MR #40: Case Study: Translating God in Mongolia

In March 2003 a symposium of Christian leaders was held in Mongolia on the topic “Distinctively Christian . . . Distinctively Mongolian.”  This title was especially intriguing because it uniquely captured many of the issues concerning the tension between contextualization and syncretism.

During the seminar, all speakers were asked to lay the foundations of Christian formation without addressing the specific concern about the name for God.  This issue had so polarized the Mongolian church that it would be impossible to have a symposium for the entire Evangelical community if this topic was on the agenda.  When a presenter spoke about the various names for God employed in the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, many Christians felt that they had been betrayed.  A confrontation ensued, and the symposium was almost terminated.  This situation demonstrates the volatility of emotions over the struggles relating to contextualization and syncretism.

One community of Christians in Mongolian use the generic term Yertuntsiin Ezen (“Lord of the Universe”) when speaking of God.  By using this term, “Christians are declaring that their God is unique and quite separate from any other god” (Voysey 2003, 2).  They consider all specific Mongolian names for God, like Burhan or Tenger, to have pagan connotations and, therefore, are unable to capture the essence of the God of the Bible.  They believe that the Bible is clear:  “Do no invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on our lips” (Ex. 23:13).  Frequently, they quote non-Christian Mongolians who have been angered by the Christian use of Burhan.  "The religion of the cross has been amalgamated with the Buddhist Religion," wrote A. Nerbish in the independent Mongolian newspaper Il Tovchoo.  Byambajav, the Principal of the Lama Training College, said that when Christians use Burhan as the name for God, they are beginning a new religion, “a merging together of Christianity and burhani shashin."   This group, therefore, advocates the use of a generic term since there is no term in the local language for creator God (Voysey 2003, 1-5).

Most Christians, however, use the term Burhan for God.  They feel it wiser not to use a generic term but to use scripture to transform the meaning of a familiar indigenous term.  According to P. Enkh-Amgalan, burhan was originally used by traditional Shamanistic Mongolians to mean deity.  The word took on Buddhist meanings after the arrival of this religion about 1500 B.C.  It came to mean "Buddha (the enlightened one, idol, death, impersonal force).   During the Communist decades the term maintained its Buddhist connotations but also was used to refer to deity in a general sense.  The general use of Burhan as deity continues in “translations of western classics, contemporary dubbing of western films, and different deities of any religion” (Enkh-Amgalan, 3).  This group would respond to the charge of syncretism by saying that it is abundantly clear from the context that Burhan as worshipped in Christian churches is distinct from Buddha or the idols that Buddhists worship.  "There is clear evidence of true repentance and a new birth, a new heart and changed lives" (P. Enkh-Amgalan, 6).

What one group perceives to be syncretism is seen as authentic contextualization by other groups.

This case study evokes a number of significant questions regarding the relationship of contextualization and syncretism.

  • How do Christian communicators determine when it is best to use indigenous terms for God (or for other concepts like heaven, sin, Satan, and forgiveness), a generic phrase, or a term borrowed from another language or culture?

  • To what degree are meanings dynamic or static?

  • How do we interpret verses such as Exodus 23:13:  "Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips."  Is this command focused on specific words or focused on allegiance within the hearts of people?

  • What role does human ego and identity play in the contextualization process?

  • What role do cross-cultural and multicultural relationships play in the process of communication?  Do national leaders and missionaries minister as equals, mutually encouraging and helping each other?

Sources Cited

Enkh-Amgalan, P.  2003.  From a summary of an article sent by email by Markus Dubach, March 18.

Voysey, Irene.  2003.  Warning of a New Religion in Mongolia.  Unpublished manuscript sent by author to Gailyn Van Rheenen.  March 15.

Copyright 2007 by Gailyn Van Rheenen

All rights reserved.  We allow you to forward this article individually to friends and photocopy it for personal or class use.  Please do not reproduce this material in printed or digital form without reference.  If you wish to reproduce this material in printed or digital form or in any other way reproduce or distribute this information, please obtain permission by contacting Dr. Van Rheenen.