiastical authorities must be consulted before an experiment in inculturation is carried out.”
He announced that the Provincial Pastoral Plan for the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province envisages the creation of an inculturation Commission, saying it was “very urgent.”