Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories – 1

How much must Papayya ‘know’ about the Gospel to be converted?

by Paul G. Hiebert

Can an illiterate peasant become a Christian after hearing the Gospel only once? And, if so, what do we mean by conversion?

Imagine, for a moment, Papayya, an Indian peasant, returning to his village after a hard day’s work in the fields. His wife is still preparing the evening meal, so, to pass the time, he wanders over to the village square. There he notices a stranger surrounded by a few curiosity seekers. Tired and hungry, he sits down to hear what the man is saying. For an hour he listens to a message of a new God, and something which he hears moves him deeply. Later he asks the stranger about the New Way, and then, almost as if by impulse, he bows his head and prays to this God who is said to have appeared to humans in the form of Jesus. He doesn’t quite understand it all. As a Hindu he worships Vishnu who incarnated himself as a human or animal in order to rescue humankind at different times in history. He also knows many of the other 33 million gods village proverbs say exist. But the stranger said there is only one God, and this God has appeared among humans only once. Moreover, this Jesus is said to be the Son of God, but the Christian did not say anything about God’s wife. It is all confusing to him.

The man turns to go home, and a new set of questions floods his mind. Can he still go to the temple in order to pray? Should he tell his family about his new faith? And how can he learn more about Jesus—he cannot read the few papers the stranger gave him, and there are no other Christians within a day’s walk. Who knows when the stranger will come again?

Conversion and cultural differences

Can Papayya become a Christian after hearing the Gospel only once? To this we can only say yes. To say that a person must be educated, have an extensive knowledge of the Bible, or live a near perfect life would mean that the Good News is only for an elite few in the world.

But what essential change has taken place when Papayya responds to the Gospel message? Certainly he has acquired some new information. He has heard of Christ and his redemptive work on the cross. He may also have heard a story or two about Christ’s life on earth. But his knowledge is minimal. Papayya could not pass even the simplest tests of Bible knowledge or theology.

To complicate matters further, the knowledge Papayya has, he understands in radically different ways from Christians in the West or in other parts of the world. For example, the English speaker talks of God, but Papayya speaks of devudu because he is a Telugu speaker. But devudu does not have precisely the same meaning as God, just as the English word “God” does not correspond exactly to the Greek word theos found in the New Testament.

Ordinary English speakers divide living beings into several different categories. One of these is supernatural beings, a category into which they put God, angels, Satan, and demons. Another is human beings and includes men, women, and children. A third is animals, and a fourth is plants. In addition to these there is the category of inanimate objects such as sand and rocks, as well as a few kinds of life that are not so easily classified and over which there is some disagreement, such as virus and germs (see Figure 1). In this system of classification, God is categorically different from human beings, and human beings from animals and plants.[1] The incarnation means that God crossed the categorical difference between himself and humans and became a human.

Telugu speakers do not differentiate between different kinds of life. All forms of life are thought to be manifestations of a single life: gods, demons, humans, animals, plants, and even what appear to be inanimate objects all have the same kind of life (see Figure 1). To be sure, the gods have more of this life than humans, and humans more than animals or plants. But there is no real difference between gods and humans or humans and animals. After death, good humans may be reborn as gods, and wicked gods as animals. Moreover, gods come down constantly to earth as incarnations to help humankind, just as a man might stoop to help his servant.

The problem we face, then, is that when we translate the Word of God into Telugu, not only is there a change in sounds from God to devudu, but a change in basic meanings. There is a fundamental difference in the ways in which the two words are viewed, and in the ways these words are related to other words belonging to the same cognitive domain.  If devudu does not carry the biblical connotation of the word “God,” then certainly we must find another word for translating it. There are many that suggest themselves: ishvarudu, bhagavan, parameshvara, and so on. But upon examination, we find that all of these carry the same essential meaning as devudu. There is, in fact, no word in Telugu that carries the same connotations as either the English word “God” or the Greek word theos (nor do the two have exactly the same meaning). Nor is “God” the only word with which we have a problem in translation. Similar differences exist between any other major words of any two languages. Now we must ask not only what knowledge must Papayya have to become a Christian, but also whether this knowledge must be perceived in a particular way—from a particular worldview. Must Papayya learn the English or the Greek meaning for “god” before he becomes a Christian?

Since it is so hard to measure a person’s beliefs and concepts, would it not be better to test his conversion by means of changes in his life? Can we not define a Christian as a person who goes to church on Sunday, and who does not drink liquor or smoke? Here, too, the change at conversion may not be dramatic. There is no church for Papayya to attend. The circuit preacher may call only a half dozen times a year. Papayya cannot read the Scriptures. His theology is found in the few Christian songs he has learned to sing. To be sure, he no longer worships at the Hindu temple, but otherwise his life is much the same. He carries on his caste occupation and lives as most other villagers do. Is he then not a Christian?

[1] This is true despite the widespread acceptance of the theory of biological evolution. This theory blurs the distinctions between humans, animals, and plants. But in everyday life the distinction is strong. We can kill and eat animals and plants, but to kill humans or to enslave them is considered a crime. Animals need not wear clothes, but humans must.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

2 thoughts on “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories – 1”

  1. Foarte interesant articolul, am citit si partea a doua a lui pe care ati postat-o. Raspunsul il dau pentru amandoua.

    Termenul de crestin este unul dintre cele mai abuzate din istorie. Aproape de fiecare data cand rostesti acest cuvant trebuie sa adaugi o explicatie pentru ca cei carora le transmiti mesajul sa inteleaga ce vrei de fapt sa spui.
    Eu inteleg termenul de crestin ca insemnand “copil al lui Dumnezeu” si asta implica mai multe lucruri.
    Odata faptul ca Dumnezeu a facut ceea ce este necesar pentru ca sa ne infieze (noi nefiind din start copii ai lui) si apoi ca noi am facut ceea ce este necesar ca sa fim infiati de El (adica sa ne dam acceptul). In felul asta nu prea conteaza ce crezi cu privire la majoritatea doctrinelor biblice si as indrazni sa spun ca nu conteaza nici macar daca felul de viata al tau indeplineste anumite standarde morale mai mult sau mai putin ridicate, strict pentru a te putea numi un copil al lui Dumnezeu sau un crestin.
    Sigur, putem vorbi despre a fi un bun crestin sau a fi un crestin falimentar si aici putem si trebuie sa avem in vedere mai multe lucruri, insa ar fi gresit sa numim pe cineva necrestin pentru faptul ca este un crestin falimentar sau prost informat.

    Deci un om precum Papayya poate fi cu siguranta un crestin chiar daca nu intelege mai nimic din teologia crestina si nu practica discipline spirituale
    sau viata lui nu este tocmai “in regula” dupa criteriile noastre sau mai ales ale lui Dumnezeu (dupa ale Lui nu suntem niciunul “in regula”).

    Asta este deocamdata viziunea mea asupra acestor lucruri, s-ar putea sa ma insel, nu stiu dar momentan imi pare a fi o viziune destul de corecta.


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