Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Theology and culture: Directions of Christian Theology

We can surmise that theology have two directions, downward and upward. Or we can use the conventional terms, theology from above and theology from below. In simple words, theology from above placed more emphasis on the Scripture. It considers the Word is the main source of theological thinking. Theology from below, on the other hand, starts from experience of the people by using specific agenda and uses the Scripture for support to address a specific situation or agenda.

Just like any dichotomous issues in theology this tension between these two seemingly contradictory perspectives in doing theology can be resolved. Using both approaches is the present challenge in doing theology and this is also true in mission. Theology from above focuses on God—his purpose, plan and ways of making known his will to the people. Here I would like to present how these tension works in real situation.

Unknowingly, most Christians tend to view theology or thinking about God this way. They see the Bible as the only basis of studying about God and his activities. The Bible should remain to be the only rule of faith and practice and allow it to question, direct, deepen one’s understanding of God and his will. They believe that the Bible is always relevant and it message can never be antiquated. Here no efforts are made to know the needs of the audience. The main concern is to exegete the Scripture and hope for the best that it speaks to the people. But most of the time, the hearers leave the church and have the impression that God is not interested in them.

On the other hand, theology from below is the recognition that situation has changed and believes that in order for theology to be relevant; it should meet the needs of people. It is not about making the Scripture appealing but it is a way of the touching the people in their present predicament. For example, how we can make the message of the Bible relevant to the oppressed poor migrant workers. Effort should be made so that the message of the Bible could touch the concern of the people and feels that God is really concern with their lives. However, the pitfall here is the tendency to focus on needs to the exclusion of other important truths.

I believe that it is possible that these directions should meet at the middle. Each directions should be given equal importance. The truth about God should not be compromised in order to meet the people’s needs. Nonetheless, human needs should be considered in order for the Bible message to be relevant to the listeners. Theology from above and below should complement one another.

How can it be done? This is the question that missionary should think about. Here theology from below is considered first. There are issues that must be considered in doing theology from below.

First, we should consider the Geist of culture—the spirit of the age or of the particular period in time. Second, we should consider where to begin. Thinking about God is more meaningful when it begins with the common ground that all people acknowledge. Doing theology is a bridge-building task. We should make an effort to connect the Judeo-Christian worldview of the biblical times and the worldview of the people you are ministering. It is in understanding of the worldview of biblical writers that we can make connections of the message of God in the present.

In considering the Geist of the culture, the biggest challenge today is pluralism where debates about converting other religions to Christianity are going on. Converting people to another religion has never been more difficult. Many consider this as a thing of the past. For missionary, the present challenge is dialogue. We should learn the art of listening to what other religions are saying. It is only through dialogue that we will be able to grasp common concepts that can be related to Christianity. From these similarities and interrelatedness that the gospel can be presented and shared acceptably. When the gate of communication is opened, we can share the gospel that would appeal and challenge their ways of thinking and understanding of life’s questions and how they will know Jesus Christ more than what they already know.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Theology and Culture: Thinking about God

We came here for cross-cultural ministry. Our priority is the proclamation of the Kingdom and I consider that theological education is an essential part of that ministry, the empowering of the locals to think for themselves theologically. We came here to teach about God but I realized, as perhaps other missionary found out later that we have a lot to learn from about God from the people we assume do not know enough about Him. Arrogance has no place in missions. Sometimes we should be humble enough to admit that the people we are supposed to teach have found out fascinating truth about God that we perhaps missed. Yes, we teach them what we think about God but most importantly we should listen to them on what they think about God. For me this is what teaching is all about. This is how it should be done: start from where your students are and not you where you want them to be.

Here is where the study of worldview and culture of your people is indispensable. At the seminary, we had a very creative theology professor who taught us a lot about the creative tension between theology and culture. I had taken the course ages ago and at this point in time, I have only a vague memory of what I have learned from the course. Fortunately, my sister who now has a doctorate degree in theology from ABGTS (the same seminary I am struggling to get my doctorate) took over as professor of theology. And she is now teaching Theology and Culture. She passed her notes unto me thinking I might find it useful. I wish I could sustain enough interest to post my reflections about her lectures. So here is I hope to be the first of the series of that reflections:

Many theologians define theology as a discourse about God. It is a scientific, methodical attempt to understand God’s divine revelation. The classical description of theology is “faith seeking understanding.” John Macquarrie describes theology as the study, which, through participation in and reflection upon religious faith, seeks to express the content in the language available. It is the expression of the content of faith in the clearest and coherent language available.

Here Macquarrie points out some important elements in study of theology which are essential to cross cultural ministry like participation and reflection upon religious faith and if I read this right he is not referring exclusively with Christian religion but other world religions as well. The importance of language can not be overstated. Unless it can be expressed in the people’s own language conditioned by their culture and worldview, the exercise in studying theology is totally futile.

Simply stated, theology is thinking about God and the hidden world. For Christians, it refers to the body of truth that we use to describe reality, meaning and description of life. It also means the body of belief we have held for more than two thousand years.

Thinking about God is what theology all about. However, different cultures have different understanding about God. Christianity, for example, thinks about God as personal and relational. Other cultures see God as a metaphysical force, a state of ultimate peace, or groups of powerful being. Also there are those who consider the ideologies of their time as God. It is very important for cross cultural workers to consider it as of utmost importance to know how our people understand about their God. Subsequent discourse about God will be incoherent and fuzzy if we fail to do this.

Macquarrie’s concept of the formative factors in theology is very relevant here. These are revelation, scripture, experience, tradition, reason and culture. Revelation is the primary source of theology and also a basic category in theological thinking. It is a mode of religious experience, and experience of the holy as judging, assisting, addressing, and the like, have all revelatory element. Contrary to what most theologians, he believes that revelation is the primary source of theologizing and yes even the Scripture is also a product of the theologizing of the community of faith.

Scripture comes after revelation. It is referred to as the sacred writings of the community of faith. It provides for the community a memory by which it can reach back to and recall its past. It is the major factor in maintaining the stability and a sense of continuing identity of the community. It should be noted that every religion has their own sacred writings which basically have the same function as the Christian scriptures.

Experience is the other source of theology. This comes through the participation of an individual in the community of believers. Theology happens when one tries to make sense of his religious experiences and its process of bringing the content of faith-experience to clear expression in words.

Of course, tradition is a necessary complement to the Scripture. In fact, we can say that the Scripture is in itself is tradition. Nobody could rid from his mind the received traditions. No one can go to the Scripture free from the influence of tradition. It is foolishness to ask your people to throw away their traditions and replace it with “biblical” imperatives. This is plain ignorance. Stripping your people of their traditions is like taking away their identity. Sadly, I could speak from experience that this is still happening.

And of course, culture is an important factor in the formation of one’s theology. Culture has something to do with theology’s character as an intellectual discipline. It is the use of expression in a given culture. In recognizing culture as an integral factor of theology, we can always say that there is no final theology. Doing theology has to be done again and again for it is culturally conditioned and needing reinterpretation as cultural forms constantly change.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The peril of a narrow road

The inner streets in Thailand are surprisingly too narrow. It made me speculate that these streets were designed to be used by motorcycles. I actually was impressed with myself when I could actually fit in the van and made a successful pass whenever another vehicle drove by from the opposite direction. I would make admiring remarks to myself. “I’m an expert driver” and I intentionally said it aloud intending to be heard by anybody who was riding with me in the van.

Narrow streets notwithstanding, people like to park their motorcycles and cars in the side streets. Can you imagine how clog the streets were beside the market? With hundreds of motorcycles, carts, and cars parking along the side of the uphill market road. Can you imagine how agonizing it was to drive on it. Maneuvering the van to pass through those complex obstructions would take all the patient one could muster. Sometimes I wish that I could just run over those files of motorcycles just to give their owners the message that they should not be parking there. Of course that was just a scene I do play at the back of my mind as my patient is wearing thin.

And it happened, as I was trying to maneuver the van away from the coming pick-up truck, I steered the van slightly to the left, I heard people shouting and a screeching sound beside the van. What? I sideswiped a parked motorcycle, I looked at the left side mirror and saw that if I would made a little forward movement the motorcycle would fall… perhaps it was my shadow side telling me to move on and enjoy the sight about to unfold before my eyes, I liked to see fifty motorcycles falling like dominoes. Yes, it would have been fun.

But Narlin insisted that I should stop and back off a little to prevent a catastrophic incident that would earn me the ire of the market goers. And besides, I need to listen with the people asking me to stop. I stopped, back off and then drove on and left as if nothing happened.

Anyway, I think I had done enough damage today—an ugly 2-meter long scrape at the left side of our van.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Inductive Bible study

I first learned about Inductive Bible Study when I was a first year student at the seminary. It was a requirement for our preaching class. It is describe as a method that uses the Bible as the main source of information about the Bible. There are three basic parts to inductive Bible study (1) observation: What does it say? (2) Interpretation: What does it mean? (3) Application: How does the meaning apply to me? This is done through verse-by-verse and analysis and defining each word within it. Thus if we learn what the portion of the Scripture means then we can put it into practice which is the ultimate goal of the Bible study.

When I attended a seminary on church planting few years ago, IBS was the method being endorsed to be used in starting a church. Evidently this method did not work in rural places and tribal people because these people are not used to analytical thinking. A change of method in Bible study was introduced by different mission organizations. With the emergence of narrative theology, Bible storying is now the preferred method being used in mission and church planting.

The verdict has been that it is more effective for rural villages and tribal people than the IBS. Considering the culture and worldview of these people, I think the assessment is correct.

In the mission field, there are independent missionaries who still hold the idea that IBS is the only valid method of studying the scripture. I am not surprised at all. They come here with an experience that IBS work effectively from where they come from usually the West. But for many Asian people who are not trained to think analytically, this method seems not to work.

I think IBS is important and I value it as a tool for Bible study. But definitely it is not the most important and the only method.

Moreover, it seems to me that IBS put the Bible in the mercy of the reader. Too often in the evangelical circles the Word of God is viewed as something static and frozen, waiting to be analyzed and dissected.

Biases creep in when one approaches difficult passages. Instead of accepting the most probable meaning of the passage that go against one’s bias, the passage is being interpreted instead with the possible meaning that best fit to the denominational belief.

I observed that in IBS there are lots of instances when the reader tries to fill in the gap. Filling in the gap is not bad. However, it may be wrong and usually based on extra biblical sources that again harmonize with one’s denominational teaching. The sad part about this is that the “filler” sometimes became to be accepted as true.

I talked with my friends, fellow Asian missionaries, together with local Pastors and we agree that IBS is indeed a good tool but a question hangs in the back of our mind: Is this method appropriate for us?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Great Christian we should know: Robert De Nobili

Robert De Nobili was born in Tuscany, Italy, of a rich and influential family and entered the Society of Jesus in spite of their opposition in 1597. He came to India in 1604, and in the following year settled at Madurai.

Finding that almost everywhere Christian converts were mainly from the lower castes and that the community were regarded as de-nationalized and were looked down upon, he set himself to use new methods of evangelism aimed especially at the Brahmains and higher castes—though it should be remembered that he did not neglect to make for the lower castes also. He learned Sanskrit, Tamil and Telegu and studied Indian philosophy and religious literature. He separated himself from his fellow missionary, lived in the Brahmin quarter, and adopted the dress, diet and manner of life of Sanyasi. He even accepted some aspects of the caste system as justifiable. These methods won him a number of Brahmain converts, but aroused the opposition of his fellow priests. He was accused of watering down Christianity and had to defend himself before the Archbishop of Goa. He did this so ably that he received papal permission to continue.

But this decision settled the matter only temporarily. After working 38 years in Madurai, he was ordered by his superior to leave, and went to Jaffna in Sri Lanka. In 1648 he returned to India, settling at Mylapore, and spent his last years there almost blind and in great poverty. He died in 1656. His motto had been: “To open the door of India to Christ.” He baptized about 600 high-caste Hindus.

We can see today that there was much in De Nobili’s approach that was right; but he was a man before his time. We may add a tribute paid to another aspect of his work by the Christians in India—“much of De Nobili’s time was spent in building up, in both prose and verse, a Christian literature to which his converts could add, and which has indeed been the foundation of all Christian literature in South India.

We should pray that in our day the church may be rightly guided in its policy of indigenization, so that all that is good and God-given in our culture and traditions of spirituality may be baptized into Christ and be preserved and used for the enrichment of our worship and theology, and to the glory of God.

This article is taken from a little book written by R.W. Bryan a Bishop of the Church of North India. The book tells the life of great Christians that the Indian Church commemorates in their liturgical worship.

The mountain named "dissertation"

I am supposed to be writing my paper on full-time basis. But I guess writing while doing cross-cultural mission is next to impossible. I know this is just a lame excuse. A friend advised me that if I could find time to write at least a few sentences a day, I might be able to accomplish something. It is a good advice and I actually started doing it just before Christmas. But then Christmas activities and New Year break caught up with me and I was not able to write again since. We had been on the road and on the mountains away from home for over a week. Tomorrow is Monday. I am determined to start writing again. I might post about the topic of my dissertation here in the future. Just could not find the interest to do so. I know, I am a climbing a high mountain here. Nonetheless, the best way to reach the peak is to climb very slowly.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back to blogging

Whether we are in the Philippines or in Thailand, December proved to be the busiest month of the year for us. This is the reason why this blog has not been updated for a while.

Nevertheless our hearts are full of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord as He has given us opportunity to celebrate Christmas and New Year in a special way. We spent Christmas Eve at the church, fellowshipping with believers and non-believers alike in a Christmas program that we helped to bring about. It was the first Christmas ever in the church that the Nativity had been reenacted.

We did a lot of rehearsals for the presentations and carol singing days before Christmas that kept us up practically up the whole night. So we took a couple of days to catch up on our sleep after Christmas. Since the church’s primary school too had its break we seized the time to fix the van’s seat upholstery which were in really bad shape. The children deserve a comfortable ride from daycare/primary school to their homes and vice-versa.

We received a call from Ate Imel Tabije (fellow Filipino missionary ministering in Chiang Mai) and invited us to celebrate the New Year with other Filipino Christians in Chiang Mai. And although we really wanted to go we were hesitant at first because we didn’t have the money for the trip. Ate Imel’s financial assistance eventually enabled us to go. Thus we were reunited with old friends and met new friends. The time we spent with them were indeed refreshing and encouraging for us. We also visited and spent time with Jeph and Apple’s ministry at Hope House and their tribal outreach.

It was the second time we celebrated the holidays away from home and we miss our family very badly. The children missed their cousins (which are not too many) and the thrill of opening gifts from their ninongs, ninangs, lolas, uncles and aunties. They also missed the fun of giving gifts to their friends and loved ones.

Last January 5 we marked the second year of our stay here in Thailand. Two years of God’s faithfulness, living in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that our stay here as God’s witness.

We want to thank you all for your prayers and generosity. We are looking forward to a more fruitful partnership and hoping we can meet you all here in Thailand someday.