The following article is an edited version of a paper I wrote for my Worldview class earlier this year. The paper received an A.
The Mongolian Worldview: A Foreigner’s Perspective on It’s Origins & Practical Expressions
Once the greatest land empire in the history of the world, prior to 1921, Mongolia held the distinction of being the most Buddhist nation on earth. However, Mongolia today is a nation on the minds of very few except for its global contributions of minerals and cashmere.
Explanation Of Mongolia’s Worldview
The Mongolian worldview is somewhat existential, agreeing with the view that, “God does not exist. Death is extinction of personality and individuality.”(1) Though according to the Mongolian worldview God does not exist, most Mongolians still believe in a spirit world of good and evil, rooted in shamanism.
Much of the Mongolian worldview is also grounded in Buddhist Monism. It is very much a group-oriented society because of the place that nomadism has in its history. In what may seem counterintuitive to the Westerner, Mongolia’s nomadic culture bred group-orientation as the nomads and clans of nomads often had to ally themselves together for their mutual survival and defense against rival clans.
Over its long history, the Mongolian worldview was shaped from a progression of four influences. These are Nomadism, Shamanism, Buddhism, and Communism (in that order).
Until the beginnings of urbanization, most Mongolians were countryside dwellers, raising herds of sheep, goats, cattle, yak, and camels. By 1956, 78 percent of Mongols lived in the countryside.(2) Until the rise of modernization, the average Mongolian family moved six times a year. (3) This resulted in a society where the temporary was the norm rather than permanence, and it fit well with Mongolia’s Buddhist influence, which discourages permanence or attachments.
Until the introduction of Soviet-style education, most Mongolians were illiterate and superstitious. The local shaman played a key role in nomadic and small community life. Looking for the blessings of a prevailing spirit, or to curse one’s enemies happened regularly as shamans were sought out to invoke the spirits. This seeded in the Mongolian mind the basis for power in their society. If one knows the name of the spirit, one can influence or control, to a degree, what the spirit might do for you. As shamans were seen as people with unusual and exceptional power, shamans exercised authority that others could not. Becoming a shaman meant respect and even fear from the community or clan. Offending the shaman bore dire consequences.
Buddhism entered Mongolia in the 3rd century BC, even before it entered China. Though traditional Buddhism does not believe in a spirit world, Mongolians syncretized their shamanism with Buddhism to come up with their own brand of Buddhist practice. Genghis Khan, himself a worshiper of the spirits, in particular, the sky spirit known as Tenger, had high regard for Buddhism and over time Buddhism became the skin of Mongolian religious life with the muscle of shamanism just underneath.
Enter into this mix, in 1921, the march of Soviet-style communism during the Russian and Mongolian overthrow of Chinese mastery. Grateful for the help overthrowing the Chinese, Mongolia quickly, and quite willingly, embraced Soviet communism, becoming the world’s second communist state. In fact, it was a natural transition for Mongolians to go from a group-oriented nomadic society to a collectivist state. Mongolian society quickly changed. Industry and formal education were introduced. Even countryside Mongols embraced the new system. Prior to 1921 Mongolia’s literacy rate was a measly 10 percent. (4) By the end of the communist era Mongolia boasted a literacy rate of 99 percent during its communist years. Soviet propaganda filled the print media and the sole TV station in the country, State TV. Collectivism became the prevailing view, but the concept of power was strengthened and became even more important as Soviet-style collectivism bred totalitarianism, perhaps the ultimate expression of power. Mongolia’s communist leaders led campaigns to eliminate shamanism and Buddhism from their society, replacing the historical spiritual power of the people with atheistic political power. But the practitioners and protectors of Mongolia’s spiritual heritage went underground only to resurface after the emergence of democracy.
Following the bloodless democratic revolution of 1990, Christian missionaries from South Korea and the United States began to pour into the country. Campus Crusade For Christ’s Jesus Film became the first Western movie ever seen in Mongolia. As the Mongolian church grew from a handful of believers in 1990 to more than 60,000 by 2012,(5) Mongolian Christians syncretized their new faith with their previous Buddhist practices resulting in more than 53 percent of self-identifying Christians stating that Christianity and Buddhism are compatible systems of faith. (6) In a survey of religious practices of Mongolian Christians, “56.9 percent of Christian respondents essentially admit that they keep a Christian image in their home for the purpose of worship as they might a Buddhist or Shamanist image.” (7)
In spite of the natural flow from Nomadism to Communism, the Mongol worldview is shifting to become a power-based culture with the inclusion of Western values in their society since the country’s move to democracy. In truth, the Mongolian interest in power and reputation already existed. But with the change brought about by the rejection of communism in 1990, Mongolians were able to express this facet of their culture more readily. Company managers were sometimes viewed as totalitarian, and many acted that way. Many Mongolians who worked for foreign managers often had trouble going back to work for other Mongolians since foreign managers tended to be more magnanimous than their Mongolian counterparts.
Mongolian cultural identity is not exactly Asian, but neither is it Western. Mongolia has pulled from both of these—during independence finding a way to relate to other cultures through military control, to being ruled by the Chinese, to being managed by the Russians, and now with great Western influence. Mongols are imitative, seeking what they view as the best of the world around them to incorporate into their culture and “mongolize” it. In terms of religious or worldview expression, this is just another word for syncretism.
The Practical Expressions Of The Mongolian Worldview
Some Mongolians see themselves as very differently from other people in the world, even with a haughty view. This is especially true with those who occupy a high position in society. This was expressed once in my hearing when during a meeting of TV executives to discuss audience research, the manager of the most popular studio at the time strongly protested any kind of audience research stating, “Mongolians are not like other people in the world. Mongolians cannot be classified like other people. We are Mongolians.” Of course, it escaped him that the title, “Mongolian” is a classification.
As one long-time missionary in Mongolia told me, “The Mongolian word for foreigner is гадаад (gadaad). It’s original meaning was, ‘Not quite as human as I.'” Indeed, even Mongolia’s most respected leader, Genghis Khan, viewed Mongolian life as the supreme life on earth. During battle, Khan routinely pushed the foreign fighters serving among his troops forward to be killed off by the enemy, effectively using them as a shield to protect the lives of his Mongolian warriors. In one instance (which may be apocryphal), Khan had his Mongolian soldiers push their foreign fighters forward into a moat, where they drown, creating a path of bodies, giving something for the Mongolian warriors to walk across when pressing home their attack. (8)
According to Mongolia’s “Father of Democracy,” Bat-Erdeniin Batbayar, commonly known as Baabar, the Mongolian penchant for taking advantage of others stems from the political realities surrounding it’s nomadic heritage. In his award winning book, History of Mongolia, Baabar asks the question, What does the world have that the nomad wants? His answer: everything. What does the nomad have that the world wants? His answer: nothing. Therefore, what is the basis for trade? There is none, thus the Mongolian tribes made raids and theft a norm in their society, especially during the reign of Genghis Khan. They even did this amongst their own tribes, with raiding parties going out to steal wives from rival Mongolian tribes. Genghis Khan was conceived under such a situation when his father stole his mother from a rival tribe. This was considered normal behavior among the Mongols and virtually no one stood against it until Genghis Khan stole back his first wife from a rival warlord that had taken her months earlier.
Power, reputation, and status are critically important components to the transforming Mongolian worldview. A person who attains a prominent leadership position in a company or in society, is expected to live above the fray. To not do so may bring shame upon employees or associates. In one example from my experience, I routinely took taxis to get around the city, just like any other person. But the senior staff of our TV station protested, insisting that I must have a driver to chauffeur me around. In their eyes I did not live up to the status that my position afforded and it was an embarrassment to them in front of others in our industry.
The true character of the person will manifest easily with the acquisition of power. People once known to the one with high status will see their relationship rapidly shrink as the person they once knew will lessen his association with him.
Another area where the Buddhist mindset has exercised influence is in the area of child adoption. There are 44 orphanages operating in Mongolia. Forty-one of those orphanages are run by Christians. One, the largest, is a state-run facility housing more than 400 children of all ages. However, very few orphans are adopted, usually only 4-5 a year. The idea of becoming a parent to someone else’s child is abhorrent to many Mongolians. When I mentioned to our staff that I wanted to launch a campaign to promote adoption I was met with immediate expressions of disgust. However, Mongolians are very warm to the idea of foster care. This is because in the Buddhist mindset permanent attachments like adoption are discouraged. But foster care is a temporary arrangement.
The Transforming Mongolian Worldview
The Mongolian worldview is shifting because of the Mongolian penchant to imitate other cultures and perspectives. Unlike the earlier ages of Mongolian history when incorporating foreign perspectives was a slow process, the modern world offers change to Mongolians at lightning speed—the speed of radio, TV, broadband, and global communications. Just as Genghis Khan brought in experts to his court from the peoples he conquered, so too, Mongolians follow the same practice of applying other perspectives to their culture and mongolize it. Collectivism, once the prevailing value in Mongolian society, has shifted. Power is the new drive in the Mongolian worldview.
Advocating The Christian Worldview In A Mongolian Context
The work of reaching Mongolia for Christ through television took on a specific form during the 10 years we were there. We recognized that for most Mongolians, starting a presentation of the Gospel with the story of Jesus was often a losing proposition. This is because upon hearing the story of Jesus the shamanistic-background people interpret Jesus to be another spirit that has to be appeased to gain luck or curse an enemy. Buddhist-background people interpret Jesus to be another Buddha that can help lead them to enlightenment. The Willowbank Report notes, “People in other cultures interpret what we say in terms of their own cultural categories, and there is no way to test whether their ideas correspond with ours.” (8) Jeanice Conner, a linguist who conducted a 10-year study of the use of religious terminology in Mongolia agrees, “What is jargon for one group, however, can contain central meaning for another.” (10)
In order to effectively reach Mongolians, the story of the Bible had to be told. Essentially, the ministry needed to communicate the story of Jesus in a way that would avoid shamanistic or Buddhist interpretations of the history. We did this with a strategy that we called, Coverage Discipleship. There were three central components to the strategy, engaged in the following order:
Let the Bible tell its own story
Educate Mongolians more deeply about the Bible’s story
Perform basic evangelism, leading people to Christ
The strategy lead to a new understanding about Jesus in Mongolia. Whereas starting with Jesus left his identity open to interpretation among shamanist and Buddhist Mongols, starting with the story of creation and moving from there put the story of Jesus in a different historical context helping the Mongolian viewer to understand that what was presented was wholly different from shamanism and Buddhism.
The strategy also helped to augment the ministry of other organizations and missionaries working in the country. Rather than intersecting with Mongolians who knew nothing about the Bible, some missionaries reported that our strategy had a direct impact on their own ministries. Missionary surgeon, Dr. Buck Rusher wrote about his interaction with patients, “I am constantly amazed that when I begin to talk to them of Jesus Christ, the first thing many of them say is, ‘Yes, I have heard about this on Eagle TV!’ Your station is to be commended for making my job as a minister so much easier.” (11)
In terms of specific values associated with Mongolian’s worldview, there were three values that we had to be mindful of when addressing the culture.
Power (because power is the prevailing value)
Mercy (because people in power don’t exercise mercy)
Forgiveness (because people in power prefer exercising punishment over forgiveness.
In one of my early experiences, a Master Control operator used the wrong tape of a presentation I did for airing. The mistake was a great embarrassment to me and to our company. When I opted to forgive the operator and encourage him to be more careful in the future, some of my senior staff became furious with me, demanding that I exercise my authority and fire him, as a Mongolian company director would do.
The Mongolian desire for power (reputation, status, authority) was addressed when we told the story of creation and the fall. Specifically, the Bible describes the all-powerful God of creation exercising his power to serve man’s needs. As the story of the Bible progressed, this helped Mongolians understand the incarnation. The all-powerful God of the universe became a human baby, using his great power to humble himself. For the Mongolian, this is a radical notion of power.
Mercy was addressed in God’s not killing Adam and Eve in the garden, but granting forgiveness. Repeatedly in the scripture’s story, God demonstrates mercy, something many Mongolians recognize they need, but don’t necessarily express themselves.
Mongolia is what I term as a non-mercy society. This means, as demonstrated by the earlier story about Mongolian adoption, Mongolian’s are not big on demonstrating acts of mercy unless it gives them some advantage (again, this is the influence of power). For instance, when a group of Christian missionaries’ children were out for an evening together, they came across a young man who had been thrown out of a bar, badly beaten, bleeding profusely, without a jacket in temperatures reaching the -30s. There were hundreds of people walking the street and not a soul stopped to help. In a scene reminiscent of the Good Samaritan, a Buddhist monk walked by, but when the teenagers asked him for help, he just walked away. When a police officer was asked to help, he laughed at them and ignored the dying man. One of the students put her own jacket on the man to try and keep him warm. Though there were hundreds of people around who could have helped, the only mercy demonstrated to the young man that night was by a foreign Christian teenager.
To address this issue of non-mercy we created a television program that sought out people in need, who were suffering, who no one seemed to be helping. The host would work to the meet the need, whatever it was, and in the process earn time to share the Gospel with that person, and the audience.
In fact, this was actually the strategy that was used to originally create the TV station in the first place so that we might have a place in public discourse about Mongolian society and through that discourse, point people to the Gospel.
Cultural Practice: Mongolian politicians asked our organization to start and run Mongolia’s first independent TV station as a strategy to protect their new-found freedoms from the remnant of the communist power that still existed. We created a news station that was not beholden to the communist authority. This engendered feelings of trust with the audience.
Cultural Expression: Newscasts addressed current events without political bias and a ground swell of opinion manifested as “Only Eagle TV tells the truth” (this was not something that we came up with or marketed, it developed purely at the grassroots level).
Cultural Witness: We launched short programming introducing the audience to the Bible and story of Jesus. That was followed by a chronological presentation of Bible movies and shows telling the story of the Bible.
Cultural Ceiling: TV programs eventually focused on direct evangelism and discipleship and TV-delivered training for pastors and lay-leaders in theology and Christian ethics. Over time, the story of the Bible became known to many.
The influences of nomadism, shamanism, Buddhism, and collectivism still have influence with most Mongolians. These traditions, held for hundreds of years, have not disappeared overnight or because of the introduction of democratic freedoms. However, the power value is also an undercurrent in the Mongolian worldview. Most relationships, whether political, corporate, religious, or personal can be expressed and recognized for their power emphasis.
The role of Genghis Kahn and how he exercised power is admired by most Mongolians. The influence of the shaman, even today, gives him a place of power in Mongolian society. Shamans are rarely opposed. Buddhist monks hold considerable sway, even for Mongolians in the metropolitan capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Collectivism may have seemed like a nice idea to Mongolians in the 20th century, but it actually bread totalitarian abuse. When democratic freedoms came many Mongolian recognized that they had an opportunity to exercise power that was formerly out of their reach during the earlier periods of their history. Thus, power has become a great influence in Mongolian society. But like many people who are so close to their own culture that they don’t recognize their own central drives, so too, Mongolians don’t often recognize the lust for power, reputation, and authority that is so important in their society.
(1) James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, “Basic Atheistic Existentialism” (IVP Academic; 05 edition) 2009.
(2) Countries & Their Cultures, Mongolia, www.everyculture.com/Ma-Ni/Mongolia.html. Accessed 02/02/2015.
(3) From a discussion about Mongolian culture with Batjargal Tuvshintsengel, Executive Director of Family Radio, August 2003.
(4) Dr. Batchuluun Yembuu and Ms. Khulan Munkh-Erdene, Literacy Country Study: Mongolia, “Literacy Education Before 1990” 2005, page 4.
(5) Batbold Munkzul, Managing Director of Mongolian Evangelical Alliance. Announced during the 20th anniversary celebration of Christianity in Mongolia, 2012.
(6) Thinking Out, Loud, That’s Impact II: The Breakdown, Tom Terry, July 26, 2010.
(7) Thinking Out, Loud, New Survey of Mongolian Christians: Troubling Signs of Syncretism, Tom Terry, September 1, 2011.
(8) Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World, 2004 Crown Publishers.
(9) The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture, Lausanne Committee For World Evangelism, 1978, www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-2, accessed 02.03.2015.
(10) Jeanice Conner, How Faint A Whisper: The Role Of Translation In The Development Of Syncretism In Mongolia, 09.14.2008.
(11) Dr. Buck Rusher in a letter to Eagle TV, December 24, 2006.