- A Semiotic Approach to the Theology of Inculturation by Cyril Orji
Once in a while a book emerges that reminds us of what we have forgotten, challenges our settled practices, and lifts our methodological gaze beyond familiar and well-travelled scholarly terrains. Such is this text by Cyril Orji of Dayton University. Orji scientifically and systematically develops a semiotic approach to inculturation in six chapters, concluding with what he calls ‘‘ten semiotic habits,’’ which offer a translatable framework for doing inculturation theology for those who embrace his semiotic approach.
Orji develops five central themes in this book. The first is the claim that the church exists in cultural forms as diverse self-constituting communities of faith. He argues that the catholicity of the church demands a semiotic approach to inculturation that can do justice to and account for all levels of meaning in individual and group appropriation of the Christian faith. The second claim is that the semiotic approach is capable of ‘‘breaking through the theological problems and conceptual logjams that have hindered the practice of inculturation.’’ Orji identifies these ‘‘logjams’’ in the works of various theologians. He particularly discusses the work of African theologian Jean-Marc Ela and shows the limitations of his approach, especially his Christology. He also shows the strengths and weaknesses of the practical inculturation taking place in African Initiatives in Christianity and why and how this approach is like and unlike the kind of holistic approach that he proposes for inculturation (chapters 1 and 5).
The third and fourth claims are developed around the mediating role of language in religious discourse and the social construction of identity and communication (chapters 2 and 3). Orji identifies himself with the Sapir-Whorf historical linguistic tradition, which claims that ‘‘language is a valuable guide to understanding social reality and culture’’ and that ‘‘the network of cultural patterns of a civilization is indeed in the language which expresses that civilization.’’ If language according to this tradition determines all higher levels of thinking and is both a social and cultural product, Orji argues that the community of faith must pay particular attention to how her language reinforces or distorts the social construction of experience and social patterns. Orji also calls for a hermeneutic of diversity in narrating the stories of people, especially those from the Global South. Using the work of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, Orji shows the limits of single narratives and links them to ideology, power, oppression, and distortion. He also employs the works of Bakhtin and Volosinov to show the limitations of language and narratives within cultural systems and religions, advancing an approach that must ‘‘be attentive to the ways in which a discourse can constitute itself metapragmatically.’’ Orji concludes that ‘‘a theology of inculturation cannot neglect the valuable insights of post modern thinkers and theoretical linguistics on culture.’’ He subsequently proposes a metapragmatic inculturation approach that uses language in theological discourse for iteration (bringing different regions of discourse or context together in a healthy interaction), citation (exchanges and dialogue between different spheres of faith that respect and embrace the other by ‘‘taking the other’s voices into one’s utterances’’), and transformation. [End Page 297]
Orji’s fifth and final proposition is what he calls the Pierce-Geertz-Lonergan semiotic approach, which is inter-disciplinary, bringing together the works of Charles Pierce and Susan Langer (the notion of conceptual sign, which becomes symbolical through a cultural interpretation and conveys meaning according to the intentionality of the users). He extensively draws from Geertz, who ‘‘provides an analysis of culture that helps us to see how different orders of reality (ethos, worldview, and ritual experience) intersect and co-mingle.’’ Such a theological approach does cultural analysis, both interpretative and liberative, ‘‘to the culture of oppressed and subordinated groups.’’ Geertz’s emphasis on cultural relativity is taken up by Orji as important in respecting the inner rationality of particular cultural or religious expression of the faith, while developing the requisite and adequate account necessary for inter-cultural encounters. This analysis...