I’ve been reading about missionaries in Southeast Asia. One of the things that has become clear to me is that as Christians moved into different cultures they perhaps didn’t realize just how their religion was being blended with a completely foreign worldview. Catholic missionaries were particularly savvy about accommodating local outlooks. Add the mass on top of them and you’ve got your converts. What they were, perhaps unknowingly, doing was changing Christianity. Yet again. Monotheism has a myth of the pure religion. The fact is that as soon as Paul disagreed with Peter Christianity had begun to splinter with each faction believing it had the pure form. When this protean religion moves into other cultures with other ways of thinking, interesting new forms emerge.
Today there’s a lot of interest in Celtic Catholicism. This is another example of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Christianity, particularly in Ireland, took on a pronounced Celtic flavor. It doesn’t always play by the rules, but as long as Rome’s okay with that, well, who’s to complain? What is Catholicism? What is Methodism? What is Anglicanism? It depends on where you join it. Doesn’t that problematize those absolute truth claims? Churches are savvy political players. The rank and file believer has little idea what goes on behind closed doors. They might be distressed to find out just how much bishops talk about budgets. Theology is left to the public view. No organization can survive without money and church leaders understand this. Missionaries go to under-developed countries and make them capitalists.
People living in different parts of the world view life from varying perspectives. Many see change as the nature of life where western religions see fixity. Many religions know we’re reincarnated. Western religions see one ride per ticket with souls ending up in a final holding place. When it comes to eternity, people obviously want some security. Even with reincarnation a badly lived human life can lead to a worse next life. The question of what happens when such ideas come into contact with Christianity, or Islam, is a fascinating one. Judaism, the root of monotheistic traditions, never really embraced missionary activity. When missionaries encounter those whose very ways of thinking about life approach the question from a different direction, creative mixes are bound to occur. It’s safe to say that when early Christians were sent out to “the whole world” they had no idea how big that world actually was, under the dome in which lived the sun, moon, and stars. Nor had they any idea what interesting hybrid religions would emerge after their fertile preaching.