Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cross-cultural Theology

Over at Faith and Theology our good friend Ben Myers cites a perfect example of theological contextualization of the Nicene Creed in Africa. This reflects the kind of theology that Christians commonly do as part of their daily lives in the Third World. This shows how theology is being done by Christians who respond faithfully to the challenges their lives present to them. It is admirable for both the local people and the missionaries who evidently brought the gospel to them to develop a “creed” that is so concrete and so real compare to the Western theology that tends to be abstract and critical. Theirs is a theology that is closer to the real-life situations of people whose lives are touched by God that is so different from our experiences of God.

Because we live in a world that is radically different from them, we tend to ignore and even despise their theological reflections and easily dismiss them as unsophisticated and syncretistic if not heretical. We fail to appreciate that theological framework is a result of their experiences with God and the Scripture.

When my family I responded to call to mission, a colleague who knows me as someone who has some theological training told me that it is good that I come because I can teach the local people good theology. My fellow missionary thought that the theology of this people is wrong and I can help them correct it. His thinking is that “correct” theology has already been formulated and I have to reinforce this theology to the locals. Of course he is referring to the Baptist theology that is a result of centuries of articulation from Europe and North America, adopted and apparently worked in the Philippines thus can be adopted here easily. As I always hear some people would say we need not to reinvent the wheels in doing cross-cultural theology.

Now the question that need to be addressed here is, what is the role of the missionaries or theologians in doing theology cross culturally? For me, the most important thing that we can do first is to be a good listener, be a learner. Then we will become a dialogue partner in developing their theology descriptively and interpretatively then and only then can we lead them to critical reflections that supposedly should result to a discipline thought and good actions. William Dyrness states this clearly.

Here is where the sympathetic listening of outsiders becomes important. I believe that encouraging people to articulate and defend what they believe—by simply allowing them to tell their stories—is a first step, not only in Christian growth, but in more self-conscious and critical theological reflection. Giving them a voice is a necessary prerequisite to allowing them to be dialogue partners either with us or with the major voices of Christian tradition. From these experiences I have become convinced that we have typically put things in reverse order in our theological education. In our zeal to get people to reflect theologically we pull out the largest artillery, insisting that they read Calvin and Barth before they have any notion what theology is, or how they really feel about God. Instead we ought to take the time to help people understand what their own assumptions about faith and salvation are, and only then them in conversation with what others in their traditions (or other traditions) have said about these things.
Willaim Dyrness. Invitation to Cross-cultural Theology. p. 36


Bro. Bartleby said...

I find this interesting, for the early Christian missionaries not only brought the Gospel, but also their particular culture as well. So we find English Victorian Christians attempting to clothe the people of Tahiti with Victorian dress. Recently I spoke with a Christian missionary who just returned from Paraguay, and he said that he had to learn not to impose his Western culture upon the local people, but to respect their culture, and moreover, to focus on training local pastors, who then ministered to their fellow villagers. This model, instead of the old model of the Western "white man" seeking to be the one who converts the local villagers. The "old model" usually created an unnatural situation, where the local converts looked to the "white man" (or foreign pastor) for guidance and instruction, which then causes cultural conflicts, for the new converts mistake 'being born again in Christ' with 'being born again in Western culture.' I hope this makes sense. I have just been reading about the early Church in China, which I think addresses these issues.

Martin Palmer has a book, "The Jesus Sutra" which you can find on Amazon. It covers the 'rediscovery' of the site in north-central China where a Christian church was established in about 600 AD.

You may find this of interest, a speech that Martin Palmer gave, for the complete speech see:

"These astonishing sutras show us a Church from Persia to India to Tibet, which had fused its teachings with local traditions and from which radical new ideas of what it meant to be Christian had emerged. Let me just read you two pieces from these early Sutras.

In the Sutra, which we believe is modelled on the Milindapanha, which comes from the Gandharian area of present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is the belief in karma. Karma is of course the accumulated consequences of your actions which cause rebirth. At death, if you have still karma, then you must be reborn in order to try and get rid of it. The Sutra of Cause, Effect and Salvation take karma and reincarnation as the existentialist crisis, which Christ has come to solve. It knows nothing of Western beliefs about life after death, which we naturally expect to find it reflected in Christian texts. The Vedic world and Buddhist world believes in karma and reincarnation and thus the sutra addresses this:

'So it was that He existed before existing in His mother's womb. But to change your karma, you must exist in this physical world. A person can only change his karma residue by being born again into this world.

There was no other way to free us from sins but for Him to enter this world. So He came and suffered a life of rejection and pain before returning.'

Christ, in other words, has the answer to karma.

In the Sutra of Jesus Christ we find this radical reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments:

"The first and most important is to honour God. The second is to honour the Emperor. The third is to honour your parents. The fourth covenant is that anybody who understands the precepts should know to be kind and considerate to everything and to do no evil to anything that lives.

The fifth covenant is that any living thing should not only not take the life of another living being, but should also teach others to do likewise."

From there on the commandments are the same."

Joey said...

Hi Bro. Bartleby

Thanks for the comment! I really appreciate your input here. I bet that "The Jesus Sutra" would be a very enlightening reading for doing cross-cultural theology. I find similar thoughts expressed by a Burmese Christian theologian here about Buddhism.

There is so much to learn. Although i believe in the power of the gospel of Christ to transform people and culture I think that understanding this religious and cultural elements of the local people would help enhnanced the reception of the gospel.


Bro. Bartleby said...

Bro. Joey, I would think the theology, or perhaps just the sermons, in present day Christian churches would sound (and be) far different if it were not for Paul's understand of the Greek philosophers, and then Augustine's understanding of Plato. Even if they rejected these philosophies, I would think living in those cultures helped shape how their minds worked. Just so with the early Chinese (or Burmese), how their minds process data is developed in early childhood, so that later in life, this Taoist culture, or Buddhist culture, or whatever, will shade how their minds understand their reality. So that is why I think Christ transcends cultural differences, one can live the example of Jesus without adopting Jewish culture, or Greek culture, or any foreign culture. So the task is to discern what in a culture can be compatible with living a Christian life, and what of the culture is incompatible. I recall reading that the early missionaries to Korea (1880s, I think), were shocked to see the Korean converts still bowing to their elders. But once they understood (and some never did understand) that the bowing is the Korean way of giving respect, and not worshipping, then this custom was respected by some missionaries. Do the Burmese have similar customs?

Joey said...

Hi Bro. Bartleby,

Yes, first generation Christians that are converted to Christianity still do ancestor veneration. This is true not only here in Myanmar and Thailand but even Chinese Christians in the Philippines. This is their struggles. This is not only part of their religion but more as part of their culture and identity.

This issue had not been settled... anywhere. The Buddhist Christians would insist that Ancestor veneration is not ancestor worship so that they make it compatible with Christian faith. If they do it as part of their culture and identity... who am I to tell them that this is idolatry or at worst paganism. As of now, the most important is that through the gospel they come to know Jesus Christ as the center of their being and it is up to them maybe later in their Christian life to cease doing these practices.


Bro. Bartleby said...

It is interesting how we can create the ideal way of expressing our beliefs in our mind, and I think this is what organized religions do, collectively, they create the ideal, as though it were a nice tidy flowchart, yet life is anything but that, life is not "me" moving through time and space, but life is what the Greek philosopher Heroclitus said, "life is flux" with the example that one cannot step into a river twice exactly the same, for time passes, the river flows, and everything may 'look' the same, but everything isn't the same. Everything is constantly in movement. So I find in Japan that even though someone may call themself a Buddhist, they may in everyday talk exclaim, "Oh! God help me to pass this exam." Or they may address deceased ancestors, as though they were in heaven. The Koreans at graveside talk to their deceased parents, telling them their current earthly situation. But so too Christians, they may speak outloud at a graveside, understanding that the loved one is in heaven, and their hope is that the loved one is listening. I suppose my point is that theologians may come up with tidy religions, yet the everyday folk are simply trying to survive in their constant changing material and spiritual environment, and more often than not, this includes a theology that is in flux.

Joey said...

Well said, it would be interesting to create theology based on ordinary experiences of faith. Isn't it interesting that in spite of different level of theological understanding people of different culture and belief would instinctively do the same things when put in the same situation, would exclaim the same words when going through the same experience. These are indeed profound theological expressions.

Thanks again for the comments, your input have been very helpful.