None of us lives context free. We live the gospel in worlds driven by other values and other practices. While the separation from the rest of the world has lots of traction within Christianity, as a means of legitimizing faith, still the things we draw on to emphasize the separation leave much room for context. It is hard to imagine a completely gospel driven society of any size.
Since I am in Peru let me use a Catholic example. The Spanish, when they came to Peru, saw themselves as the emissaries of God whose mission it was to build a city on a hill, a truly Christian society. Although many Indians converted relatively easily, the Spanish quickly ran into problems. They could not translate basic concepts that ought to be universal into the Indian languages, in order to make them comprehensible. There was not a word for God, for example, or worship.
For the Spanish this lack of basic Christian language indicated the Indians must be a lesser race of people, since they did not have the basic terms required for rational/religious discourse. Others insisted the Indians, given their level of civilization, must have already received divine instruction from Jesus or his apostles, or that they were Jews somehow found in the new world, and that the priests should look deeper in order to find equivalents for basic vocabulary items.
The argument was not simply about how to proselyte, it also took on a political economic character around the potential place of Indians in society.
There is no doubt the Spanish were successful in developing Christian nations here in what was the Inca Empire. Crosses adorn most hilltops, Churches are found in almost every community, and the religious life is strong. But the Church always worries that the people here are somehow not Christian enough.
The explanatory materials used in the Cathedral of Cusco celebrate the mixing of Spanish and Indigenous, which in an earlier time would have been cause for the inquisitors to begin an inquiry. Current Catholic thought, in the notion of the enculturated gospel, that is the idea that the gospel can be presented from within different cultures although its external manifestations might be different, allow for the celebration.
On Friday Cusqueños celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross. It marks the beginning of the time of cold, the dry season, as my taxi driver and then many others informed me. Sponsors of different public crosses have the obligation to take down the cross, if it is movable, clean it and dress it. Then all night people will light candles at the cross as they stay with it through the night when cold begins. They will share ponche, a local beverage, with each other, and at some of the larger crucifixes there would be dancing.
The local newspaper explains the Spanish wanted to destroy the indigenous worship of rocks, mountains, and rivers, so they put crosses on them and encouraged the people to worship the crosses instead. However, as the press noted, the people displaced the gifts to the rock onto the cross. This is fine, as far as it goes. But one cannot deny, despite the popular invocations of syncretism, that the people also see themselves as Christian and engaging in Christian worship akin to that done in Jerusalem, Rome, Madrid, Lima and other Christian centers. They see themselves as part of a universal Christian Church.
Accusations of syncretism can be dangerous, because of their obvious implications for religious legitimacy and politics. In Peru, the elites have often accused the Indians of syncretisms when they wished to challenge their status and legitimacy. Even now, when it is socially and religiously turned around as part of the enculturated gospel, or simply as an argument to the “folk” as what draws tourists and builds the nation, the accusations have a political charge.
To me this is all very fascinating, but the religious politics do not change the figure and ground problem of living the gospel. That is to say the gospel is almost always figured as new wine in old wine skins. While this opens the many possibilities of being in the world but not of the world, it also means that the not of the world is always still in the world.
I was watching people interact with the crosses and dress them. It seemed to me in people’s activities was something related to their not having a word for the absolute transcendent God. While various indigenous “deities” were suggested for translating the word God, the Spanish seized on the solution of a loan word, dios, which they hoped to signify as they wished. But a difficulty still remains in that effort to create a meaning.
The indigenous world does not draw easy distinctions between the living and the non-living, between nature and supernature, in the same way Western Christianity does. The mountains are, by definition alive, as is the sky, the earth, and the rivers. Yesterday we were blowing on coca leaves to ask permission of the earth and the mountains for us to hike a trail.
To me the people treat the crosses as if they had the characteristics of life. They are dressed in cloth, as people almost always are. That is one of the fundamental characteristics of being a human being, wearing clothing. People sit with them through the long night and use a ritual and label to do so that is generally used for funerals, velar, “to candle”. In Quechua the feast is called Cruz Velakuy, or in Spanish La Velación de la Cruz. It is as if the crosses died once a year and were reborn as the skies move into their winter figures.
This is simply my hasty idea. I have not done extensive fieldwork on the issue. I use it simply to illustrate the figure and ground problem. One can bring in the gospel, the figure, or the cross, a related figure, but the ground, in this case the metaphysics of the people, becomes the space in which the figures are given meaning. Although impressively and deeply Christian, this meaning is not quite the same, it seems to me, as in other parts of the Christian world.
Arguably, now that the LDS Church is growing around the world similar kinds of figure ground relationships are developing. Despite the best efforts of the Brethren and the Correlation Committee, not to mention Church translators, this is bound to happen. Even we who may be from old Mormon families, live this dilemma. And it is wonderfully rich for analysis.