Semiotic Approach to the Theology of Inculturation

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Cyril Orji
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke Company
    , August
     233 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Cyril Orji writes in the introduction to A Semiotic Approach to the Theology of Inculturation, “this study is a modest attempt to break through the methodological problems and conceptual logjams that have hindered the practice of inculturation” (xiii-xiv). In his view, a semiotic approach to culture—along with cultural anthropology (Charles Sanders Peirce and Clifford Geertz) and theology (Bernard Lonergan)—provides the best way for conceptualizing inculturation, particularly in Africa. He sees this approach as a sort of “antidote” to rigid and fixed categories of identities and cultures that inevitably result in classicism (or classic theology), dominant narratives, and violence.

The book is structured in five chapters. Chapter 1, “The Problematic of African Theology of Inculturation,” is Orji’s reflection on the role of black theology in the postcolonial period and on Jean-Marc Ela’s theology. According to Orji, Ela’s political theology (“shade-tree theology”) fuses inculturation with liberation (11). Ela’s contention that there should be no disjunction between liberation and inculturation today seems to be mainstream in Africa because contemporary Africans do not see the disconnection between faith and politics.

Furthermore, Ela’s claim that theology should be approached in a way that speaks to the real-life situations of the African is not only valuable, “but it is also validated by the science of semiotics that approaches cultures as a cultural system in which all parts are interrelated in a meaningful way” (30). Ela (and Orji as well) raises an important question that the contemporary African situation demands: how is it possible to reevaluate the Christian message in a world of cultural pluralism in such a way that it does not become an alien or disrupting influence to African cultural identity? A semiotic approach to Ela’s insight that liberation and inculturation are not opposing forces could provide a useful answer to that question.

Moreover, the author puts Ela in dialogue with the semiotic work of the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. He uses Bakhtin’s paradigm (the umbrella term “polyphony” and, specifically, “heteroglossia,” meaning a different way of speaking) to better understand Ela’s theological discourse: Ela’s theology is what Bakhtin calls an “internally persuasive discourse,” as opposed to the “externally authoritative discourse” applied by the Western theology, and it can provide a good theoretical model for the theology of inculturation.

In chapter 2, “Single Story Narratives and Resilience of African Independent Churches,” Orji shows how semiotics can help African Christian theology resist the danger of monoglossia, to continue with Bakhtin’s metaphor (38). It is a critical assessment of the frameworks that have been used to narrate the story of Africa.

Using Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, the author warns about single (dominant) narratives and injurious speech in order to attempt a “balanced story” of the encounter of Africa and Christianity. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church could be a true world church (in Karl Rahaner’s sense), if it resolves one major theoretical problem: that it needs to create a critical retelling of African stories in order to lead to narratives that can help overturn traditional myths.

In this sense, inculturation is key because it scrutinizes the narrative and the language as well as the philosophical and theological underpinnings of all narratives. At the end of the chapter, the author provides an example outside of the Catholic tradition that offers a powerful retelling of the African story using new narratives, “in their own terms” (54), in the African Initiated Churches (AICs).

In chapter 3, “Metapragmatic Use of Language,” Orji investigates the use of language in the postmodern criticism in which “cultures and identities are never final or settled but always involved in a dynamic process of becoming with a view of discovering how a metapragmatic use of language furthers our semiotic approach to a theology of inculturation” (69). More simply, in order to understand cultures, we need to study the language spoken in different societies. The contribution of linguistics to cultural anthropology—known as the “linguistic turn” in anthropology (Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf’s hypothesis is fully explained here)—has been crucial to understanding that language is about making meaning.

However, for the author, the further step, the “semiotic turn” in anthropology—thanks to the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, Clifford Geertz, Susanne Langer, has been the real turning point. According to these new theories, where the world is accessed through signs and symbols and words have no value except as symbols, language becomes a social sign, leading to the emergence of culture and helping the theology of inculturation to stress that culture is a fluid process.

The principal focus of chapter 4, “‘Cultural Turn’ and the Problematic of Inculturation,” is the American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his contribution to the “cultural turn” in anthropology. Geertz helps bring to the forefront the idea that culture is not unitary, cultural pluralism (but not ethical relativism) and that critical understanding of culture is central for the theology of inculturation as well.

The dense chapter 5, “Inculturation Reconsidered in Light of New Studies in Semiotics,” analyzes the concept of inculturation, a term historically linked with the Jesuits, and other similar but “insufficient” terms such as localization, accommodation, adaptation, interculturation, indigenization, enculturation, and acculturation. The new understanding of culture and a certain historical consciousness result in the realization that classical theology cannot adequately answer the new questions emerging from churches in the non-Western world. A call for a “shift in perspective” is needed.

The perspective that Orji adopts is a position of critical realism, deriving from Geertz, Peirce, and Lonergan, as an antidote to the counter positions that developed from reductionism and the classicist idea of culture, stating that faith must be steeped in culture, against a monocultural view of the world. What Peirce says philosophically and Geertz says anthropologically, Lonergan says theologically: the meaning of words is transient and is culturally conditioned. Semiotics helps an inculturation theology to maintain a balance between the contemporary experience of the gospel and tradition, becoming a medium of inquiry, a process of discovery, a mediation tool between Christianized culture and un-Christianized culture.

Finally, in chapter 6, “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Work in African Theology of Inculturation,” Orji offers ten “semiotic habits” for the theology of inculturation: avoid classicism, beware of the dangers of one-single-story narratives, broaden your horizon, seek higher viewpoints, always differentiate consciousness, foster spiritual and cultural development, celebrate pluralism, promote Christian fellowship, be creative, and relish the self-correcting process of learning.

The value of this book is its recognition of the complexity of inculturation. The author addresses this by using theories and concepts from thinkers and philosophers from different fields in a creative multidisciplinary way in which the theologian Bernard Lonergan plays a major role. A conceptual work like this could, however, miss the historical dimension, which helps to understand through specific cases the reality of the inculturation process. Although there are few historical examples as yet, the reader could be energized to read more on this. A final thought: here and there the author’s Catholic perspective emerges, which might disturb the reader accustomed to greater objectivity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Valentina Ciciliot is Research Fellow in History of Christianity at Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Italy.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cyril Orji is associate professor of systematic theology and core integrated study at the University of Dayton. He is the author of The Catholic University and the Search for Truth (2013) and Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Africa: An Analysis of Bias and Conversion Based on the Works of Bernard Lonergan (2008).


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