Inculturation in Asia and Reform of the Church

Jose Mario C Francisco, SJ

 Jose Mario C Francisco, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:10 February 2017/Last Updated Date:15 February 2021

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Inculturation and Reform

Our reflection outlines how evanglization connects inculturation to reform of the Church and focuses on the Church in Asia. In the name of aggiornamento, critical areas are identified for inculturation in relation to religious dynamics in Asia.

The proclamation of God’s historical revelation in Jesus Christ, its reception in faith and its growth in the ecclesial and personal lives of Christians takes place in a specific context. According to the words of St John Paul II, “evangelization and inculturation are naturally and intimately related to each other.”[1] Inculturation then engages the nature, reality and mission of the Church in all its dimensions as bearer of evangelization and it cannot simply be considered a secondary task ad intra for the Church.

This dynamic of evangelizing inculturation comes about through a “dialogical encounter process understood in its deepest meaning that comes from the salvific movement of the Triune God because evangelization itself is above all a dialogue between the Gospel and the given reality.”[2] It is not a mere “adaptation of a ready-made Christianity into a given situation.”[3] Through this universal dialogue, the presence of the Spirit is found in each context and we can reflect on the historical forms with which the Gospel is preached.

The fruit of this critical encounter is “a creative embodiment of the Word in the local Church,”[4] delineated by its own cultural and material resources, modeled by the Christian communities and by the individual faithful, and manifest in an inculturated Christian practice, which constitutes its tradition of living faith in communion with the universal Church.

Inculturation becomes then the privileged place for the ecclesial task of evangelization and continual renewal. A Church not engaged in inculturation does not carry out its evangelizing mission and undermines its own nature. Using the words of those responsible for the Church in Asia, “the decisive new phenomenon for Christianity in Asia will be the emergence of genuine Christian communities in Asia –Asian in their way of thinking, praying, living, communicating their own Christ-experience to others.”[5]


Religious Dynamics in Asian Contexts 

The inculturation of Christianity in contemporary Asia must begin with the recognition of the region’s growing geopolitical and demographic significance and of its constitution by numerous and diverse contexts resistant to essentialist definitions. Hence Asia must be seen beyond being a construction of historiography or reduced to what is considered “orientalist” or “non-Western”.[6] Moreover, interwoven strands from theological and cultural studies come into play in describing its many contexts.

The first strand – context as “the signs of the times” – comes from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (no. 4): “the Church has the duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” It points to context as the historical realm where God speaks but does not provide a more concrete description.

This comes with the second strand describing context as cultural location, already suggested in Gaudium et Spes (nos. 58-59)[7] and borrowed from the modern anthropological view of culture as “the total body of belief, behaviors, knowledge, sanctions, values and goals that mark the way of life of a people.” But this shift toward the empirical and experiential proved incomplete as cultures are not only dynamic and changing but also linked to power relations and social structures.

Thus emerged the third strand, context as social construction, which various forms of ideology critique – post-colonial, feminist, and liberationist among others –focused on.[8]

Finally, since no context is isolated and no account of it is totally comprehensive or uniformly integrating of its members, the fourth strand – context as intercultural conversation – came to be recognized: “there is a need to go beyond fragments towards a genuinely integrative theology, while avoiding the colonization of other disciplines.”[9]

In keeping with this interwoven character of diverse Asian contexts, the task of inculturation needs to engage the dynamics of religious traditions within them. Based on “family resemblances”[10] due to common geographies, related ethnicities and interacting histories, three social processes within these dynamics stand out, but each applies to different contexts in varying degrees.

Interaction between Religious and Social Traditions

Asian contexts are characterized by countless religious traditions in multiple and varied forms – ancient and new as well as great and little. Moreover, these religious traditions interact with one another and with traditional local practices. For example, one could point to multiple forms of Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity in the Asian landscape that have interacted with ethical traditions such as Confucianism and Daoism as well as with local practices like shamanism and indigenous traditions. [11]

These religious traditions then go beyond what is commonly considered as “religion” and “world religion” in social science and theological discourses. These categories do not adequately apply to non-Western religions, especially those that are not structured at all like Western religious organizations “with ‘membership’ of individuals”[12] or marked by articulate doctrinal and moral systems.[13]

   Even Vatican II’s declaration Nostra Aetate (nos 2-4) implicitly employs them to distinguish between the so-called “traditional religions,” those found in more advanced civilizations, and the Abrahamic religions. Furthermore, Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (no. 53) refers to non-Abrahamic as “natural religious expressions” in contrast to Christianity – subtly implying a purely human origin. Such discourse risks distorting the understanding of religious traditions in Asian contexts that do not conform to dominant conceptions of “religion.”

Link between the Body Politic and the Body Religious

Asian contexts have been and continue to be profoundly shaped by dominant religious traditions: Hinduism in India; Islam in Western Asia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia; Buddhism in Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos; Christianity in the Philippines and Timor Leste. Intimately linked to the first, this dynamic is often manifested in the social ethos of populations within each context and in the historic link, if not conflation of the body politic and the body religious especially in the emergence of nationalism and of nation-states.

The dominant social ethos in particular contexts permeates many aspects of personal and social existence and makes borders between religious and other social traditions porous. Thus “most Asian religions or religious traditions are, not unlike Christianity, ways of life, and in this sense, they cannot be distinguished, much less separated, from culture.”[14]

Moreover, these dominant religious traditions played important roles in the historical formation of nations in Asia – whether understood as “imagined political community” or “nation-of-intent – i.e. its [a group’s] own vision of what the national identity should be.”[15] This link and the often-resulting conflation of the body politic and the body religious engender a social logic that presumes the unity of religious belonging with other identities. For instance, it has been said that to be Thai is to be Buddhist.

This second dynamic challenges, then, modern discourses on secularity, particularly the differentiation of various social spheres from the religious.[16] Religious practice in Asian contexts often takes place through processes of socialization in traditional customs, rituals and practices and not under the rubric of autonomous personal choice so highly valorized in western societies.

If this thesis on secularization “no longer carries the conviction it once did, this is because the categories of ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ turn out to implicate each other more profoundly than we thought, a discovery that has accompanied our growing understanding of the powers of the modern nation-state. The concept of the secular cannot do without the idea of religion”[17] but their relation need not be conflicting.  

These dynamic processes in many Asian contexts frame the “complex or complicated religio-cultural identity” of individuals and communities: “For in many parts of Asia, intimate and rather fluid encounters between different religions and cultural traditions have been going on for ages. In this kind of dynamic, there is a lot of mutual borrowing not only among religions but also among cultural traditions – or among religions within certain cultural matrices, given that ‘religion’ never existed as a free-floating entity, apart from the particularities of culture and people – sometimes through not so nice avenues such as ideological rivalries, political and religious conquest, colonialism, and so forth.”[18]

In fact, beneath what have often been described through the rubric of religious, conflict and violence in Asia were initiated by “various groups of people who belong to particular ethnic, religious, ethno-religious, and ethno-nationalist collective identities, castes, socioeconomic and political classes to renegotiate their position within a network of power relationships.”[19]

Religious Practice “Between Here and There”

Flores, Indonesia: On Good Friday, the statue of Tuan Meninu (Baby Jesus) is placed on-board a wooden boat in a sea procession to meet Tuan Ma (Mother Mary). Pilgrims then follow the parade. (Photo by Melkhior Koli Baran)

Cultural studies describe Asian contexts today as changing, arguably more than most societies, past and present, and in terms of rapid, extensive and profound mobilities that produce new spatiotemporal configurations. Powered by, but not entirely due to, global movements of populations, resources and information, this configuration labeled “between here and there” is constituted by the circulation of symbolic materials and meanings from different time-space locations beyond traditional borders of nation-states.[20]

No longer is movement in time and space imagined as unidirectional linear pathways but as circulating flows. Communities and individuals across and within nations inhabit in-between situations characterized by stark differences. Migrants shuttle and belong to their places of origin and of destination at the same time. Settlements live between subsistence farming and urban poverty, and locals are connected through communications technology to family in other parts of the globe.

Caught in the throes of such mobilities, Asia was earlier viewed “as a docile, non-agential site upon which technologies are mapped,”[21] but recent studies show “how new media communications in the Asian context possess the potential for democratizing processes as well as maintaining the exclusion or marginalization of women, the elderly, and the poor.”[22]

Religious practice in Asia has not been exempt in this regard. In Southeast Asia as elsewhere, “every major historical transformation … has been attended by changes in religion.”[23] Movements of people have transformed religious practice at their home and host communities. Religious institutions and groups have created websites and social media accounts but are aware of diminished capabilities to oversee and control religious practice as blogs could discuss religious issues, even subvert official voices. Spiritual accompaniment and forms of meditation are interactively undertaken through the worldwide web.  

Thus “in this era of internationalization and cultural encounter, no specific culture or religion, indeed no system of symbols, appears able comfortably to claim the exclusive grip it used to.”[24] And contemporary mobilities have reinforced, rather than weakened, the negotiations characteristic of the socio-religious identity of communities and peoples in diverse Asian contexts.[25]

Critical Areas for Inculturation in Asia

Christianity suffers under the common stereotype of being foreign and minority in the Asian landscape. Yet its historic roots have produced generations of Asian Christians who have followed Jesus and have made it the fastest growing religious tradition in this terrain today.[26]

Within such a situation, the Federation of Asian Bishop’s Conferences has articulated the task of evangelization in Asia through the iconic vocabulary of the triple dialogue with cultures, religions and the people especially the poor,[27] with others adding the dialogue with creation. Moreover, this task is seen to involve both proclamation and dialogue as “integral but dialectical and complimentary dimensions of the Church’s mission of evangelization.”[28]

Thus has the Church in Asia embarked on inculturation, seen as integral to evangelization, within diverse contexts characterized by negotiations between and among religious and social traditions in new spatiotemporal configurations. Different FABC offices have formulated concrete directives for corresponding ministries.[29] Following the spirit of Vatican II, inculturation in certain critical areas has taken place but still needs to develop in greater breadth and depth. These areas show that the triple dialogue cannot be undertaken separately and requires a unified approach to inculturation.

Language and Transmission of Christian Practice

Ongoing and in-depth inculturation is called for in the language and transmission of Christian practice. This language needs to be more rooted in the lingua franca of people’s lives and histories, and entails using more than just the multitude of Asian indigenous languages but also all channels through which meaning is created and communicated, that is, whatever bears the people’s ethos within a given context—material, verbal, bodily, symbolic among others. Only inculturated Christian practice rooted in this communicative network can proclaim and express Christian faith within that context without the risk of distorting faith itself.

   Inculturating Christian practice through language is two-pronged: “Inculturation consists not only in the expression of the Gospel and the Christian Faith through the cultural medium, but includes, as well, experiencing, understanding and appropriating them through the cultural resources of a people.”[30]

First, the Church is challenged to explore all these communicative resources in diverse Asian contexts to inculturate its faith. Though these resources often bear traces of other religious and cultural traditions, it must remain open to these resources that are integral to the ethos of the people; for example, idiomatic turns of phrase, gestures of reverence, ritual practices and religious texts from other traditions, significant themes like filial piety and traditional ways of moral wisdom. The Church’s use of these resources is not mere syncretic juxtaposition but an integral part of the process of critical dialogue between Gospel and context.

   Second, inculturation through language also requires translation of Christian discourses and practices from other contexts including the magisterial into the lingua franca of the people. This work does not only include textual translations, paraphrases and summaries of key texts but also the rendition of Christian practices from other contexts into the lingua franca of particular Asian contexts.

In both instances, this translation process is a multidirectional mediation involving Gospel and context. As contemporary theory and practice point out, translation is more than finding equivalent words and expressions in different languages, but a mediation between the world of the original and the world of the new context; in this case, between the religious and spiritual world of Christianity as proclaimed and that of particular Asian contexts.[31] In this translation process, both worlds must be respected but neither considered immutable.

Furthermore, an inculturated Christian practice calls for pastoral and theological reflection as well as appropriate ways of transmission. Reflection must at least in part be articulated in the languages within a particular context. Images and themes that emerge from such a reflection provide the basis of a more inculturated theology that can then enter into a more enriching dialogue with theologies from other contexts.

Ways of transmitting Christian practice, considered under the rubric of catechesis, must not only be based on appropriate methodologies but also inculturated. Religious practice in Asia is transmitted primarily through community socialization and formation, but traditional catechesis has often centered on instruction regarding Christian beliefs. More attention needs to be paid to the role of stories, symbols and rituals in the transmission of Christian practice in Asian contexts.

Engagement in the Public Sphere

Inculturation in terms of the Church’s presence in the public sphere entails the Church’s solidarity with the aspirations of Asian peoples, especially the marginalized and the young, both of whom constitute significant numbers, as well as the Church’s participation with other constituencies in seeking the common good. The Church’s long tradition of social ministry in Asia that serves these constituencies regardless of religious affiliation has been a fitting sign of this solidarity.

Thus the Church’s mission in Asia has been referred to as missio inter gentes, not to deny the fundamental task of missio ad gentes but to emphasize “solidarity and harmony with the Asian peoples within their diverse and pluralistic Sitzen-im-Leben” and to take account of “the prior presence and activity of God in the world – in the great world religions, in the primal religions, and in the secular world.”[32]

Efforts in social engagement are often muted because of the Church’s minority status and image as foreign, making it reticent in the public sphere, especially in those contexts where political and other forces are indifferent, even hostile, to Christianity. Thus in many instances, Christians are reduced to silence.

   However, rather than focus on their small numbers, Christian communities and individuals could widen the reach of the values of the Kingdom beyond Church borders and join their voices with many others responding to the people’s deepest aspirations. This Christian engagement to promote the integral human development and spiritual meaning becomes more crucial in contemporary Asian contexts when dominant social forces especially economic and political neo-liberalism hinder social transformation.

Through this engagement the Church strengthens partnerships with other constituencies – religious, civic and government – that form wider social and religious movements. They could participate in the shared work of protecting the environment or in many civic and religious festivals of the people, including those pilgrimages to holy sites revered by people from diverse religious traditions.[33]

   Within this partnership that has been referred to as the dialogue of life rooted in “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world,”[34] the Church comes, not as the leader with ready-made answers, but as equal participant in the often-difficult discernment of the common good – that is, as “a Church in continuous, humble and loving dialogue with the living traditions, the cultures, and the religions – in brief, with all the life-realities of the people.”[35] Moreover, as all participants bring to the table their own riches, the Church must learn to share its own heritage in a language that others understand and can relate to. Its public voice should not seem authoritarian, self-serving and exclusive. Differences will arise, but the partnership must always be focused on the search for what is good for people.

Corporate Culture of the Church

Inculturation of the corporate culture of the Church does not question the hierarchical structures and institutional offices of the Church but focuses on how individuals and groups relate, communicate and collaborate with each other as well as with others in the public sphere with its hierarchical and institutional nature. This area is crucial because it involves cultural issues of interpersonal relationships, styles of governance and gender roles.[36]

   The Church in Asia is thus called to develop and nurture a corporate culture that promotes Christian principles of equal dignity, active participation and interpersonal community as well as sound institutional practices, but always in dialogue with Asian ways of proceeding. These ways have valued community hospitality, harmony in personal relations, and respect for authority among others. Although some of these values support relations based on the religious nature of the Church, others could reinforce what has been described as a clerical culture within the Church that diminishes the stature of the lay and women, and thus hinders the need for transparency and accountability. As a consequence, the Church in Asia is often seen as an institution highly differentiated and closed: “As a social institution, the Church is perceived as a foreign body in its colonial origins while other world religions are not … The Church is even sometimes seen as an obstacle to or threat to national integration and religious and cultural identity.”[37] 

Moreover, the Church must seek to be inculturated in the networks of the contemporary connected world that reach even the far recesses of Asia. Community links to the Church are primarily tied to geography, that is, in terms of basic ecclesial communities, parishes and dioceses. However, because of the unprecedented movements of peoples through different forms of migration, new forms of connections and community have emerged. Transparochial religious organizations have been able to invigorate their communities. Religious websites have become interactive, and social media have generated discussion groups, but even religious practice is now facilitated by digital communications. Spiritual accompaniment as well as directing meditations and retreats is now facilitated in cyberspace. Family and friends in different parts of the world pray together for deceased loved ones through real-time audiovisual connections. The Church needs to explore further these new forms of technology as possible ways of building community and extending proclamation.


In the spirit of its own aggiornamento, the Church in Asia has begun and must decisively continue the mission of inculturation in these crucial areas. It must overcome internal and external obstacles such as the identification of uniformity with catholicity or the distrust between religious and other institutions.

Moreover, further efforts in these areas would have to be nurtured by and aligned with wider reform in the Church through its ongoing reflections on ecclesiology and discernment on governance structures within the Church. These can only be undertaken with the accompanying formation of all Christians, faithful and leaders alike, regarding the integral relation between evangelization and inculturation.

This aggiornamento through inculturation demands nothing less than what the FABC has termed as “a new way of being Church” – “a communion of communities … that faithfully and lovingly witnesses to the Risen Lord Jesus and reaches out to people of other faiths and persuasions in a dialogue of life towards the integral liberation of all … It is a leaven of transformation in this world and serves as a prophetic sign daring to point beyond this world to the ineffable Kingdom that is yet to come.”[38] This could be the Asian translation of the New Evangelization that Pope Francis calls for in our world today.

[1] John Paul II, Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (6 November 1999), n. 21, in

[2] International Congress on Mission Consensus Paper Workshop III (Manila, 7 December 1979), n. 7. Cfr G. Rosales – C. G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia¸ vol. 1, Quezon City, Claretian Publications, 1992, 138f.

[3] International Congress on Mission Consensus Paper Workshop III, cit., n. 6. Cfr G. Rosales – C. G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 138.

[4] Ivi, 138.

[5] Asian Colloquium on Ministries in the Church (Hong Kong, 5 March 1977), n. 14. Cfr. G. Rosales – C. G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 70.

[6] J. M. C. Francisco, “Introduction: Theological Ethics in Context”, in A. Brazal et Al., Transformative Theological Ethics, Quezon City, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010, 1-6.

[7] Ivi, 321f.

[8] For example, Ch. Curran – M. Farley – R. McCormick (eds), Feminist Ethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition, New York, Paulist Press, 1996; B. Massingale, Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Common Good, Washington (DC), Catholic Charities USA, 2008.

[9] G. Newlands, The Transformative Imagination: Rethinking Intercultural Theology, Hampshire (UK), Ashgate, 2003, 3.

[10] A. Ahmed (ed.), Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: A Critical Guide, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[11] T. Masuzawa (ed.), The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, Chicago (IL), University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[12] M. B. McGuire, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, 24.

[13] Cfr T. Masuzawa (ed.), The Invention of World Religions…, cit., 3.

[14] P. C. Phan (ed.), Christianities in Asia, West Sussex (UK), Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, 11.

[15] A. Y. Yusoff (ed.), Shamsul A.B.: His Observations, Analyses & Thoughts, Bangi – Kuala Lumpur, National University of Malaysia, 2010, 31-50.

[16] Cfr J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 20-39.

[17] T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore – London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, 200.

[18] A. B. Laksana, “Multiple Religious Belonging or Complex Identity? An Asian way of being religious”, in F. Wilfred (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, 494.

[19] J. L. Fernando, “The Role of Christianity in Peace and Conflict in Asia”, in The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, cit., 583.

[20] Cfr J. M. C. Francisco, “Migration and New Cosmopolitanism in Asian Christianity”, in The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, cit., 575-592.

[21] A. M. Brazal – K. Abraham (eds), Feminist Cyberethics in Asia: Religious Discourses on Human Connectivity, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, cit., 2.

[22] Ivi, 3. Cfr Negotiating Globalization in Asia, Quezon City, Ateneo Center for Asian Studies, 2006.

[23] P. Stange, “Religious Change in Contemporary Southeast Asia”, in N. Tarling (ed.), The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, vol. 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 201.

[24] Ivi, 253.

[25] Cfr J. M. C. Francisco, “Migration…”, cit., 575-592.

[26] J. Bautista – F. Ghek Kee Lim (eds), Christianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict, London, Routledge, 2009, 1.

[27] Cfr “Evangelization in Modern Day Asia: The First Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (Fabc)” (Taipei, 27 April 1974), nos. 9-28; Cfr. G. Rosales – C. G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 14f.

[28] FABC Office of Theological Concerns, Theses on Interreligious Dialogue, n. 6; cfr J. Yun-ka Tan, “Missio inter Gentes: Towards a New Paradigm in the Mission Theology of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences”, in Fabc Papers 109, 14.

[29] Cfr F.-J. Eilers (ed.), For All the Peoples of Asia, vols. 2-3, Quezon City, Claretian Publications, 1997 and 2002.

[30] Theological Advisory Commission, “Theses on the Local Church”, in FABC Papers 60, 18.

[31] Cfr J. M. C. Francisco, “Fidelity in Translating Religious Practice: Illustrations from Filipino Christianity”, in Kritika Kultura 21/22 (2013-2014) 16; Id., “Translating Vice into Filipino: Religious, Colonial and Nationalist Discourse on Sloth”, in R. Ricci – J. van der Putten (eds), Translation in Asia, Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 2011, 104-118.

[32] J. Yun-ka Tan, “Missio inter Gentes…”, cit., 26.

[33] Cfr A. B. Laksana, “Multiple Religious Belonging or Complex Identity?…”, cit., 493-500.

[34] “Evangelization in Modern Day Asia”, nos. 20-22; cfr G. Rosales – C. G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 15.

[35] “Evangelization in Modern Day Asia”, n. 12; cfr G. Rosales – C.G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 14.

[36] Cfr Ch. F. Keyes – L. Kendall – H. Hardacre (eds.), Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and Modern States of East and South-East Asia, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1994, 1-16.

[37] “Church Issues in Asia in the Context of Evangelization, Dialogue and Proclamation”, n. 13; G. Rosales – C.G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 195f.

[38] Journeying Together toward the Third Millennium, nos. 8.1.1-4. Cfr G. Rosales – C.G. Arevalo (eds), For All the Peoples of Asia, cit., 287f.