Perhaps the hardest of all questions for a Christian to answer is to explain the essential features of Christianity apart from the cultural values that surround it and have come to inform it. Kitagawa asks: To be Christian, must an Asian believer endeavor to understand and follow those aspects of European culture that cling to the traditional churches? Is some understanding of the complex synthesis of philosophy and theology achieved in the Middle Ages and in the Reformation necessary for Vietnamese or Chinese Christians? Can the centrality of family and community in Thailand serve as a guiding metaphor for an understanding of the Christian experience? Can the suffering of Japanese Americans in the relocation camps scattered across American deserts be raised up as a light upon the mountain for mainstream American Christians?
At one end of biblical literature is the story of the Tower of Babel, an account that envisages a multiplicity of languages as God’s punishment for the sin of arrogance. At the other end we find the description of Pentecost, the great community-forging event of the New Testament, in which the Spirit bestows the gift of tongues, suggesting a Christianity without cultural borders. Other passages from the New Testament, like the story of Peter and Cornelius from the Acts of the Apostles, also involve key elements of going beyond culture in the presence of the Spirit. Of all the apostles, perhaps Paul, the convert from Judaism, aficionado of Greek culture, and citizen of the Roman Empire, demonstrated the most sophisticated sense of the place of Christianity in a Mediterranean civilization populated with a plethora of deities. In this sense Paul displays a biographical awareness of Christianity, as opposed to the merely autobiographical knowledge of the simplistic believer.
Christianity is entering a new global phase, in which the old paradigm of the West as teacher and the East as pupil no longer holds. As the confidence and identity of Asian churches grow, elements of the Christian experience that have not been emphasized in the traditional churches will appear and renew the faith of the global community.