Inculturation: The Eucharistic Dimension

If one were to ask for ‘a biblical basis’—a desire that for many is still an idol of the Christian forum—for dialogue with other religions, one would surely have to turn to the story, told by Luke, of Paul (already by Luke’s time—the early second century—being remembered as the ideal ‘apostle to the gentiles’: cf. Acts 28:28) in Athens: ‘the unknown god’ is now ‘proclaimed’ as ‘the Lord of heaven and earth’ (Acts 17:23-4). This story which ends with a group which included Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris joining Paul is usually read as a justification of pagan learning as a propaedeutic to faith. Thus bringing the work of both Plato and Aristotle into our theology has been justified in that Paul is seen here appealing to a genuine awareness of the divine beyond the boundaries of the revelation given by God to the Chosen People. Likewise, when Christians have been tempted to abandon human reason as an authority in response to Tertullian’s question: quid Athenae Hierusolymis, this story has been used to defend the authenticity of an intellectual bridge between faith and philosophy. The great patristic example is Augustine’s defence of rational enquiry, with his notion of ‘despoiling the Egyptians’ (cf. Acts 7:22), against the obscurantism of Jerome. However, closer attention to the whole story as Luke told it, and not just as we have grown used to receiving it, reveals that the focus of interest is not, despite a mention of ‘Stoic and Epicurean philosophers’ (17:18), with Greek philosophy or any abstract thought about ultimate reality, but firmly with that religious activity which concerns all of Athens, and all of Luke’s audience: leitourgia—liturgy, the public performance of the sacred duties which the group owed the gods, and worship.

Luke, moreover, in telling his story to ‘a church’—a gathering of Christians—is imagining his story as being performed, in what is a liturgical, if not a sacral, situation: their community meal at which they are eucharistic. This audience is expected to pick up from its experience of religion within its urban culture the whole range of liturgical cues in his story. Therefore, Paul on arriving in Athens is not presented as recalling that this was the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, nor that it is the home of the Academy, but is confronted by actual worship: Paul was ‘deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols’ (17:16). ‘Full of idols’ is not just a reference to many statues, but statues in temples, which are the focus of the ritual life of the inhabitants, and altars to a numerous pantheon located here and there along the streets. One would not have gone many meters along any street without meeting an altar, each a place where the ordinary people could engage in the cultus that was held to be an essential part of the city’s life. We should not think of these altars as elaborate or splendid affairs, but more like the street shrines, each maintained by a devoted person, such as one can still find in many small Greek towns today. Just as in these street shrines today with their flowers and oil lamps indicating the cultic activity of those living nearby, so the offerings (often libations) and the sooty remains of a burnt sacrifices on these altars, along with lights before images in niches, testified to the piety, the religious awareness, of the Athenians (Marcus 1988).

Paul is then brought to the Areopagus and questioned (17:19). This is the place of the city’s governing council, but it is also venerated as a place chosen by the gods because the city’s duties (leitourgia) and its sense of its religious duties are indistinguishable. Consequently, Luke sees it as perfectly fitting that Paul utter there his praise of Athenian piety: ‘“Athenians, I see how extremely pious (deisidaimonesteros) you are in every way”’ (17:22). The word I have translated as ‘extremely pious’ is usually rendered as ‘very religious’ but that fails to note that it could also mean ‘extremely superstitious.’ The key point is that with this word Luke is not thinking of an intellectual position or a cultural attitude, but an actual set of cultic engagements, prayers, sacrifices, and shared observances. Here we are in the world of ritual. Thus in the next sentence Luke does not say that he knows that many great books have been written by Athenians about the divine, but that he sees ‘the objects of your worship’ and indeed it is an altar—a place where people come to establish an active relationship through the quintessential Greek religious action of a sacrifice (probably a libation of wine)—that is inscribed ‘to an unknown god.’ When we note that it is a liturgical locus, an altar, that is the basis of Paul’s speech there, we can see immediately that Luke is interested in a continuum of liturgical action between the local religious culture and Christianity rather than a succession of theological ideas. It is what is worshipped as unknown that is now proclaimed (17:23). What Paul then gives is not a list of doctrinal statements about God, but guidance on how God is to be given genuine, worthy, and pious service:

The God who made the universe and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not have his dwelling in handmade temples. He is not ministered to (therapeuetai) by human hands as if he needed anything because it is he, himself, who gives all of us life, and breath, and everything (17:24-5).

Luke imagines Paul offering a new way to seek the God who is ‘not far from anyone’ and in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (17:27-8).

When we consider the location in which this memory was performed, it takes on an explicitly eucharistic dimension. To imagine the communities in which Luke’s text was being performed and heard we need to locate it somewhere on a line of development for which we have an earlier glimpse in the Didache and a later glimpse in Justin’s First Apology. A weekly gathering in the home of one of the wealthier members of a community where at a community meal they engaged in eucharistic activity towards the Father using texts we would think of as typically Jewish but actions—sharing a loaf and drinking from one common cup—that were specifically recalled as deriving from Jesus. This meal was in many respects this groups’ equivalent to the feasts that took place in temples, and as in those religious meals it was probably the only time that many of the poorer members would have been able to have an elaborate meal and to eat meat. It was not an unproblematic gathering – such social mixing was both awkward and suspect (cf. 1 Cor 10-11) and specific elements of the meal such as the origin of the meat were contentious (cf. 1 Cor 8)—but it was the occasion when in their gathering and speech they experienced anew (anamnesis) the sense of the risen Jesus among them and themselves as his disciples. Just as their fellow citizens imagined themselves sharing in the gods’ bounty in the feasts in the local temples, just so, Luke’s audience imagined themselves sharing in God’s bounty in the feasts in their fellows’ houses (O’Loughlin 2018).

The value of this reading of Acts is that it illustrates that in Luke’s mind there is a continuity between the religious activity of the city and the distinctive activity—the Christians’ domestically located meal would not have been seen in sacral terms by the larger society—of the communities he visits. Indeed, just as Hellenization brought a cultural unity which Luke knew from experience, so too he believed there existed a deep human unity: God gives live and breath to every human, and ‘has made from one every nation of men’ (17:25-6). It is from this common stock that religion wells up—‘we are all his offspring’—such that there is a continuum from deep within each culture to that which Paul is now to proclaim. This view of the relationship of Christian faith to the local culture / religion is the very opposite of the colonial vision that has been dominant far too often in our mission strategies and, virtually always, in our attitudes to Christian liturgy. Luke does not imagine a simple substitution of the religious culture of Athenian society by Christian rituals, but a transforming addition to rituals already present in the society. At every Athenian symposium there would have been a sacrifice to the gods upon the house’s altar, so now at the Christian symposium there is the sacrifice of thanksgiving praise from those at table as they ate in the Jesus manner. Just as we have moved away from the notion that the missionary ‘brings God’ into a god-less sphere, so too this story reminds us that we do not bring liturgy into a worship-free zone but allow that culture’s rituals to have a new finality.

Luke’s was not simply a notional adherence to liturgical inculturation, rather he lived with this practice week by week: for it was into the club meals (the normal gathering event of thiasoi) and banquets (symposia) of that Hellenistic culture that was introduced the eucharistic dimension of Jewish meals and the specific actions of Jesus, and the whole then given a new mythic shape within the larger Christian story (Smith/Taussig 1990). This became the characteristic Christian gathering, yet we are as indebted to what Plutarch tells us of second-century Hellenistic meals as we are to material in Christian sources for our understanding of eucharistic practice at the time (Smyth 2003). This inculturated dimension is obscured in our recollection because we are all too absorbed with the theological interpretation of the later ritual forms when, again for reasons of avoiding social disruption, the meal had contracted to a token breakfast and was revalidated as a purely sacral affair (Leonhard 2014).

Where Does the Process Begin?

Most discussions of inculturation begin with a very well defined, highly structured ritual which is taken as not only normative, but one regarded as sacred in form as an expression of the divine will. Not only is the sacrament a iure divino (in the language of the Council of Trent), but one so fixed in its form that imagining serious alterations is often felt to be akin to blasphemy. The result is that despite what is said in Vatican II on the subject, actual engagement with inculturation fizzles out in liturgical minutiae (O’Loughlin 2019). This may give a superficial appearance of taking seriously a local culture as having worth before God, but the ‘inculturated’ liturgy is not rooted in the culture. So we translate a Latin liturgy into a local language, we might have ‘additions—such as hymns—written in that language, and there might be peripheral actions—such as how incense is used—that nod towards the locality, but it is worship by those who have in all that is considered essential to the Eucharist adopted the culture Roman Rite. At best the result is a colonially imposed form with a few exotic items of external dress. Not surprisingly, many disdain even the notion of inculturation as just a game played by liturgists seeing its results mainly in external features open to aesthetic judgements. However, if people have been worshipping God within their culture before the advent of Christian liturgy, then it is that activity that should form the basis of their ritual / engaged awareness of the kerugma.

Taking the Spirit’s activity as a given whenever human beings worship, then we must start not with the Christian ritual—or any specific Christian rite such as the Eucharist as it is known in our liturgical books—but with an exploration of actual culture of the human group: this forms not only the background to their worship, but must be that which is transformed in their Christian worship. So the process must start with a group’s own known and own experience and upon this is grafted the Christian liturgical experience. The result of the exploration is not the Roman Rite wearing foreign robes, but an expression rooted in the local soil which now carries, in union with all those other worshippers who call on God in union with Jesus the Christ, praise and supplication to ‘the God who made the world and everything in it’ (Acts 17:24).

Once we acknowledge that we start within the culture, as we see Luke doing, we ask what within the culture might be, from the perspective of Christian faith, instances of the Spirit at work. The first exercise is to note those rituals which perform for that community an understanding of human solidarity however inchoate. This has to be discerned from merely celebrations of the group’s identity and/or its internal power structures. It is to identify those ritual elements in the culture that acknowledge the need to seek harmony with others—individuals and groups—and the creation, that Christians can acknowledge as congruent with the gospel.

The second exercise is identifying those conventions within the culture that express care for the marginalized and the oppressed. If such exist, then this is a performed value that not only lies alongside the gospel, but any activity by the Christians which does not value it runs the risk of downplaying it, and the result would not be evangelisation but an act of intrusive destruction. That the introduction of ‘the gospel’—or at least the activity of Christian missionaries—can be detrimental to a society is too well known to need comment, but what is rarely noted is that by replacing rituals that had an important place in sustaining a caring society missionaries’ unthinking zeal may have been damaging those they sought to help.

The third exercise is, bearing in mind that we all try to engage with the divine by way of trade (praise for favor; do ut des), to seek out any ritual which expresses dependence on the divine in a more total way and which might thereby emphasize thankfulness. Any such ritual needs to be seen as reflecting the basic attitudes of Christian worship. This intimation of the graciousness of God and the response of thankfulness from humankind is in continuity with the aspect of human nature that Luke identifies as basic in his continuity of worship. In Luke’s theology God has created human beings ‘that they should seek him, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him’ (Acts 17:27).

If rituals with these qualities can be found in a culture—and this is an act of spiritual discernment combined with sensitive and attentive cultural reading—then these should form the footings upon which the edifice of Christian ritual can be erected.

And of the Eucharist?

Seeking the anonymous work of the Spirit within human cultural structures seems an obvious step unless one is to proceed on the basis that there is a complete disjunction between ordinary and Christian existence, between ‘nature’ and ‘grace.’ Indeed, noting solidarity between human beings, care for others and the creation, and any expression of dependence on the divine is the very basis of all evangelisation. But somehow when we come to the actual celebration of eucharist, this approach deserts us in favor of imagining inculturation as ritual window dressing—perhaps traditional instruments for music, perhaps some ritual items like adapted vestments perhaps with local designs, and, of course since Vatican II, the local language —but what is uttered is a translation of a text in Latin treated as a datum.

A serious interest in an inculturated eucharistic liturgy would, however, begin by considering these five steps. First, all human beings need to eat and to drink regularly. Moreover, virtually all food production (hunting, gathering, agriculture, animal husbandry) is a collective endeavour. Virtually all food preparation (milling, butchering, refining, brewing, storing, transporting) is a collective endeavour. And virtually all cooking is a collective endeavour (even someone today cooking alone in an apartment relies on an energy supply network). Our need for sustenance is a fundamental community activity and solidarity builder. These needs form the basic cultural web within which we spend our lives; and if incarnation means anything then it must occur within this web.

Second, every known society has structures that facilitate and promote eating together. Humans do not simply consume food, but they have meals—which provide key significant moments in each day—and they very often share meals. Indeed, the shared meal is not only a constant in every society in one way or other, but seems to be a basic building block of every culture. The fact that there is an anthropology of food and meal-sharing points to this part of our common humanity (Jones 2007).

Third, virtually every society links it key moments—whether these are derived from the earth cycle such as the coming of spring or the harvest, relate to the life cycle such as birth or coupling or death, or link with historical memory such as the recollections of specific ‘great’ events—to festivity and special meals. The festival-cum-food—the meal as a bearer of significance as a celebration, a liturgy, and as marking the boundary between the past and the future—seems to be so common within human societies as to merit it being seen as ‘part of our human nature.’

Fourth, human societies seem invariably to view food shared as related to the bonds between people: the meal not only marks the bonds but establishes them. Notions of sharing a particular foodstuff or eating at a single meal event or eating off the same table (or its equivalent such as using common vessels or implements) recur with a surprising frequency. Somewhere deep within us we make the link between sustenance, food, the group in which we exist, and eating together; and to bring to someone within that sphere of being considered as part of ‘us and our survival’ is an act of identification between the ‘us’ and the individuals eating.

Fifth, because of these other common links of meal sharing and our humanity, we find a constant link between the food memory and the religious memory of societies across the globe. Whether it is food regulations forming part of a group’s expression of identity—can one be a good Jew or a good Muslim and eat pork?—or having a specific role of communal eating at the heart of a culture—the Whare Kai (building for communal eating) in a marae among the Maori—one can study food and religion more easily than one can study whether or not a religion has a notion of a personal divinity (Feeley-Harnik 1995).

Since the eucharist is a meal shared among the followers of Jesus—whatever more profound other meanings are found within this activity —these are the cultural locations that missionaries need to seek out if the eucharistic expression of the group is to be solidly rooted in its culture. It is there that the Jewish tradition of being eucharistic in the context of food for all God’s gifts and goodness—see 1 Chr 29—should find expression. It is there that the characteristic actions of Jesus among his followers, sharing a common loaf and drinking from a common cup, should accompany this song of thanksgiving that expresses our dependence on God. It is there within the culture that all the goodness of God in the Christ can be recalled and the song of praise sung. Just as the inheritance from Jesus could find expression in the Hellenistic symposium in the second century, so it can find new expression within the significant meal-sharing events of other cultures. It is, lest we forget, one of the strengths of Christianity that its central ritual is a sharing of a meal of memories and so it can encounter and embrace analogues in every society. It does not need to impose itself as a new ritual transported from another culture, but it can be grafted upon a deep-rooted human stock and whereby that host culture is given a new fulfilment in the Christ. If eucharist does not well up there, and if it is not there also that takes place the renewal of the experience of encounter with the Christ, then the eucharist risks been an imposed ritual which is merely rationally apprehended rather than being the center and summit of life.

The Ubiquity of inculturation

Any talk of inculturation seems to conjure for most theologians a set of exotic images that belong to coffee-table books on anthropology. This is understandable in that it is among those who are working within cultures that are experiencing the tensions of the interface with western European culture that most often raise the issue. However, the meal culture of every society changes over time and there are subtle differences regarding meal sharing between groups within societies. So attention to the local meal culture is a challenge for every pastor: in western Europe or North America as much as for one in India, Africa, or in the Pacific.

This is complicated for us by the historical accident that for much of its history the form of the eucharist in western Europe has been divorced from its surrounding meal culture and its importance was established within religious practice by a system of doctrinally derived positions extrinsic to the liturgy’s actual content. Furthermore, for most of that history any eating was a rare event, and common drinking (at least among Catholics) ceased. So still today, several generations after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, few pastors recognise the need to reconnect eucharistic activity with the food culture around them. Even the modern flight from liturgy—‘what is the use of going to church?’—among those who nonetheless profess to be Christians has not prompted any widespread examination of the need to inculturate this central communal expression of identity and of prayer to the Father in the Christ.

However, the inculturation of our eucharistic activity, in whatever culture Christians gather, within every contemporary meal culture is not only needed for a renewal of communal celebration, but for a renewed understanding of why eucharist is so significant within Christian memory. Pastors and missionaries do not bring ‘the eucharist’ to people, rather they encourage human celebrations to become places of eucharistic activity. Christians need to re-discover that when they gather, they eat together as befits a real human community. There they thank the Father in the way that Jesus taught us, and so celebrate communion, with God and one another.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Nottingham.



Feeley-Harnik, Gillian (1995). ‘Religion and Food: An Anthropological Perspective.’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63:565-82.

Jones, Martin (2008). Feast: Why Humans Share Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leonhard, Clemens (2014). ‘Morning salutationes and the Decline of Sympotic Eucharists in the Third Century.’ Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum 18:420-42.

Marcus, Joel (1988). ‘Paul at the Areopagus: Window on the Hellenistic World.’ Biblical Theology Bulletin 18:143-8.

O’Loughlin, Thomas (2018). ‘One or two cups? The Text of Luke 22:17-20 Again’ in H.A.G. Houghton ed., The Liturgy and the Living Text of the New Testament: Papers from the Tenth Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament [Studies in Honour of D.C. Parker]. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 51-69.

O’Loughlin, Thomas (2019). ‘Liturgy and Inculturation: The Reception of Sacrosanctum Concilium 37-40.’ Japan Mission Journal 73:114-24.

Smith, Dennis E. (2003). From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

Smith, Dennis E., and Taussig, Hal E. (1990). Many Tables: The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today. London: SCM Press.

Additional reading

News category: Unlisted resources.