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.

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