THE SPIRIT AS THE PRINCIPLE OF INCULTURATION

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SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 2 Cor 3:4-11; Ps 98:5-9; Mt 5:17-19 ]

Christianity is perceived by most people as a Western religion, especially by people from the East.  This is understandable especially when Christian Faith is clothed with a Western culture in her practices, laws, customs, liturgy, images and ceremonies.  Yet in truth, Christianity theologically and liturgically is inherently more Jewish than Western.  It must be said in no uncertain terms that Christian Faith transcends all cultures, even though it is expressed in a particular culture.  Truth can be expressed differently according to the language of the people and dressed differently in terms of expression.  This is of great importance especially in the work of the New Evangelization when we are called to permeate all cultures with the Christian gospel and the Spirit of Christ.

However, we must be watchful of illegitimate inculturation.  There are some over-enthusiastic believers who seek to inculturate the Christian Faith into their cultures but instead of merely adopting the language and customs, unwittingly import some of the values of these cultures that are alien or even opposed to the gospel.  When there is an attempt to impose the faith of other religions and the values of their cultures which are opposed to the Spirit of the gospel, such inculturation will harm and dilute the truth of the Christian Faith rather than help to make the gospel known to all.

Hence, the principle of a legitimate inculturation must be based on the Spirit of the Gospel.  This is what Jesus meant when He declared, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to complete them.  I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.”    How could Jesus who broke so many laws, including the Sabbath Law, claim that He has come to complete the Law, not abolish them?  Does it mean that we have to observe all the Old Testament Laws and all the New Testament laws as well?   Indeed, what He is saying is that He has come to perfect the Law, which is the Spirit of the Law.

It must be noted that there are four kinds of laws.  We have the ceremonial, sacrificial and liturgical laws.  Such laws could be altered with time and according to the custom. Then we have civil and social laws which govern proper relationships between persons so that justice is served for all and there will be peace and harmony.  Then we have moral laws which are commandments from God.  Such laws are based on nature and some on divine revelation.  Thus they are absolute and are binding at all times.  There is no compromise when it comes to moral laws, even though many Christians have adulterated the moral laws to suit their licentious lifestyle.  Finally, we have doctrinal laws which are revealed also by God.  Such doctrines, especially dogma, cannot be changed because they are based on divine revelation.  Doctrinal laws however require the gift of faith to recognize them as coming from God.  Hence, we cannot impose our doctrines on those who have not arrived at faith.

So fidelity to the Law is to be faithful to the Spirit of these laws, especially when all laws are ultimately meant to help us to worship God and to love our brothers and sisters.  The Spirit of the Law is the Spirit of love.  So why is it necessary to ask ourselves whether these laws help us to love God and our fellowmen?  Are these laws life-giving and empowering and do they truly set us free for authentic love of God and our neighbours?   Jesus is against those laws and customs that delimit charity towards others.  He is also against those laws that are observed blindly and meticulously without observing the true spirit of the laws.

But it is not enough to insist on observing the Spirit of the Law; we need the Law of the Spirit.  Christian perfection of the Law does not rest here.  The truth remains that we cannot observe the Letter of the Law, and even if we do, we cannot always observe the Spirit of the Law.  Only the Holy Spirit can empower us to do what Jesus did.  The Holy Spirit is the inner principle of the Law.   Indeed, St Paul made it clear that all his achievements were not because of himself and his efforts but purely the work of the grace of the Holy Spirit.  He did not boast about himself but what the Holy Spirit did in and through him.  “Before God, we are confident of this through Christ: not that we are qualified in ourselves to claim anything as our own work: all our qualifications come from God.  He is the one who has given us the qualifications to be the administrators of this new covenant, which is not a covenant of written letters but of the Spirit.”

Indeed, the written letters, that is, the laws written on tablets cannot transform us. They remain extraneous to us.  Worst of all, the laws only show us where we have failed and thereby condemn us.  That is why “the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life.” How does the Spirit give life?

Firstly, the Spirit, which is the love of God, forgives us our sins and heals us of our brokenness. Through the Holy Spirit, we feel loved and forgiven. St Paul said, “For if there was any splendour in administering condemnation, there must be very much greater splendour in administering justification.” Christians observe the laws not to save themselves.   We are saved and justified in Christ.  Rather, these laws are seen as moral codes to guide Christians to live the life of the gospel and the life of the Spirit.  Observance of the laws cannot justify us but living the life of the Spirit and the observance of the laws indicate that we are truly justified in Christ because He has changed us.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit as the inner principle enables to see everything through the perspective of Christ. He gives us a deeper insight into recognizing the spirit of the laws.  The point of departure therefore is never the laws but of Christ.  Through our faith in Christ, we see ourselves as the image and likeness of God, the adopted children of our heavenly Father.  We observe the laws not out of fear but out of reverence, conviction and love for our heavenly Father.  So it is not mere external performance of the laws but an inner transformation of the heart.

Finally, the Holy Spirit gives us the capacity to do what Jesus did.  He is the engine that propels us to complete His work.  Hence, St Paul remarked,  “Now if the administering of death, in the written letters engraved on stones, was accompanied by such a brightness that the Israelites could not bear looking at the face of Moses, though it was a brightness that faded, then how much greater will be the brightness that surrounds the administering of the Spirit!” Only faith in Christ brings about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which gives the inner strength to do the right thing.

In this way, we enter the kingdom of God, that is, to share in the life and love of God.  This is why Jesus said, “Therefore the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.”  When we do the will of God, we share in God’s life.  Observance of the laws in love and for love fulfills the law of Christ.  As St Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10)


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore 


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.

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