The Dayak People and Their Culture as a Study of Contextual Theology from a Catholic Perspective

What’s the difference between a short essay and a book?

There’s no difference, except for the length and depth of the review.

Take this book, for instance; it originally began as individual articles by the author in a news and information channel discussing books and literacy. These were short articles that were then carefully curated and transformed into a book with a thematic approach. It comprises 17 chapters, corresponding to Indonesia’s Independence Day. The author’s primary focus is to make the Dayak people a locus for contextual theology.

In the Sintang Diocese, the Dayak people are spread across three districts: Sintang, Melawi, and Kapuas Hulu. Each tribe has its own language, customs, and traditions. It must be honestly acknowledged that in the mission of proclaiming the Gospel, pastoral ministers often face challenges, difficulties, and struggles when confronted with the traditions, culture, and local beliefs of the Dayak tribes.

The rhetorical question posed by Simon Peter to Jesus, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’ often arises when witnessing my Dayak brothers and sisters, who have embraced Catholicism for a long time but still faithfully practice the traditions and customs inherited from their ancestors.

For Simon Peter, his words were more of an affirmation that they would not leave because the words of Jesus are eternal and they believed and knew that Jesus is the Holy One of God, so they would not depart from Him like the other disciples who withdrew (cf. John 6:25-71). However, for me, Simon Peter’s words are more of a pastoral struggle.

One undeniable fact that the Sintang Diocese Church must realize in understanding its identity and mission among the Dayak people is that the life of the Dayak people is almost always colored by rituals and traditional ceremonies. During birth, the first bath in the river, coming of age, sickness, marriage, death, agricultural activities, traditional celebrations, house construction, moving into a new house, and more, there are always specific rituals performed.

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Rituals and traditional ceremonies are mandatory because the Dayak people believe that human life and the entire universe, along with its contents, are a gift from Jubata. Therefore, the rituals and traditional ceremonies they perform are a concrete expression of faith. They are also acts of purification for significant events in human life according to specific customs and on a communal scale (G. Van Schie, 2008, p. 171).

The phrase ‘according to specific customs’ is intended to convey that the expression of self and community within a ritual is an art form. Through art, it is meant to signify that humans celebrate their existence in this world in relation to others and the natural environment, with themselves and the divine. Therefore, significant events in life such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death are always celebrated in a grand and communal manner, rich in symbolism. Vatican II affirms that through culture, humanity can attain its true human fulfillment by preserving all that is good and valuable in its nature (Gaudium et Spes, 53).

Considering its central function, it is certain that the Church, in its pastoral work, will always encounter various forms of rituals and traditional ceremonies practiced by the Dayak people. This encounter, once again, does not rule out the possibility of tension, especially when it comes to faith and Christian traditions.

This is where, if there is a question posed to those Dayak people who have embraced the Catholic faith, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’ there may still be doubts about providing an answer as clear and firm as Simon Peter’s statement. This should not be immediately seen as a failure of the evangelization process in the Sintang Diocese, both in the time of the missionaries and in subsequent times. Even if some assume this, it does not seem justified, considering that the Sintang Diocese Church itself celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2011. A moment that can be seen as an indication that the Catholic faith has taken root, grown, and developed in the hearts of the faithful, including the Dayak people.

The existence of doubt or ambiguity in faith in Jesus Christ actually provides an opportunity for the Church to engage more actively in dialogue with, and to study and understand, the local culture. This includes seeking contextual models of evangelization so that the faithful may come to know and believe in Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The designation of 2021-2023 as the Year of Faith by the Sintang Diocese is also an effort to deepen and strengthen the faith of the people of God in the Sintang Diocese in Jesus Christ.

The Church, although often facing challenges and difficulties in proclaiming the Good News of salvation from God, must not turn a blind eye to the culture and beliefs of the Dayak people. Experience often teaches us that the faithful may feel hurt when the culture they inherit from their ancestors is labeled as unsuitable for practice. Some may even refuse to come to the church when, without adequate and satisfying explanations, the Church forbids them from practicing their traditions and customs inherited from their ancestors.

Certainly, it is not the motherly nature of the Church to hurt the hearts of its children, even to the point of driving them away. For this reason, the Sintang Diocese Church considers the local culture and traditions as a locus for itself in experiencing its mission and bringing forth the divine image and the Kingdom of God.

This is clearly stated in the formulation of the Basic Direction of the Diocese 2022-2026: ‘The Catholic Church of the Sintang Diocese, as a community of God’s people, guided by the Holy Spirit, aspires to build the Kingdom of God within the local culture and traditions, in living the Church and community life, through the mission of being prophet, priest, and king, for the salvation of humanity.’

Based on this formulation, the Dayak people and their culture will be made a theological space (locus theologicus). Space here does not primarily refer to geographical location. It speaks more about cultural, social, relational, and linguistic space that accompanies it. It is related to the richness of daily life experiences. It speaks of the subjective space of existential experiences in the daily lives of people (Robert Pius Manik et al., 2020, p. viii).

Meanwhile, by ‘theologicus,’ it is meant that the existential experiences of humanity should be seen in the light of God’s self-revelation. The Catholic Church, in Theology of Revelation and Faith, emphasizes the importance of human experience.

Revelation is seen as personal communication between the transcendent God and humanity on earth. The unseen God, out of His boundless love, gives Himself to humanity, addresses them, associates with them, and unites with them. This is the essence of revelation. And the personal aspect, namely the personal encounter between God and humanity, is the most emphasized aspect (Nico Syukur Dister, 2004, p. 67).

The writings gathered in this book mostly take the traditions, customs, and local beliefs in our Dayak Desa tribe as the starting point for reflection. This is to say that the themes reflected upon should not be seen as a universal understanding of the Dayak people. There are 405 sub-tribes of the Dayak people scattered throughout Kalimantan. In some traditions, customs, practices, and even languages, they have their own distinct characteristics.

“However, in some aspects, such as the belief that the natural world is infused with unseen spirits and, therefore, should be treated with wisdom, respect, and tradition, I am confident that we, the Dayak people, share the same views and beliefs,” So, the author, who is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Poland, asserts.. *)

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