Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Religious symbols as aid to developing local theology

I’m reading William Dyrness’ book entitle Invitation to Cross-Cultural Theology. Here, Dyrness did five case studies of the way ordinary Christians, in a variety of settings, think about and live out their Christian faith. He points out that Academic theology have a lot to learn about theologies of the people that are done outside the bounds of Western academic setting and from written sources. He quotes Robert Schreiter who says that “to develop local theologies… one must listen to popular religion in order to find what is moving in people’s lives. Only then can local theologies be developed and the liberating power of the gospel comes to its full flower.”

I became a Christian in a Baptist denomination from a strong Catholic background. Although as a family we observed the Angelus and went the “big” church occasionally, however I consider us as nominal Catholics as most people in the Philippines are, nonetheless, the symbols of the Filipino Catholicism which is described by sociologists as “Folk Catholicism” is the best source of Filipino theological insights. A framework to start in developing local theology.

One of the most loved religious symbols in the Philippines is the Black Nazarene. The image of the black Christ is the work of an unknown Mexican artist that was brought in the Philippines in the 16th century.


The feast day of the Black Nazarene is celebrated every 9th day of January. The image is carried to the streets of Manila, with normally more than 100,000 people who crowd around in order to touch the image, or at least the ropes that are connected to the image. Many of the people who joined the procession are men from the squatter’s areas who perform particular ritual on that day. They all wear white shirts and a towel around their neck. They will use the towel to wipe the image and keep the towel as a religious object. These men make vows to perform in honor of the Nazarene during the coming year.

I had never seen the actual procession much more joined it. Because of the large and unruly crowd of people usually men, injuries are common and not unusual--deaths. This yearly event is also a major tourist attraction.

Dyrness observes that for Filipinos, particular dynamics are at work here. First, it seems that images provide a particularly dynamic witness to the incarnation of God in Christ. This image is “witness to the incarnation, to the reality of God’s presence and to our participation in the very life of God” says Beltran, a Filipino Catholic priest. Filipinos believe that they are vulnerable to the evils of the world, and only in a very concrete fellow feeling can offset this cosmic sense of weakness. Images like this tend to give the believer a sense of confidence, almost invincibility when the rituals are performed faithfully and properly.

Secondly, the performance of the rituals is essentially social. Filipinos are most themselves when united in some common action—to join with others in such a procession appears to satisfy a deep need of pakikipagkapwa (being in relation), both to God and to other people.

Thirdly, a more properly theological motive at work in their identification with the image is the most characteristics attribute of God for Filipino—mercy or pity (awa). Here God is seen as someone who is ready to intervene on behalf of a people who are in extremes. Beltran comments: “The life of the Nazarene is the all-seeing love and compassion of God operating under conditions of temporality.” So, that homage to the Nazarene is a way for people with little or no human solace or material security, to recognize and hold on the reality of God’s redeeming love as they are able to understand it.

William Dyrness, Invitation to Cross-cultural Theology, Zondervan Publishing House, 97-99.

5 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

One of the things I find interesting about African Independent Churches, and especially the "Spirit-type" churches (Zionists) is the way in which they have revived many ancient Christian customs, such as the blessing and drinking of holy water. This is in spite of the fact that they spring from a Protestant background.

Joey said...

Same in the Philippines, some evangelical churches especially the indigenous churches (churches not planted by western missionaries) adopt many catholic practices which for more conservative Christians are considered Pagan.

Thanks again for the responses.

Blessings!

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Anonymous said...

Hi Bok Joey, i read your blog and find it contextually insightful. . . am doing a research from Karl Rahner's Theology of symbol in line with Cebu's Sto. Nino de Cebu, etc.

God bless. . .
Rolly Delgado